This failed activist is tired of being told what to do.*
I’m being given a lot of advice and instructions about how to be a good activist recently.
Let’s be clear about one thing, from the start. I am a failed activist. It is a key part of my identity. I’ve been a really terrible disability rights activist since I was 17. I’ve been a mediocre-at-best LGBT rights activist since I was 25. I’ve done all kinds of activism really badly. No one is going to take away my right to be a failed activist. If you recently arrived on the activism scene and have discovered how to do it, I’m really happy for you. You do not get to tell me how to improve. I’ve tried it all, and still failed.
I’ve gone on many marches that have harmed my body and helped no one. I’ve been to endless meetings that no one ever noticed. I did online action and people laughed at me. The world turned on, oblivious to all of us. The hegemony continued to be the hegemony. I will always be a failure at activism. And I secretly think that activism may be part of the problem.
The Pastoral Model: Telling Us What To Do
This month I’ve been told by non-disabled people that my reactions to the world are clinically abnormal, and that they can help. I’ve seen white people advising black people on how to come together under Trump. (Because they’ve never done that before, hello Black Lives Matter and the whole of the civil rights movement, sorry, we self-centred white people didn’t see you over there.) I’ve been told lots of things that I am doing wrong in activism and should do better. I’ve had men tell me what should be done about Trump’s effect on sexism in society (often not very helpfully). And I’ve had non-disabled people telling me it’s OK if I can’t ‘do activism’ — I get a pass because I’m disabled, poor thing, go and sit in the corner and knit anti-racist slogans on scarves for the rest of us.
And I’ve been told stories that have been presented as the Truth. That poor people are stupid. That third-party voters are evil. (Even if they were more desperate than you — say, those who once came from countries oppressed and destroyed by the American Empire — and saw no second option there.)** That we all saw this coming… even though the most well-informed of us really, really didn’t. Some of this Truth, I fear, is liberal hand-wringing by people who won’t admit that we, too, benefit from the power structures that have led to Trump’s ascendency.
But a lot of this is the pastoral model. Privilege imposing its expertise on those without privilege, so that it can hang on to power. A concept identified by Foucault. When you tell people of colour, disabled people, disempowered LGBT people and other marginalised people what to do, you may be engaging in pastoral model discourse. And as for the world you are trying to create, that looks equal (to you): you may just be selling a new phase of white, sexist, ableist and colonialist hegemony. Where you still think you get to patronise us. Where you still think you get to lead.
Leaving Us Off The List
This month I’ve had people make long lists of groups who need solidarity in the post-Trump era, and leave people like me off the list. Reminding me that my existence is such an affront to so many sides of the hegemony, that I don’t even deserve to be thought of as under threat. Which gives people ongoing permission to ignore those threats to my existence. Disability hate crime? Surely that doesn’t exist. Daily disablist microaggressions, that could easily escalate if I don’t react in the acceptable way? You’re giving in to anxiety, and we’re really only trying to help. Scared by the gleeful apocalyptic language that everyone’s indulging in, portraying a future in which I will die really fast? Well, the majority wants to indulge in it, so they will. I’m only worthy of an occasional after-thought. Of charity, not solidarity. It’s not only Trump’s lot who are a threat to my existence. It’s everyone who engages in and benefits from the pastoral model.
The disability rights movement has a slogan: Nothing About Us Without Us. We still say it, because people still need to hear it. We are among the most well-known children of the pastoral age, but there are parallel discourses everywhere. The ‘white man’s burden’, where white colonials represented their power as a helping, educating hand to primitive and helpless people. (Thereby erasing their role in disempowering those people.) The charity model, and its disempowering and silencing of so many groups in society, whose voices are now smothered under ‘good works’ that keep them in their place. (But don’t rich people get to feel good about putting a penny in a bucket, without having to look into the results.) And now: liberal hand-wringing, and forming over-simplistic narratives of a very complex time. (Setting up the story of the good guys and the bad guys, and making sure you talk loudly enough so that everyone knows what side you’re on.)
These models, these ways of being and behaving towards others, they shape the elite colonialist lives that we live — that you live, if you have privilege along the right axes. We must protect. We must send aid. We must help. We must change. We must lead. We must do something.
My Existence Is An Affront
You people who mock armchair activism: your concept of activism is ableist. You people who say I must do more instead of being more: your concept of activism is ableist (even if you ‘excuse’ me as an excluding afterthought). You people who don’t recognise that I change the world one person at a time: your concept of activism is ableist.
My very existence is an affront to entire contingents of the hegemony, both on the ‘bad’ side and on the ‘good’. And so I will exist, and live, and be what they hate, and change the world. One person at a time.
And I won’t go on your disablist marches to do it.
Destroy the structures of activism. Rebuild them without (dis)ableism, without racism, without colonialist thinking, without sexism and heterosexism, without white supremacy. Without normalcy built in. Otherwise, I will have no part in your activism.
Can it be done? I have absolutely no idea.
Right now, I am not looking for answers. I am sitting with the questions. (I may need an oven to sit in, Descartes style.) I think that leaping to action is dangerous, and I think that representing stories as Truth is dangerous. But re-evaluating everything we think we know… well, that’s my only way ‘forward’ right now.
Love from the Failed Activist, busy just existing, and changing things one person at a time. Even if, at the moment, that person is me.
*A note: this is a bit of an angry post, aimed at structures not individuals, and may sound a bit harsh in places. Confronting structures can involve harshness. The hegemony wants disabled people to be quiet angels. And so I embrace the ‘bitter stroppy disabled person’ thing. Yay.
**Another note: I feel this way about the Labour party, who I will never vote for again, so I sympathise with the third-party voters in the US. At some point, I’ll write about my own reasons for being a committed third-party protest voter.