What Does it Take to Engage?

As you can probably tell from my articles, I believe in a pretty radical, leftist politics — not just on a theoretical level, but on the level of actual, practical activism and engagement. That is to say, I believe that studying and agreeing with leftist theory — whether it’s critical race theory, feminist theory, Marxism, etc., etc. — is hypocritical and incomplete without trying to synchronize what you study with how you live. Theory and praxis, academia and activism, must go hand in hand — and each must engage and feed the other, with theory constantly being refined and redefined with situations encountered in the world and practice being constantly critiqued by a sustained theoretical engagement of what you do and what its implications are.

Practice/Activism can work on multiple levels: right from education and debate to organized rallies to radical and disruptive protest. All of these forms are, to an extent, helpful and necessary, and each effective in their own ways — though some, perhaps, more than others. The radical, disruptive and somewhat angry anarchist in me is always tempted to forget this, because I believe the best protests are those which make a point and make it loudly. “Education”, “debate” and “dialogue” too easily slide into liberal handwringing for me, where everyone ends up saying a lot and yet overhauling nothing, where debate stays stuck in suffocating binaries instead of critiquing underlying structures of power, where politeness and formality overshadow meaningful change. I always feel a compulsion to provoke people into reaction instead of gently trying to persuade them into it, to draw attention to issues with the hue and cry they deserve. I know I don’t always do this myself: I fail to live up to my own high standards for subversion, rebellion and activism. I feel I am always too easily co-opted by the system or by the fear of going against the status quo. The drive in me always says: work harder! Do more!

But lately, I’ve been critiquing that voice in my head. Because while I will never let go of the importance and crucial necessity of disruptive, radical, activist politics, a question that one of my close fellow activists on campus keeps asking rings in my head: who is your activism for? This question has been making me pause more and more: how much is my activism driven by my guilt, by my frustration at the futility of my situation and inability to make changes as revolutionary as I hope to make and by a sort of self-flagellation at my position in society, my social class, my role in the world as a privileged and oblivious liberal arts student? How much does this politics of guilt distract me from the change that I actually want to and can affect? How much does it drive me to ignore or dismiss talking and engaging with people who could perhaps be convinced of my politics if I took more time to explain it to them?

At the same time, there’s a danger in activism that is too diluted becoming completely unradical, working within the status quo it tries to rally against, reinforcing the same structures or merely masking their terribleness by trying to have mass appeal. Making compromises, making “actionable claims,” being “practical” — these are usually buzzwords that mean “stop trying to shake up the system, you’re scaring us!” They’re ways to halt progress, to control dissidents trying to point out criminally oppressive facets of the existing order, ways to silence a majority of the people who’s demands can never be “practical” within the system we live in because the system is always already so screwed up. There’s also something to the fact that the activist shouldn’t always have to be the educator: why is the onus on us to be the ones telling you what’s wrong, when everything around us is clearly disrupted, disturbed and destroyed by capitalism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, racism and so on? Why is the thrust on the oppressed to articulate their oppression on the terms of the oppressor? Why are — people generally, but for our immediate concerns, students at this college — so unwilling to engage or understand why some of us are so disillusioned with the system or critical of it? And what will it take to engage them without compromising the radicality of one’s own politics?

Something that makes this question of engaging people who come from a very different political place from you even harder is the liberal environment we’re in that separates action and belief so cleanly, that dilutes the stakes of one’s political beliefs to being nothing more than just cloaks to put on or discard inside and outside the classroom or common room debates, to give us no incentive to be political conscious beings at all. One of the most disheartening examples of this is the swarms of people I know who take classes with some pretty leftist professors at this campus and leave the classroom thinking they agree with them without ever realizing how critical and radical these professors are! Professors who are explicit in their political views are either treated as rarities and oddities (“professor Machala is a REAL LIFE MARXIST,” as someone commented on my last article, as though he was some rare being that needed to be regarded with curiosity and suspicion) or teach classes that are largely self-selecting. Professors who articulate their radical views on a more philosophical or obscure level escape this treatment, but only because there’s a way in which students feel they can co-opt their teaching in much less radical ways. In such an environment, is it ever at all possible to make someone engage with you who isn’t already interested — both intellectually and viscerally, willing to accompany you in both theory and practice? If a guilt and rage driven disruptive politics is ineffective because people won’t listen, how much is a politics of engagement and meeting people halfway ineffective for much the same reasons?

I can’t conclude this article with any more than an open question: at fellow students, fellow activists, fellow people. What does it take to engage people? What does it take to initiate meaningful change in a hostile environment where people are unwilling to listen? Where’s the line between getting in people’s faces and shouting, and politely talking to someone who’ll nod but not take in a word you say? How do you get people to take your anxieties seriously, and to understand what’s at stake in their political existence on a level both inside and outside the classroom, and inside and outside Amherst?