Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Review: Unhappy Silences

[Berenice Malka Fisher. Unhappy Silences: Activist Feelings, Feminist Thinking, Resisting Injustice. Toronto: Political Animal Press, 2019.]

A book by a life-long activist and retired scholar thinking through the many varieties of a kind of moment familiar to anyone invested in questions of justice and liberation: When we know we could speak, we should speak, perhaps at least part of us wants to speak, and yet we remain silent. This might be in debate with opponents, it might be in the face of a microaggression we witness or experience, it might be in the context of deliberations within our own groups and movements – in these instances and others, a range of negative feelings can capture us and keep us from speaking and acting. This book aims not to abolish such silences in any simplistic sense (because sometimes they really are the right choice), but to use the feelings that produce them as a resource to strengthen our movements, our choices, and our agency.

Fisher is a lefty feminist Jewish lesbian who was born during the Great Depression, who taught women's studies for many years, and who has been active in many different movements for peace and justice since her youth – including in recent years a lesbian feminist theatre group and the long-lasting women's peace network Women in Black, a group to a significant extent comprised of Jewish feminists that works to oppose the Israeli occupation of Palestine. She draws on her own experiences in these groups and in many other groups in earlier years, as well as on a range of published memoirs and relevant scholarly work to write this book.

Each chapter focuses on one emotional axis (cowardice to courage, for example, or shame and pride) and a practice that can be useful in responding to silences resulting from that axis (in those instances, the practice of reflection and the pracitce of reminding). It does this using an approach that is both engaging but also a bit peculiar, or at least so it seems to me. I wonder if perhaps it is an older style than you usually see today. Or perhaps that's unfair, and it is just the author's own. But I can imagine a few different ways that a scholarly book that takes up this problem or a movement-based book that does likewise might be written, in the hands of many authors of my generation or younger. Dismissing the more obscure scholarly approaches, I can imagine that most of that range would be likely to hone in on relatively closed and definite-seeming analysis and/or conclusions and/or advice. There would be acknowledgement of complexity, but a desire to extract certainty from it, whether certainty of analysis or certainty of pronouncements – a sort of distancing from the weave of the messy, situated stories and messy, situated lives that are its raw materials and into the objectifying idioms of theory and advice.

In contrast, in this book – which draws on scholarship at points but is clearly a movement book – the stories are very much the point and the basis of the pedagogy. While there is definite effort in each chapter to think through meaning and extract useful practices, it is the sort of open-ended insight that recognizes that the goal is not to come up with an analysis that sounds edgy and might help build a CV, and it's not to produce a sort of movement version of over-simplified self-help, but rather it's to tell stories in ways that people can engage with in the complex and open ways that people have always derived meaning from stories. Yes, there were certainly moments where I wanted more of the former, where I wanted the illusion of more closed answers, but I think it's ultimately good that this book kept things more open. It really did feel at points like you were listening to a movement elder think through what she has done and what she has heard.

A different sort of complaint: There are a surprising number of visible mistakes in the production of the book – things like paragraph breaks that happen in mid-sentence. It's only a small thing, certainly, but still an unexpected distraction in a professionally produced book.

All in all, probably a book for a niche audience, but a worthwhile read for people invested in thinking deeply about how movements work and how we could be more effective in navigating and building them.

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