It would be an understatement to say that there’s currently a lot of tension between anti-oppression organizers (so-called ‘Rad McGill’) and other students on campus. Obviously, there is a lot of negativity, which gets under one’s skin, ferments, and explodes in the form of condescension, ad hominem attacks, and willful discrimination. Admittedly, I have only recently started organizing under anti-oppressive principles, and it took me a while to come around to an anti-oppressive point of view. With that in mind, I nevertheless firmly stand by the principles of anti-oppressive organizing, and am grateful for the vocabulary and spaces they have created in order to facilitate my own healing from trauma that I’ve experienced.
As such, I stand by anti-oppressive organizers. I would like to offer up some of my own experiences with organizing, in order to shed a little more light on the situation.
A very good starting point for this discussion has to do with realizing that not all activism is organizing, and not all organizing is anti-oppressive organizing. One does not have to subscribe to an anti-oppressive framework to consider themselves an activist or an organizer, and as such, it’s important to not throw all these groupings under any one label. Additionally, not everyone who works in anti-oppressive organizing subscribes to radical politics. Lumping miscellaneous campus organizations into this ‘rad’ bubble is inaccurate, subjective, and, at the end of the day, means nothing.
One does not have to subscribe to an anti-oppressive framework to consider themselves an activist or an organizer, and as such, it’s important to not throw all these groupings under any one label.
Just as it’s inaccurate to lump all different kinds of organizing together, it’s also inaccurate to assume that we’re all offended at the drop of a hat. First of all, I’d like people to stop assuming offence the moment when I ask someone to not use certain terminology, because the majority of the time, I’m not offended. Assuming so means you do not understand my response at all. There is a huge difference between using terminology that has been deemed insulting by social consensus, and using terminology which is historically and presently used to deprive people of their humanity and equal standing in society. When this terminology is employed in conversation and debates, the effect, regardless of the intent of its usage, is that the word leverages power, which is unacceptable because no one has the right to leverage power. Trying to distract from what’s going on by attempting to make the issue about me, implying that I should be embarrassed if someone thinks I’m ‘too serious’ or that I ‘can’t laugh at myself,’ doesn’t work either.
So when I ask someone not to use certain words, or am curt when engaging with someone whom I’ve known to employ incorrect language before, it is because I am perplexed by a power play taking place in front of my face, not because I’m offended. I am not just going to stand by and watch someone overtly try to leverage power against others or myself. The negative impact of oppression and discrimination that stems from leveraging power begins somewhere, and it has to end somewhere. So if it’s starting with you, why shouldn’t it end with me?
To be honest though, I’m not sure why people are choosing to be so reactionary when asked to change their vocabulary just a little. First and foremost, people have the right to expect people to use the vocabulary by which they choose to identify themselves, as opposed to using the word forced upon them by a random white dude à la Christopher Columbus.
Additionally, language evolves on all topics all the time. The only reason we view some evolutions as more difficult than others is because they are not commonly discussed in the mainstream. In short, if it’s not an evolution that rich cis white guys care about, the mainstream is less likely to value it as well.
So when I ask someone not to use certain words, or am curt when engaging with someone whom I’ve known to employ incorrect language before, it is because I am perplexed by a power play taking place in front of my face, not because I’m offended.
Not having to inconvenience oneself for others is an unearned comfort and an unfair advantage in today’s world. Inequity persists for this very reason, because someone gains an advantage from it. This mentality trickles down to maintaining the most inane comforts, such as defending one’s alleged ‘right’ to refer to sex workers as ‘prostitutes’ even by mistake. From this germinates the argument that sex workers should feel grateful that people refer to them as ‘prostitutes’ instead of ‘hookers’ or ‘whores.’ Why should someone be grateful for not having their profession as inappropriately misidentified as it could be? Especially when this is a basic level of common courtesy that the average human enjoys, without even having to think about it. These changes in vocabulary are not trends, but representations of the evolving needs of different communities.
Speaking of people who organize, we can’t be on call to educate y’all all the time about all the things! That’s not our job. Just like other people at McGill, I have a job where I actually get paid for the things I do, in addition to dealing with school, social commitments, family, and organizing.
Sometimes, when I’m having a really shitty day, it may not bring me extreme pleasure and the utmost joy to put in the emotional labour and time that it can take to have discussions – however well-intentioned – about anti-oppressive framework and theory, let alone to deal with people who ask to be educated but then end up arguing with me and wasting my time.
Not having to inconvenience oneself for others is an unearned comfort and an unfair advantage in today’s world.
Due to these experiences, I’m wary of pretty much anyone who’s coming to me on an individual basis to ask for education. There are hundreds of events centred on social justice issues happening on campus. These people can attend any one of these events, and ask their questions there. Better yet, they could get in contact with one of these organizations, via an official channel of communication, to pose their questions and to learn. This is why self-education is so necessary. It’s fun, it shows commitment to social justice, and it means you don’t have to deal with a potentially tired and cranky anti-o organizer. Personally, I’ve found the blogs Everyday Feminism and Black Girl Dangerous, and the Facebook page End Colonial Mentality, to have amazing educational content about intersectionality and the language different communities are using, among other things.
At the end of the day, if you don’t want to get on board with the work I do, that’s fine. If your allyship for my cause doesn’t come on my terms, then I don’t want it; just as if I’m organizing with other communities, and my allyship doesn’t come on their terms, then they probably don’t want it. We don’t need unwanted allyship, and to imply anything else is condescending. Not having your precious ‘care’ because I’m not doing things your way doesn’t mean my community and others will be marginalized for the rest of time – mostly because we have this little thing called agency. If this is what you’re bringing to the table then I, along with many others, will just balance the scales on our own.
Margaret Gilligan is a U3 Joint Honours student in World Islamic and Middle East Studies, and Hispanic Studies. To contact her, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.