Meta: What is activism.

By | October 14, 2009

For the past several days I’ve been thinking about the possible criticisms of my prior post on the Ugandan wedding-dress organization.

Actually, that’s not true. The truth is that my husband and I had to have one of our two aging cats put down on Friday night, completely unexpectedly, and so the past few days I’ve not been thinking about much of anything other than the big cat-shaped hole that’s left behind. But in the interest of reoccupying my mind, I’ve been trying to think about the possible criticisms.

I haven’t actually been confronted with much criticism, at least not any that’s been strongly-worded, but as a semi-compulsive debater (I’d argue with you about the sky being blue) I have a natural inclination to consider the weak points of any argument I’m making. The most obvious one, I think, in this case is my lack of authority on the subjects of Uganda, postcolonial influence, and weddings. The idea being that since I don’t personally live and work in Uganda, I lack the necessary authority to speak on neocolonialist forces there.

I have to call bullshit on that.

It is absolutely true that people who live and work in a place are better equipped to talk about the day-to-day up-and-down realities of life there. And if I were attempting to discuss the day-to-day up-and-down realities of life in Uganda, I would certainly be ill-suited to the task. As I mentioned in comments to the previous post, I have close family that participates in international faith-driven relief work, particularly in Jamaica, and I know better than to sit anyone down and try to tell them something about What Life Is Really Like for a poor rural Jamaican family. That said, I do have something to contribute, and my contribution is why those same family members turn to me when they have questions about why Jamaican culture is a certain way, or how the legacy of colonial influence affects Jamaican life even today, or what it means that misogyny and homophobia are so rampant, and so forth.

I’m a thinker. I’m a researcher. I’m a boiler-down-of-cogent-points. Everybody’s good at something, they say, and these are the things I’m good at. I see the situation like this Uganda wedding-dress story, and I think to myself, “Hmm, I feel as though the potentially-troubling implications of this haven’t been adequately identified. I think I will identify them now.” Curiously, I am not trying to suggest I know better than anyone else by doing this; I am suggesting folks consider all angles on a situation before making sweeping proclamations as to its ultimately positive or negative outcome. In fact, I don’t believe in purely positive or negative outcomes; in any conversation on whether something is black or white, I am constantly, unflaggingly, insufferably tied up in the greys.

My primary gripe with the Uganda wedding dress story? It’s incomplete. I wanted to know about the traditional wedding apparel in Uganda (because that could help explain a scenario of why importing dresses might be easier, if that was the case); I wanted to know the religious makeup of the nation (because typically the popularity of white wedding dresses is often tied up with the popularity of Christianity, which in Uganda’s case is a whopping 84%); I wanted to know how popular Western wedding garb was amongst the people of Uganda who don’t live in displaced-persons camps (because often, the poor of a nation take their cultural cues from the wealthy); and perhaps most importantly, I wanted to know whether these women wanted these dresses — and I don’t mean insofar as being willing to take whatever they could get, but if given the choice between traditional apparel and the gowns they got, would they have chosen the gowns? Ultimately, whether the women in question wanted the dresses or not doesn’t really influence my assessment that the encroaching tide of Western culture is a problem, and runs the risk of washing away indigenous traditions. But in the end it was these questions, not answers, that came into my mind as I looked for more information.

It is my opinion that activism is, at its root, about making inquiries. It’s about interrogating what passes for “common knowledge” and refusing to be cowed by perceived authority and tradition. It’s about reading an article that says “ALL FAT PEOPLE AT RISK OF DEATH” and feeling a need to reframe it or put it in context, to ask, “Which fat people?” and “How did they arrive at this conclusion?” and “Isn’t everyone at risk of death?” It’s about spreading the word that science–YES, EVEN SCIENCE–isn’t always bias-free, that like most things done by humans there is usually an expected result influenced by the culture in which the science is done, and that statistics are great for trying to understand broad trends over time but that applying them on an individual basis is less useful. Activism is about standing up to the rumbling, heaving, behemoth passenger train that is conventional wisdom–be that wisdom about gender and sexuality, health and ability, body size, race and ethnicity, socioeconomic class, or what have you–and saying NO, I’M NOT ON BOARD, even knowing you’ll never stop it or even slow it down, and if you’re lucky you’ll grab a couple folks here and there and pull them free of that unflagging momentum.

And contrary to popular belief: activism isn’t about enforcing one set of rules or doctrines over another, even when you think it is, or even when you think someone else thinks it is. To re-use the pie metaphor, truly radical activism isn’t about trying to push one’s way into the established norm; that’s how we wind up with Glamour’s goalpost-moving disguised as a revolution for the slightly-less-thin. It’s about breaking down the systems we know, cracking them open and ripping out the mechanisms on which they operate until everyone can see how they don’t work anymore. Do some activists dig on the idea of imposing their ideas over top of the current way of thinking, like putting new chrome on a cracked engine? Sure. But that’s not activism.

Activism is a process. It’s a methodology. It’s not an answer. It’s not an end.

Comments are closed.