I work and write in a field that I entered because I sincerely believed it to be the gateway towards social justice for all living things. Needless to say (or perhaps not so needless for some), I was more than a bit naive. Higher education, whether institutionally, culturally, or societally, is as much an arbiter of oppression and injustice as any other social enterprise. That is not to say that I do not believe in the liberatory power and potential of education - in fact it is that very belief that keeps me in the discipline, striving towards becoming faculty myself one day. However, I am far more critical of education these days, more skeptical of intent and purpose, more aware of its harm and dangers, where before I took the benefits of all education as a given.
I entered this field naively for sure, and with the arrogance of an activist that had only 'acted' within the confines of a campus bubble. I was intent on changing the world from within but with minimal knowledge of and experience on the 'outside'. I believed all it took was education, holding an entirely vague notion of what that word meant that often barely surpassed notions of 'awareness-raising', but still with the determination to be among those giving this education to others. There is a lot to reflect on here about some of the myths and misconceptions I held about higher education and my own role in it. So perhaps I'll take that on in later posts.
What I am glad I brought with me from my student activist 'upbringing' is my anger and a memory of its redemptive and empowering potential. My anger is something I had to learn to come into and find healing power in. Raised as a girl, I had received the messages of anger's unladylike features. Expressions of masculine anger often showed up only in the form of violence and entitlement, including within my own family. Being an international student, and later an immigrant in the U.S. (I was already an immigrant in the country I grew up in), anger apparently conveyed ingratitude to my oh-so-benevolent-and-exceptional host country, so I was often told to STFU or go back where I came from.
I have a complicated history with anger. I know the harm it can cause, as I have experienced it as a receiver, as an observer, and as a contributor. But I also know of its need, its purpose, and the importance of having a nuanced understanding of and relationship with it. What I am talking about has been talked about, contextualized, and defended by many others, far more eloquently than I ever could. When the New York Times published a racist essay on the incomporable Shonda Rhimes, calling her an angry Black woman, social media and pop culture critics rightfully erupted. Media commentator Janet Mock wrote "In defense of Clair Huxtable & the angry Black woman on TV & beyond", artfully demolishing the faux binary constructed in the essay of Rhimes as 'angry' and Huxtable as 'benign'. Since this past summer, as the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO ignited the #BlackLivesMatter revolution, Dr. Brittney Cooper has written piece after piece about Black rage, defending it here, struggling against calls to be "dignified and disciplined" here, and discussing the fear of Black anger here.
Marginalized and oppressed people have a lot of reason to be angry, and today in the U.S. we are witnessing the much-fueled, racism-stoked, centuries-amassed rage of Black people in this country. Black folks have had just about enough and then some, and are outraged at the lack of outrage, perhaps as much as the enormity of injustice and violence they deal with every day. Thus when the latest issue of About Campus, a higher education publication, came in the mail, I had a visceral reaction to one of the articles in it. Entitled "Taming the madvocate within: Social justice meets social compassion", (PDF copy here) the authors argued that "advocates must move beyond anger in order to be effective" (p. 20). Granted, I should acknowledge how long it takes for something to get published in one of our discipline's journals, as it is highly unlikely that the article was penned with the current #BlackLivesMatter protests in mind. Regardless, it still stings, it still reads as tone-policing, and it is still rife with needless binaries of what constitutes good advocacy work versus bad activism work. The timing of its publication just makes it that much worse. There are many in higher education and student affairs desperately looking for what to do with our own anger, or what to do with the helpless feeling many of us have when it comes to our students and colleagues, many who are unsure of our roles and the best course of action. It is a field full of people who want to do or say the right thing, and usually unaware of what that might be and uncomfortable with that lack of awareness.
So the timing of this piece sucks.
Timing aside, the piece makes a grave mistatement when it says that "the single greatest roadblock to successful advocacy work of all kinds" is madvocacy. Not White supremacy, or racism, or misogynoir, or sexism, or ableism, or cissexism, or colonialism, or etc. etc. etc. Madvocacy. It's not centuries of institutionalized oppression that is in the way of progress, but rather the 'wrong' way of doing things. We are not pandering to allies enough. Calling people out too much. Displaying anger too visibly. Making folks too uncomfortable. Because otherwise, if we just didn't do these things, our 'causes' would be ripe full of advocates, and the oppressors would have no other recourse but to stop this silly oppressing.
To be fair, the article makes some valid points. It strikes at the ways we can operationalize horizontal oppression, use shaming tactics that offer only feelings of righteousness to the deployer, and the dynamics of in-group social justice rhetoric that reaks of privilege and access to language and the right kind of education. However, these points get overshadowed by the glaring gap in the piece of attributing even a modicum of responsibility to systems of oppression as THE barriers in progress, thus providing further fuel and argument to those who would prefer to diverge and distract by focusing on the manner in which something is delivered. It also provides no redemptive value to anger (aside from calling it a reductive first step), consistently using the word in ways to evoke negative reactions to it, thus assuming that anger could not possibly be helpful.
There is a lot of power in who gets to call whom a madvocate, and what actions get to be painted as madvocacy. At a time when Black people in particular are admonished for not presenting their grief and sorrow in ways palatable to the rest of us, when grassroots activism is described as leaderless and without direction, and when disruptive actions are criticized far more than the injustices they seek to highlight, we ought to be careful and vigilant to others' as well as our own reactions in the face of 'madvocacy'. Whatever that is.
It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society - Jiddu Krishnamurti
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