By Luna Lovebad
Radical communities, despite their best intentions to lessen systematic isolation, can be at risk for falling into the toxic interpersonal patterns that they purport to fight against. The following is an excerpt I read to a small radical community I am currently connected with. I share it in hopes that it will help other folks struggling with interpersonal tension in their communities that prevents productivity and action.
Shortly after the New Year, when I was at a local punk house/DIY venue, I noticed a man because he was impossible to not notice. He was loud, opinionated, and good at commanding attention. He appeared to like drinking beer, as many of us do. He also appeared to me, to be a white straight able-bodied cis male who had been socialized to fill up the space around him with his words. When he loudly gave unsolicited negative feedback to a friend, I told him he was being an alpha and that it was coming across a little funny to me. He responded, “Well, at least you had the balls to call me out.” I walked away and wrote him off, despite the better-than-I-expected response.
Hours later, I noticed he was sitting alone. It looked like there was a lot on his mind, and I decided to ask him about it. I am so beyond happy that I let my guard down to talk to him. I think the conversation that ensued will change me forever.
He told me that he is 20 years old and since he could remember, his family primed and trained him to become a fighter. His Christian military family saw a future for him of being a warrior for the federal United States government and did not encourage development in any direction more strongly than this one. In a recent training, his drill sergeant told him that he is “240 pounds of American kick ass”.
The problem is that he doesn’t want to do this with his life. While he has not been deployed, he has signed documents determining that if he backs out, he gets time in prison and comes out with a felony, along with serious conflicts with his family. These consequences would lead to being totally dependent on strangers to forgive his felony when he looks for jobs and housing. To say this man has been raised to be the strongest and most independent person in a room could be an understatement, so I can imagine why he does not feel like he has any choices. As he clutched my hand, and I clutched his back, I wanted so desperately to save him from his coerced servitude. But I know I can only save myself.
How many young people are terrified as they remained trapped into these circumstances? How many times have they been judged for joining the service on one side while being forced into it by the other?
Not everyone is necessarily oppressed, but everyone suffers under this system. Lost in the understandable defenses I developed toward men, I forgot that there is usually a very good reason for people being how they are. If there’s anything I’ve learned in life, it’s that. We are traumatized, some more than others. There are reasons why I am on my guard around loud white men, and many times I’ve deeply regretted trusting them. I regret trusting men who command power and authority in radical movements and all other aspects of my life who assault me or belittle my experiences of oppression, thus perpetuating the painful cycles. I regret trusting women who claim to love women but tear me down as soon as I show them my vulnerable side.
These instances are products of our environment and people have not yet always turned the mirror on themselves, and I was caught in that crossfire, as other people have been caught in mine. Understanding is not the same as justification. We all make mistakes. But I don’t regret trusting this man that I met. Being able to be vulnerable with one another in this world is a radical action and not a mistake. What a wonderful gift he has given me! And in that place of mutual vulnerability, I was able to share the ways in which I had felt he was unaware of his privilege, and he was open to listening.
I would like to see us all work together to create a culture in which we are vulnerable with each other, in which we do not cast immediate verbal judgments and offer unsolicited advice. I want people to listen to each other’s stories, thoughtfully and quietly, and not invalidate them. I want people to be aware of how much verbal and emotional space they are taking up in their interactions with others. We all have something to teach each other, but we all have something to learn from each other, too. I am sharing what I’ve learned in hopes that it can encourage us to make changes to how we are all conducting ourselves in this space and in this movement. I believe that cultures of gossip need to become cultures of direct and respectful communication. I have contributed to gossip cultures, and I imagine most, if not all have as well. Communities seem to work better together when oppressive and toxic behaviors are recognized and discussed face to face. It can be helpful to define differences between healthy processing and dishonest, passive aggressive gossip and other maladaptive, ego driven behaviors. To me, building solidarity means being directly honest with ourselves and others. Our oppression is built on lies and secrets. It is built upon a system that tells us to shove connection and humanity somewhere behind closed doors. I seek to tear down those doors.
To quote an excerpt from a zine called “Friends Make the Best Medicine” by The Icarus Project:
“There are so many of us out here who feel the world with thin skin and heavy hearts, who get called crazy because we’re too full of fire and pain, who know that other worlds exist and aren’t comfortable in this version of reality. We’ve been busting up out of sidewalks and blooming all kind of misfit flowers for as long as people have been walking on this Earth.”
“…We feel things stronger than the other people around us, a lot of us have visions about how things could be different, why they need to be different, and it’s painful to keep them silent.”
“…We need to start talking and networking- finding common ground and common language with the other people around us. We need to get together in groups and find language for our stories that make sense to us and leave us feeling good about ourselves. We need to summon up everything we’ve got to create social webs and lasting support networks for ourselves and the people who will follow us.”
For example, consent language could be a norm that is set to maintain solidarity within the group subculture. Consent language isn’t just about sexuality. It’s about saying, “hey, I want to have a discussion about solidarity but we’ve been meeting for 2 hours already. Let’s do a check in on who would like to shelve this until next week.” It’s about listening when someone says no the first time. There have been a couple of times I observed someone saying repeatedly that they wanted to engage in the activity or discussion that the rest of the group didn’t seem really excited about right in that moment. It seemed more about that one person’s agenda than what the group wanted.
Norms acknowledge that there are basic limits to the human body and psyche that must be taken into account. Emotional states change when we are overriding the messages our bodies are telling us, and some of us are more capable of these overrides than others. People often become grumpy when talking too and feel stuck in a meeting. The productivity of the meeting decreases. Then people snap at each other. This will not build the solidarity we seek.
Building solidarity requires not that we build a safe space, as no space is safe from the poison that we each have been steeped in as members of this giant machine. It requires, however, that we are aware of our poison, that we take ownership of it. We do not wake up one day perfectly attuned to everyone’s oppression and we just never participate in it again. Maybe we’ve tried to become as conscious as possible and stopped intentionally doing it, but that does not clear us of responsibility when someone calls us out, even if we had no idea we were doing it. I have been actively studying intersectional feminism over half of my life and have been a woman my whole life, yet I still have sexist thoughts. So when a man who has studied little of it tells me that he did not just do a sexist thing to me, or someone else belittles it when I recount that experience, I am not going to feel in solidarity with this person. And that does not make me reactionary or oversensitive. It makes me a non-robotic human who feels as though their valid experiences have been discounted.
I’ve noticed that in radical spaces I’ve frequented, many people have well-informed political and philosophical discussions about the problems with this society and our world, but do not always turn the mirror on themselves. Particularly for those with power and responsibility in these spaces, it is important to ask questions such as: How are the past romantic and sexual relationships between people in this collective impacting the way these meetings and groups are run? What about roommates and old friendships? Are people of color and older radicals feeling heard and welcomed here? Do homeless women even feel safe coming here, or are the men who are terrorizing them on the streets taking too much of the emotional and physical space without having boundaries set around those behaviors? Problematic behaviors could be something as seemingly simple as eye rolling or being frequently interrupted.
Is it possible that these factors are dragging us away from our goals of truly connecting with each other and being productive because we are trying to ignore it all, put it behind the door that I referred to at the beginning of this speech? Are we desperately avoiding uncomfortably direct and honest conversations, only to create a build up of even more painful discomfort? Are we trying to reinvent the wheel rather than actively looking for literature and advice from other radical spaces who have been through these same things?
As a counselor, a seeker of peace and social justice, woman, a queer person, a childhood victim of emotional, sexual, verbal, and physical abuse, a sufferer of severe depression and anxiety, and a person with white, cis, class, able bodied, thin privilege, I want to proclaim that it is time for us to wake up and start looking at how we unintentionally hinder others’ healing processes. We need to work to heal our collectives and heal ourselves, or how will we be able to heal anything else? We don’t need a restrictive 10 commandments to run a radical space. But, as the Icarus project says, we do need a common ground and a common language that leaves us feeling good about ourselves and our interactions, and that common ground and language should actively challenge privilege and support those who call out abuse of power, no matter how small of a micro aggression it might seem to someone who has never had to be at the receiving end of that micro aggression. We need a common language that helps people feel heard and empathized with even if they are not agreed with. We can reform the way we communicate with each other. But some will have to give up more power than they may be comfortable with. We can choose to do this by continually reminding ourselves that many struggles are invisible, or easy for someone from a privileged group to overlook. To bridge that gap, we can keep listening, stay open, and be willing to take accountability when our mistakes in doing this are brought to our attention.