Thursday, July 07, 2016

To make social change, knowledge is never enough

It shouldn't be news that knowledge alone is never enough. Ignorance isn't the root cause of oppression, education won't singlehandedly change the world, and uncovering just the right fact will not be the catalyst that leads to global transformation.

Just because that liberal conception of knowledge-as-social-panacea is foolishness doesn't mean knowledge doesn't matter, of course. Events near and far have been hammering that home for me in a whole bunch of ways lately, but I was particularly struck by it last week when I went back and listened to an episode of Talking Radical Radio from May that features my interview with Robyn Pitawanakwat and Sue Deranger of the Colonialism No More protest camp. (For the latest from the camp, click here.)

In this episode, Pitawanakwat and Deranger talk about the protest camp outside the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada office in Regina, Saskawtchewan; about the suicide crisis in Attiwapiskat; about the wave of #OccupyINAC actions through which Indigenous activists and their allies in some cities responded in solidarity to that crisis; and about how the crisis is so much broader than just Attiwapisakat and how it is grounded in histories and ongoing realities of Canadian colonialism.

It's all very clear, very straightforward. Nothing is obscured by academic jargon. The various ways that the interviewees, their families, their communities, and communities of people out on the land who look like them face violence from the Canadian state are laid out plain as day. They don't say it directly, but it's clear -- powerfully clear -- from how they talk about their own paths in this work that efforts to challenge this violence have been going on for generations. They present immediate, direct steps to begin changing these colonial realities.

It's only a 28-minute show, and at least part of the point was exploring the immediate context and the current actions being taken by this particular group of Indigenous people and allies in Regina, so it certainly doesn't present an exhaustive history or complete contemporary description of colonialism. There is lots more to learn about how it plays out, and lots more to think about in terms of how to end it.

But here's the thing: The core is there. You don't need a lot of background knowledge. You don't need specialized vocabulary. You don't need to do a lot of other digging (though hopefully you feel inspired to do some). All you need to do is listen to these Indigenous women talk about their lives, their communities, and their struggles, and to believe them. If you are a white settler person and you do that -- really do it, really take up the gift of the knowledge that's on offer in that interview -- then you are left with a clear path to thinking way more groundedly about who you yourself are and about the country in which you live. That's not to say it's easy, or that there's no need to do a lot of talking to figure out what to do next, but the outline of the path is there.

Even more important is the fact that, as pleased as I am with this interview, it's really pretty ordinary. Sure, given that we have mainstream education and media systems that have only very recently started to inch away from a near-complete exclusion of Indigenous voices, and that still dramatically underrepresent and distort, you do actually have to look a little bit to hear about this stuff. But you know what? You only have to look a little. It's a complete myth that it's hard to find or that it's hard to understand; it's really not.

So why doesn't the fact that this knowledge is out there and that it points in a simple way towards a very different understanding of "Canada" and what it means to be "Canadian" actually result in a kind of collective "Aha!" moment that spreads like wildfire among non-Indigenous people in this country? Well, the simplest answer -- not fully explanatory but certainly encapsulating a core truth -- is that there are always ways for us to not-know things that it is in our material interest to not-know.

For some purposes, that explanation is enough. Certainly those at the forefront of anti-colonial struggles have better things to do with their time than dissect out the details of consciousness of those who don't support them. But I think perhaps examining the how of this not-knowing is relevant to the secondary but still important work of building solidarity with Indigenous struggles among settlers (and I can probably speak to this most clearly with respect to white settlers). So how does this not-knowing actually work?

I don't have any definite answers, just a few areas that merit further investigation. I've already alluded to one: What knowledge gets produced and circulated by the knowledge systems that reach the most people is shaped by power, and this kind of unvarnished Indigenous truth is not something that has much access to those systems. Exactly how that exclusion is maintained varies with context, but it's pretty consistent. Even the relatively small barrier of having to look for such material rather than having it just show up in front of you has a significant impact.

Here's another: We're not passive vessels into which knowledge gets poured. We take it up actively or we don't, actively. And that decision about whether we enter into particular kinds of encounters that could lead to particular kinds of knowledge -- whether we click a link or not, read an article or not, go to an event or not, watch a show or not, participate in a conversation or not -- depends on how we feel about it. Philosopher Sara Ahmed uses language like "orientation" and "proximity" to get at this. It boils down to whether that cluster of feelings we have in response to the possibility of one of those kinds of encounters makes it feel close to us, relevant to us, about us, or not. This is mostly not particularly conscious or explicit, it's more of how we are steered by fleeting gut feelings. Also relevant in that moment of decision is a kind of unconscious prediction of how the encounter itself is likely to make us feel; often something that we expect will make us feel bad, in general or about ourselves, is something we'll avoid. We all have limited time and energy, and we're much more likely to engage with material that we feel close to and that will make us feel good, so often the knowledge that's out there about these bare-bone basics of colonial Canada just gets...passed by.

Even once we've engaged with whatever encounter might lead us to this knowledge, there are other ways that we sometimes manage to not-know: There's the matter of actually believing it. When we have some sort of encounter with a person or an object or a text and we are actively producing knowledge from it, part of that process involves matching this new knowledge up against the knowledge we already have. Sometimes it fits, and it's easy enough to take it up. Sometimes it doesn't fit, but for whatever reason, we are transformed by it, or at least unsettled by it, so we adapt our existing knowledge to fit with what we have just learned. Or it doesn't fit, and we dismiss or disbelieve it. Part of how many of us who are white reach that place of disbelief in this sort of instance is about deep-down sedimented stuff that we learn about the world from growing up in a white supremacist, settler colonial context. Even when we sit in the more liberal parts of the context that would be horrified at hearing this expressed explicitly, there are still all sorts of subtle messages that we are bombarded with over our lifetimes that Indigenous people, Black people, and people of colour aren't quite, or aren't yet, or aren't really fully human, or they are but they aren't as trustworthy or as knowledgeable as you-know-who. That may sound over the top, but it's a big part of how the knowledge that winds through white supremacy and settler colonialism is maintained -- how easy it is to disbelieve and ignore what Black, Indigenous, and people of colour say about their own lives and about the world.

Connected with that but not quite the same is the fact that part of this matching up of new knowledge with existing knowledge is dealing with places where they don't fit neatly together. And when you're hearing about the colonial realities of Canada for the first time, odds are they aren't going to fit with your existing (mis)understandings. That misfitting is uncomfortable, dissonant. A lot of people are pretty attached to an understanding of "Canada" and "Canadian" that is completely at odds with truly reckoning with our colonial past and present -- and when I say "pretty attached" I mean viscerally and intensely. One way to deal with the discomfort of that dissonance is to just dismiss the new knowledge, and to then go on a search for excuses to justify your dismissal. Of course the systemic dehumanization and disregard mentioned in the last paragraph helps with that. Another way to deal with this dissonance, however -- and this is one that I think is a specialty of liberal multicultural Canada -- is to accept it and compartmentalize it. You say, "Oh, okay, that's your reality. That's really hard. I empathize with you and I want to support you." But you keep that knowledge neatly segregated such that it remains entirely about the speaker or writer who originated it, and the fact that it has deep implication for you the listener or reader is studiously avoided. Of course it isn't always this stark, either. In fact, I think a lot of white settlers in the huge expanse from left-liberals to the far reaches of the anarchist and marxist left fall into a milder version of this, where we know a bit about colonial realities, and we even know that it says something about us and about the country in which we live...but we don't know quite what, or what it would mean to end it. (And I think this notional solidarity with partial comprehension is a difficult and dangerous dynamic in which lies the seeds of future white supremacist settler colonial backlash. But that's a different post.)

And one other piece of how this all works is the way in which our knowledge systems deprive us of a good sense of how the social world is actually put together, of how it all works. There are demonstrable material ways that the world around us is socially organized, but not only are we given little opportunity to learn the details of that, we're also largely deprived of the concepts that would be the building blocks of learning those details and derailed into a nearly useless liberal conception of atomized individuals in a structureless massified social whole. That means that even if we have the right encounters, we don't turn away, we actually believe what racialized and colonized people say about their own lives, we don't dismiss the uncomfortable new knowledge, we know it has something to do with us, and we commit to doing the work to figuring out what this all has to do with who we are and where we live, it's not always easy to make anything useful with the knowledge. And because it's not easy to do, the alternative of giving up in dismay is certainly appealing. Or it's easy enough to do some of the work and get somewhere, but then to get stuck or distracted.

I'm sure there is lots that I've missed -- this is just a preliminary sketching of some of the ways that not-knowing happens. It's also not completely clear to me how to turn these ideas about the mechanics of not-knowing into actions that might contribute to building real solidarity. Certainly some part of that has to rest on a recognition of knowledge production not as some heroic individual task that we succeed or fail at, but rather a collective and dialogical process. In other words, this is not something that can proceed in any meaningful way by us individualistically sitting in front of screens or with books in our hands. Rather, there has to be deliberate collective engagement and challenge of some sort on these questions. But what is certain is that the very active character of not-knowing re-affirms that there is a lot more to it -- a lot more challenge, a lot more need to unsettle, a lot more need for dialogical and consistent engagement -- than simply transmitting information.


Mrinalini said...

The way you unpack some lines of knowing and not-knowing in this piece is useful, and it prompts me to think more about how we can engage others in knowing things they don't want to know. As someone whose livelihood is tied to formal educational systems, most of my strategies are based on making unpalatable knowledge at least approachable (!), but clearly we need a multiplicity of strategies including exploring with people how they have to come to know what they think of as true or real.

Scott Neigh said...

Glad you found it useful, M! :)

And I think you're right that making use of classroom space to explore with people how they come to know and believe things is one useful element of doing this this work. Even so, it's hard to feel optimistic about. My sense is that out in the broader world, it's most often circumstances beyond the direct pedagogical encounter that push people to be open to new knowledge that they might otherwise reject, but I think that's all the more reason to want to understand the kind of context that you do this work in, i.e. when and how, with no externally imposed unsettling of the learner, is it possible to push through and past all of these mechanisms of not-knowing to some sort of meaningful "Aha!".