In this accessible, perceptive short essay from Igniting a Revolution, amory starr criticizes what she calls “grumpywarriorcool:” ways of being in activist spaces that are unkind, unfeeling, and exclusive. She unpacks the way that whiteness and patriarchy has been “smuggled in” to radical organizing spaces, despite solidarity work and explicit opposition to these forms of oppression. This is a summary of her article, and because I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, some of my own experiences and reflections are in here too. This relates closely to Jamie Heckert’s argument in “Anarchy without Opposition,” which I summarized last week here.
starr is arguing that grumpywarriorcool is a symptom of whiteness and patriarchy in spaces that are often explicitly anti-oppressive. She discusses subtle forms of conduct at meetings and other organizing spaces that ‘smuggle in’ practices and behaviours that appear neutral or even liberatory, but may actually reflect and reproduce patriarchy, whiteness and classism, alienating communities of colour in particular.
In this sense, she explains, “it’s not what we work on that makes our politics racist, it’s how we do it that matters… What I have finally begun to realize is that the how is deep and subtle” (377).
She identifies and unpacks a few behaviours, assumptions, and practices in particular, which come together to create grumpywarriorcool:
1) Blanket ‘diversity’ or ‘equality’ can mask internalized oppression or exclusivity: starr argues that invoking ‘culture’ to defend individualistic behaviour “claims a socio-moral status beyond reprove and a horizontality which obviates critique. It is this framework of cultural diversity which makes it difficult to identify and address internalized oppression within radical and revolutionary countercultures” (378). starr gives a polemical/sarcastic example: “i’m going to stink, i’m going in there even though i’m contagious, i’m going to bring my barking dog, i have the right to do whatever the fuck i want and people just have to deal with it and i’m going to call this ‘cultural diversity’… meanwhile other folks around are feeling like another white guy is doing whatever the fuck he wants” (379). This also connects to the idea of ‘taking up too much space’ at meetings. A familiar concept to radicals, the idea of sharing space says that we should all pay attention to how much space each of us is taking up, and we should make sure there’s space for everyone to speak and share ideas. It has emerged in response to real problems: white dudes like me are often louder, and they talk forever, silencing others. starr quotes her friend Jane here, who argues that the resulting ethic of ‘not taking up too much space’ can be part of the problem: “Get over it. You better figure out how to be democratic and still be full of life” (384). How can we figure out how to avoid dominating spaces while also bringing our passion and excitement? Are there ways of being that actually open up or create space? starr isn’t pretending there’s a perfect solution here: “while no culture can be universally welcoming landing pad, that doesn’t mean that organizers are absolved of any responsibility for culture” (378).
2) Norms of fearlessness, self-sacrifice, and bravery: starr argues that these norms can obfuscate the value of fear, hesitations, doubts, and silences. “Those voices of intimate reflection are an enormous archive of knowledge, but remain hidden behind behind profound doubt and fear” (378). Norms of fearlessness make it difficult to share (and work through) fears, anxieties, and doubts.
3) Individualism and the dream of shedding the past to find community in the future: “a hallmark of white countercultures is the vision of individualistic self-creation in which oppressive childhood values and institutions are cast off, and political compassion embraces what might best be theorized as ‘imagined community‘” (380). This describes my process of radicalization to a tee: i came to see my middle-class, white, suburban upbringing as the thing I had to unlearn, and (parts of) anarchist subculture became the community i belonged to. This isn’t a problem in itself (well, there were lots of problems with this anarchist community, but that’s different). The problem is that this experience gets universalized, and “many find it hard to imagine parents participating in radical political action” (380) because my reality (and the one I impose on everyone else) is that people have an ‘awakening’ sometime in their 20s, and they organize in ways that work for other, twenty-somethings. In contrast, starr argues, many activists of colour “envision social movements in intimate terms; fighting racism is protecting their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children. Struggle and survival are principles learned at home, from family and elders, at church” (380). Indeed, I’m just starting to recognize in concrete terms that it tends to be white, middle-class people (NOT all people) who lack community. I’m just starting to learn about and prioritize care, vulnerability, trust, and generosity, while recognizing that these values and practices are second-nature to folks with different backgrounds than my own.
4) This individualism has important implications beyond misunderstandings and false universalisms. It means that intellectual and formal aspects of politics are often privileged over everyday life and the nitty-gritty face-to-face interactions that happen in organizing. This one hit a chord with me: “when activists focus energy on clever communications and/or disruptions which even the mainstream media will cover, they imagine that the cleverness and surprising courage of these actions will excite people to participate in various capacities” (380). This is the classic anarchist fantasy of ‘propaganda by the deed’. Disruption leads to inspiration leads to politicization and recruitment leads to creating a community of resistance: “joining a movement is understood as an individual intellectual act, not a social one” (381). To admit that this is a fantasy connected to whiteness and masculinity doesn’t mean that it’s totally ineffective, but it’s likely to attract more people like me: people who’ve felt alone, and get attracted to politics for intellectual reasons, or because it seems exciting and daring.
5) Similarly, starr points to ‘smart radicalism’ as a fundamental premise of white organizing: a commitment to radical principles and theories, a ‘correct’ interpretation of these principles and theories, and the assumption that this correct radicalism will avoid fetishism or mistakes (382-3). I’ve participated in this one, too: being part of spaces where people are hungry to correct each other and ‘get it right.’ starr suggests that this is often connected to an attack on ‘reformism’ within radical groups, where the militancy of members is judged by their willingness to engage in high-risk direct action. She contrasts this to the priorities of anti-rarcism: “while ideological and tactical radicalism exist in antiracist organizing, they are not the standard by which organizations and organizers relate with participants. Instead, friendliness, comfort, safety, generosity, and reliable personal connection are the necessary elements of ‘good’ political work (383).
6) Direct democracy can end up substituting formal equality for genuine relationships and exchange. In direct democracy, leadership often exists in the form of ‘facilitation’ and tends to be temporary, rotating, and random “affirming that all participants have equal (and equally limited) authority (381). starr isn’t dismissing this tradition, explaining that they’re “similar to anti-racist practices in that they are local (unlike mass actions and international campaigns), building community, and empower marginalized people” (381). But, she says, these meetings themselves aren’t often comfortable or empowering, and this isn’t a priority because “white organizing assumes that activists arrive at meetings having decided already to be committed and to do inconvenient, uncomfortable things in the service of their commitments” (382). This was another place where starr’s diagnosis hit home for me. I’ve been to lots of meetings where people aren’t welcomed, ideas aren’t affirmed, and people aren’t friendly to each other. When people are hesitant to commit to things, or complain that meetings suck, or stop showing up, I’ve often told myself it’s because they lack commitment.
7) This is one of the problems starr is pointing to: an everyday activist culture emerges lacking kindness, trust, generosity and vulnerability. She calls this cool: “the reification of self-indulgent insecurity” (384). It’s a problem because “it gets us into a place where we then feel undignified and vulnerable smiling, approaching someone, talking to strangers, or being unilaterally friendly” (384). I don’t think this means making everything fun or easy; this mixes up ease with openness. Nor is it about telling oppressed people to be more cheerful in their struggle: starr’s criticism is aimed clearly at privileged folks like me. This really resonates: recognizing the reality of structural oppression and my privileged place within it not only made me feel guilty, it made me terrified of messing up. And the best way to avoid humiliation is to humiliate others: never let your guard down, be relentlessly critical, and display your anti-oppression for the world to see. As I cultivated this way of being, I found others who shared similar tendencies. The result was an activist culture that was terrifying for newcomers and often cold even to insiders.
It’s not just that we have to be ‘critical’ of culture; we have to be open and able to having a range of conversations about subtle cultural behaviours and norms, in different ways. The trap is to assume spaces or actions are culturally neutral and therefore inclusive, which starr argues amounts to “an act of indifference or disregard for other people” (which is often reflective of white and male privilege) (379). starr frames this analysis as a way to “discuss together the kinds of power we believe in, how power manifests, and then what is the face, the gesture, the relationship with strangers, and the greeting?”
All of these elements intersect and reinforce each other to create what starr is calling grumpywarriorcool.
Grumpywarrior cool is the intersection of blanket ‘diversity’ that masks whiteness and patriarchy, norms of fearlessness and self-sacrifice, individualism and struggle-against-our-upbringing narratives, the fetishization of disruptive direct action and publicity, intellectual radicalism and correctness, and cool unwelcoming judgmental activist spaces.
So what are the implications of this critique? These aren’t just failures of analysis, but deeply ingrained ways of being: just because I read this article and find it convincing doesn’t mean I’m going to start being vulnerable, open, and kind. If starr’s analysis is correct, then grumpywarriorcool is something white activists are steeped in, and it will take a lots of work, dedication, and experimentation to create different ways of being. These are the limits of critique: it’s one thing to unsettle and critique ways of being that have come to be natural or normal. It’s another thing to displace them with an alternative; that’s a much bigger challenge. And if part of the problem is relentless critique that fetishes the ‘correct’ analysis, then this criticism of white activist culture is always in danger of participating in this dynamic. The critique of grumpywarriorcool and end up being just another trump card to display radical/intellectual superiority. As starr laments, it’s a strange challenge to talk to people about subtle behaviours, assumptions, and the looks on their faces–is this about telling people how to behave?
What’s the alternative? starr suggests an ethic of discovery: “not only getting to know each other, but also interrogating the structural contents of political concepts and space we take for granted which, as it turns out, have a huge impact on the shape of our political work” (379). I am just starting to see grumpywarriorcool as a problem in my own community, and I’ve been lucky enough to stumble on alternatives that are more convivial, kind, and vulnerable. In some ways, they’ve always been there, and I’ve dismissed them as wishy-washy, too hippy-ish, or they just freaked me out because I had to be vulnerable to share in those spaces. In general, the spaces I’ve encountered are no less radical or militant, but there’s space for people to be silly, kind, joyful, sad, scared, supportive, vulnerable and angry. It’s messier and more dangerous: when we open up to each other, there really is more danger of humiliation, getting hurt, and hurting others. But this isn’t about yet another duty that tells white men like me that we need to do this or that: it’s about being really present and feeling alive. For me, this has always been scarier than sneaky direct action. starr ends the article with an updated exhortation from Black Panthers to white allies: “Let us see as central to our politics the replacement of indifference with discovery” (385).