Jul 10, 2021

Decolonial solidarity (new book)

On this blog I have tended to focus more on the colonial aspects of different solidarity campaigns, but I have certainly also tried to point to ways that different organizations and campaigns work to reimagine and rework solidarity in ways that do not reinscribe colonial power relations.

I have not read it yet but there is a new book out that focuses on these decolonial aspects of solidarity organizing. Teodora Todorova's book "Decolonial Solidarity in Palestine-Israel: Settler Colonialism and Resistance from Within" turns to lessons from three Israeli solidarity groups: Zochrot, Anarchists Against the Wall, and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD).

Jun 23, 2021

hugs not walls

I have taken a break from blogging here as one of my covid survival practices, but as I come back to life anew it will include blogging anew. I have posted here repeatedly about solidarity actions that both push back against what we don't want while pointing, even if just symbolically, to the world we do want. One of my favorites was the braiding hair across border action. I'm also a big fan of the annual hugs not walls action, that just happened at the US-Mexico border last weekend where nearly 200 separated families met and hugged.

Sep 18, 2020

Against fostering empathy for solidarity

In this blog I have repeatedly pointed to how problematic it is to foster empathy (in the sense of I feel your pain, I know what it is like to be you) in the hopes of thereby fostering solidarity with people who are distant and/or different. It is not surprising then that I really appreciated the book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, by psychologist Paul Bloom. He never talks about solidarity per se, but much of it is relevant. Psychological studies can be so odd, but I do think it's useful to know that they find that "our empathic reactions reflect prior bias, preference, and judgement" (p. 70). We are more likely to feel that sort of empathy with people we are already close to or already see as more like us, in attitude, language, appearance, etc (p. 91). Indeed, Bloom argues that this sort of empathy can actually do harm, and even motivate us to hurt those who are different if we see them as hurting those like us (and connected to us) that we are more likely empathizing with (a point also made in this fascinating talk about the neuroscience of conflict resolution by Emile Bruneau). Bloom argues that biased empathy with those suffering is more likely to tilt us to violent action than to peace (p. 193).

What Bloom calls cognitive empathy is something different, and he describes it as the ability to understand other people's psychological states without inhabiting them along with them. This is the sense in which nonviolent communication uses the term empathy, to describe a very particular four step process for understanding not just what another person is feeling, but what the met or unmet needs are that are leading to that feeling - not by pretending to be the other person and feel their feelings but through a particular inquiry process. I continue to find the NVC process useful both in my life and in the college classroom for difficult discussions, and I highly recommend the videos at cup of empathy for learning or deepening NVC skills. I think it would be less confusing if NVC used this term cognitive empathy. 

But to come back to Bloom, he engages with Elaine Scarry's article "The Difficulty of Imagining Other People" where she argues that imaging the lives of others is not enough motivation to elicit even kindness - and so one imagines much less so solidarity though that term is not used (p. 106). Her skepticism is based on how hard it is to imagine the feelings of a close friend as vividly as your own experience of yourself, and that it is that much harder to do so for large numbers of strangers. Scarry suggests that instead of making other people's lives weigh as much as our own, we should make our own lives less weighty! Bloom agrees, and argues for depersonalization as a tool for wise policy, giving as examples systems for fostering impartiality such as blind reviewing and blind auditions. It's hard to see that as a tool for fostering solidarity, but he also argues for compassion as part of rational decision making, arguing that we can thereby more effectively not just care about but act to foster the thriving and end the suffering of others. Empathy, in the sense of seeing ourselves AS others, he argues, leads to less than rational and less than effective decision making.

Does it also lead to less effective solidarity? In this blog my complaints about that sort of empathy have generally been that it is appropriative, and that it is a patronizing and colonial dynamic to think that I can pretend to BE you, and feel your feelings, and that this is what will inspire me to take action with you. So it was interesting to me to read these other arguments against it by Bloom. Not only does he argue that it leads to less effective action, he says that it is exhausting and is more likely to lead to burnout. Compassion, in the sense of care and concern for another and motivation to improve their well-being, he argues can be sustained for longer (p. 138). I would agree, in my experience it is more sustainable (and realistic and ethical) to feel for than to attempt to fully feel with the other.

May 31, 2020

"I can't breathe"

I have posted repeatedly here about empathy experiments used to build solidarity, and how problematic they can be. I was at my first masked protest yesterday, and had trouble chanting "I can't breathe" when the crowd took it up. It made me cry, but it also felt wrong and appropriative coming from our small mostly white group. As I posted in response to the chants after Mike Brown was suffocated, actually I CAN breathe.

But what if the chant is done as part of an empathy experiment? Would the chant have a different sort of power if we were all lying face down on the ground chanting it for nine minutes like they did in Colorado? I am generally not a fan of these reenactments of suffering, but I will admit I found this one striking. See the video in the tweet below.

Since I first posted this, this reenactment tactic has been repeated across the US (and likely around the world). Most notably a huge group did this in front of the White House. I will admit however that I am grateful that at the protests I have been going to we have instead all taken a knee in silence for the 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Not only is this less appropriative, it is more accessible. Many would not be physically able (forget emotionally able) to lie face down with their hands behind their backs and chant.

Dec 29, 2019

my wish for the new year

May we have more queer solidarity smashing more borders next year!

image from an action in the UK on the day of Trump's inauguration

Oct 28, 2019

withdrawal symptoms empathy experiment

I am generally a bit dubious about empathy experiments where we pretend to be another. Too often they appear to be presented as an easy quick fix that will automatically create connection and understanding. Too often they are presented as enough to right a wrong. 

But this video of a particularly difficult empathy experiment (a man trying to experience what it is like to go through withdrawal symptoms) I found disturbing for other reasons. Should we take on hurting ourselves like this? Ask others to hurt us? I understand that he is not asking others to do this, he wanted to dramatize the pain and help others see it. Why is it easier and more compelling to see this pain when he does it than when an actual addict goes through it? 

I very much appreciate that you are asked to take concrete action after watching this video. Please do so at https://chooseempathy.me

Jun 26, 2019

What solidarity work do images of the suffering dead do?

In Latin America there is a long tradition of showing, holding, and marching with photos of those killed and disappeared by the state as a way to build strength and solidarity in the struggle for peace and justice. These photos are always of these people when they were alive.

But in the last week on Colombian social media circles a video has been circulating of the dead body of Maria del Pilar Hurtado, a social leader that had just been assassinated (one of some 800 that have been murdered since the peace accord implementation process began - most for working to implement the accord in some way). The video is of her 9-year-old son finding her body and becoming distraught - and many of my friends who saw it were so distraught themselves that I actually chose not to watch it.  The photo here is of Maria alive.

I didn't have the same option not to see the photo that has been circulating in the US media of the bodies of Oscar and his toddler daughter Valeria, who drowned trying to cross into the US. I will never be able to unsee that horrible image.

Both the video and the photo have sparked outrage and protest. I've read that in Colombia there have been more protests against the wave of murders against social leaders in the past few days than there had been after any of the other deaths. So these extremely disturbing images can spark solidarity - but is this the way we want to do solidarity?

I will admit to having very mixed feelings on this one. I think it is important to see the truth of what is happening, to be outraged, to grieve with Maria's son - but I also value dignity and privacy.  I also value my own mental health, and I chose not to watch the video.

Julia Montejo argues that these images are dehumanizing and disrespectful. As she puts it, "compassion shouldn’t hinge on the degradation of marginalized communities." She goes on to say that in a country that circulated photos of lynchings, images like this are unlikely to change peoples minds and instead will simply traumatize many who see them. She argues instead for sharing photos of these people when they were alive (as has long been the tradition in Latin America).

Yet sometimes clear documentation of horrors has been key for sparking solidarity. Black communities have been organizing against police brutality for decades, but it was when people started widely capturing the attacks on video that organizing really took off. And it is also true that I am still haunted by Eric Garner's "I can't breathe." How much do we have to traumatize each other to move ourselves to action?

Jun 10, 2019

Staying in shape is NOT solidarity with refugees

Staying in shape is NOT solidarity with refugees

After Sara’s post last week on this blog about a very specific act of solidarity running, Rosalie Fish’s running with a red hand, a campaign framing running (or walking or biking) as “solidarity” with refugees seems strikingly hollow.

In January, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) launched what they termed a global “solidarity movement,” “2 billion kilometres to safety”/”1 billion miles to safety.” The campaign invites people from 27 countries to “Step with Refugees” by tracking their walks, runs, and bike rides, to cover the same distance they estimate that refugees cover every year.[i] Its various aims include: to “honour refugees,” to “build better understanding” in the face of widespread “misconceptions about refugees,”[ii] to draw specific attention to refugee journeys, to raise awareness about the work of UNHCR field staff and how they assist refugees, and to encourage people to raise funds for UNHCR.

The picture above, from the homepage of the campaign website (stepwithrefugees.org), poignantly summarizes this "solidarity movement": on the left, three people are shown in fashionable athletic clothing and running shoes, running on a boardwalk at a beach; on the right, three people walk barefoot in an area that looks arid. One of them is carrying a child, and the two others carry bundles, presumably their belongings. The photos are lined up so that the figures are similar heights, with their feet stepping at the same level, all heading the same direction, perhaps highlighting the “solidarity” of the athletic figures on the left, with those walking (presumably) to seek safety on the right. In an official UN News Story entitled ““How to stay in shape and step up support for refugees” the Deputy High Commissioner states: “This campaign will encourage people to support refugees through something they are already doing – walking, cycling, running.””  Equating walking or running for fitness as a “solidarity movement” with refugee journeys is almost as ridiculous as it is offensive (no matter how many financial donations are involved).

A celebrity hosted promotional video[iii] suggests that by joining with others and dedicating the distances covered to this campaign “You can honour [refugees] resilience and determination.” In sharing refugee stories the campaign does distinguish the much more difficult and dangerous conditions faced by refugees fleeing conflict than people running or walking for fitness. This distinction seems insufficient because of the continued linking of fitness to solidarity with refugee journeys.

“Step with Refugees” appeals to forms of athleticism that are often privileged, particularly through the front-page image, and in the use of smart watches and other fitness tracking apps. It conflates individual self-improvement, mobilizing financial donations through cumulative individual endurance efforts, and feelings of “honouring” others, with solidarity. In my mind this contrasts greatly with the many current and former refugees and displaced people who do themselves participate in sport and fitness, such as football leagues in refugee camps. While sports are very important to many people who have experienced forced migration, I strongly doubt that many of them would equate their athletic activities with their journeys to refuge, or would see this “movement” as genuinely transformative solidarity.

The ultimate goal of this campaign, raising money for UNHCR, comes at a time when the agency notes chronic underfunding for many of the operations around the world. Their budget is precariously dependent on states that themselves are hostile to refugees and flaunt international humanitarian law (with ~40% of the budget coming from the United States). It seems as though UNHCR is aiming to increasingly supplement their budget from donations by individuals. Patricia Daley has highlighted the ways in which humanitarianism is increasingly privatized and commoditized, presenting decontextualized solutions depending on stereotyped images of distant, suffering others, especially in Africa—in this case, could it be that part of the commodification mobilized is individual campaign participants’ own self-regulating fitness and fundraising efforts?

This campaign has aspects of “empathy experiments” previously highlighted on this blog. It asks people to aim for distances covered by people seeking refuge, and seems to fall short in the same way that many empathy experiments do.[iv] Sara states that “…the issue when there is a lack of caring and solidarity is not that we can't imagine the experience, but that we other the people having it. We distance ourselves from them in some way.” The campaign site does share stories of refugees’ journeys. To me the stories do not seem to move beyond the othering of those seeking refuge. They are very brief. They seem meant to be very straightforward and “understandable” without specific contextual understanding. Despite being from three very different places, all the stories follow the same structure. I wonder whether this mode of “storytelling” risks creating an undifferentiated “absolute victim” in which any one refugee (story) stands in for all.[v] 

It is important that women’s voices and stories are heard on issues of forced migration. Only highlighting women’s stories in the context of raising awareness about dangerous refugee journeys may risk playing into the trope of women (and especially women with children), as ideal victims and objects of humanitarianism, and therefore other. Conversely, and equally from a gender perspective, I wonder about the choice not to include any men’s stories, particularly as refugee men are more often portrayed as threatening to security (and as men are more numerous among those trying to seek refuge in Europe, including through the Balkan route where they face increasingly violent pushbacks).

Further contributing to concerns about othering and reliance on “ideal victims”, “2 Billion Kilometres to Safety” only includes the stories of people seeking refuge outside of the (primarily Western) countries that seem to be the main targets of the campaign. Rather than challenging the racism and xenophobia faced by refugees, the militarization of borders, and externalization of asylum,  this campaign relies on the “better understanding” of the fact that most refugees are far away from those targeted by the “solidarity movement.” It creates “empathy” for a physically distant other. By focusing only refugee journeys, the campaign draws attention away from the often protracted immobilities that refugees often encounter. Immobilities may occur even prior to refuge, when trying to cross a border to seek safety. Having crossed a border, refugees may face strict encampment or detention, and/or policies and practices that restrict their movement and seek to contain them within host countries and in their regions of origin. Waiting, and seeking ways to continue to move, may be just as much a part of a journey as walking.

Giving more nuanced attention to refugees’ journeys, Polly Palister-Wilkins counters the common media use of the language of refugee and migrant “flows,” as if they were watery, natural forces, with attention to the physicality of the journeys of people walking long distances: they are “walking, not flowing.” She argues for attention to “the how of the journey—noting both the material and geographical aspects impacting and structuring how people move—and the physical impacts of that journey on the bodies of those on the move.” Polly writes, “I called attention to the travelers’ tired, blistered feet in an attempt to weave a thread between the material (and political) geographies of the journey and the embodied experiences of those making it.” “Step with Refugees” does recounts a few specific journeys, some of the geographical aspects structuring them, and the agency of people in seeking their own safety in difficult conditions. In spite of this it misses the important political aspect of “how people move” that Polly highlights. It ignores the “border, policing and transport infrastructures” that make mobility unequal for different populations, and seeking safety and liveable lives so dangerous for so many.  

I do appreciate how “2 Billion Kilometres to Safety” emphasizes how people and families seek their own survival.  Nevertheless, I wonder whether the way that “perilous journeys” are highlighted risks suggesting that suffering in the journey makes some people more deserving of asylum and assistance than those whose journeys are less dangerous. Is someone who takes a bus to the border in seeking safety less deserving of solidarity? Does the highlighting of women’s strength in completing long distance, difficult journeys to refuge adequately counter the “ideal/absolute victim” trope? Or have resilience and agency simply become part of what characterizes the ideal, deserving refugee narrative in neoliberal times, and so are also required in the “solidarity” fitness efforts of campaign participants?

[i] The call to “Step with Refugees” is an adaptation of “Stand with Refugees,” the UNHCR slogan of the past few years, and which includes the incorporation of their most prominent hasthag, and the shortened version of the slogan, #withrefugees.
[ii] “Misconceptions about refugees” seems like a dramatic understatement of the overt racism and xenophobia faced by people seeking safety in many places around the world.
[iii] The video features actor Ben Stiller. For critiques of celebrity humanitarianism see Patricia Daley (2013) “Rescuing African bodies: celebrities, consumerism and neoliberal humanitarianism.” Review of African Political Economy. 40:137. https://doi.org/10.1080/03056244.2013.816944  and Katharyne Mitchell (2017) “Celebrity Humanitarianism, Transnational Emotion, and the Rise of Neoliberal Citizenship” Global Networks. 16:3 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/glob.12114
[iv] Rebecca Clouser and Jenny M. Rickley have also done work specifically on “endurance philanthropy,” aspects of which seem relevant to the distance challenges of this campaign, even as it directly seeks to address forced migration. See https://aag.secure-abstracts.com/AAG%20Annual%20Meeting%202019/abstracts-gallery/20269  
iv The term “absolute victim” comes from the work of Michel Agier, including Agier, M (2010) “Humanity as Identity and it’s Political After-effects.” Humanity 1:1 http://muse.jhu.edu/article/394858

Jun 2, 2019

running with a red hand

Tomorrow the Canadian inquiry on the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW) will be released, but it has already been leaked that it will be declared an ongoing genocide. It was super controversial in Canada when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission declared native residential schools (boarding schools in the US) to have committed 'cultural genocide' - but it sounds like this time the cultural is being dropped.

It's astounding to me, having recently moved to the US from Canada, how little attention there is to this crisis in the US, when in the US women on reservations can be 10 times more likely to be killed or disappeared. But check out the inspiring activism by Rosalie Fish (in the photo). She has been racing with this red hand on her face, and the letters MMIW down one leg. Each race she runs in honor of a particular indigenous woman who has been killed in Washington state. Since she is a young indigenous woman herself, the red hand is particularly powerful imagery. It seems to me to be saying I have run away from this violence so far, but other women like me haven't been able to.

The US needs to stop running from this crisis and face it head on, learning from Canada's example.

Apr 29, 2019

great cfp for a special issue on solidarity

Call for Papers: Solidarity and Transnational Cultural Forms
Coordinators: Jessica Stites Mor (University of British Columbia), Anna Bernard, (King’s College, London), and Anthony Alessandrini (City University of New York) 

Transnational solidarity is envisioned as a reciprocal relationship between geographically distant actors that is based on shared political commitments. Given that this kind of transnational work involves great distances and language divides, the potential for miscommunication and misrepresentation is enormous. The visibility and appeal of movements like the Arab Spring uprisings, Occupy Wall Street, the indignados, Palestinian and Kurdish national struggles, and open borders activism has brought increasing public pressure on those who study and theorize this form of activism to broaden their ability to understand better what activists do and why. On the ground, the frustration of activists when facing failures within movements has created a need for rigorous attention to cultural forms and movements from multiple disciplinary perspectives.

Scholars have produced detailed typologies of solidarity, as well as historical research on the networks and practices of grassroots activists. However, this theoretical and empirical work has not significantly engaged with cultural forms of international solidarity activism, works that participate in what David Featherstone has termed the “labour of connection”; they are not “frozen snapshots” of a movement, but part of its “conduct of political activity.” This publication is aimed at a general audience as well as an academic one. By doing so, we aim to consider active and ongoing theorizations of international solidarity and promote better understandings of solidarity praxis.

Questions we hope the project will address:

  1. How are relationships within transnational networks of political solidarity maintained, reshaped and manipulated through cultural and artistic events and forms?
  2. How do international solidarity campaigns navigate and bridge complex intersubjectivities, such as race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and indigenous and/or post-colonial status?
  3. How do solidarity movement participants create spaces through cultural and artistic production within which ideas are able to be mapped?
4) How are competing meanings of struggle, challenges and failures of solidarity best expressed and debated through artistic, literary and performative events in order to set new courses of action? 

We anticipate that articles would examine cases across a range of geographical locations and historical junctures and in a variety of disciplines, including literature, history, anthropology, visual culture, sociology, politics, and law. We are also interested in activist perspectives.

If you are interested in having your work potentially included in a special journal issue, please send a 300 word abstract and 150 word bio to isarn.info@gmail.com by June 7, 2019.

Sep 30, 2018

patriarchal power will not be dismantled by empathy alone

You may have noticed some women black out their profile picture today as a solidarity tactic. 

Here is a powerful critique of this tactic from Harsha Walia

"'Female blackout' to protest domestic violence is today. I refuse to turn my profile pic to a black square. I refuse to disappear as part of some bizarre awareness project that furthers the very goals that patriarchy intends - submission and disappearance. Can we please stop with these die-ins, disappearings, becoming faceless trends? They arent only disempowering, they are a strategic mistake. Power, and certainly patriarchal power, will not be dismantled by humanizing empathy alone."

Sep 26, 2018

learning empathy through a video game

I have blogged repeatedly here about empathy experiments, and my doubts about them. But what about empathy games? A recent study showed that kids who played a video game that taught empathy skills actually enhanced their empathy related neural networks. Given that even my college students have trouble naming potential emotions when I teach them non-violent communication, games like these that help us listen and connect well with the emotions of others seem more useful to me than experiments where we pretend to be others. Check out the trailer for the video game used in this study, below.

Jul 12, 2018

Putting yourself in someone else's shoes doesn't work

Putting yourself in someone else's shoes doesn't work. At least, it doesn't work for giving you a better sense of what they are feeling, according to several recent psychological studies. (What works better? Just asking them).

But is this why there has been a boom in empathy experiments the last few years? Are we really trying to know the other, or just care about the other? Do empathy experiments work for helping us at least care more about the suffering of the people we're pretending to be? I am also dubious about their effectiveness in this regard.

Do we really need to know what it's like to be lost at sea to care about refugees whose boats are wrecked on the way to Europe? There was such an outpouring of support for the boys stuck in the cave in Thailand, yet I assume it is an experience almost none of us have had or have pretended to have.

I think the issue when there is a lack of caring and solidarity is not that we can't imagine the experience, but that we other the people having it. We distance ourselves from them in some way. So here again what might work better than putting yourself in someone else's shoes is just to ask them about their experience and feelings. Hearing their personal stories can help us connect around our common humanity.

Some ways of sharing stories are more effective at building solidarity than others. More on that later. I just survived my first year teaching on the tenure track and am slowly getting back to writing on this blog.

Jul 10, 2017

solidarity against hate

Homophobia and islamophobia are not actually phobias. I do not believe that they are mental health conditions (like agoraphobia or claustrophobia) and it is wrong to put them in that category when they appear to be based on hate, not fear. As such, I avoid both terms and prefer instead the terms anti-gay (or anti-LGBTI) prejudice and anti-muslim prejudice.

It is strange that the words for different sorts of prejudice and hate can sound so different. Racism, sexism, agism, ablism sound similar, but is there a similar -ism version for the two terms in question here? Sherman argues for the term gaycism, but it seems unlikely to catch on. It could be useful for alliance building if all were said using a standard construction that we could put side by side, and I propose here we simply use anti-black, anti-woman, anti-gender queer, anti-Muslim, etc. Whether you then add on the word prejudice, bias, hate, or bigotry could vary.

May 9, 2017

Chances are growing that your research might be weaponized

A few months ago I published the article Beware, your research may be weaponized in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers (AAG), as part of a forum on militarism in geography that came out of and is part of the long standing struggle in the discipline to address the growing use of geography by the US military in particular. (If you are a geographer and have not yes signed this petition, please do! The AAG finally agreed to set up a study group, but we need to keep the pressure on for good recommendations.)

I was honoured to have the web site The Conversation approach me and suggest that I do a popular shorter version of this article. This was my first time trying to do a popular version of an article. It was a bit of a shock at first to see how heavily my draft was edited. Here I thought that my writing was generally fairly easy to read, but this site actually uses software that rates readability. It was a good experience and I'm now motivated to always do a popular version of my academic articles.

As well as being shorter this version is much more practical, and proposes hacks for avoiding weaponization. The other challenge they gave me was to make it timely and start with a hook that connected it to breaking news. So I started like this:

Surveillance has become so ubiquitous that it appears likely that Russia was caught in the act conspiring to fix the 2016 United States presidential election, and at least one of his staffers was basically overheard conspiring with them.

Politicians aren’t the only ones being watched. Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations detailing the US National Security Agency’s widespread surveillance have made clear that, these days, everyone should be thinking about privacy and security.

Read on here ... 

Apr 21, 2017

denim day

April 26th 2017 is this year's #denimday, where you are asked to wear jeans as a way to speak out against sexual violence. As I have blogged before, one of my various critiques of this campaign is that so many people regularly wear jeans that it would be hard for your jeans to stand out on this day.

But I've learned that all cadets and staff at the US military academy West Point have been officially encouraged to wear jeans that day - and in fact the email they got about it explained the history of this solidarity action better than the official site does:

"all of West Point is encouraged to wear jeans to work as a visible means of protest against the misconceptions that surround sexual assault. Denim Day was originally triggered by a ruling by the Italian Supreme Court where a rape conviction was overturned because the justices felt that since the victim was wearing tight jeans she must have helped her rapist remove her jeans, thereby implying consent. The following day, the women in the Italian Parliament came to work wearing jeans in solidarity with the victim. Since then, wearing jeans on Denim Day has become a symbol of protest against erroneous and destructive attitudes about sexual assault."

Well since the military rarely wears jeans, and has a serious sexual assault epidemic, I would be happy to see them all wear jeans on this day. It would be particularly striking if they wore uniforms on top and jeans below!

Jan 23, 2017

solidarity braids

I have blogged here before about various symbolic acts of solidarity, from wearing certain colors, to wearing heels, to going barefoot, to being silent for a day. None have moved me like this beautiful act of art and protest.

As Trump was being inaugurated, 50 women organized through the group Boundless across Borders came together on the US-Mexico border pedestrian bridge between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez and braided their hair together.

I love the way this protest literally and symbolically weaves together the bodily intimate as a way of shaping the global. Global politics are always shaping our daily lives, our bodies, our hair. So too what we do with our bodies day to day is constantly shaping global politics, from what food to how we manage childcare. This is a basic argument of feminist political geography (if you want to read more about it, check out the book the Global and the Intimate).

Xochitl Nicholson, one of the organizers, talked about why they used hair this way, “We wanted something that referenced women directly, but that also sends a message about our common heritage and common backgrounds in a broader context,” Nicholson said. “It’s a symbol of collective strength.”

Of course this protest isn't accessible to women who wear head scarves, or women with kinky hair, or short hair, or no hair - but I still love the symbolism and intimacy of it.

Dec 11, 2016

Ways to make safety pin solidarity actually safer

have posted repeatedly on this blog about people wearing different things to signal solidarity of various sorts. I research how people build alternative securities through solidarity - so I have been following the debates about recent attempts to create safety by wearing safety pins.

If you are in the US, and maybe even Canada, you have probably heard about wearing a safety pin to signal solidarity for safety in the face of a hateful attack. But I will start with a brief explanation for global readers, since I recently presented on it at a workshop in Brussels and no one had heard of it. This was all the more surprising since it was a workshop on 'Nurturing solidarity in diversity' put on by the DieGem research group (see their paper on that page about their work, Putting flesh to the bone).  

People started wearing safety pins in the UK after Brexit, in response to a huge rise in anti-immigrant attacks. It was inspired by the by the #illridewithyou movement in Australia, in which people offered to take public transportation with Muslims fearing a backlash after a Muslim gunman held people hostage in a cafe in 2014. I believe the initial idea was to signal something like 'I will step in to create safety' in the case of an anti-immigrant attack. 

Safety pins were taken up in the US in response to an alarming rash of hateful attacks of various sorts in the US after the election of Trump, against not just immigrants but Muslims, Jews, Latinos, and LGBT people. 

The critiques of the safety pins come from two directions. Trump supporters read them as ‘anti-Trump’ rather than as anti-hate and pro-safety. This argument has been taken so far as to ban teachers from wearing them in at least one school district (Shawnee Mission, Kansas), which said it was banning them as political speech in an effort to maintain a neutral environment. 

There have been many hateful (particularly mysoginist) and violent takeovers of the twitter #safetypin hash tag, which often make plays on the safety pin of a gun. 

But justice activists have also critiqued the use of the safety pins.

The primary critique I have seen online is that the pins are too easy. The concern is that wearing a pin would simply assuage guilt over the election and the hate crimes that have followed and make the wearer feel good about themselves and thereby get them out of taking more concrete actions, like going to protests, or doing media work.

Another critique is that people might wear the pin to support just some of the groups under greater attack after the hate filled Trump campaign, and not others - so, for example, a safety pin wearer might be ready to step in if a woman with a head scarf is being yelled at on the bus, but not a transgender street involved youth. 

But perhaps the most worrisome critique is that it seems that many people are wearing the pins without any real plan for how they would intervene and de-escalate an attack, much less various strategies depending on the situation, or any practice in carrying them out. As such, seeing someone wearing a safety pin could be less than reassuring to someone facing an attack. Indeed, a naive and unplanned intervention could easily aggravate a situation. 

This is particularly true in the current context in the US, where police violence against people of color is a real threat. If your idea of how to intervene for someone’s safety is to call the police, in certain police districts you could actually be making a situation worse. 

But there are other resources to turn to. There are growing sources of training for how to stay safe without the police, which are collated in the google document “what to do instead of calling the police”

One of the various examples there also relies on solidarity symbols. The Audre Lorde Project Safe Outside the System Collective (SOS) gave local businesses decals to show that they were a SOS spot. These businesses received training in how to de-escalate violence (and take in victims of violence) without the police. Queer/POC folks knew that if they saw that decal, they could run into that bodega and get help.
Another model of security through solidarity is the 'Bringing in the bystander' program in place at various universities. Participants receive training in how to intervene in sexual assault. There is a standard training, that was developed at the University of New Hampshire and is being researched at the University of Windsor. Components of the program include
  • Discussion and practice of a range of active, potentially helpful bystander behaviors as well as the costs and benefits of different behaviors.
  • Bystander pledge to increase commitment to intervene.
  • “ABC” card – Active Bystanders Care (Assess the situation. Be with others. Care for the victim) includes reminders of the decision-making process for intervening, lists several examples of ways to intervene and provides contact information for relevant resources.
But again, many people wearing a safety pin have probably not taken any training like this. Is training really necessary? Could you simply read a cartoon with instructions, like this one by the artist Maeril first posted here? This cartoon is great, but this is one of many tactics - and might not always be the best to use. 

At least reading about tactics for intervening in ways that actually increase safety (here is a good start), and talking them through with friends and family (particularly ones we're likely to be with), seems essential. I hope that trainings will also multiply and that more people will have access to them. The "safety pin solidarity deescalation class", at my childhood home library, is inspiring. As the organizer put it

I've enlisted an expert in the mental health space with experience teaching who will:
1) Address recognizing a harassment situation, including hate crimes
3) Teach different strategies for intervening in harassment situations 
4) Outline how to choose the appropriate strategy while prioritizing safety of self and others

There are many people in our communities with these skills. I hope that more spaces will be set up to share them with the many people who have been inspired by the safety pin tactic. 
Putting on this kind of training of course requires more organizing, more collective action beyond the easier connective action of wearing a pin (for more on the concept of connective action see Bennet).

As a geographer I know space matters. Space is both shaped by and shapes our social interactions, and small acts can make a big difference in the feel of a space. I would hope that in the same way a queer student is likely to feel more comfortable in a university where lots of profs have signs like this on their door, a Muslim student might feel more welcome on a campus where a lot of people are wearing safety pins. 

But maybe not. Maybe the safety pins have been so ridiculed, or taken up so lightly, that they will not be seen by others as a real commitment to step up and so will not have much impact on the feel of the space. This will of course vary by context.

The main role the safety pin may actually serve might be to regularly remind the wearer of their commitment - and hopefully inspire them to think about how they might respond, to take a training, and to be on the lookout for even microaggressions. 

Yet I get the sense that maybe many of the safety pin wearers are expecting people being attacked to find them and step towards them, rather than the safety pin wearer having to actively step up (and have a plan for doing so). This widely circulated 'I am safe' image seems to imply that. 

Perhaps my most serious concern with the safety pins, and one that I haven't seen posted though I'm sure others must have also made it, is that the two images that are most widely circulated with the hashtag, 'I am safe' and "you are safe with me" sound a bit saviourish. As I've argued here before, solidarity can easily slip into saviourism. 

It makes a real difference if the person wearing a safety pin frames it as 'you are a victim, I am not - I am here to help you', or something like, 'I believe in safety and human rights for everyone. I am part of the new civil rights movement and in the struggle to ensure that everyone’s rights are respected. When I am a bit safer than someone else under attack, because of a particular privilege, I will leverage that privilege to try to increase their safety.'

Whenever privilege is used in solidarity organizing across difference there is a danger of reinforcing the systems and practices that make some lives worth more than others, but when used carefully and with awareness, sometimes privilege can be used to wear away those inequalities. 

Much as with the international protective accompaniment that I research, a quick and easy use of safety pins could reinforce the superiority of some over others. It takes doing more consciousness raising and organizing - but if safety pins are used as part of a larger project of education and movement building they could play a role in changing the reality that now some people are safer than others.

Nov 17, 2016

the dark sides of empathy

this image comes up when you google empathy -
is this how you imagine it working?
I have repeatedly blogged here about how empathy can be problematic, particularly when it is appropriative. I have argued that when empathy does lead to solidarity, there is a greater risk of it being a more colonial sort of solidarity. Yet I am happy to see that even as empathy experiments abound, there seems to be a growing discussion and critique of empathy. 

The European Society for Literature, Science and the Arts is dedicating its next annual conference to the theme of empathy, or EMPATHIES rather: www.empathies2017.com.

The conference will take place in Basel (Switzerland), from 21-24 June 2017. The deadline is: 10 December 2015. It will be organised along the four streams: (1) Empathy, Morality, Ethics; (2) Empathy, Narrative, Imagination; (3) Empathy and the Nonhuman; (4) Collective Empathy. 

As Manuela Rossini, the president of the association, put it in an email: 

A transversal theme will also be "the dark sides of empathy," which certainly includes critical perspectives from postcolonial studies on the topic. In addition, there will be a pre-conference workshop on 20 June for doctoral candidates and postdocs dedicated to "The Cultural Politics of Empathy."

Apr 24, 2016

yet another bad idea empathy experiment

An intense semester is finally winding down and I'm ready to post again. Thanks to my friend Rachel for sending this bizarre empathy experiment my way.

The odd picture here is of Norway's immigration minister, Sylvi Listhaug, supposedly trying to get a sense of what it is like to be a refugee and lose your boat in the Aegean sea.

It seems to me that she was actually promoting the work of the Norwegian rescue ship, which pulled her out minutes later.

Not surprisingly she has received a fair bit of criticism online, particularly about her wearing a survival suit during the exercise. Said one, “Tonight I’ll sleep with the window open to feel what it’s like to be homeless."

My critique is not about her suit, but about the entire exercise. Do we have to experience what it is like to drown or nearly drown to be moved to take action in solidarity with the refugees? Would they really want anyone to have to experience even the slightest bit of the horrors they have faced?

It reminds me of my wise friend Patricia Isasa, a torture survivor, telling me something like 'of course you could never really understand what it is like to be tortured - and why on earth would I want you to?' As I repeatedly have argued here, we do not have to pretend to be each other to be in solidarity with each other.