To Be Real, part 1
I teach a community college course called “Women Respond to Violence” in which we examine varieties of violence and the multiplicity of ways that women (and their male allies) have struggled to understand and intervene in its causes and consequences. (Here’s the syllabus for the upcoming semester.)
Most of the students are survivors of some form of violence, such as sexual assault, domestic battery or war. Most are women; many are refugees. Most are poor or working class; some are or have been homeless. Many live in violent neighborhoods; all, along with you and me, live in a dangerously deranged biosphere in which babies are born with (literally) hundreds of industrial chemicals (many of them neurotoxins) already floating in their blood.
In other words, most students come into the class with substantial real-world experience of violence. And yet, about halfway through each semester, the class collectively pronounces itself stunned (and overwhelmed) by the extent and variety of abuses human beings have and continue to inflict on each other (this is before we get to violence against animals and ecosystems, which tends to prompt another round of horrified surprise).
No, I don’t leave them in that lurch. The point of the course is empowerment, not demoralization. But true empowerment can only come within a real assessment of the situation. Otherwise, it’s all pep talks and smiley faces—superficial succor instead of substantial skill-building. So we face the facts squarely, knowing that doing so is a requirement for figuring out what we can do that might actually have a chance of making a difference (rather than just making us feel better).
As a new year begins, I find myself wanting to make a similar but broader assessment of inconvenient facts. I want to pile them all up together and then see where the chinks in the wall might be. This might be what Joanna Macy recommended as a spark to anti-nuke activism: Directly confronting, rather than shiftily avoiding, the sources of despair.
I think that I’ll start by recapping some of the distressing facts that I and my students wrestle with every semester. (I’m about to launch into a new 15-week cycle of that class, so various topics will be especially fresh in my mind as the exercise unfolds.) Then, I’ll tally up other troubling realities that I often wonder whether social change activists in various movements are adequately accounting for. Probably, I’ll need to go offline and non-linear at some point, but I can scan and post any scribbles or sketches.
The hope is that looking at the aggregation of inconvenient facts—and looking especially at the connections among them, at the ecology of violence—might help in crafting more realistic social change strategies. Whether consciously or not, all social change strategies are rooted in assumptions about what people are like and how the world works. If these unspoken assumptions are inaccurate, the strategies may be inherently unlikely to achieve their aims. Real-world change can only come through an accurate assessment of the facts on the ground.
I invite you along with me on this exercise. What facts, when they come to mind, tend to punch your morale in the stomach? What thoughts lead you into the temptation to throw up your hands and quit trying? Share them with me in the comments, and I’ll be sure to include them in the process.
(This is the first of what will be I-dont-know-how-many parts in the “To Be Real” series. I’ve created a new category—Facing Facts—for the series, and I’ll go back and add relevant past posts to that category for our mutual reference.)
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