accommodation vs. adaptability, or why social justice movements are their own worst enemy: part one

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i have been thinking a lot recently about the desire to be accommodated versus the responsibility to be adaptable. part of it has been part of a progression of thoughts on my post how this blog is not a safe space, part of it has been various things i have read or experienced in my local feminist community in the last week, & part of it is just stuff i have been mulling over for many years. most of it has to do with the reasons why i am a hater.

i don’t know if this is necessarily a trend or a change from how people have always behaved, or if i am just starting to notice it a lot more, but people really love to be accommodated because that means they don’t have to adapt to whatever sub-optimal conditions the world is presenting to them. as someone who has always been interested in social justice issues, i of course don’t think that it’s awesome to criticize someone for being unwilling to adapt to oppression. but what constitutes “oppression” seems to be forever changing & expanding, particularly in the politically radical enclaves in which i spend the better part of my time.

example #1: back in 2000, i joined an affinity group from boston & we traveled together to the canadian border in an attempt to get into the country & participate in the FTAA protests in quebec city. some of us had passports & others did not. some of us had misdemeanor criminal records & others did not. we had heard that the mohawk indian reservation, which is half in the u.s. & half in canada & generally has sovereignty over its border, was inviting american activists to cross through their land without identification or background checks. we decided to go that route. when we arrived at the reservation, with hundreds of other (mostly white, mostly young, mostly class-privileged) anti-FTAA activists, the indians invited us to join them for a special pre-border crossing lunch. i guess it was their way of thanking us for agitating against the FTAA, which they also opposed.

the lunch was actually a big fish fry. the people on the reservation had caught the fish themselves & were frying them up on big open air fires. i am not a big fish-eater, but i tried some & it was pretty darn tasty. but an amazing number of activists that had been hoping to cross through the reservation were grumbling about being served fish, because they were vegan or vegetarian & did not eat animals. i’m not going to participate in forcing a vegan or vegetarian into eating something they have decided not to eat, but i think those folks could have been a little (a lot) more gracious about the situation. they were actually behaving like the indian fish fry was oppressing them somehow, infringing upon their dietary autonomy or something. it was really insulting & embarrassing. this was a situation in which the vegans & vegetarians wanted to have their special diets accommodated in a way that was in direct conflict with the traditional gesture of goodwill that the people on the reservation were offering. vegans, vegetarians, raw foodists, people with imaginary gluten allergies (not to be confused with people with real gluten sensitivities or medical issues that cause them to be unable to process gluten), et al, have always vaguely irritated me with their food-politickier-than-thou ways. food is an incredibly complex issue with intersections relating to ethnicity & culture, class status, gender identity, disability issues, & more. it is a function of privileged entitlement to decide you are a vegan gluten-free raw foodist & then start acting like any other diet is oppressive or unhealthy, & to expect people with other diets to bend over backwards to accommodate yours at public events.

example #2: this ridiculous post from feministe. not that i expect anything non-horrific from any of the big feminist blogs. & in my defense, i did not find this on my own. cheers/jeers to leah for bringing it to my attention.

for those who don’t like to click links, this is basically a post by a young woman who recently moved to brooklyn (which she describes as a “feminist mecca”…WTF?) & started looking for a job with a non-profit reproductive justice organization. she went on several interviews that seemed to go well, until she admitted that she actively blogs & engages in other forms of “new media” (hate that term) under her real name around issues related to what the organizations do (for example, reproductive justice). the organizations then told her that she would have to stop blogging/twittering/etc if she worked for them, or they told her that her published opinions on politically contentious/sensitive topics related to the work of the organizations made her a poor candidate for the positions available.

the author could have used this as an opportunity to talk about the way that non-profits are funded. example: i used to work for a social justice non-profit. my salary was paid with an on-going grant from the ford foundation, & therefore, i was not allowed to make political statements or engage in political activity that had any relationship to the political activities associated with my employer. while i was applying for the job, i had been doing some activism with a local teen organization that was agitating for free bus passes for teenagers so they could get to school. after i was hired, my employer also became involved in this organizing & i was no longer allowed to work on the campaign as an individual & private citizen. i had to shift my focus to equipping the community members involved in the campaign with direct action strategies to win the campaign, because that was the mission of my employer. but a co-worker, who was paid with a different grant that made no political stipulations, was allowed to participate in the campaign through the non-profit work & as a private citizen.

she could have tied it in with the recession somehow & talked about how there are shit-tons of people interested in various political issues that nonetheless are unable to find paying jobs performing activism & enjoying autonomy as private media creators. she could have gone in any number of non-embarrassing directions. instead, she chose to portray these incidents as instances of how the calcified stodgy old non-profit industrial complex is threatened by her youthful enthusiasm & multi-platform activist work & is therefore denying her a job.

dude. really? yet another fabulous example of a person expecting to be accommodated with a paying gig doing what they would do anyway, completely oblivious to the reality of the situation which involves a certain amount of adapting to arcane rules around funding. the comments on the post are a treat unto themselves. someone compares the idea of being asked to refrain from political blogging under your real name while working for a political non-profit to nazi germany (always a classic) & a bunch of people get their panties in a twist over how non-profits only care about maintaining their funding. why can’t they follow the example of all those incredibly successful & world-changing non-profits out there that accomplish so much with absolutely no funding, & which still manage to pay employees a living wage & provide health care?! oh wait, THOSE ORGANIZATIONS DON’T EXIST.

jeebus. clearly i have a lot to say about this issue, so this is only part one. stay tuned for yet more examples of the way a privileged, entitled lack of self-awareness & comprehension of the way reality functions is pretty much rendering radical social justice movements benign. share your own examples in the comments!

20 Comments Add yours

  1. Caitlin Constantine says:

    That writer completely disregards recent events in which the extracurricular online activities/personal opinions/personal foibles of individuals has been used to undermine and destroy entire activist organizations. Instead, she assumes it’s all about the organization being intimidated by her energy and radicalism. WTF? Could she have come up with a more self-serving lens through which to view the situation?

  2. msjacks says:

    Here’s a good one: smelly crusty punk-type activists showing up at community meetings smelling so bad that everyone in the room turns around when they enter to see what the smell is, then feeling oppressed by having dirty looks, even when half of the dirty looks are likely given by people who are poor and have had to fight a stereotype of being unwashed for decades.

    Here’s another good one: queers knocking people who identify as lesbian or bisexual or whatever, when most of those people haven’t had the privilege of wasting a college credit in a Queer Studies class so that they could find out what exactly that means.

    Wow, this game can go on forever!

  3. msjacks says:

    Just read that article you linked to (sorry for double commenting). You know what burns me up about the comments thread? How it devolves into a bunch of young twenty-something feminist complaining about “ageism”, and how they don’t get to run NARAL and Planned Parenthood. Uhhhh……

  4. Erica S. says:

    for those who don’t like to click links, this is basically a post by a young woman who recently moved to brooklyn (which she describes as a “feminist mecca”…WTF?)

    Hey, go easy on her, it’s tough to be a feminist in that backwater town of Philadelphia.

  5. NicoleWitte says:

    Oh, that Feministe post. I’d blocked that thing from my memory ’til I read this and it all came flooding back. That post genuinely baffled me to the point where I wondered if I was just missing something, because my reaction was pretty much exactly what Caitlin wrote in her comment. Feministe runs some crappy posts sometimes, but this one seemed particularly…worthless, I guess, is the adjective for which I’m reaching. When I started reading it I did not expect it to go in the direction it did. Her conclusions were that nonprofits are just scared of young leadership and don’t understand new media? Really? Really? There are all kinds of interesting conversations we could have about the issues floating around in the post, as a former nonprofit cog I have plenty of experiences and opinions and questions, but the author basically deadends the conversation into a collective whine for the naiive and myopic. I was genuinely stunned, though I’m embarrassed to admit that. I would almost go comment, except that I have a policy against engaging in Big Feminist blog commenting anymore, because it always temporarily ruins my life when I do.

    And the fish thing! Jesus! That shit enrages me, especially because I am vegan, and being vegan actually is something that’s pretty important to me and I have a lot to say about, and it’s honestly partly because of people like that that I didn’t want to label myself as such for a long time, because those people give vegans and vegetarians a terrible name, and there are so fucking many of them.

    Your anecdote reminds me of when I was in jail in DC following some IMF/WB demos and it was just one of the most soul-killing, faith depleting activist experiences I’d ever had. Not because of being in jail (which is soul killing enough on its own), but because if some of the clowns I was in jail with. I mean, I’ve been arrested twice for activism-related reasons. The first time I was in jail ten days with people I didn’t know and left with (completely fabricated) felony charges. This time I was in and out within 36 hours, most of which I spent with some of my best friends, no charges pressed. Yet this time, in many respects, was much worse, because I lost so much faith in my fellow movementeers. The first time I at least felt like I was united with a bunch of smart, dedicated people who were conducting themselves in an admirable fashion. Like there was some possibility that we could sometimes get some things done. This time, I was like, why the fuck am I allying myself with these people, putting myself in harm’s way while having to rely on THESE people? People who are incapable of having strategic conversations or anything, who just want to have massage circles, try to curry favor with the famous-er activists, and, most importantly, whine. A lot. About how unfair it was that they were in jail for a day after traveling to a city they didn’t live in to engage in demonstrations that anyone’s dog should have known at least could result in arrest. I remember one girl going on a tirade to the CO about how unjust and fucked up it was that we were given bologna sandwiches to eat when she was a vegan. She was really serious about it. I think that’s what prompted one of my friends to comment that you know you’re in bad shape when you sympathize with the CO more than your fellow inmates. And then there was the girl I didn’t know who nonconsensually put her head on my shoulder and started to cry her magical white girl tears while explaining that she “really didn’t belong in here.” Not no one belongs in jail, not even none of us special activists, just her. And yes, I’m sure that’s what she meant, because she went on and on about it while I used all my self to control to refrain from hitting her.

    1. msjacks says:

      (my last comment was half @ you, have @ everyone else, btw)

  6. msjacks says:

    The more stories I hear like this, the more desperate I am for these types of people to have to spend a few minutes in the real world with the rest of us. I keep figuring people like this will grow out of it, because eventually they’ll finish college, have to support themselves and get real jobs, their parents will stop carrying them along, whatever the case may be that keeps them from participating in the real world along with the rest of us. But it never happens. I learned my lesson big time during my own feminist blog snafu last year. It felt like high school for the first time since, well, high school. It was horrifying. The way people like this act, you’d think they never left the comforts of internet-only socializing.

  7. Caitlin Constantine says:

    This article on the NYTimes web site seems relevant to this discussion. This surfer, Cori Schumacher, chooses not to deal with sponsors so she can be free to speak opinions that some might consider controversial and to boycott major tournaments held in places like China. Certainly there are benefits to be had if she keeps her mouth shut and signs these contracts, but she knows what’s important to her and she knows how things work and she makes her choices based on those things.

  8. shesabibliophile says:

    I have a problem with that Feministe post, mainly because it’s a chosen identity that she’s making seem as though she is legit marginalized/being oppressed. Like she can’t get a job because she’s so awesomely radical. I can’t deal.

    Re accommodation vs. adaptability, yeah…I totally hear you. I remember posting about accessible spaces somewhere (Disabled Feminists blog?) and how certain events aren’t wheelchair accessible (*coughzinefestscough*). So someone chimed up with “well what about access for people with depression? what about having multi-language signs? what about child care at events?”….like, she was genuinely pissed that I was only thinking about wheelchair access. Which, fair enough I guess? but HOW the HELL do you make a space accessible for someone with depression? Isn’t every space accessible to them? Also, what with the child care? How is that even a legit access issue? Argg.

    1. msjacks says:

      Child care is a legit issue, I think. I mean, I’m obviously biased because I am a child care provider, but some parents wouldn’t be able to attend workshops and such with their kids in tow. That said, comparing being a parent to being disabled is ridiculous. A good solution is to come up with topical programs for kids, so they can participate as well. Making sure all disabled people can get into the building, however, is paramount. (And, you know, legally required under the ADA.)

      Multi-language signs are good too, unless the whole program is in English, in which case it’s like a big fucking mean joke. “Hey, this sign says “welcome” in Haitian Creole! But nobody speaks Haitian Creole! HA HA, JOKE’S ON YOU, HAITIANS.” (And yes, I have been to events where people have made dumbass signs like these.)

      There’s no need to further marginalize people in order to supposedly make it open to everyone. Unfortunately, this happens ALL THE TIME. Remember that year at Columbus Fest (99, I think?) when there was that epic attempt at de-marginalization that was the most marginalizing thing ever? I didn’t go, but it’s pretty legendary. There were separate “safe space” rooms for each marginalized group that the organizers could think of, based on race, gender, orientation, etc. There was no room for, say, “black women” or “queer Latinos”, so people who had more than one “marginalized identity” had to pick a room to go to if they felt particularly marginalized/oppressed. Oh yeah, and the room for transpeople was a scary closet with a dangly light bulb. When people brought this issue up, the organizers were like, “well, we only had a certain amount of rooms.” It never occurred to them that the rooms were extremely unhelpful; it was, ironically, an exceptionally marginalizing experience for a bunch of people.

      I think most of us got sick of this oppression scale bullshit years ago, the balancing and comparison of various oppressions, the person coming out on the bottom winning some kind of epic sympathy war. It’s frustrating to see people continuing to participate in this crap so many years later, and taking it to bizarre new levels.

      1. shesabibliophile says:

        I am just annoyed that someone always brings up child-care when talking about, you know, access for people with disabilities. Because zine fests ARE accessible to people with kids – I’ve certainly seen tons of people bring kids to them, no problem. Workshops may be a different story, but I also don’t feel it’s a zine fests’ responsibility to provide child care. It’s always nice when they do, though.

  9. Penny Spent says:

    Geez you’re good. Again you articulate things about attitudes in radical communities that I feel vaguely uneasy about but can never put into words. I remember being in a meeting at my local anarchist bookshop a year or so ago and someone offered to cook food for a fundraising party and asked if anyone had recipe suggestions. Someone else emphatically replied that they should only cook vegan food because it’s ‘more inclusive’, and everyone nodded in agreement. On the one hand I see where they were coming from, but as you show in your example, in some situations it would be plain rude to talk about being ‘excluded’ from a meal because you choose to exclude common foodstuffs from your diet. Coincidentally, just last night (over a plate of sausages) I was telling my boyfriend how I got over my own holier than thou vegetarianism. When I was 17 my dad and I went on a trip to the UK to visit relatives, and in Nothern Ireland we went to the house of some distant, elderly aunt. Both aunt and house could accurately be described as Dickensian in their poverty. But like lots of people of her background/generation she went to great lengths to be hospitable (what I would call, from my experience anyway, the forced hospitality of the Irish) and made us eat lunch with her from a pot of food that was obviously intended to last a long time. It was a vegetable barley stew and I was happily eating away when I raised my spoon to find a big knuckle of bone on it. I thought, I have two options here: I can push away my plate and refuse to eat this woman’s food and in doing so completely offend her, or I can keep eating and no one will get hurt, not me, not even the cow whose bones made the stock, since it’s already dead anyway. So I kept eating, and vowed that from then on I would eat anything that anyone offers to me, if the alternative is offending them or disrepecting their culture/hospitality etc. Some friends of mine who went to work with a remote Australian indigenous community called the Gija quickly made the same decision to be a bit less black and white in their food politics when as a welcoming gift the people cooked them a goanna. Because what kind of arsehole would turn down a traditional welcoming gift when you’re a guest that person’s country? I know food might seem like a petty example on the surface, but it is, as you rightly stress I think, representative of a far greater problem in radical communities to do with entitlement etc.

  10. Helen says:

    Your first example is a nice illustration of the reason(s) I don’t tell anyone I’m vegetarian unless it’s necessary. (Also, I think gluten allergy fakers are less into weird food politics and more into just thinking they’re special snowflakes, but…eh. To-may-to, to-mah-to.)

    And that Feministe post was such a waste. I would have loved an in-depth look at the workings of big non-profits and the political compromises their employees sometimes have to make in order for them to secure enough funding to properly function, but…really? Goddamn, I do not want to listen to someone whining about how they can’t get a cushy job doing exactly what they want. Hey, guess who else has to take a job that’s not 100% in line with their ideals/interests? MOST PEOPLE. Shut it, whiny blog lady.

  11. NicoleWitte says:

    The issue with vegetarianism and veganism is both complicated and very simple. Every vegan or vegetarian I’m friends with and have discussed these things with either has anecdotes about times they’ve eaten meat/dairy to avoid being rude, or are at least theoretically open to doing so. I don’t travel much, but if I was going on certain kinds of trips where maintaining my veganism seemed unlikely, I might try to temporarily reintroduce dairy into my diet first, so I could consume it without getting sick. I was never noticeably lactose intolerance before, but now I tend to get sick if I accidentally consume dairy, more so than when I’ve accidentally consumed meat. My dietary issues are fascinating, I’m sure. Point being, there are legitimate reasons for not consuming animal products in a given moment beyond vegan purity, and deciding how exactly to negotiate that can be tricky. But no vegan or vegetarian I respect expects the world to end to their dietary choices, or thinks maintaining the purity of their chosen diet is more important than, you know, generally not being a total fucking asshole.

    I have another example, it’s topical! So I guess there’s a big controversy about that lady Bitch and how despite being a self-proclaimed “trans ally”, she doesn’t oppose the transphobic admission policy at the Michigan Womyns’ Festival. I haven’t been following this much, as I’m not a fan of Bitch’s music or anything, but I did come across this from her regarding all this, reposted on my Facebook news feed. It’s really long, and probably actually contains multiple examples, but the one that sprang to my mind is her digression about how, despite being female assigned at birth and identifying as female today, people are fucked up for referring to her as “cis”:

    Furthermore, I don’t think of myself as “not trans.” Even though some people have embraced the word–‘cis-gendered’–(and have embraced it for me!)–it’s a term I reject in its limits, because it undermines the fact that even FAAB women who still ‘flag female,’ have still had to go through a process of undoing society’s expectations about what they should be and how they should act based on their sex-assignment. I believe that femme lezzies are still on the transgendered spectrum and have a right to discuss trans issues, in a respectful and honest way, without being humiliated for it.

    I mean, there are bits in there that I agree with, but…but…BUT…

    That’s great that she doesn’t identify as being “not trans”, despite enjoying all the privileges that come with being “not trans” or cis, if you will, however “freaky”. Through her logic, the actual, concrete, real world oppression of being trans, which Bitch does not experience has become wholly theoretical and abstract. I could understand if she was like “in some ways the cis label is an uncomfortable, imperfect fit” or whatever because, welcome to gender, but the fact that she feels oppressed or something by having this label applied to her? Has she ever stepped outside of her bubble, ever?

    I requote:

    “it’s a term I reject in its limits, because it undermines the fact that even FAAB women who still ‘flag female,’ have still had to go through a process of undoing society’s expectations about what they should be and how they should act based on their sex-assignment.”

    So basically, every feminist is trans?

  12. NicoleWitte says:

    Um, my html got totally fucked up and I don’t know how or if I can fix it. I’m sorry.

    1. msjacks says:

      Dear God. That thing Bitch wrote was one of the most awful, defensive, hateful things I’ve read in a LONG time. I can’t even comment on it because I can’t digest it. It’s like trying to swallow rotten food or something. The only two things I can tear myself out of shock from long enough to even try to discuss are how she says “all femme lezzies are on the transgendered spectrum” (we’re not, and “transgendered” is an awful word to use), and how she brags about how everyone in her dating history is trans. Uh, my dating history’s like that too, but no one would know it without knowing all my exes, because I refer to them as my ex-boyfriends, ex-girlfriends, ex-partners, etc.

      WTF is wrong with people OMG WTF. W.T.F.

      1. Nicolewitte says:

        Wtf does her dating history have to do with the real core issue here, which is her public support of the festival’s transmisogynist admission policy? Or even her personal crusade to convince the world that she, personally, is “not transphobic” (which I could really give a fuck about, I don’t know what’s in her heart of hearts and I don’t care. I care what she says and does as a public figure engaging in issues that concern me) I mean, fucking Charlie Sheen and how many other brutally misogynist cis men dismiss accusations of sexism by gushing about how its the opposite! I love women! Look at all the women I’ve loved!

  13. coco negro says:

    that whole vegan thing can be so frustrating. i have a friend that was on some “social justice” trip around the world & they were in fucking tanzania. to welcome all the white folks to their community, the locals cooked up a baby goat, & served it. about half of them were vegan & started CRYING openly over the animal that died, to the total bewilderment & then shock of the locals when they realized why these 20 yr old americans were crying over the food they had made to honor their guests. i could go on & on with vegan antics like this (need i remind everyone of the cayenne-pepper laced pie lierre keith got to the dome at the anarchist bookfair in sf over her book the vegetarian myth & the subsequent & overwhelming support the pie-ers got from the vegan community for their attack?) & how obnoxious they are, but suffice it to say, thanks for addressing the fact that diets like this are indeed a function of privileged entitlement, & while it’s all fine & dandy to eat whatever the hell you want, it’s really going too far to expect everyone to accommodate your preferences.

  14. Nicolewitte says:

    The weirdest thing to me about Bitch’s terrible letter is that it seems plausible that she’s not consciously derailing a legitimate debate, but she genuinely Doesnt Get It At All (and is thus unconsciously derailing) Odd when her “trans ally” identity is so important to her. oh, except that this is maybe exactly what should be expected from people who gush about how they’re an “ally” all over the place

  15. Unabot says:

    I’m vegan. And have mega depression. And about a dozen other few opportunities for Special Snowflake status, if I wanted to go that route. And yet! I totally agree with this shiz. In fact, it’s a relief to find your blog, because you’ve written about a few things that have been weighing on my mind lately. Especially regarding the overuse of “trigger warnings” and all the language policing (I don’t mean respectful, sensible dialogue, or calling out sexist/racist/ablist/etc-ist bullshit- I mean excessive, nitpicking, derailing, language policing) and your writing is resonating with me in a major way. I’ve been an anarchist/feminist since dinosaur times & like to think I know what’s up & keep learning & challenging myself constantly, but when I started a tumblr blog a few weeks ago & started reading a few Big Feminist Tumblr Bloggers I was like “okay…..THE FUCK.” It freaked me out because these attitudes are self-perpetuating with built-in defense mechanisms because if you don’t unquestioningly kowtow, you must be the oppressor- and that’s bullshit. So your blog is like fresh air to me right now. I even read all the comments, they’re great too! 🙂 thank you.

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