Revolutionary Petunias

The title of this is taken from an Alice Walker poem that always makes me think of changing the world by changing the landscape, revolution with a spade and garden gloves instead of rifles (ignoring for a moment the fact that the content of the poem itself is rather violent).

My brain these days is circling around the word revolution, around phrases like social justice. I wonder what others mean by these words. I wonder what I mean. A fellow Unitarian Universalist asks of the support of white allies in anti-racist movements: “I wonder if that support is premised on our space in the sun not creating a shadow for them.” I have spent a lot of time pondering this question and pondering whether my answer is consistent with my faith/philosophy or whether it is a hypocritical mark of racist self-interest. Because ultimately my answer is “yes.” Yes, my support for anti-racist movements is contingent upon those movements not merely shifting upon whom the shadows fall. But I would expand my answer beyond that. It is not just along the lines of color where I think my discomfort with this formulation lies. Fundamentally I am not interested in reinforcing hierarchies. I am not in favor of replacing old hierarchies with new hierarchies that simply favor the formerly disempowered. I do not seek to replace white supremacy with non-white supremacy, patriarchy with matriarchy, or rule by the rich with rule by the workers. I haven’t read Rawles in any detail, but I understand him to basically argue that justice requires the feeling that a system is just even if you don’t know where you’re going to end up in it. The way I think of this is that I should be imagining a utopia where I am not penalized for characteristics of my birth. The assumptions of those fighting for their own empowerment, however, often seem to rest on the notion of a zero-sum game, the idea that one cannot come into power without wresting power from another. And that’s a reasonable assumption, certainly. It’s the next step in the logic that puzzles me. Why does a redistribution of power necessitate recreation of hierarchy? Revenge? Where’s the logic there? Why is it any more fair that I should pay the price for my position in a system created by my ancestors than it is that you should pay a price for your position in a system created by my ancestors?

Truly I’m not much of a revolutionary, the way revolution seems to be typically defined. My disdain for violence seems to get in the way. I understand that to say that I am a pacifist is a reflection of my privilege. I understand that when the war lands on your doorstep the words “but I’m a pacifist” will not stop the bullets. On the other hand, I have seen no convincing evidence to suggest that any problem has ever been solved through violent action. I am convinced, having seen it historically and in the personal lives of people surrounding me, that violence begets violence. Of course violent revolution can be successful, but it requires an astounding amount of blood. It requires not merely overthrowing those in power and putting yourself in their place, but killing every last one of those in power or those related to those in power, or those sympathetic to those in power. Essentially it involves killing anyone and everyone who might eventually want revenge. I have to admit that I am at a loss to think of any cause I support strongly enough to endure that kind of bloodshed.

But I realized last night that I have other problems with leftists and revolutionaries, and radicals in general. Tunnel vision, a devotion to one’s own cause that leaves even well-meaning fighters of oppression perpetuating oppressions of their own even as they pat themselves on the back for their progressiveness. I realized in the midst of another conversation that part of my retreat from economic radicalism has nothing to do with my pacifism and everything to do with my feminism. I offer here two historical examples. The first is the United States in the 1960s. Sara Evans offers a nice narrative of the relationship between civil rights activism and the formation of the women’s movement (second wave feminism). Of course, if you want to look back further, you could also make similar arguments about abolitionism and the suffrage movement (first wave feminism). But flash forward a couple of decades and shift your focus a few thousand miles south of the civil rights work done in Alabama and Mississippi. Anna Fernandez Poncela and Jennifer Bickham Mendez both offer descriptions of women’s organizing in Nicaragua during the Sandinista Revolution that is depressingly familiar. Maxine Molyneux describes the history of women’s organizing in Cuba in ways that again sound all too familiar. And yes, my skepticism is driven largely by self-interest but I have a hard time getting behind the word revolution when it seems clear to me that I risk being put against the wall for the color of my skin (or the privilege of having pursued intellectual pursuits, never mind the ill-logic of punishing people for where they ended up rather than where they started) without even having any hope of overthrowing the particular hierarchal structure that holds me down. And as a feminist I can’t much fantasize about violent revolution if I want humankind to survive. And even if it weren’t for the issue of reproduction, nothing changes the fact that some of the people I love most are people empowered by patriarchy, men.

There is more I could say of course. But really what it comes down to is a conviction that no one should be living in shadows. And a deep underlying suspicion of anyone who would ask me to fight for their right to stand in the sun but be unwilling to fight for my right to the same.

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