Oct 27, 2013

suprise surprise, it's harder for the rich to empathize - but chains can help

I posted a few months ago about studies that show that racism makes it harder to feel the pain of black people - even if the person whose empathy is being studied is themselves black!

Well a recent article in the NYT reviewed what it calls 'a growing body of literature' showing that those with social power not only empathize less with those who have less power, they don't even get to the first stage of paying attention to them! The author, Daniel Goleman, argues that to reduce the economic gap we have to also work on this empathy gap. 

One of the ways to bridge that 'empathy gap' is bit by bit, via people who those with social power do pay more attention to.   I understand much of international solidarity activism to work this way, and I find useful Galtung's description of this move as mobilizing a 'great chain of nonviolence.' He argues that nonviolence
“works better the shorter the social distance.  More particularly, when the other party has been totally dehumanized in the mind of the oppressor, civil disobedience may be seen only as one more instance of queer, strange behaviour, uncivilized rather than civil in its disobedience … It is when one’s own people, the Other inside the Self, or the Self in the Other, start reacting the same way, non-violently, sending a forceful signal that “we are not tolerating this any longer,” that chords of responsiveness are being touched.  Doubts about legitimacy are generated.”[1]
He recognizes that 
“The long-term approach would be struggle against the sources of dehumanization, bridging all gaps within and between societies.  But the short-term approach would be to mobilize the in-between groups, have them act out their political conscience and consciousness on behalf of those too far down and away to have an effective voice.  And then build social and human ties to solidify that political cooperation, in both directions, with the oppressors and with the oppressed.”[2]
Writing this in 1989 he ends with,
“Whose task was it to stay Washington’s ruthless aggression in Nicaragua, using the contras in that great chain of violence built from above? Above all, the task of the US people, in massive demonstrations … students, for instance, particularly from elite universities.”[3]

Martin and Varney argue that although Galtung presents this as a psychological chain, it can also be seen as a communication chain, where intermediaries can communicate more directly be that because of language, meaning systems, or other reasons.[4]  As they see it, “The chain gets around power inequalities by utilizing a series of links, each of which is closer to power equality than the direct connection between resisters and their opponents.”[5]  They surmise that Galtung uses the adjective 'great' in reference to the Christian concept of the ‘Great Chain of Being’ where all beings exist in a hierarchical order, from rocks up to God[6] - which is rather different than the idea of Christian solidarity based on brotherhood and equality before God that those accompaniment groups that are Christian tend to reference. 

As Clark puts it “when an oppressed community cannot directly influence power-holders in a situation, they begin link-by-link to construct a chain of nonviolence by approaching those people they can reach, planning that each link will in turn connect with others until the chain extends to people closer to the power structures and even to decision-makers themselves.”[7]  Clark cites Summy’s argument that this is useful when a power holder is not directly dependent on the cooperation of the subject population, and so the chain connects with those on whom the power-holder does depend.[8]  

[1] Johan Galtung, “Principles of Nonviolent Action: The Great Chain of Nonviolence Hypothesis,” in Nonviolence and Israel/Palestine (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Institute for Peace, 1989), 19–20.
[2] Ibid., 32.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Brian Martin and Wendy Varney, “Nonviolence and Communication,” Journal of Peace Research 40, no. 2 (March 1, 2003): 220.
[5] Ibid., 229.
[6] Ibid., 219.
[7] Howard Clark, People Power: Unarmed Resistance and Global Solidarity (London: Pluto Press, 2009), 215.
[8] Ibid., 216.

Oct 19, 2013

how not to appropriate Malala and her story

Much has been said online in the past two weeks about Malala and her story.  I have been fascinated because I spend much of my time these days thinking about how those of us that do not live in war zones can listen more powerfully to stories told by those working for peace from inside those zones, and how those stories can help up build more respectful solidarity that can help us all work more powerfully together for peace. 
I particularly appreciated the article about Mala's story by Omid Safi, which I am reposting below:

Malala Yousafzai is the toast of the day.    There was a strong campaign to have her receive the Nobel Peace Prize this year, she has been featured on Jon Stewart, and had a private audience with President Obama .  The White House tabbed this meeting to mark their “photo of the day.
Malala meeting at the White House with President Obama and family.

At the same time, there are also many who are writing pieces critical of her, or concerned about the way in which she can be appropriated by the West.    A New York Times article asked the question many are asking:  “Is Malala Yousafzai a heroine or Western stooge?
In light of these competing projects, we need some careful analysis.
Let us begin by admitting that the very anxiety over what Malala is doing and should or should not be doing  smacks of a patriarchal nature.   This is a bold and courageous young woman who has stood up to misogynist bullies, been the victim of an assassination plot by getting shot in the face, and again risen above that to continue with her calling to promote the cause of girls’ education.  No amount of analysis or concern—even righteous concern—should take away her agency, her will, and her resistance.   To negate her agency, even by would be allies, is yet another attempt to negate her humanity.  I write my own words mindful of the above.

Here are five points to help us keep a healthy perspective on Malala the person and Malala the phenomenon.

1)    Malala is indeed remarkable.
It is all but impossible not to come away with a deep sense of awe of the grace, dignity, intelligence, and composure of this young woman who has been in the public spotlight since she was 11 years old.   And lest we forget:  she was shot in the face by the Taliban simply because she insisted on the right of girls to receive education.
If we have a few critiques, let us be clear that they are not of her, but rather of the way she might be used by Western powers to advance their colonial agendas.
Malala’s interview with Jon Stewart gave a beautiful indication of the strength of her conviction.    Her comments about how she wanted to respond to those who would come to kill her is a great testimony to her courage, and profound commitment to nonviolence in a way that is actually quite reminiscent of Martin Luther King’s teachings:

Malala meeting with Jon Stewart
I started thinking about that, and I used to think that the Talib would come, and he would just kill me. But then I said, ‘If he comes, what would you do Malala?’ then I would reply to myself, ‘Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.’  But then I said, ‘If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.’ Then I said I will tell him how important education is and that ‘I even want education for your children as well.’ And I will tell him, ‘That’s what I want to tell you, now do what you want.

2)    Malala is remarkable.  She is not, however, exceptional.
Malala is remarkable, but we must resist the urge to make her exceptional.  There is a long legacy to the exceptionalizing narrative when it comes to Muslims, and it works like this:   “The majority of folks ‘over there’ are either monsters or victims.   Every now and then, there is an isolated solitary hero that stands against that.   That hero supports ‘our’ values.”  That tendency to view the lone solitary hero(ine) of the Muslim masses, the need to have the solitary exceptional Muslim is part of the “good Muslim/bad Muslim” game.  And we are done playing these games.
Those of us who have spent years of our life living in and studying Muslim majority societies know that no one has a monopoly on goodness, truth, and beauty, or ugliness, evil, and cruelty.    These are human tendencies that percolate inside each and every single one of us.  And Muslim societies, like all societies, are filled with courageous people and communities who stand for what is just and beautiful.   Malala is a remarkable young woman, but she is neither an exception nor (in that sense) exceptional.   She is simply a beautiful personification of that courage and compassion.  But there are thousands of other courageous women and men in these societies who are going about living the poetry of their day-to-day lives, resisting evil, and striving for good.

3)    Malala’s inspiration is based on her own society.
It is well-known that Malala is struggling against the pathetic misogyny of the Taliban.  It should be well-known that the Taliban’s patriarchy actually violates the very teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, who stated unambiguously that the quest for knowledge was a responsibility for every man and every woman.    Malala is struggling against the patriarchal and misogynist tendencies of Muslim societies, that much is true.    But it also important to point out that her courage, her compassion, her conviction also arises out of the same society.   In short, it is her family, her community, and her faith that give rise her remarkable (though not exceptional) strength and beauty of character.

4)    Malala is not “ours” to adopt.
It is not often that I disagree with Jon Stewart.   He is quite possibly my favorite cultural critic, and my favorite comedian. That he can do both and weave them together is a testimony to his genius.
But I have to confess a profound discomfort with Stewart’s somewhat adorable comment to Malala “I want to adopt you.”  Yes, we understand the urge, and I don’t think Stewart’s comments were in any way malicious or intended as anything other than a spur of the moment adoration.   However, and this is an important point, Malala does not need to be adopted.  Nor is she available for adoption.   Her comments came right after she talked about how it has been the love and adoration of her own father that has given her wings to accomplish what she has.   She already has a father, she has a family.  And that family is as much a story of Pakistan, a story of Muslim societies, as the stories of the Taliban.
Malala is already rooted in a community, even as she is struggling to reform that community.    One can only adopt someone who is an orphan, without family, without communtiy.   None of these are true for Malala.   The extent to which she will be able to transform her own society will remain linked to the extent to which she remains grounded in her own community (while perhaps networking with international voices of resistance, human rights, etc.)

5)    Malala has to stand against both the violence of the Muslim extremists like Taliban and the violence of the American Empire.  
Malala reported that she had the following comments to President Obama  about the American policy of drones:
“I thanked President Obama for the United States’ work in supporting education in Pakistan and Afghanistan and for Syrian refugees. I also expressed my concerns that drone attacks are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus efforts on education it will make a big impact.
Words like authenticity are overused.   Yet if one is going to be a genuine Muslim reformer, and not one manufactured by or promoted by Western powers, it is vital to have and maintain a holistic sense of justice in which one speaks simultaneously against both abuses of Muslim extremists and Western colonial powers.    As for Malala, it means simultaneously to speak against the misogynist policies of the Taliban AND the violence inflicted on the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan by American drones.   It takes a bold person to speak that type of truth to power, especially when the power is the charismatic power of the Office of the President of the United States.
Yes, the Taliban are vile, misogynist, and violent group that has practiced gender apartheid in Afghanistan and has killed thousands of people who disagree with their bigoted ideology.
And yes, it is easier for us to focus on the evil of the Taliban than to confront the evil of “our” own policies.   We have to speak against the evil of the Taliban, and we have to recognize that we too—as in the United States of America—are responsible for a great evil over there.  We too have used drones to kill thousands of civilians in these countries, including hundreds and hundreds of children.
Here are the numbers from the U.K.-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism about the cost of drone attacks in Malala’s own Pakistan:
Total reported killed: 2,548 – 3,549
Civilians reported killed: 411 – 890
Children reported killed: 168 – 197
These are the hundreds of civilian casualties that we as Americans have killed in Pakistan alone .  To these, we have to add the dead in Afghanistan, in Yemen, in Somalia, in Iraq, the dead from sanctions in Iran, and elsewhere.

At that level, it is worth asking the tough question: if Malala had been killed or injured by an American drone, would she be celebrated?  If she been injured by an American drone, would she be meeting with President Obama and featured on Jon Stewart?   If the answer to that question is a no—and let us be honest about the fact that we do not feature victims of American violence—then we have to confront the betrayal of our own silence.

In short, all of us, including the millions of people inspired by the example of Malala, have to move forward by insisting on a holistic sense of justice where we speak simultaneously against injustice here and injustice there, connecting the sanctity of life here to sanctity of life there.
The way for Malala is the same way for all of us:  to stand against brutality anywhere and everywhere, whether it is state-sponsored violence or terrorism violence.    A better future for all of us depends on this stance for a holistic sense of justice.

Oct 9, 2013

is it useful to think in terms of allies and privilege?

A few weeks ago I posted about the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen, a powerful twitter conversation which was sparked in part by the public breakdown of public white male feminist ally Hugo Schwyzer. 

Well now there is another interesting conversation happening online about anti-racist ally work, again sparked by a public breakdown of yet another public white male ally, this time Tim Wise, probably the best known white anti-racist speaker and writer in the US.  Again, I'm not interested in focusing on what Hugo or Tim did, but I'm appreciating the conversations that emerged.

Black Girl Dangerous has a blog post entitled No More "Allies" in which she writes:

"henceforth, I will no longer use the term “ally” to describe anyone. Instead, I’ll use the phrase “currently operating in solidarity with.” Or something. I mean, yeah, it’s clunky as hell. But it gets at something that the label of “ally” just doesn’t. And that’s this: actions count; labels don’t.

“Currently operating in solidarity with” is undeniably an action. It describes what a person is doing in the moment. It does not give credit for past acts of solidarity without regard for current behavior. It does not assume future acts of solidarity. It speaks only to the actions of the present. Some other options:
  • showing support for…
  • operating with intentionality around…
  • using my privilege to help by…
  • demonstrating my commitment to ending [insert oppressive system] by…
  • showing up for  [insert marginalized group] in the following ways…
These are all better ways of talking about–and thinking about–allyship because they are active, and because they require examples. This is key. Why? Because, as I and countless others have said many, many times, allyship is an every day practice. The work of an ally is never ceasing. As long as the isms are functioning–and they are functioning at full capacity every hour of every day–then the action of allyship must function just as perpetually, just as fully, just as tirelessly.

“Ally” cannot be a label that someone stamps onto you–or, god forbid, that you stamp on to yourself—so you can then go around claiming it as some kind of identity. It’s not an identity. It’s a practice. It’s an active thing that must be done over and over again, in the largest and smallest ways, every day."

I have never felt comfortable with the term ally or used it for myself, so I appreciate these arguments.

I also appreciated the article in Aljazeera by Tanya Golash-Boza entitled "The problems with white allies and white privilege" though I disagree that the concept of "white privilege" is based only on an individualist-based notion of how racism works and keeps us from seeing racist structures.  In my own work I certainly look at how the structures of racism play out in the day to to day use of privilege, as well as how those privileges might be used to wear down those same structures.

There has also been a lot of reposting lately of the article "The problem with privilege" by Andrea Smith. It's pretty harsh and I think falls into facile stereotypes of this sort of work, though there is certainly some truth to them.  I certainly agree that "individual transformation must occur concurrently with social and political transformation."  Ideally our work on each informs and strengthens our work on the other.  But again, I just don't think that talking about privilege always, or even usually, means that we are only talking about an individual self or individual privilege disconnected from structures.