Category Archives: Writing

Alternatives to rape culture begin with feminism

Most of us are tired of hearing about Jian Ghomeshi. I am. This is not about him, though it’s partly inspired by responses to what I wrote about the whole thing.  The debates about him have opened up space to talk about rape culture, the pervasiveness of sexual assault, and how to deal with gender-based violence in our everyday lives (because it’s happening around us, whether we experience it or not).  It’s an opportunity for men, in particular, to take a more active role in all this, because if we’re not the perpetrators, we’re rarely active in preventing violence or supporting survivors.  As a man, I’m learning about a bunch of this for the first time, primarily from women who’ve been dealing with it because they have to. I think the public debate is an opportunity to notice some patterns and look around for alternatives. Here are three:

We are in rape culture; it’s in us

There are a lot of statements beginning with “I’m against rape culture, but…” People (usually men) then go on to say all kinds of things that reproduce rape culture. We don’t have all the facts, the women might be lying, this is someone’s private life, etc, etc. When these are pointed out and linked to rape culture, there are all kinds of contortions to explain how we really meant something else, and we’re all really against rape culture.

But if I admit that rape culture is pervasive, then (especially as a heterosexual man socialized into patriarchy), rape culture is something I’m struggling with and hopefully against, some of the time, not something I can oppose because I say so.  A lot of these conversations start and end with these debates and contortions, so they don’t feel very productive, and this is often taken as proof of the inadequacy of feminism. But this is the inadequacy of our engagement with feminism.  Feminism isn’t a stance, it’s a complex array of habits, behaviours, ways of thinking, and collective practices.  How can men welcome criticism?  How can we allow ourselves to be implicated?  How can we have more of these conversations with each other, more often, so that we don’t derail other conversations about supporting survivors or preventing sexual assault?  This is men’s work, a nascent movement to engage men in conversations—and action—around patriarchy and gendered violence.

Neutrality is not complexity or nuance

Another common pattern shares anxieties about the insistence that we should believe survivors.  Others have felt it important to remind everyone that false accusations of rape do exist.  There has been lots of analysis that shows how these sentiments are connected to rape culture.  But something else is going on here too.  When these statements are confronted, feminist analyses of rape culture are cast as simplistic and vicious.  Believing survivors is often contrasted with a more ‘complex’ stance that could productively deal with the conflict.  This ‘more complex’ stance is almost never elaborated, and when it is, it’s usually the simplistic fence-sitting stance, either filled with anxiety and indecision, or with cold neutrality.

The fetishism of law

This ‘neutral’ stance usually falls back on the law. It either assumes that perpetrators will be prosecuted (innocent until proven guilty!), or it takes on the mindset of a judge within the Western legal system as a way of seeing conflict. Judges seek a place of neutrality, with the assumption that they’ll eventually parcel out blame and punishment. Believing survivors gets conflated with rushing to a legal judgement. It’s true that believing survivors is a barrier to neutrality, and that’s why legalistic approaches tend to retraumatize survivors and enact new forms of violence. Feminists such as Andrea Smith have challenged this fetishism of law, pointing to the ways that law continues to uphold genocide, dispossession, exploitation and violence.  “Rather than uphold the law,” she argues, “indigenous feminism demands that progressives work against the law.”  In this sense, believing survivors isn’t a barrier to complexity; it’s the beginning of actually being able to address sexualized violence in our communities.  So what would collective, compassionate responses to sexual assault look like?  What would it mean to move beyond individualistic, principled stands?

Alternatives exist

There are already a bunch of collective responses to these questions, and unsurprisingly, they come out of feminism.  More specifically, they come out of queer, indigenous, and anti-racist feminism. Genderqueer and trans folks, communities of colour, and indigenous communities have spearheaded most of these experiments, often with the recognition that cops and courts consistently compound violence in their communities, rather than alleviating it, so there’s less willingness to rely on the law and legalistic thinking.

The Revolution Starts at Home is a compilation of insights from folks who have confronted intimate partner violence.   Numerous communities have developed collective responses to violence, which involves establishing alternatives to policing and incarceration while building supportive communities in the process, and reducing reliance on the legal system, often under the mantle of transformative justice.  INCITE!, a collective of women of colour, has organized around this for over a decade, and has developed an extensive set of accessible resources.  In some places, men are also taking more initiative to work with perpetrators and unpack rape culture amongst themselves, while trying to figure out how to be accountable to those most impacted by gender-based violence.  This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are already nascent alternatives to rape culture; we don’t have to start from scratch.  We can learn from them, nurture them and proliferate them.  In recent days, I’ve seen some men (and women) set themselves apart from feminism, claiming that it lacks complexity, nuance, or kindness.  I’ve done this a bunch.  But when I perceive feminism to be lacking complexity, I’m consistently reminded that this is my own failure to engage with feminist movements in more complex ways.  This isn’t to say that there aren’t simplistic analyses written by feminists.  Feminism isn’t a monolith, and there are plenty of contradictions.  But men (especially white, heterosexual, middle-class men) consistently position ourselves the ones who see complexity, nuance, and other possibilities, casting feminism (and feminists) as inadequate.  We rarely approach with curiosity and a willingness to learn.

The real complexities—and concrete possibilities—have been developed by those who are resisting the interconnected systems of rape culture, incarceration, heteropatriarchy, policing, ableism, colonization, white supremacy, capitalist exploitation, and environmental degradation, among others.  Feminism is plenty complex.

i-love-feminism

Five ways Ghomeshi reveals rape culture

– by Nick Montgomery

Edit: most people are tired of Ghomeshi by now, but hopefully all this leads to more engagement in feminism, and an attempt to challenge rape culture and nurture alternatives.  I wrote a second piece about this here: Alternatives to rape culture begin with feminism

There is a frenzy of activity to find “the facts” about Jian Ghomeshi, the allegations against him, and the women who have shared their experiences. Thousands of fans have flocked to defend Ghomeshi and deride his accusers as vindictive slanderers.

Others have expressed their moral outrage that Ghomeshi could be such a monster.  Others have called for us to wait until there are “more facts.”  These are consistent patterns that arise when discussing rape, sexual assault, and gendered violence. They are some of the jianghomeshipatterns of rape culture.

As Jane Kirby explains, rape culture is “anything that normalizes unwanted, nonconsensual sex. In other words, rape culture is anything that makes rape seem like it is not really rape.” It gets disseminated through jokes, TV, music, advertising, legal jargon, laws, words, and imagery, that make violence against women and sexual coercion seem so normal that people think rape is inevitable.” There is also a pervasive idea that “actual rape” is isolated and exceptional. Responses to the allegations against Ghomeshi (including his own) have reinforced rape culture in at least five subtle and not-so-subtle ways:

1. Promoting sympathy for perpetrators and their reputations

In his recent statement, Ghomeshi says that a freelance writer teamed up with a jealous ex in a conspiracy to ruin his reputation. His fans and defenders have reiterated his argument, framing it as a malicious attempt to slander Ghomeshi.

This is a consistent pattern of rape culture: the promotion of worry and sympathy for those accused of sexual assault. It shifts the focus toward doubt and disbelief, toward how unfortunate it would be if the accusations were untrue. It centers perpetrators as (maybe? possibly? probably?) hapless victims of vindictive slander.

 2. Promoting victim-blaming and suspicion

Ghomeshi himself calls this a “campaign of false allegations pursued by a jilted ex girlfriend” Some of the most violent patterns of rape culture are made visible by the slew of misogynist attacks on women who come forward.  This is one of the most consistent and insidious patterns of rape culture.  Anna North writes that:

each of the women accusing Ghomeshi cite the case of Carla Ciccone as a reason they desire anonymity. Last year Ciccone wrote an article for the website XOJane about a ‘bad date’ with an unidentified, very popular Canadian radio host whom readers speculated to be Ghomeshi.

In the days that followed, Ciccone received hundreds of abusive messages and threats. An online video calling her a ‘scumbag of the Internet’ has been viewed over 397,000 times.

Those who speak up about sexual harassment or violence have long been subject to public scrutiny and criticism. But an onslaught of online abuse and threats has become a strikingly common response to women’s public statements — see for instance the threats Anita Sarkeesian and others have received when they speak publicly about misogyny in video games.

Blogger Elizabeth Hawksworth unpacks this eloquently:

What I want to talk about is the reactions that I’ve been seeing to his statement. A lot of people have been giving Ghomeshi the benefit of the doubt while full-on accusing the woman of ruining his career. Without knowing anything but what Ghomeshi has told us, people on Twitter and Facebook have been gleefully maligning her without taking into account that maybe there’s more to the story, here… Women everywhere are sexually assaulted by men in power. Many don’t bother to speak up because of reactions and consequences like this: Ghomeshi is a man in power and he is also well liked and well known. Chances are, he will be almost universally believed, while she will be accused of lying to get something from him. And while there is an extremely small percentage of women who do accuse men of sexual abuse in order to get something from them, the majority of women don’t. The majority of women speak up because they want justice. And right now, we don’t know what the real story is – but as someone who never spoke up when a man in power put me through hell, for a variety of reasons – I believe her until further notice.

3. Remaining neutral and waiting for ‘all the facts’

Many have responded to this debate by calling for sobriety and patience. Toronto Star columnist Vinay Menon—while making sure not to condone the “shocking allegations”—expressed regret that “many have already picked sides” before “all the facts” are known.  Menon reminds his readers that Ghomeshi is (legally) innocent until proven guilty.  We should approach sexual assault as judges would, presiding over a criminal trial.  But there is no criminal trial here; no one is pressing charges.  What matters isn’t whether we decide the Ghomeshi is guilty, but the ways we talk about the whole thing, and the implications of that.

The focus on innocent-until-proven-guilty shifts the onus back on survivors to prove that a sexual assault ‘really’ happened.  ‘Picking sides’ (or supporting survivors?) is cast as irrational and hasty, with neutrality held up as the ideal.  Due in part to this tendency, survivors of sexual assault don’t think they’ll be believed, or they fear that ‘concrete proof’ will be demanded of them—even by friends and family—and often they’re right.  As Ruth Davenport writes:

Women, it seems, must always have an agenda. We don’t actually slap scarlet letters on them anymore, but thanks to the internet, women who accuse a man of any kind of misbehaviour risk having not only their identities exposed and publicized, but also an eternal water-torture drip-drip-drip of daily character assassination.

Refusing to file a formal complaint – the decision made by approximately nine out of every 10 sexual assault victims isn’t a case of modesty or manipulation – it’s simple survival. And modern rape culture is thriving on it.

This focus on “due process” is linked to policing, courts, and incarceration.  It naturalizes these systems as the only way of responding to sexual assault.  As Vikki Law recently argued, this carceral mindset justifies the expansion of policing and prisons (especially in poor communities of colour), and discourages grassroots, community-based responses and long-term organizing against gender-based violence.  This is not to say that survivors shouldn’t report rape as a crime, or that supporters shouldn’t support them doing so.  The point is that this legalistic mindset gets in the way of supporting survivors, unlearning rape culture, and organizing to dismantle it.

4. Casting the concept of rape culture as alarmist, conspiratorial, or crazy

A few months ago Jian Ghomeshi actually hosted a “debate,” about whether rape culture is “helpful or even accurate,” in which Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute denied the existence of rape culture, claimed that drinking is the reason for sexual assault, and blaming women for being assaulted. MacDonald’s opponent, Lise Gotell, sounded shocked that she was put in a position where she had to explain things like “drinking doesn’t cause rape, it’s the decisions of rapists that cause rape.”  By constructing a debate around whether rape culture ‘actually’ exists, and legitimizing its detractors, Ghomeshi and the CBC framed rape culture as a suspicious idea, creating barriers to understanding rape culture and the ways it can be named, challenged, and dismantled.

This year, the wake of campus sexual assaults and misogynist violence at Canadian universities led to broader discussions about rape culture on campuses, spearheaded by feminists, and this elicited an anti-feminist backlash.  Detractors have suggested that the concept of rape culture is a fanatical misunderstanding of culture and norms. Quotation marks are magical. In the hands of its anti-feminist critics, rape culture becomes “rape culture”—a strange and distorted view of reality, founded on irrationality and conspiracy. The same sentiments are circulating now, in relation to the recent scandal.  Reactionaries understand this tactic all too well, using it to frame issues like climate change: by turning it into a question of legitimate debate (“so-called climate change”), they’ve already scored a victory, because they derail any conversation about collective responses to the problem.

5. Constructing rapists as inhuman monsters

Part of rape culture is the persistent tendency to cast perpetrators of sexual assault as unredeemable monsters, and rape as an exceptional event.  The frenzy surrounding Ghomeshi reflects this: it is dramatic and revelatory, antagonistic and isolated. Either Ghomeshi a guilty monster or a hapless victim of slander.  Sexual assault is terrible, but it’s also pervasive. As Jane Kirby explains:

Young men are taught that rape means jumping out of the bushes, attacking a stranger, and violently forcing her to have sex with him. While this can be true, they often don’t know that 70 per cent of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, and that they could rape their classmate, friend, girlfriend, or wife. They might not be sure what consent really means.

When sexual assault is understood as an exceptional act committed by monsters, it’s impossible to talk about the ways that it’s happening in our communities and amongst our friends, families, and co-workers.  This is not about policing the way that survivors talk about their perpetrators; they should use whatever words they want to.  Those who see rape as as something perpetrated by anonymous monsters (unsurprisingly) tend to be people who have never experienced sexual assault or supported those who have.  Like the perpetrators, they are usually men.  I used to think of rape this way, and I’m still prone to understanding sexual assault in simplistic, either/or ways.  But hearing stories of survivors makes very clear that rape and sexual assault happens between friends, family, and partners, and it’s complicated and layered.

Making rapists into monsters pathologizes rapists, searching for individualized ‘disorders’ rather than linking sexual assault to misogyny, male entitlement, and patriarchal socialization.  It also discourages perpetrators from being accountable for sexual assault.  Perpetrators are faced with the choice of being seen (and seeing themselves) as evil, inhuman monsters, or existing in a state of denial and doing whatever they can to discredit survivors who come forward.  If more men were capable of unpacking our relationships to rape culture and patriarchy, we could create more supports for perpetrators and be more proactive in addressing rape culture, without putting the onus on survivors and their supporters.  All this shit swirling around Ghomeshi could be an opportunity for more men, in particular, to join the many women, genderqueer, and trans folks who are interrupting rape culture and nurturing alternatives.

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This was written by me (a man), but all of these points around rape culture—insofar as they represent meaningful insights—were drawn directly and indirectly from women, genderqueer and trans folks, and a few men. The fuck-ups are my own.

Resources:

Like a lake in a thunderstorm: men, patriarchy, and feminism

For all of us who are men who believe in social justice, who want healthy and beautiful lives for our loved ones, and who are working for positive change in the world, let us commit or re-commit to making feminism central in our lives, values, and actions.

Chris Crass

A friend recently pointed out that in the wake of the Isla Vista shootings—and the feminist responses that followed—the silence from male allies has been deafening. As many feminists have explained, the Isla Vista killings were not an extraordinary occurrence; rather, they were a particularly violent and visible outcome of misogyny and male entitlement. My friend challenged me to write something in response to all this. I’m grateful for that challenge because the process of putting this piece together has reminded me how much I have to work on, and how important it is for men to do this work individually, interpersonally, and collectively. As Cecilia Winterfox writes:

It’s both exhausting and diversionary being expected to hash out the basics with men who haven’t bothered to think about their own privilege before. Men are not entitled to expect feminists to educate them. Real change will only happen when men accept that the burden of education is on them, not on women.

The burden of explaining and combatting patriarchy and misogyny consistently falls to women, and men can do more. I am not writing to convince anyone that patriarchy, misogyny and rape culture are real and they need to be challenged and dismantled. Women, queer and trans folks, and some men have explained and re-explained what these structures are and how they work, why it’s hard for men to see them, why all men are implicated, and some basic ways to change our behavior. The outpouring of feminist analysis that followed the Isla Vista shootings has created more space to have more radical, constructive, public conversations about misogyny, rape culture, patriarchy, and the role men can play in uprooting these systems. How can men take this as an opportunity to deepen our commitments to feminism? How can we be more vocal and active in addressing misogyny and patriarchy? If we were better at taking this on, what would we say and do? What are the obstacles? What are the potentials and pitfalls of this work? There are a bunch more questions below, drawn from feminist theory and practice.  I don’t think these questions are asking for straightforward answers from men; they’re asking us to respond to them with integrity, openness, and uncertainty. These questions ask us to challenge ourselves and each other, without any guarantees or formulas. Sometimes what we need to do is embarrassingly simple, sometimes it’s complex, but it’s never easy, because easy isn’t transformative.

What are men waiting for?

It’s less risky for men—especially straight white men like me—to speak out against patriarchy: As Ben Atherton Zemon writes:

When I write about feminism and men’s violence against women, I often receive supportive comments. While some of the praise is earned, much of it gives me a lot of credit for doing very little.

Atherton-Zemon contrasts this experience with that of women he knows who are consistently stalked, verbally abused, and threatened with rape and murder for speaking out against patriarchy and misogyny. How can men be responsive to this? It’s absolutely crucial for men to interrupt patriarchal violence, and become more vocal in challenging sexism. But if we just join in feminist conversations, we can end up silencing the women who’ve been having them for a long time. How can we make more conversations happen, and help create more feminist spaces and conversations?

makeitfeminist

These questions aren’t new; they’re part of an ongoing, too-quiet, too-small conversation about men’s work: the ways men can challenge patriarchy and gender-based violence personally, interpersonally, among families and caregivers, and in broader communities and institutions where we live and work. I’m not an expert in feminism, or men’s work, or anything else I’m writing about here, but I am really lucky to have men in my life who are constantly modeling feminist practices to me, and to have inspiring women in my life who are holding me accountable and providing feminist leadership. At the end of this piece there’s a list of online feminist resources, which I’ve drawn on and quoted to write this.

This piece centers feminism—and the culprits of patriarchy and misogyny it confronts—and I’m writing primarily to men and other masculine-leaning folks, from my own experience as a white, educated, middle-class cis-man. While I’ve learned from people with very different experiences, my perspective and analysis are still shaped by a confluence of massive privilege, sheltered and benefitting from the everyday, layered violences of racism, ageism, ableism, colonialism, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy, among others. What I write will be most relevant to other white, heterosexual men. We are also the biggest perpetrators of violence and misogyny, which means engaging white hetero dudes is an urgent task, and we can and should develop an intersectional, anti-oppressive praxis. All men are starting from different places, with different experiences and things to work on, but we can learn a lot from sharing those experiences and trying to figure things out together. We can’t wait until we feel like experts, or until we’ve figured it all out, because unlearning and confronting patriarchy is a life-long project, full of mistakes.

How can we unlearn patriarchy and support the leadership of women?

Even among men who have are committed to feminism, women and trans folks are consistently silenced and marginalized, and men—especially white, middle-class, able-bodied, hetero-cis-men—end up in positions of leadership and recognition. When these problems are raised by women, men often get defensive. These problems aren’t new; feminists have been naming and resisting patriarchy for centuries. In the 60s and 70s, organizations like Movement for a New Society, a radical feminist anti-war organization, explored the ways that men tend to talk first, too much, too loud, and too often. Men take conversations over, we get defensive, restate what others have said, present our ideas as definitive, put down others’ ideas, intellectualize and avoid vulnerability, condescend and compete, and speak for others in meetings and conversations.

The fact that all of these behaviours are still widespread attests to the persistence of patriarchy. I struggle with these things all the time, and constantly find myself taking up more space in conversations with a lot of women in my life. It’s a life-long project to change our conduct by thinking relationally, being mindful of how our ways of speaking impact others (especially folks who aren’t white hetero men). How can we learn to listen and be more curious, vulnerable, and attuned to the ways we speak and hold ourselves? How can we create spaces of emotional connection and ongoing care—especially with other men—beyond mere exchanges of ideas or opinions?

What would it mean for men to root feminism in our everyday lives?

One way to move beyond conversation is to center care and the reproduction of everyday life, for which women are often responsible. I have been part of these patriarchal dynamics in activist collectives, shared houses, and intimate relationships, and it’s still one of the major things I need to be working on. Women and others not socialized into patriarchal masculinity are left with the less gratifying, less public, less visible forms of work, like sweeping floors in the house, caring for friends and family, and making a budget for the organization. Being mindful of what needs to get done to care for people and maintain collectives and communities in material ways—and doing it—is really basic and it’s embarrassingly difficult for me sometimes. It’s also not a question of good analysis: the male role models in my life haven’t developed these capacities by reading the right books, but by being proactive, vigilant, and accountable to the women in their lives. What do we do when nobody’s looking? I think these low-to-the-ground, quiet forms of feminism are among the most important. They tend to be less public and less celebrated, and they are absolutely crucial to creating space for women to take on more of the creative and visionary work of smashing patriarchy (and other things).

A consistent reminder from friends and mentors who read earlier versions of this piece was the reminder that as men, we’ll almost always benefit from taking on feminist practices: we will often be congratulated, recognized, and valued for doing work that others are always already doing. Being more vulnerable and emotionally available makes me a more attractive partner or lover; learning anti-oppressive practices makes me more hirable; developing a feminist analysis lends me authority and status; and I can be congratulated for doing childcare or housework just because it’s unexpected. Taking on feminism can shore up new forms of male privilege in weird ways. What are the implications of all this? I think part of it is a reminder there’s no endpoint: as C.B. Egret explains in Ex Masculus,

there also isn’t a plateau you are going to get to where you can brush your hands off, claiming to have reached official ally status. The work is life. It doesn’t end but only gets deeper and richer and fuller, like a lake in a thunderstorm.

Thunderstorms are powerful, exhilarating, dangerous, transformative, and humbling all at the same time, and there’s no shelter in the middle of a lake. I’m learning that there’s a deep ambivalence in taking on feminism as a man, especially a man who benefits from other layers of privilege. A lot of unlearning patriarchy—like becoming more vulnerable and emotionally available—can be a transformative, life-affirming process, and it can end up reinforcing patriarchy in all kinds of ways. Men can use emotional literacy to manipulate situations and center their own needs in new ways. We can allow ourselves to be celebrated as feminists, in ways that reinforce patriarchal, self-centered conditioning. But ambivalent doesn’t mean ineffective or unimportant: I think it means that feminism, for men, will always be tricky, full of pitfalls, and absolutely crucial. How can we be attuned to this ambivalence, and navigate it with integrity? How can we push ourselves to take on practices and roles that are unlikely to be celebrated or even noticed? How can we redirect recognition or privilege in ways that benefit or support others? How can we have more of these conversations with each other as men, and how can we support each other in deepening individual and collective feminist practices?

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How can men work collectively to challenge patriarchy and misogyny?

I am just starting to think about how to engage other men beyond my circle of close friends, and even among friends, really uncomfortable transformative conversations are rare. I am often scared of this work with other men: scared of implicating myself, scared of letting down my defenses and being vulnerable, and scared that I’ll mess it all up or do it wrong somehow. One problem I grapple with—especially when I’m scared—is the tendency to distance myself from patriarchy and misogyny. Paul Kivel, a long-time men’s work activist, points to the pitfalls of talking down to other men about patriarchy:

[It] made us the “good” men with the “right” ideas and allowed us to feel powerful by attacking and berating other men. We became the best liberated men on the block, and that became another way of winning women’s approval and attention. It also allowed us to feel self-righteous toward other men.

It’s always easier for me to create distance, rather than finding a way to implicate myself in discussions about patriarchy and misogyny. Predictably, this shuts men down, and it makes the conversation safe for me, as long as I can stay on the “good” side of the good/bad men dichotomy. The worst part of this is that it makes it difficult to talk about and address misogyny and violence in a meaningful way: nobody wants to be the bad man.

Alexandra Brodsky writes about the urgent need to engage in uncomfortable conversations about “the texture of 20-something heterosexual sex in America, the insidious habits and habituations that look exactly like violence except, somehow, we’ve decided they aren’t violent.” It means having conversations about the ways we—as men—are implicated in blurring and crossing lines of consent, the ways we feel entitled to sex and the fulfillment of our fantasies, and how we let all this dissipate into the silences of rape culture and patriarchy. To address all this by implicating ourselves is profoundly uncomfortable. “We will have to disrupt the whole body, and though all men can help, most won’t want to. Today’s allies might think it’s easy not to be a rapist but find it harder to accept that their desires are not paramount,” Brodsky writes.

How can we engage each other in these conversations, as men? How can we create a shared language that helps us hold each other accountable? How can we support each other in setting goals, making commitments, and following through on them? One way that men have begun to do this is by holding men’s circles: intentional, pro-feminist gatherings of men to address patriarchy and misogyny among ourselves and in our communities. I recently found a zine called Ex Masculus: critical reflections on pro-feminist men’s groups, with writings from folks with a wide variety of experiences of men’s work. Toby explains the importance of men’s groups:

I know that in my life it’s been the times I’ve been with other guys (whether in formal groups or just hanging out and having real discussions) that have been the best times to work through my lifetime of socialization as a male. To some extent we know what the other person is going through, I am able to empathize with how hard it is to challenge those privileges and get to the bottom of why I treat people the way I do. It’s other guys who are able to support me when I make a mistake and need help figuring out what I did, and how not to do it again. Without some intentional space to make that possible it usually just doesn’t get talked about (p22).

The contributors in this zine share a broad array of insights into men’s work, and a common theme is the challenge to deepen our practices in these groups so that they are more accountable to women and actively challenge patriarchal violence. C.B. Egret explains that men’s groups can go wrong when they function as spaces “for other men to ‘confess’ their privileges and conditionings to one another, pay penance as such, pat one another on the back and go home feeling like good feminists” (51). Egret makes it clear that this is not about dismissing the ways that men’s groups can be spaces of care and healing. The point is that this work can be deepened, so that it’s more transformative for men involved, and leads to meaningful action beyond meetings. Vanessa, another Ex Masculus contributor, raises some crucial questions along these lines:

  • how do we deal with situations that come up where people we like are perpetrating abuse and assault in our communities?
  • how can we change our culture to begin to see confrontation as constructive?
  • where in the depths of ourselves are we recognising a need for a men’s group? is there shame there? guilt? is there fear? what else?
  • are we afraid of accountability processes?

Other contributors raise similar questions, pointing to the possibilities of using men’s groups to hold perpetrators accountable, provide support for survivors, and help create community healing and care. This is a high bar for men socialized into patriarchy—especially those new to feminism—and I read these as visionary goals that we can aspire to in men’s work.

Everything I’ve learned continually points me back to the recognition that there’s no universal formula, and we’re all coming at this with different experiences. Men’s groups are only one response among many that we can take to be more active in confronting patriarchy and misogyny on an everyday basis. How can we be more active in taking up the quiet work, the caring work, and the work that we won’t be recognized for? How can we engage with other men in ways that open space for transformative conversations about patriarchy and misogyny? How can we be accountable to women and trans folks and take leadership from them? What’s stopping us? I’ll end with some further questions by Vanessa, from Ex Masculus:

  • who have you abused in your life? how?
  • what comes to mind when you think about how the majority of the women and trans people you know could be survivors of sexual assault?
  • what do you have to gain from talking about your life experiences with other people relating to having male privilege?
  • what experiences have made you want to be accountable to people you have hurt?
  • how has your gender socialisation shaped your practice of consent? your sense of entitlement?
  • what makes you different from other “men”?
  • have you ever used the rhetoric of feminist allyship to gain credibility, or to seem attractive, to feminists you thought were cool / hot?
  • when you become down on yourself because of the amount of work you need to do to unlearn patriarchal indoctrination, how do you stay brave?

Acknowledgements

This piece wouldn’t have been possible without the feedback, edits, advice, and ongoing support and mentorship offered by Jeanette Sheehy, Kim Smith, Carla Bergman, Seb Bonet, and Dani Aiello. I wasn’t able to be responsive to all their insights, questions, and critiques, so I’m responsible for all the mistakes, omissions, problems, and other crappy bits.

Resources

Autonomous Politics and Liberal Thought-Magic

Anarchism is often dismissed as incoherent, naïve, and ineffective.  This is Nancy Fraser’s position in a recent essay called “Against Anarchism.”  It’s an excerpt of a longer essay, part of a book entitled Transnationalizing the Public Sphere: Nancy Fraser to Debates Critics (coming out in 2014).  For those who don’t know, Nancy Fraser is a famous political theorist (for academics, at least).  Imagine being famous enough that you need a whole new book to respond to people who disagree with you!

Fraser’s criticisms are worth engaging not because they’re particularly perceptive or unique, but because they’re exceedingly common: these are some of the reasons that people dismiss anarchism all the time.  I’m not out to mount a systematic defense of anarchism here (or ‘neo-anarchism,’ as Fraser calls it), in part because there’s no coherent, singular political tradition to defend.  Anarchism means many things to many people (which makes it pretty silly to proclaim you’re against ‘it’).  What is it about anarchism that’s so threatening to people like Nancy Fraser?  I think Fraser (and many others) are actually threatened by what I’ll call ‘autonomous politics,’ which is both narrower and broader than anarchism, encompassing currents of marxism, indigenism, queer politics, feminism, and anarchism.  Autonomous politics is also too complex to be a coherent whole, which is part of what makes it so threatening.  My suspicion is that Fraser hates autonomous politics not because it’s ineffective, but because it undermines her whole worldview and political project.  Autonomous politics threatens to destabilize liberalism and the tired old tricks of conventional politics, revealing their irrelevance for changing things here and now.

Fraser’s broad argument is that democratic politics works on ‘two tracks.’  On the first track, “publics in civil society generate public opinion,” and on the second track “political institutions make authorized and binding decisions to carry them out.”  Chief among these formal institutions is the State, and she explains that anarchists reject this second track, because they think “the administrative logics of the political system are bound to colonize the independent energies of society.”  Anarchism, she says, rejects this second track in favour of “a single-track understanding of democratic politics.”  This is the spectre of autonomous politics: practices that short-circuit the relationship between institutions and the publics they are supposed to represent.  Fraser’s charge is that this single track politics is fundamentally undemocratic: anarchist politics becomes isolated, unaccountable, and vanguardist.

So, anarchists, are you accountable (like a good liberal) or are you unaccountable (and therefore undemocratic)?  Will you be a good citizen, or a bad outsider?  This is liberal thought-magic: the strange spell that funnels everything back into ‘State’ and ‘public,’ making it difficult to imagine any other kind of politics. 

boschmagI think the current of anarchism that’s particularly threatening to Fraser is the one that dissipates the spell of liberal thought-magic.  Some currents of anarchism (and other radical political traditions) aren’t simply anti-State or anti-institutional: they point to the ways that institutions always pull us back into relation to these organizations, like black holes.  Autonomous politics short-circuits the relationship between formal institutions and publics, enabling new, open-ended relationships and practices to emerge that don’t fit into the liberal framework.  In the anarchist tradition, this autonomist current can be traced to folks like Gustav Landauer, who insisted that the State can’t be attacked or destroyed.  The state and other formal institutions are social relationships:

The state is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another.

For practitioners of liberal thought-magic, the prospect of ‘behaving differently toward one another’ is naive, if not dangerous.  There are always two tracks: formal institutions and publics who contest and transform them.  This is crux of liberal democratic thought-magic: two tracks of politics locked in communication and change.  There is no escape, no alternative.

This makes autonomous politics—practices and actions that don’t aim at reforming institutions or mobilizing publics—frustrating, confusing, and menacing to liberal thought-magicians.  Autonomous isn’t just ‘outside’ Fraser’s two tracks; it threatens to undermine the whole edifice and break the spell.  How?

First, the persistence of autonomous politics is a reminder that the modern conceptions of ‘State’ and ‘civil society’ are only a few centuries old.  Part of the thought-magic is to insist that life beyond the State is nasty, brutish and short, and it will continue to be, without the rigidities of the two liberal tracks.  Of course, there was incredible hierarchy, violence, and patriarchy before the rise of the modern State (in some places—particularly in Europe).  The State has transformed these brutal relationships, institutionalizing and industrializing some of them while subjugating others.  But before and beyond and after the State, there was (and is) an incredible diversity of ways that people organize themselves, resolve conflicts, engage with neighbours and more distant ties, and relate to land and their home places.  This infinite complexity is politics, and it will always be more complex than liberal thought-magic wants it to be.

Liberal thought-magic insists that because some of these non-State relationships were and are brutal, we must dismiss autonomous politics as a scary, violent, unthinkable way of living and relating.  It sneaks in the racist and Eurocentric view that indigenous peoples and other autonomous currents are primitive, naive, savage, unrealistic, or it simply erases their existence.  Fraser gestures briefly at “isolated indigenous communities struggling to subsist off the grid,” lumping them in with “relatively privileged but downwardly mobile youth.”  These are the main subscribers to autonomous politics, she thinks (the rest of us know better).  Of course, insisting on the necessity of the State probably doesn’t sound as good to undocumented workers, prisoners, indigenous land defenders, and others being crushed, criminalized or erased by the State and other modern institutions.  But it’s not just about being privileged (or not) by the State and its politics: it’s also about the effect on our political imagination; this is what makes liberal thought-magic so magical.

Second, autonomous politics threatens the role of the liberal political theorist: liberal magicians make recommendations for how things should be, in terms of the ‘proper’ relationship between formal institutions and publics.

Critical liberals like Fraser come up with ideas about how they could be much different, but not too different (the dual tracks of State and public needs to be preserved).  In her article, she mentions her contemplation of “hybrid strong publics,” which aims “not at collapsing the two tracks of the public sphere model, but at softening the border that separates them, making them more porous to each other, and enhancing the flow of communication between them.”  Fraser’s role is to talk about how this relationship could work better, and (as she demonstrates here) to police threats to this relationship, reasserting the necessity of the two tracks.

This liberal thought-magic is always augmented by admitting that formal institutions are not really all that democratic and responsive: that’s all the more reason to keep trying to make them better and nicer!  Ignoring them is irresponsible, tantamount to giving up.  A theorist’s role is to criticize this relationship, and present a normative argument for the way that things should be. 

The liberal theorist tends to speak from a mystical non-place, with little reference to the people and places to which they’re connected in everyday life, or to the concrete political practices they’re engaged in.  But once the spell starts to dissipate, the categories of ‘State’ and ‘public’ start to appear more and more as one kind of politics among others, and liberal political theorists start to sound shrill and particularistic, protecting a centuries-old political project that has been globalized through colonization and imperialism.  Indeed, from the perspective of folks trying to change things—even people trying to influence formal institutions—the role of the liberal political theorist isn’t much use.  It encourages us to see everything in terms of the two tracks: State and civil society, and encourages us to inhabit the mystical non-place where we get to fantasize about how things could or should be.  To experiment with other ways of seeing and being in the world tends to be perceived as ineffective and naïve, if not outright undemocratic and dangerous.

With this in mind, I should situate myself: I’ve spent lots of time reading about liberal politics, and I was once firmly under its spell; I read about how the State should be, and how institutions could be different.  I can’t say that’s all gone and I see everything clearly, but I’ve become critical of liberalism (obviously) and I’ve found other forms of thought-magic (including currents of anarchism) more useful in thinking through the ways I relate to people, and to the political projects I’m part of.  I’ve developed priorities and values that don’t make sense from the perspective of the dual tracks of State and public.  I don’t have a replacement for Fraser’s thought-magic because I’m trying to be open to a diversity of traditions and encounters.  Can we work together politically, will we be adversaries, or will we ignore each other?  For me, that’s a question I’ll try to figure out when I meet you.  Even if you’re committed to liberal thought-magic, we might be able to work together, depending on how we relate.  That doesn’t mean I don’t have my own commitments, baggage, and ideas; it means I’m trying to be open to the encounter, and meet you where you’re at.   

Third, autonomous politics threatens to proliferate the tracks of politics.  There aren’t one, or two, but many tracks, institutions, and actors.  It’s not about pretending that ‘the State’ and ‘the public’ don’t exist: they’re no less (or more) real than other social categories.  They’re not exactly irrelevant, either: they continue to exert a strong pull on most people (all the more reason to be critical of them and the kinds of politics they normalize).  Fraser accuses anarchists of assuming a single, autonomous track (and therefore they’re unaccountable to anyone outside this track).  But many of the most prominent and radical tendencies of anarchism, feminism, indigenism, and queer politics gesture at the infinity of political ‘tracks’.  Not all of these tracks are ‘publics’ or ‘formal institutions;’ these categories erase the complexity of allegiances, alliances, tensions, anxieties, adversaries, and enemies that criss-cross contemporary political actions and groups.

From the perspectives of autonomous politics (and there are many), questions of accountability are diverse, determined not by abstract ideological arguments but often by one’s everyday lived relationships to people, communities, places, and ecosystems.  These kinds of people are dangerous to the State (and to liberal thought-magic) because their loyalties and commitments can never be easily fitted into the liberal tracks of ‘public’ and ‘State.’  More worrisome still, they often insist on relating to others horizontally and across difference, refusing to accept the authority of formal institutions.  Fraser would like to dismiss these currents as particularistic, vanguardist, or isolationist.  There are isolationist, vanguardist tendencies of anarchism, but there’s more to autonomous politics.  Autonomist politics is often perceived as isolationism by people like Fraser, who conflate isolationism with a refusal to engage with the State and other institutions on their own terms.  Police, bureaucrats, politicians, and other institutional representatives have no a priori legitimacy or authority here; it’s up in the air: they might be obeyed, attacked, engaged or ignored.  This is not because autonomous politics embraces an anything-goes nihilism: they often point to authorities and values that are erased by liberal thought-magic, such as family, community, indigenous nationhoodecosystems, and non-humans.  This is because autonomous politics enables new (and old) relationships, alliances, solidarities and connections.  

Autonomy doesn’t just mean separation.  The categories of liberal thought-magic (‘the State’ and ‘the public’ or ‘civil society’) are like powerful black holes, sucking everything in and erasing the complexity of political life.  By the same token, warding off these categories and necessities enables other values and practices to emerge: it becomes possible to think and act differently.  I’m sure Fraser would have no problem jamming these emergent values and solidarities back into the liberal paradigm: it’s some powerful magic.  But for many people, the spell is losing its power.

Who ensures that autonomous politics is accountable?  There’s no universal arbiter or judge.  You will have to find out for yourself what different forms of politics are like by engaging with the people who practice them.  For those who yearn for a universal arbiter of justice or accountability or democracy, it may be useful to remember that it has never existed: the universalist dream is a fantasy that has never succeeded in representing everyone, and it is one that has tried to erase and subjugate the political universe in order to live out this fantasy.  Autonomist politics appears more realistic here, rather than naive: we need to relate to each other, figure things out together, and struggle together, without guarantees.  

I think these are the reasons why Nancy Fraser hates anarchism and autonomous politics.  At a time when liberal thought-magic works on fewer and fewer people, the magicians are getting worried.  It’s increasingly obvious that States and other formal institutions are not only undemocratic; they’re increasingly designed to absorb, placate, divide, and destroy grassroots movements while defending the exploitative status quo.  As Fraser points out, it’s dangerous to pretend the State and other formal institutions don’t exist (it’s one of many tracks), but it’s at least as dangerous to pretend that there are only two tracks to politics, fervently conjuring liberal thought-magic.  Fraser has written a whole book ‘debating her critics,’ but many proponents of autonomous politics won’t be interested in debating her; they’ve dislodged themselves from the black hole of the State and the public, and these orbits appear strange and dangerous to liberal magicians.  But I think even the liberals like Fraser know that there’s a whole political universe beyond their myopic orbits; they’re just trying really hard to ignore or condemn the political aliens.

This post, I hope, is somewhere in between engagement and departure from liberal thought-magic: I’m hoping to help ruin the spell, and try out some other forms of thought-magic.  I don’t have a coherent alternative to Fraser, in part because autonomous politics refuses any singular alternative: there needs to be room for all kinds of different magic, and there are no guarantees to politics.

Dear Rex: Colonialism exists, and you’re it.

Dear Rex Murphy,

When you write that Canadians are offended at the term ‘settler’ and ‘genocide,’ you don’t speak for all of us.  I’m a Canadian citizen, my ancestors came to Canada from Europe a few centuries ago, and I understand myself as a settler.  It’s not disrespectful for indigenous peoples to remind us of Canada’s legacy of genocide.  It’s not rude for indigenous peoples to label as ‘colonial’ the connections between the industries of resource extraction, the RCMP, and the corporate media you write for.  What’s insulting is your attempt to paint Canada as benevolent, open, and respectful of indigenous peoples, and your contempt for any understanding of present-day colonialism and oppression in Canada.

rex-murphy-picI’m not an expert on colonialism, but clearly neither are you.  In reading your vitriolic editorial, it struck me that you clearly hate the term ‘settler’ and ‘colonialism’; however, your writing also indicates that you probably don’t actually understand what these terms mean.  So I’m writing to you, one white settler to another, to explain to you what settler colonialism means to me, and why I think it’s important for understanding (and living in) present-day Canada.  With that said, I’m not convinced you’re really ignorant of these terms; I think you have a sense of their meaning and the implications, and it terrifies you, but that terror turns to anger before you can really feel it.  I think you—and many other Canadians—know that something is deeply wrong, even if you can’t admit it to yourself.  It’s something in the air, something we feel in our gut: we’re caught up in something horrible, and we can’t go on this way.

I think that’s why the truths spoken by indigenous people provoke so much resentment in people like you: because you know they’re speaking the truth.  It’s plain for everyone to see: Elsipogtog and other instances of indigenous resistance aren’t political stunts by over-educated ‘radicals’ as you’d like to portray them; they are principled stands by everyday people—grandmothers, fathers, mothers, and their children—against rampant and unending extraction, exploitation, and destruction.  These communities are not motivated by abstract ideologies or university jargon, but by deep responsibilities and commitments to protect land and people.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson puts it clearly:

The story here, the real story, is virtually the same story in every Indigenous nation:  Over the past several centuries we have been violently dispossessed of most of our land to make room for settlement and resource development. The very active system of settler colonialism maintains that dispossession and erases us from the consciousness of settler Canadians except in ways that is deemed acceptable and non-threatening to the state. We start out dissenting and registering our dissent through state sanctioned mechanisms like environmental impact assessments. Our dissent is ignored. Some of us explore Canadian legal strategies, even though the courts are stacked against us. Slowly but surely we get backed into a corner where the only thing left to do is to put our bodies on the land. The response is always the same – intimidation, force, violence, media smear campaigns, criminalization, silence, talk, negotiation, “new relationships”, promises, placated resistance and then more broken promises. Then the cycle repeats itself.

This is the structure of settler colonialism.  One of the basic assumptions of your editorial—and virtually all other mainstream media coverage of Elsipogtog—is that colonialism happened sometime in the past, and since then Canada has done a lot to “right our historical wrongs.”  When do you imagine colonialism stopped happening in Canada?  When the last piece of land was mapped, surveyed, and appropriated for the Crown?  When government officials first broke their treaties with indigenous nations so that settlement and resource exploitation could continue?  When the last residential school was closed?  When Stephen Harper issued an official apology five years ago?  When he declared that Canada has no history of colonialism a year later?  Of course, Canada has changed, and so have settler attitudes.  But the structure of settler colonialism is still very much intact.

You will likely dismiss my words as part of the “academically-generated ‘narratives’ of colonialism.”  Indeed, I first learned about colonialism in university, and I’m a student of some of the “colonial theory” you denounce.  But I only learned about colonialism in university because my public school education taught me that indigenous peoples had been wiped out in Canada, victims of the inevitable and noble march of progress.  Why do you suppose our public school system hides the history of residential schools, forced removal of indigenous people, ecological devastation, racist policies, theft of land, and broken treaties?  Could it be that we’re trying to cover up the fact that Canadian colonialism never ended—that it’s an ongoing process?

More and more Canadians are beginning to see that an ever-expanding economy based on exploitation of land and people can’t go on forever, and the impacts are also hitting home in more communities.  More Canadians are recognizing that voting for someone every four years isn’t real enfranchisement, and that this system is designed to foreclose popular participation, not encourage it.  More of us are seeing the need to take a stand to protect our families, the places we love, non-human life, and future generations.  More Canadians are beginning to see that this is what indigenous people have been saying (and doing) all along: defending their lands and communities against an ongoing colonial process.  With these recognitions comes one of the least comfortable: that we are caught up in this process—deeply enmeshed and complicit in it—as settlers.

Just as we feel the wrongness of colonialism in our gut, we can feel the emptiness of settler ways of life.  This isn’t just about “mentalities,” as you suggest, although the way we think is certainly part of it.  It’s most concretely about how we relate to each other and the land that sustains us (whether we recognize it or not).  Settler colonialism has produced a world where our food is industrialized and grown with chemicals, our political system is rigidly bureaucratic and exclusive, our culture promotes objectification and normalizes rape, our economic system is premised on exploitation and unending growth, our divisions of labour are racist and patriarchal, almost all forests and ecosystems have been pillaged and degraded, and our everyday lives are increasingly mediated through bureaucracies and commodities.  This is not to say that indigenous people are somehow outside these ways of life; however, they have consistently resisted our attempts at assimilation and resource exploitation.  They have maintained and revitalized their own ways of life, and have refused to be incorporated into the fold of settler colonialism.  Elsipogtog is only the latest conflict in a centuries-long struggle.

Our ways of life are predicated upon the continued subjugation of indigenous peoples and the exploitation of their lands.  For settlers, this is a terrifying thing to recognize: if our whole lives are based on this system, how could we be otherwise?  For many Canadians—and I think you’re part of this group, Rex—this uncertainty is quickly converted into a glib certainty that the problem is them: they’ve failed to integrate, or failed to govern themselves, or failed to obey the (our) law.  The settler problem gets converted into the age-old Indian problem.  But I think we know, deep down, even when we’re in denial, that it’s us: that we need to take action and change ourselves through the process.

We are living in the midst of indigenous resurgence.  All over the lands claimed by Canada, indigenous peoples are revitalizing their traditions and languages, reclaiming their lands and responsibilities, and refusing the colonial status quo.  We’re also in the midst of a decline of faith in the ways of life we’ve created, even among those most privileged by this system: the middle-class dream is evaporating, we’re hurtling towards ecological collapse, and the alliances between corporations and politicians are increasingly obvious.  Settlers—some of us—are learning to listen to that feeling of wrongness in our gut, unsettling ourselves, building solidarity, and finding new (and old) ways of relating.  None of us have figured it out, but more of us are recognizing that things need to change, and the problem is as much ‘in here’ as ‘out there’.  There is no neutral territory here, because doing nothing carries us along with the flow of colonialism.

We can’t wait for everyone.  Indigenous peoples can never afford to wait for support from settler society, and struggles in the future will continue to involve contention and conflict.  Settlers are learning how to take leadership from indigenous communities, and real alliances and solidarities are being forged.  As we learn to listen to our gut and shake off our colonial baggage, indigenous people defending their lands seem increasingly reasonable and admirable, and the supporters of colonialism, like you, Rex, seem pitiful and dangerous.

Sincerely,

Nick Montgomery

Here’s a link to Rex Murphy’s original editorial

From the Indian Problem to the Settler Problem: reactionaries, multiculturalists and decolonization.

The recent controversy over former BC NDP candidate Dayleen Van Ryswyk’s racism is part of a longstanding pattern in Canada.  The mainstream media tends to frame these controversies as a debate between politically correct multiculturalists (like Adrian Dix) and reactionary racists (like Van Ryswyk).  Both sides present different solutions to the “Indian Problem,” by asking how the Canadian government should deal with indigenous peoples.  Forced out of this mainstream debate is the “Settler Problem:” the ongoing colonial present, and the possibilities of grassroots resistance, solidarity and decolonization.

Dayleen Van Ryswyk was recently forced to resign over comments she made about First Nations (and Quebecois) in an online discussion forum.  Some highlights from her online tirades:

“It’s not the status cards, it’s the fact that we have been paying out of the nose for generations for something that isn’t our doing. If their ancestors sold out too cheap it’s not my fault and i shouldn’t have to be paying for any mistake or whatever you want to call it from MY hard earned money.”

dryswyk“I don’t think anyone is saying that wrongs didn’t happen (incredible wrongs) you could have almost any race, group or ethnic people tell you horrible haunting stories of what happened to them. […] In my opinion, holding an entire group of people liable for something that happened hundreds of years ago, people who weren’t even alive yet for the wrongs of their ancestors is ridiculous.”

“I’m getting so sick of having french stuffed down my throat..this isn’t Quebec,,it’s western Canada…we speak english here…so does the majority of Canada. I’m offended that the french is spoken first. […] Why can’t we celebrate Canada’s diverse cultures..everyone..not just natives!”

Van Ryswyk was quickly forced to resign by BC NDP leader Adrian Dix, and she quickly received a flood of support from her constituents in Kelowna and others across Canada.  Now she’s running as an independent.  Recent polls by Castanet showed 73% of those polled didn’t think Van Ryswyk’s comments were inappropriate, and 49% will vote for her (against the runner-up Liberal candidate with 40%).

In short, Ryswyk’s comments may have made her more popular, and her comments clearly resonate with many Canadians.  Others (including the BC Liberals and NDPers) have insisted her comments were racist, offensive, and inappropriate.  Van Ryswyk and her supporters have insisted that Van Ryswyk was just saying what most politicians won’t, because of political correctness.  So is Van Ryswyk racist, or is she just cutting through the bullshit of Canadian political correctness?

Both.  The debate between Ryswyk and other, more ‘tolerant’ politicians repeats a pattern of debate in the mainstream media between reactionaries and multiculturalists.  Elsewhere, I’ve called them Upsettler zombies and Monarchist demons.  Both camps ultimately reinforce Canada’s colonial present by presenting different solutions to the same problem.

Reactionaries and the exploitation of indigenous lands

On Ryswyck’s side are the Canadian reactionaries: settlers who resent what they see as Canada’s “special treatment” of indigenous peoples.  They tend mobilize arguments about equality and fairness, claiming that indigenous peoples receive undue ‘handouts’ from federal and provincial governments.  Recently disgraced Canadian academic Tom Flanagan publicly held this view for decades (and still does).  His book First Nations, Second Thoughts basically calls for the end to Aboriginal status: indigenous peoples should be stripped of any special rights or entitlements, so that they are the same as other Canadians.  In the BC context, Mel Smith’s best-seller, Our Home Or Native Land famously attacks indigenous land claims:

Tiny communities are given enormous tracts of land while the majority of Canadians is not only ignored but kept in the dark. Incredible sums of money are spent–worse, even larger amounts are committed to be paid by future generations.

The views of Flanagan and Smith dovetail with Van Ryswyk’s and a flood of others who reacted to Idle No More with outrage and hatred, such Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson, who likened indigenous communities to tiny, delusional, dysfunctional municipalities, entirely dependent on government subsidies.  A recent editorial in the Nanaimo Daily News by Don Olsen argued that indigenous societies are primitive peoples, devoid of technology and civilization, who now lack the ability to take care of themselves.  Michelle Tittler runs a facebook page entitled “End Race-Based Law,” calling for an end to any laws that distinguish First Nations people from settler Canadians.  Like other reactionaries, these tirades are often couched in the language of equality.  Olsen proclaims that the only solution is to “bring them into society as equals. They should be getting jobs and paying taxes like the rest of us.”

The idea that indigenous peoples are dependent on subsidies and so need to be “brought in” to Canadian society is one of the most prevalent myths in Canada.  For example, when Idle No More began, the Conservative government leaked documents about Attawapiskat, suggesting fiscal mismanagement and corruption by Chief Theresa Spence.  But as Drew Oja Jay explains,

Right now, DeBeers is constructing a $1 billion mine on the traditional territory of the Āhtawāpiskatowi ininiwak. Anticipated revenues will top $6.7 billion. Currently, the Conservative government is subjecting the budget of the Cree to extensive scrutiny. But the total amount transferred to the First Nation since 2006 — $90 million — is a little more than one per cent of the anticipated mine revenues. As a percentage, that’s a little over half of Harper’s cut to GST.
Royalties from the mine do not go to the First Nation, but straight to the provincial government. The community has received some temporary jobs in the mine, and future generations will have to deal with the consequences of a giant open pit mine in their back yard.
Attawapiskat is subsidizing DeBeers, Canada and Ontario.

Indigenous peoples are not economically dependent on Canada; Canada is economically dependent on the exploitation of indigenous lands (and on the subjugation of indigenous peoples who would protect those lands).  When indigenous peoples refuse to accept resource extraction on their lands, the reactionaries call for the ‘rule of law.’  Since the law allows for resource extraction and environmental destruction and criminalizes resistance, they are calling for the continuation of settler colonialism.  ‘Canada’ is made possible through this ongoing colonization, and it has consistently tried to assimilate and eliminate indigenous people so that land exploitation can continue.

These views aren’t just racist, radical outliers on the fringe of Canadian ideology.  They’re entirely in line with much of Canadian policy and practice.  For example, Pierre Trudeau’s 1969 White Paper aimed to wipe away any special relationship between Canada and indigenous peoples.  The White Paper sought to eliminate “Indian status” and treat indigenous peoples as citizens with the same rights as settler Canadians.  This was a final solution to the problem indigenous peoples posed to land exploitation and settlement, and the White Paper was only defeated because of a wave of mobilizations and resistance across indigenous communities and the lands claimed by Canada.  When reactionaries mobilize arguments about equality and fairness, they’re in line with past policies like the White Paper, which would assimilate indigenous peoples completely and immediately into settler society, at least under Canadian law.

Multiculturalists, benevolence, and land negotiations

On the opposing side of the mainstream debate are the Canadian multiculturalists. They advocate a more measured approach, supporting some combination of reform and recognition of the special status of First Nations.  BC leader Adrian Dix quickly denounced Ryswyk’s comments as “unacceptable” and forced her to resign.  He is likely to be the next Premier of BC, and the NDP is being billed as a party that is more sensitive to the concerns of environmentalists and indigenous peoples.  Multiculturalists are much more willing to negotiate with First Nations, as long as they don’t get in the way of the Canadian economy and its industries.  Multiculturalists support some version of limited self-government, the resolution of land claims, and special rights for First Nations.

Multiculturalists are experts at appearing benevolent and respectful.  A Dix government in BC will try to kill the Enbridge pipeline plan and invest in ‘green’ initiatives, but it will support other pipelines, logging of old growth forests, and other industries on unceded indigenous territories.  Indigenous communities will continue to be faced with blackmails framed as opportunities: collaborate with ecologically disastrous resource extraction and get a tiny portion of the revenue, or resist, receive nothing, and the project will likely go ahead anyway.  But multiculturalists would never put it in such stark terms.  They are always in favour of negotiations, reasonableness, and compromise.  For federal and provincial governments, this means negotiating with First Nations band councils on special rights, entitlements, forms of self-governance, and revenue-sharing agreements, without radically reshaping Canada or its relationship to indigenous peoples.

A prime example of this is the British Columbia Treaty Commission.  The BCTC is often celebrated as an example of decolonization and multiculturalism.  It is supposed to result in the return of unceded territories to indigenous peoples in BC and usher in a new relationship between settler governments and indigenous peoples.  But the process was designed by Canadian settlers, and indigenous peoples were then invited to negotiate for a tiny portion of their lands (around 5%) through their band councils.  If negotiations ever finish, the land is not returned to indigenous peoples allowing them to manage it and govern it autonomously; all land remains under federal and provincial authority, reclassified under the Land Title Act.  Taiaiake Alfred outlines the extreme limitations of the BCTC process:

  • No recovery of indigenous lands held by private individuals.
  • Municipalities retain present legal authorities in indigenous territories.
  • Non-indigenous people have access to indigenous lands.
  • Non-indigenous people not subject to indigenous laws.
  • No new budgetary allocations for agreements.
  • Federal government pays most of the costs of negotiations and agreements.
  • Non-indigenous companies on indigenous lands will be paid a settlement.
  • Province keeps control resource management and environmental protection.

Federal and provincial governments aren’t negotiating with indigenous peoples with the aim of returning any of their lands.  The intention is to change the way a small portion of these lands are classified under Canadian law, while ensuring complete control over the rest.  The government also loans First Nations the money required for the legal fees in this process, sending them into crippling debt, which forces them to follow through on the process so that they can use their settlements to pay it off.  The BCTC requires indigenous peoples to give up the capacity to advance any future assertions of rights or land claims as part of the agreement.  The federal department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development explains the economic imperative behind the BCTC:

Uncertainty about the existence and location of Aboriginal rights create uncertainty with respect to ownership, use and management of land and resources. That uncertainty has led to disruptions and delays to economic activity in BC. It has also discouraged investment.

The consequences of not concluding treaties are lost economic activity as well as escalating court costs and continued uncertainty. Key benefits of negotiated settlements are economic and legal certainty as well as harmonized arrangements between the different levels of government.

The overarching aim of the BCTC is to ensure that settler governments can have economic and political certainty over land and resources, so that resource extraction and industrialization can continue.  As Nuu-chah-nulth scholar Johnny Mack writes:

The conclusion seems unavoidable – the provisions [of the BCTC] ensure that we are still subject to a constitutional legal order that we did not create, and within that order, only 5 percent of the lands taken from us will be returned to us.  Rather than providing for a reincorporation of the colonial takings into our own story, this process acquires our consent to lock that plunder into the state structure, where it will be subject to state authority and exposed to the hungry forces of the global market.

This situation has led many indigenous people (and whole communities) to abandon the BCTC and other offers of reconciliation by colonial authorities.  These policies are the legacy of multiculturalism in Canada, which promise reconciliation and respectful relationships.  As an indigenous mentor once explained to me, this is like breaking into someone’s house, killing most of their family, and trying to force them into the closet for years while we ransack the place and make ourselves at home.  Indigenous peoples resisted the whole way along, and most forms of resistance are criminalized.  The reactionaries are angry that they still have to put up with people making noise in the closet, and they are especially outraged when the homeowners disrupt the goings-on in the rest of the house.  The multiculturalists announce that they want to negotiate and maybe indigenous peoples can have one more room in the house, under certain conditions.  Neither party ever considers the fact that they’re uninvited guests, living in a stolen house, and destroying it.

Reactionary and Multicultural solutions to the “Indian Problem”

Multiculturalists and reactionaries are often portrayed as polar opposites by the mainstream media.  The reactionaries like Van Rysywyk go on racist tirades, and the multiculturalists denounce this racism and call for respectful relationships with First Nations.  Each camp resonates with different segments of the Canadian population.  The reactionaries play on liberal notions of individual equality, mixed with the racist underpinnings of Canada and its attempts to eliminate indigenous peoples.  The multiculturalists play on a different version of liberal equality, combined with the fantasy of a Canada where indigenous peoples are a little bit different, and a few policy tweaks makes everyone get along.  To be clear, I’m not saying indigenous peoples shouldn’t negotiate with governments, or that they’re naive for doing so.  I’m talking about the way in which Canadian multiculturalism is framed as respectful negotiation, while continuing to impose colonial structures on indigenous peoples.

The reactionary and the multiculturalist are two different solutions to the “Indian Problem” in Canada.  The Indian Problem is a phrase made famous by Duncan Campbell Scott at the beginning of the 20th century, who sought to eliminate all indigenous peoples, either by outright extermination or forced assimilation:

“Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question and no Indian department.”

This was the explicit purpose of Canada’s Indian Act.  Some of its most heinous elements, such as residential schools, have since been abolished over the last half-century, but the Indian Problem continues to inform the way governments (and most Canadians) understand their relationship to indigenous peoples.  When the Indian Act failed to destroy indigenous communities and eliminate all indigenous ways of life, Trudeau and others attempted to use the language of equality to finally assimilate them.  In a different way, as Taiaiake Alfred explains, the BCLT is structured as a final solution to the Indian Problem:

In essence, the BCTC process is designed to solve the perceived problem of indigenous nationhood by extinguishing it and bringing indigenous peoples into Canada’s own domestic political and legal structures with certainty and finality […] the federal and provincial governments are evidently seeking to consolidate the assimilation and control they have gained over indigenous peoples and their lands since the collapse of indigenous social and political strength as a result of the mass dying by epidemic diseases – a tragedy that began to recede only in the early part of the 20th century.

Indigenous peoples are still prevented from accessing the vast amount of their traditional territories, and settler colonialism continues to occupy indigenous lands, extract resources from them, and subjugate indigenous peoples.  When colonialism is discussed at all, it is framed in terms of the Indian Problem: what do we do about them?  What do they want from us?  How can we finally ‘move on’?  The Canadian government still seeks to manage, assimilate, or eliminate indigenous peoples and their ways of life.  That is the endgame of colonialism.

Reactionaries want to solve the Indian Problem by getting rid of any special status and assimilating indigenous peoples as equal citizens under Canadian law.  The multiculturalist wants to allow some room for special rights and entitlements, and limited self-government, while ensuring that resource extraction and industrial development can continue.  Both views lead settlers to understand colonialism as an “Aboriginal issue” that happened in the past, to be resolved by governments, with no implications for the daily lives of settlers.  Settlers keep living in the house, arguing about whether indigenous peoples should be allowed a whole room, just a closet, or nothing at all.

The Settler Problem: complicity and decolonization

The problem is the Indian Problem itself.  It tries to deal with indigenous peoples from within a colonial framework, and leaves that framework intact while framing colonialism as something in the past.  As Adam Barker and others have argued in recent years, Canada actually has a ‘Settler Problem:’

“Settler people who are so immersed in colonial psychology that their political structures make co-existence with Indigenous peoples impossible.”

The Settler Problem invites settlers to focus the problem on ourselves, our institutions, and our inheritance of a colonial system that shapes the way we relate to indigenous peoples, each other, and the land we live on.  The Settler Problem is ongoing; it’s not a past wrong to remedy through reparations.  Settlers came, committed genocide, set up colonial institutions, occupied and pillaged the land, and we’ve inherited this situation.  The recognition of settler involvement in ongoing colonialism often provokes paralyzing guilt or denial.  A common reaction is that ‘we’ didn’t do anything; it was our ancestors (or other peoples’ ancestors).

Settlers are often eager to point out that they or their ancestors didn’t benefit from colonialism.  My great great grandfather was an Irish indentured servant who was forced to come here and work for nothing.  This implies colonialism is about individual blame or guilt, and we’re either guilty or we’re not.  But this individualistic response frames colonialism as part of the past, rather than an ongoing project.  As Lorenzo Veracini and Edward Cavanaugh write, in the definition of settler colonialism:

settler colonialism is a resilient formation that rarely ends. Not all migrants are settlers; […] settlers come to stay. They are founders of political orders who carry with them a distinct sovereign capacity. And settler colonialism is not colonialism: settlers want Indigenous people to vanish (but can make use of their labour before they are made to disappear).

The Settler Problem frames colonization as an ongoing phenomenon; it’s happening right now and we’re implicated in it, whether we like it or not.  White, middle-class settlers like me are the ones with enough privilege to ignore it if we choose to: settler colonialism can fade into the background for some of us, as a way of life that seems normal and natural.  Not all settlers have this option, and the settler/indigenous dichotomy can flatten out differences between settlers.  ‘Settlers’ are often implicitly white, European-descended people whose ancestors took part in conquest and slavery.  Depending on how it’s used, the term ‘settler’ can miss the ways that privileged white men like me are positioned differently from people who don’t benefit from the linked systems of capital accumulation, heteropatriarchy, and racism.  But acknowledging these differences, privileges, and positions in the structure of settler colonialism doesn’t amount to much if it doesn’t affect the ways we live our everyday lives.  The concept of ‘complicity’ has been advanced as a way to move beyond individualistic discussions of privilege, towards the ways that people are positioned differently in the colonial structure, with implications for collective action.  As Beenash Jafri explains:

Complicity hasn’t been circulated in the same way as privilege. Nor are there many handy pedagogical tools or checklists for thinking about complicity. Complicity is a messy, complicated and entangled concept to think about; it is not as easy to grasp and, because of this, it requires a much deeper investment on our part. This would demand, for example, that we think about settlerhood not as an object that we possess, but as a field of operations into which we become socially positioned and implicated.

Complicity might offer a way out of individualistic, guilt-ridden discussions that often plague settlers’ coming-to-awareness of our roles in this process.  Complicity focuses our attention on relationships and institutions, rather than individual identities.  I don’t think this means that differences are flattened out, or oppression doesn’t matter; I will always have to keep unlearning my own heteropatriarchal, racist, colonial ways of thinking and being as a white guy; that unlearning is crucial for respectful relationships across difference.  As El Machetero explains, complicity helps frame oppression and resistance as a collective project:

It also focuses much less on individuals, and much more on this system and its accompanying parasitical lifestyles, understanding that this is an arrangement which is violent, genocidal and ecocidal (since it increasingly involves the actual destruction of the land itself) and which makes accomplices of us all. What matters more than where such a system would choose to locate us for its own ends is what we choose to do together with one another, the strength and quality of the relationships and communities we build, and our knowledge of the context in which we live and our foresight towards the consequences which emerge from the choices we make within it.

Towards collective decolonization

The solution to the Settler Problem is collective decolonization: moving towards non-dominating relationships between settlers, indigenous peoples, and ecosystems.  I have no idea what these decolonized relationships will look like, but I know it will take more than a multiculturalist yearning for a kinder Canada, or outraged denunciations of Van Ryswyk and other reactionaries, or a guilt-ridden ‘awareness’ of settler colonialism.  What would it mean for settlers to act like uninvited guests?  What are our responsibilities as settlers?  What happens when settlers give up on their certainty and sense of entitlement to indigenous lands?  How can settlers divest themselves from a faith in government and begin to build direct relationships with indigenous communities?  How can settlers build alliances with indigenous peoples and help stop the destruction and exploitation of their lands?  If settler colonialism is a ‘field of operations,’ how do we navigate this field?  How can we disrupt its operations and construct alternatives?  People are already asking and responding to these questions.  There are indigenous peoples and settlers across the territories claimed by Canada who are resisting settler colonialism and working towards decolonization.

Many of these efforts were galvanized by Idle No More, though INM is only the most recent and visible movement of resistance and decolonization amongst indigenous peoples.  From the perspective of the mainstream media, Idle No More seems to have vanished, but this is only because the mainstream media can only see things from the vantage point of the Indian Problem.  If indigenous peoples aren’t publicly protesting and presenting demands to governments, there’s nothing happening.  When Naomi Klein interviewed Nishnaabeg writer and activist Leanne Simpson, she asked Simpson what the next step was for Idle No More.  Simpson replied:

“I think within the movement, we’re in the next phase. There’s a lot of teaching that’s happening right now in our community and with public teach-ins, there’s a lot of that internal work, a lot of educating and planning happening right now. There is a lot of internal nation-building work. It’s difficult to say where the movement will go because it is so beautifully diverse. I see perhaps a second phase that is going to be on the land. It’s going to be local and it’s going to be people standing up and opposing these large-scale industrial development projects that threaten our existence as indigenous peoples—in the Ring of Fire [region in Northern Ontario], tar sands, fracking, mining, deforestation… But where they might have done that through policy or through the Environmental Assessment Act or through legal means in the past, now it may be through direct action. Time will tell.”

Beyond the gaze of the mainstream media, things are happening all the time.  In British Columbia for example, grassroots Wet’suwet’en peoples have erected a permanent camp and blockade on their lands to protect their territory from oil, gas, and bitumen pipelines from the Tar Sands and fracking projects.

They’ve been defending this camp for three years.  In the process, they’ve forged alliances with settlers and other indigenous nations across the province, including an upcoming teach-in organized on Lekwungen and WSANEC territories (Victoria) on April 28th, on settler solidarity and decolonization:

This Teach-In will provide settlers with an understanding of how the destruction of land as well as violence experienced by Indigenous peoples, who stand in assertion of their inherent sovereignty, can be located in both a historical and contemporary reality of colonialism. In preparing for resistance to the Pacific Trail Pipelines, this Teach-In will begin to prepare settler people to stand alongside Indigenous peoples in resisting the ongoing processes of colonialism – whether that be at the Unis’tot’en camp in the spring and summer, or elsewhere.

noptpAs the description implies, this isn’t just a one-off event; it’s designed to create the conditions for meaningful and lasting solidarity with indigenous struggles, and it holds open the possibility of decolonized relationships between settlers and indigenous peoples.  This is just one of hundreds of public events that focus on decolonizing the relationships between settlers and indigenous peoples on the lands claimed by Canada.  And these public events are only the most visible forms of decolonization in response to the Settler Problem.  The mainstream media won’t cover these efforts, and when they do, they’ll frame them as terrorism, because there is no place for them in the narrative of the Indian Problem.  Shifting to the Settler Problem asks us all to reflect on the ways we’re caught up in settler colonialism, whether we like it or not.

Monstrous Settlers: Zombies, Demons, and Angels

I am a monster (but I’m working on it).

With the birth and growth of Idle No More, now more than ever, lots of settlers are understanding colonialism as a problem, and trying to think through our relationships and obligations to Indigenous peoples, the history of colonization, and what all that means for us as settlers.  This shifts colonialism from an “Indian problem” to a “Settler problem.”  In spite of the mainstream media, many Canadian settlers are learning that they are implicated in an ongoing colonial relationship.  For me that’s encouraging, because I didn’t grow up in a context where colonialism is actually something discussed and debated, where settlers see colonialism as a problem that involves us.  I move through some spaces like this now, and they continue to challenge me.  This is about how settlers respond to these challenges.

I’m a white, male, educated, cis-gendered, able-bodied, hetero-sexual, middle-class settler, so I basically benefit from every major axis of oppression.  What follows is a reflection of my own experience with the politics of colonialism, decolonization, and settler solidarity efforts with Indigenous peoples, over the past few years.  I’m drawing on some feminist, queer, trans, and anti-racist writers and activists here too.  Even though dynamics are always different and complex, I think there are also some similarities in terms of the way privileged folks (like me) conduct ourselves across these struggles, especially when we’re trying to to prove that we’re good, in spite of our privilege.  When I use “we” and “us” I’m talking about other white settlers who benefit from ongoing white supremacy and settler colonialism in Canada.  I am glossing over lots of complexities and nuances of colonialism and decolonization.  I’m experimenting with monster metaphors in hopes of getting at some of these issues in a different way, but I recognize that this is serious shit.  And I want your feedback, critical or otherwise.

Upsettlers, Monarchists, and Manarchists are monsters that plague settlers in Canada, making it difficult for us to grapple with our colonial privilege, engage with other settlers, and effectively support Indigenous struggles.  I started out as a Monarchist, had stints as an Upsettler, became a Manarchist, and now I’m trying to avoid relapsing into all three monsters.

settlermonsters

Upsettler Zombies, Monarchist Demons, and Manarchist Angels

“Upsettler” is a recently coined term to designate settler attacks, disavowals, and denials provoked by Idle No More and Indigenous resurgence.  For example, from the Twitterverse:

#Upsettler walks into a bar. Literally acts like they own the place. Upset when informed they are not the original owners.

Most settler Canadians don’t like to be reminded of the legacy of genocide, theft, and enclosure upon which “Canada” was founded and settled.  And we especially don’t like to be reminded that this legacy never ended, and that Canada is an ongoing occupation of indigenous lands, working to assimilate indigenous peoples and destroy their communities, for the benefit of settler society.  These truths provoke the Upsettler zombies to rise up and shriek their fantasies: the Indians are lazy!  The Indians can’t manage their money!  The Indians are criminals!  Colonialism is in the past!  We’re all equals!  This issue has nothing to do with me!  Canada is a benevolent nation founded on peace and love and hockey and maple syrup!

Upsettlers have a strong immunity to understanding settler colonialism, and they subsist on a varied diet of rage, guilt, anxiety, denial, and racism.  Upsettler zombification is infectious, and corporate news media is a major vector for the spread of the Upsettler epidemic.  Upsettlers have denounced blockades as a form of “blackmail” that will “sabotage the national economy.”  Upsettler media pundits are calling for Idle No More protesters and blockaders to be arrested, demanding a return to settler colonial normalcy.  Others have lumped together Idle No More, the Arab Spring, and Occupy Wall Street as Lefty bullshit: “a great mass of conflicting emotions united only in their determination to have someone listen to them, dammit.”  When Canadian politicians become Upsettlers, police repression often follows.  Other Upsettlers subsist more on guilt and nationalist fantasies, and they are prone to deny their colonial privilege, insisting that “we’re all Canadian” or that “we’re not responsible for our ancestors.”

Not all settlers are Upsettled.  But those who haven’t caught the Upsettler zombie virus are usually possessed by demons.  Demons are a different kind of monster.  More “civilized” than zombies, they try to be measured, expressing benevolence and sympathy towards Idle No More and Indigenous peoples.  Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan insists that he had “been very much wanting to have a conversation with Chief Theresa Spence,” that he’d offered multiple times, and that he’s concerned about her health.  Before she chose to end it herself, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair called on Chief Spence to end her hunger strike: because “the government seems to be moving,” he thinks “the best thing would be to step back from that now.”  Father knows best.

This is the Monarchist response to colonialism: benevolence, paternalism, and sympathy.  Civilized political correctness.  Don’t call them Indians anymore; call them First Nations, aboriginals, or Indigenous peoples.  Feel sorry for Indigenous people, and maybe feel angry at Harper.  Police are often the ultimate Monarchists, framing themselves as impartial arbiters of peace, dispersing Indigenous people and Upsettlers alike, and restoring colonial public order.  Let’s all settle down.

Monarchists are settlers who want to “solve” the “Indian problem” so we can get back to our (settler colonial) lives.  They may advocate reform, as long as it preserves the colonial structure of Canada, and doesn’t actually affect settler privilege and occupation.  Monarchists and Upsettlers actually work together even when they seem to opposed each other: Upsettlers get upset and call for repression and reprisal; Monarchists call for reason and tolerance.  Mainstream news also helps disseminate Monarchist demons, and debates ensue about how much “we” should “tolerate” from Idle No More and Indigenous resistance.  Monarchist cops play the Upsettler zombies off against Indigenous peoples, so that the Monarchists can swoop in like impartial peacemakers when the time is right.

In radical circles, Monarchism is often rejected in favour of bright, shining, righteousness: proper anti-colonialism.  Denounce colonialism, express solidarity, and make sure everyone sees you doing it.  Condescend and correct people who aren’t aware.  This is the Manarchist response to colonialism: carve out a space of moral purity, command others to enter, bash those who don’t, instruct and condescend those who do.  The Manarchist loudly proclaims that he is against colonialism, he is an ally of Indigenous peoples, and he aggressively attacks Monarchists and Upsettlers, usually in an attempt to show Indigenous people that he’s a good guy.  Note: not all settlers expressing solidarity with Indigenous peoples are Manarchists.  Manarchists are the ones that have ascended to heaven through their self-righteousness, looking down on the rest.

The Upsettler, the Monarchist, and Manarchist aren’t people.  They’re positions that people take up, often unconsciously.  We become infected by colonial zombies, possessed by colonial demons and consumed by anti-colonial angels.  The Upsettler attacks Indigenous people head-on and denies colonialism, the Monarchist helps us brush past or “resolve” colonialism in a civilized way, and the Manarchist helps turn anti-colonialism into a badge of honour that raises us above ordinary settlers who don’t recognize the Truth.

As settlers, we all have some Upsettler and Monarchist in us, and the Manarchist is always waiting to take over and proclaim a revelation.  White, European-descended settlers are most prone to all these monsters.  The Manarchist possesses men more often than women.  I find myself possessed by each monster more times than I’d like to admit.

The Monarchist is the official demon of Canada, helping to ensure that we’re all respectful and civilized.  “Back then” we were uncivilized Upsettlers; we killed Indigenous people and put their children in residential schools… but now our Monarchist leader has apologized and we’re a multicultural nation; we just need to iron out a few kinks, the Monarchist assures us.

In contrast, the Manarchist proclaims that he’s been cured and exorcized: now he sees things clearly and he will force-feed you some Truth.  But if you’ve seen a Manarchist in action, you know he’s just as predictable as Monarchists and Upsettlers: a pious angel come to reveal our sins and show us The Way.  Usually a white man, always sure of himself.

These metaphors of angels, demons and zombies are a way of naming three, interconnected ways of relating to colonialism among settlers.  They seem opposed or antagonistic, but they actually reinforce each other.  They’ve become deeply ingrained habits, and they make it difficult to have meaningful and transformative conversations about colonialism, let alone take meaningful action.

Call-outs, Sledgehammers, and Toolkits

Monarchists and Upsettlers are pretty immune to Manarchists: they become ever-more convinced that colonialism is inevitable and people resisting it are ridiculous.  If the Upsettler thrives on the call for repression, and Monarchist thrives on the call for peace, then the Manarchist thrives on the “call-out.”  The call-out is: “a method for either revealing privileged, bigoted or problematic behaviors to others publicly or to attempt to reveal to an individual their own mistakes and hopefully trigger some accountability.”  It has roots in mass-movement-based, anti-racist, anti-oppressive contexts as a tactic to challenge Upsettlers and Monarchists who are being oppressive.  I am not saying that calling someone out makes you a Manarchist.  I’ve been called out, and it has been scary, unsettling, transformative, and effective.  But as Kinsey Hope explains:

Now, and let’s not forget this, calling out is a tool. Like any tool it can be abused. It can be overused. And it can become broken. And as the culture of activism becomes more and more dependent upon the call out, the anatomy of [the call out] has begun to evolve.

Manarchists don’t have a toolkit for engaging with Upsettlers and Monarchists: they only have the call-out, and the call-out is a sledgehammer.  Sometimes it can be effective, but if it’s the only tool in the arsenal, pretty soon people will get tired of being bashed, and they’ll probably get Upsettled.  It’s like throwing rocks at zombies: it may feel good, but it just riles them up, and remember: the Upsettler zombie disease is extremely contagious.

I’m doing my best to ward off the Manarchism as I write this, so I don’t have any solutions to this problem.  But I’ve been inspired by a few folks I’ve met who seem to have found different ways of relating to colonialism, who seem to have escaped the monsters, expanded their anti-colonial toolkit, and I think there are some common traits:

Vulnerability and accountability: these folks have cultivated a way of having conversations about colonialism where they don’t set themselves up as the ones with the Truth.  It doesn’t mean that they don’t challenge colonial attitudes; it means they try to do it in a way that opens conversation and questions, rather than shutting them down.  They make it clear that they’re questioning, they’re doing their own learning, and they haven’t figured it out.  They’re also open to being challenged, by Indigenous people and settlers, and they learn more because folks feel like it’s safe to challenge them.  This also makes them more effective allies of Indigenous peoples.  Anti-racist activist Michelle O’Brien encapsulates this pretty brilliantly:

People have to change in a much deeper way — change in the soul, in the, unconscious, in the Real, there are many names for this piece, this piece that is just outside of whatever we say about it. We have to find ways of being genuinely respectful, open, and loving to people, to actually let go of the bullshit that keeps us from doing that…

Actually figuring out how people really change — not just model that change, not just talk about it or properly perform it — is really hard. In some ways, it calls on the simplest things in the world – just listening to people, being open to what people actually have to say, looking honestly at whatever is going on, acting from a space of compassion and respect. But how do you get there, if talking about it (or writing about it in an essay) isn’t enough?

I don’t know.

Individual and collective education: they’ve dedicated time to learning about colonialism by themselves and with others.  They’ve tried to understand the history of colonialism, how it works, and what that means for us today.  But they don’t hold this knowledge over other people, and they’ve found ways of sharing it that are humble and unsettling, making colonialism into a massive open-ended problem rather than an issue of guilt and sledgehammers.

Patience and courage: they actively seek out conversations about colonialism in unlikely places, with their families, friends, workplaces, and other spaces where those conversations don’t normally happen.  And they approach new conversations with compassion, even if they’ve heard the same colonial responses  (“we can’t go back” – “it’s not my fault” – “it’s human nature”) a hundred times before.  The burden of engaging with Upsettlers and Monarchists shouldn’t fall to Indigenous peoples.  This means it’s up to us as settlers to educate ourselves and engage with others wherever we are.  If people are unreceptive or dismissive, the most effective settlers tend not to reject them as colonizers, at least not at the outset; they see the intervention as part of a longer process, and try to leave space for future conversations.

Those aren’t instructions or answers; just behaviours in others that have inspired me because they confront colonialism while avoiding Manarchist tendencies.  Manarchists are not more “radical” than settlers who try to meet people where they’re at, rather than shove truth down their throats.  The Manarchist often drowns out other voices, because settler Righteousness and Truth are a lot louder than uncertainty and vulnerability.  I think that’s a major reason why many people fall back into Upsettlement and Monarchism: when they engage with other settlers trying to work on colonialism, they encounter the manarchist, and they don’t want to be his disciple or get hit with a sledgehammer over and over.

Manarchism is simpler than vulnerability.  Manarchists can often become their own little cliques, in their own pious corner.  It’s easier to have a radical anti-colonial circle-jerk than to engage with Monarchists and Upsettlers who might be angry or dismissive.  Demons and zombies can be scary, and angels often like hanging out with each other (and hitting each other with hammers).

Colonialism relies on these monsters to perpetuate itself.  Willing settlers are required to work, to keep consuming, to own property, and to keep Canada’s colonial-capitalist engine chugging.  But settlers can get in the way of colonial propaganda and repression, in solidarity with Idle No More and Indigenous resurgence.  We can play a role in unsettling the Upsettler and the Monarchist (and ourselves), but we’ll be unlikely to succeed as Manarchist angels.  I’m not urging oppressed people to be nice to folks like me.  Indigenous peoples have every right to be pissed off at us, and that’s not what I mean by Manarchism.  This is about the way settlers treat settlers when we talk about colonialism.  Take the words of Fleetwood/Majestic Luxery-Legay:

this world kicks the shit out of our hearts every day. when we turn around and do that to each other we are fucking each other over just as our respective states would like us to. one of the most revolutionary things we can do is cultivate new ways to connect, to be gentle and tender with one another in a world that is trying constantly to divide and conquer us. we can’t be tough without also being tender.

The Manarchist possesses us, and we attack others to show that we’re good, that we know.  We bash people with sledgehammers without considering plyers, or a flash light, or a nail file.  Upsettlers and Monarchists shriek in horror, and we mistake this noise for transformation.  But upsettlement is not unsettlement.

I’m not saying that all anti-colonial settlers need to be engaged with Upsettlers and Manarchists, all of the time, in an oh-so-compassionate way.  Certain projects and alliances require keeping these monsters at a distance.  It takes a lot of emotional energy to engage with them, and sometimes a good bashing is entirely necessary and effective.  This is not a call to shower colonizers with peace and love, rather than speaking hard truths or radical ideas.  When I have become a Manarchist angel, it means I can’t be challenged or reproached: I’m holy.  Now I’m trying to be more real with people, which includes anger, but hopefully not the holy kind.

Avoiding Manarchism can be compatible with radical visions of indigenous-settler relations and decolonized futures.  Vancouver-based activist Harsha Walia writes:

Decolonization is as much a process as a goal. It requires a profound re-centring of Indigenous worldviews in our movements for political liberation, social transformation, renewed cultural kinships, and the development of an economic system that serves rather than threatens our collective life on this planet. As stated by Toronto-based activist Syed HussanDecolonization is a dramatic re-imagining of relationships with land, people and the state. Much of this requires study, it requires conversation, it is a practice, it is an unlearning.”

Unsettlement and unlearning colonialism requires a diverse toolkit (including a sledgehammer), and it depends upon our capacity to deal with the monsters within us and others.  Clear opposition and intense conflict are always part of struggles against colonialism.  Unsettling colonialism and decolonization also entails vulnerability and conversation.  No one can tell what this “dramatic re-imagining of relationships with land, people, and the state” will actually look like; we’ll have to figure it out together, in a struggle against zombies, demons, and angels.

An older version of this piece was originally published in No Fun City! and on Many Politics, before the Idle No More movement began.  This version has been expanded, changed and updated.  It was also published through the Dominion Media Co-op here.