Do we want to create change or not?

1 Nov

I’m all for ideals, but there has to be some level of realism in social justice work.  Ultimately it comes down to one simple question: do we want to create change or not?

Well, do we?

Most of you know that I staunchly hold that you can’t end one manifestation of oppression by utilizing another.  You hear that, PETA?  And I will never back down from that stance.  It’s just futile and useless to use that approach.  They are all linked – unless you end them all, you’ll ultimately end none.  Gotta eliminate the foundation.

I’m astounded, however, by the number of people and organizations I’ve run into over the years who refuse to approach social justice issues from a realistic standpoint.  In many cases, to make change, you have to be strategic.  You have to be willing to engage with folks you may not want to invite out for a night on the town.  You may have to interact with a system you think is inherently flawed.  To simply reject all whom you label as “bad” is to defeat what you state is your ultimate goal – real change.  It’s to create a false “us vs. them” dichotomy.

Here’s a personal example:  I’m vegan.  I personally find consuming the bodies of subjugated, othered, objectified, and murdered beings absolutely repulsive.  Yes, I consider it murder.  Do I say that when I’m around someone eating animals?  NO!  Do I simply refuse to interact with anyone who consumes cows, chickens, pigs, fish, and their products?   Hell no.  If I want to create a culture in which all beings are respected and allowed to live, what’s the point of screaming “MURDERER!!!!!!” and running the other direction, only to surround myself by people exactly like me?  The only change that will likely create is making people think that vegans are self-righteous jerks.   In no way will that strategy make people think seriously about the daily choices they make.

You all know that I work to end gendered violence.  In the many years I’ve done this work, I have had to interact with people who I think “don’t get it” and within systems I think should ultimately be dismantled or radically changed.  But did I refuse to set foot in the buildings or interact with those people?  No.  Do you know why?  The women with whom I worked, women who had experienced domestic violence, had to.  If I exercised my privilege by walking away, I failed them.  Who was I to say, “I think that system is a flawed, oppressive system, so I’m only going to work with these people over here.  I like them.”  How is that okay?

I think we often feel good knowing we’re standing up to the system by rejecting it, but what about all the people who can’t do that?  Don’t we have obligations to them?  If I feel that an individual or system is problematic, I’m going to work to change it.  And I don’t believe that running away or putting up a wall will do any good.   And why is this an either/or choice?  You can work within a system AND work to change it – say hello to my past few jobs.

I worked with a group of service providers whom many within my movement refused to engage.  I watched as advocate after advocate called them threatening/degrading names in meetings and got up and walked out.  I watched as the women for whom I advocated  had no choice but to interact with these folks.  They didn’t “get” oppression and they weren’t woman-defined.  If I copied what I still see happening to this day, I would have refused to acknowledge them or the system in which they worked.  But I didn’t.  Realistically, these folks weren’t going away anytime soon.  I engaged them and small step by small step tried to create incremental change.  Sure, my ideals said to rally against them, but my brain said to work with them to create real change for the women who couldn’t simply tell them they didn’t get it and move on.

Creating change isn’t comfortable.  Sometimes it means working within a system you don’t like.  Sometimes it means talking to people you think don’t get it.  Sometimes it means wearing a suit to have credibility in a meeting with folks who can make the change you want to accomplish.

The world isn’t fair.  Don’t compromise your ethics, but don’t shoot yourself in the foot, either.  Sure, defiance feels good and garners personal attention,  but it may not do any good.  Think strategically, realistically, and change will happen.

Do we want to create change or not?

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