I’ve been spending the last week doing a lot of thinking about activism, social justice, and the need for a fundamental socioeconomic “revolution” given a world that’s become increasingly insecure and violent. Mostly it’s been an exercise in re-evaluating this work: how it can be done more effectively and what I can be doing to improve my approach in the long run.
There are a couple things that I’ve seen and read this week that I’m digesting: two films and an article. I still haven’t come to any conclusions for what they might mean but I wanted to jot down some of my thoughts.
The two movies I watched this week, The Internet’s Own Boy and American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, are documentaries about two very different people from very different eras and backgrounds who both committed their lives to social justice. For the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to try to briefly describe their varying approaches to addressing social injustice.
Aaron Swartz (whom I’ve written about before) was a renaissance man. Incredibly smart and brilliantly driven, he was able to find groundbreaking solutions to old problems and articulate these issues in a way that drove people to take action in an astoundingly effective way. For lack of a better word, I’d call him a “thought leader” of my tech/Internet-seeped generation. As someone who was boundlessly curious and passionate, the Internet gave him the access, the platform, and the opportunities to express this energy. But it also had some major limitations for him.
I can’t say for certain because I didn’t know him personally, but from what I’ve read and heard he was fundamentally disappointed in how people around him spent their energy. Specifically, those who were more interested in making money than work to improve the world. By the end of him life, I think his disappointment in society in general—in our institutions and the rule of law—was what broke him. Again, I don’t know if we can simply attribute his suicide to depression, but we can’t ignore the fact that the broken, shoddy system that he was attempting to fix was exactly what crushed him, deliberately and systematically.
Grace Lee Boggs is a 99 year old Chinese woman who was heavily involved in the Black Power Movement with her late husband, James Boggs. As an organizer of racial/economic struggle throughout the 20th Century, she seemed to have committed much of her energy into sparking conversation. She wrote several books with/without her husband about how and why we must bring about a revolution that would fundamentally change the nature and role of labor, work, and community. At least now (maybe she didn’t before), she doesn’t believe it can be violent whatsoever, and instead must be grounded in a revolution of ideas and values. This is likely why she tried to do everything she could to poke at society’s seemingly rigid, capitalist-grounded institutions and ideologies.
I wrote about her before after I saw her speak with Angela Davis in Berkeley. Her discussion with Angela shook me to the core. Questions about the overarching ideologies of my society, of US society, has begun to creep into me. This talk made me re-think things that I took for granted in a way I never had. I somehow forgot since I wrote that blog post two years ago that they dropped some incredible wisdom that day that I really ought to regularly revisit. There were many parts of their conversation that struck me, but one does a good job of summarizing her approach to social changes:
We can’t think anymore that all we have to do is to act, we have to do a lot of thinking. We have to do a lot of imagining. We have to do a lot of visionary organizing. We have to see every crisis as a both a danger and an opportunity. Its a danger because it does so much danger to our lives, to our institutions, to all that we have expected, but it’s also an opportunity for us to become creative. For us to become the new kind of people that are needed at such a huge period of transition.
The third thing that affected me was the transcript of a lecture I read by George Monbiot. It’s pretty long and there’s a lot to unpack (and besides…it’s starting to get a bit late so I can’t go into it too much in this first draft of this blog post), but the jist of it is him critiquing the environmental+sustainability movement for caving to capitalist ideology and adopting its rhetoric to describe the value of our environment. By doing so he says, they are conceding to losing the debate, and therefore, the fight over all.
The main thing that I got out of it was the idea that we need to carve out an alternative language to describe the necessity and value of protecting the environment. By adopting the ideological framework for what is important, advocates fail at addressing the fundamental institutional, and yes, the ideological underpinnings of societal beliefs that lead to us to continue to poison and destroy the planet that we inhabit.
And I think that’s true for all social movements. Despite the enormous problems we still have in enabling women to have secure, sexual and physical autonomy over themselves, I do think the seeds of the movement have already been planted. Namely, the idea that women have the right to control what happens to them and what they can do to it themselves, and that this freedom must be enabled by the law. The other is we must value reproduction above all else, and that human life is (most) sacred even when it is in the womb. Clearly, the debate is between two very different perspectives on how we should live and what must be valued.
I don’t yet know how to properly make of these thoughts but I’m still chewing on ’em…