Monday, February 18, 2013

The Missing and Murdered, Willful Obliviousness, and "Everyday Life"

I happened to be in Ottawa last week. While I was there, I attended the now-annual action on February 14 on Parliament Hill remembering and calling for justice for the tragically many indigenous women who have gone missing and or been murdered in Canada over the last several decades, with minimal official or mainstream response in most cases. That wasn't the intent of the trip -- I was in the city to visit with friends and to do a book launch -- but I was moved and honoured to have been able to be there and to hear powerful words spoken by surviving family members of a few of those women and calls for justice by a number of long-time allies in the struggle, such as committed anti-colonial voice Ellen Gabriel.

Being present for this action and then shortly after being stuck on a bus for eight hours meant I was able to do a lot of thinking about it. There was a lot to that, and most of it I won't share here. But there was one particular aspect related to how the action played out physically, in space, that got not me not only thinking but writing, and this post is the result. Before I explain what I mean by all of that, though, I need to give some background.

So. One of the ways that I have come to understand the world and to think about taking action to create change is a general suspicion of approaches that are dismissive of the importance of what you might call "everyday life." This dismissal can take a variety of forms, but at its most intense it can be what I've seen described as "the cult of the militant," in which people who devote every waking moment to collective and confrontational forms of organizing, and who subordinate the everyday living of life to that, are valourized, while people who cannot or will not do that are implicitly or explicitly understood as less important or simply less good. It is a vision of struggle that, its occasional rhetoric notwithstanding, puts full-time revolutionaries at the heart of struggle rather than ordinary people. It tends to be puritanical, apocalyptic, and patriarchal. And what is much more common than this strong version of the cult of the militant is a softer version that permeates many of the social movement spaces I have been in -- I'm sure I've helped reproduce it myself on multiple occasions, I'm sorry to say -- which feeds into how implicit hierarchies in these spaces often develop. In either version, it disregards the importance of everyday struggle (both for its own sake and as the base from which more collective struggle must be built), and it tends to devalue the kinds of struggle (and the kinds of contribution to struggle) that are more likely to be engaged in by women because of inequalities around how reproductive labour gets divided, and more likely to be engaged in by people whose experiences of race, class, gender, and ability means that a greater proportion of their time must be taken up in work related to survival. None of this is meant to denigrate the work of people who are able to make the kind of commitment understood as definitional of the dedicated, full-time militant, and who do so in a way that is politically responsible -- it is just to say that putting that at the centre of our political imaginary is, I think, a problem.

One way to think about how the cult of the militant works is as a radical-sounding replication of the liberal division of the world into "public" and "private." While strategic deployment of those terms and the socially organized divisions underlying them can play out in lots of different ways in support of struggle, generally speaking the unquestioning acceptance of the naturalness and legitimacy of that division helps to prop up an oppressive social order and to render invisible the social and political character of lots of what falls under the label "private." The cult-of-the-militant version of this understands "the militant" as someone who is entirely devoted to struggle where struggle implicitly means those parts of struggle that fall under "public," and reproduces the marginality of those parts of struggle -- including things like the reproduction of life and relations and culture under conditions of oppression -- that fall under "private."

One way to think about the struggle for justice sparked by so many murdered and missing indigenous women is also in terms of that "public/private" divide. That is, it is work by indigenous women and their allies to show that rather than a series of private tragedies that are sad but inevitable, the intense violence that colonial and patriarchal social relations organize into the lives of indigenous women need to be seen as social and political and a matter of public concern. It is a struggle that insists on the social, political, and public relevance of things that are often dismissed in the mainstream as private.

The event in Ottawa on February 14 involved somewhere between 100 and 200 people. It was the only collective presence in front of Parliament that day, but it was still much smaller than the space. I'm not sure how much of it is about construction projects and how much is a result of post-9/11 creeping securitization of anything and everything (and an implicit recognition that neoliberal policies will beget resistance sooner or later), but much more intrusive control over the flow of people has been instituted on the Hill than I remember from my younger days. Part of what this meant is that when we were gathered on the walkway beneath the steps that lead up to Parliament, fences and cops were regularly directing non-participants in the action through the crowd to get them from the Parliament buildings themselves to the street. This included people that seemed, by their dress and behaviour, to be tourists, and people who seemed, by their dress and behaviour, to be at the Parliament buildings on business of some kind. Nobody was disruptive or anything like that, though a handful did look faintly embarrassed and/or distressed when they realized they were walking through some kind of protest or other. What really struck me, though, was that this stream of people were very much people going about their "everyday lives." They were in this space being shaped by this powerful, moving event that was getting at the very colonial and patriarchal heart of state and social relations in northern Turtle Island...and to them it was background noise, a weird group of people to walk through, a brush with the wackos who come to the Hill, an irrelevance. I found it upsetting to watch.

It took some processing for me to work through what exactly to make both of what I was observing and of my reaction to it. There certainly was some of my initial way of making sense of these passers-by who were willfully refusing to engage with the action that fell in line with soft cult-of-the-militant moralism and judgement -- a privileging of one type of action and a dismissal of people's situatedness and inherently complicated and contradictory lives, and of the breadth of forms that struggle must take. Which is kind of icky and not how I want to be reacting to things. As well, I'm sure part of this initial moment of reaction was what Sherene Razack has described as (I'm paraphrasing) the privileged rush to innocence and denial of complicity -- in this case, having my life organized such that I can go to one event on one day can easily lead to ignoring the way in which benefit from settler colonialism and patriarchal social relations organize and pervade my entire life.

The next stop on this hypothetical recreation of a much messier and quicker process of processing my reaction was, more or less, the other extreme. That is, recognizing that people do have a need and a right to follow the pressures of their everyday lives, and that there will always be contradictions as we do that, including moments of complicity as well as moments of resistance. I don't know the circumstances of the non-participants I saw filtering through the crowds, so who am I to say anything about their non-engagement with the event.

Which of course is not a very helpful understanding either. While recognizing the contradictory and situated character of how all of us navigate our lives is important, and recognizing that public moments of struggle are only one part of the story is also important, a retreat into liberal non-judgement totally disrespects the fact that the history and present reality of missing and murdered indigenous women does demand anger and does demand action, and rightfully so. Using the importance of respecting "everyday life" and "everyday struggle" in this way is actually to reinforce the equation of "the everyday" and "the private." That is, "everyday life" is treated as rightfully disconnected from the broader social world, which of course it never is, and it is an aspect of privilege to be able to live your life as if it were disconnected. However we honour everyday life, it should not reinforce this.

Upon further thought, I ended up with a number of points to try and avoid both cult-of-the-militant moralism and privatized/disconnected liberalism. One is trying to keep in mind that the reminder of the colonial and patriarchal inertia via people filtering through the crowd and refusing to engage at all with the action is best understood not as a series of individual failings but as a social and socially organized problem -- of course there is a need to encourage changes in individuals where possible and appropriate, but seeing it primarily as the former is yet another way of privatizing that which is actually social. Another is following Razack's lead and being careful and explicit to start from complicity, and to note the many ways in which my middle-class white settler man's life is complicit in and benefits from histories and present realities of colonial and patriarchal violence, and that I have more in common with than different from the white folks who refuse to engage. That must be the basis for whatever I do, say, write.

And, finally, we need to avoid the cult-of-the-militant denigration of the everyday, and we need to avoid the liberal disconnection and privatization of the everyday, and to do those things we need to both honour the need for all of us to navigate our own lives as best we can in the face of complicity and contradictions, while at the same time compassionately but urgently fostering a way of relating to everyday life that is open. Because, ultimately, that's what bothered me about what I was seeing -- not the non-participation, but the body language that communicated utter closedness. This, I think, is indicative of one way that the privatization of everyday life actually happens. Yes, to do it you need to have sufficient privilege to be able to organize your life such that it's possible, but you also need to move through the world with that refusal to make eye contact, that tense body language, that navigation of moments of discomfort-with-privilege that reflexively pushes the discomfort away and reproduces a certain kind of consciousness. And, of course, partly what bothers me in seeing that closedness exhibited by others is the fact that exactly that reflex is an ongoing struggle for me. Inhabiting the meaning and the political implications of the ongoing colonial and patriarchal violence that is at the heart of what we call "Canada" is not an easy thing for those of us whose lives are organized through benefit from it (though of course it is infinitely easier than being on the receiving end). Ultimately, treating this as an individual struggle is to doom it to failure; at the same time, propagating and catalyzing in collective ways that openness to discomfort, that openness to the relational character of everyday life beyond the interpersonal level, that openness to accountability, is part of the political responsibility of those of us who benefit, and both puritanical moralism and liberal renunciation of critical judgement get in the way of doing that.


Red Jenny said...

Very interesting reflections, Scott. This is something I struggle with. I hate participating in protests. I feel intensely uncomfortable doing so, and though I have on occasion forced myself to go, I always leave feeling primarily grateful that it is over. I generally just chalk it up to my dislike of crowds and general introversion, but I feel somewhat guilty at the same time. I also feel a bit ashamed that I am often somewhat fearful when around protests - even when I consider myself to be in solidarity with them! I don't like yelling or crowds. I feel like this makes me a bad activist because I'm not involved in many of these "public" displays because of my "private" feelings/failings(?). So I try to hide my feelings and smile at the protesters, though I'm sure I exhibit the exact body language you speak of!

Since I'm in confession mode, I also feel ashamed that I feel very uncomfortable when confronted by panhandlers, even though I strongly believe they have every right to ask for money (and I've even lived on the streets and been in that situation before myself so its kind of baffling!!) I wonder if this is a gendered response (fear of unknown men) or if it is a response of privilege (dislike of having my personal bubble disrupted by someone else's pain or difficulties).

Scott Neigh said...

Hey Jenny!

Thanks for sharing this stuff. It's hard, and I think we're all more likely to find personally and politically satisfying ways to navigate it if we talk about it.

I don't know that there's any one right answer. On the one hand, reinforcing our own shame and attacking ourselves about not being able to do what we think we should be doing or what our intellectualized analysis tells us is most important isn't likely to help anyone. On the other hand, I think working to transform ourselves, to decolonize ourselves, has to be part of the struggle. So one element of that is how we do it -- and I think it has to be gently, and with real attention to what actually matters and what doesn't.

But a big part of it has to be collective, too. We need groups, organizations, and movements that recognize and accommodate and support and nurture the fact that different people will have different abilities/willingness/capacities to participate in different kinds of actions. And that has to go beyond the fairly shallow "you do your thing, I'll do mine" of some interpretations of "diversity of tactics" to something much more proactively attentive to creating different kinds of spaces and modes of engagement.

One of the ways this plays out for me is a conviction that the currently most important and least-done element of movement building is a kind of dynamic engagement with people that sparks enthusiasm and makes connections and brings people together, and a willingness to look at some difficult or intimidating action and say "Let's do it!" and jump on in. But given my own quirks and my own socialization, I'm not very good at either of those things. So over the years I've gone through exactly the kinds of things you describe...

So, yeah. And I think what makes your point in the final paragraph so hard is that there's no reason why it has to be a very reasonable gendered response to being approached by unknown men OR privilege-based anxiety...what makes it difficult is that it's probably both at the same time.

Anyway, thanks again for reading and commenting, Jenny!