Difference, Identity, and Valorization

Dear UTA,

I want to briefly address the last editorial, “Seeing the Change We Want to Be.” I’m really glad this was the topic of the editorial. It is crucial that we think hard about how to build sustainable and effective movements. However, I believe that the editorial framed the discussion in an unnecessarily narrow manner. Emphasizing the importance of supportive and engaged relationships is not simply a strategy for making change at some future date – but a way of experimenting with new models, and a way of making our lives, and the lives of those around us, better in the here and now.

The editorial seems to suggest that contemporary movements in Canada are weak and ineffective. I suppose I’m not quite as pessimistic. Many of the movements and movement organizations I’m in contact with are vibrant and building. My reading of social movement histories suggests that movements ebb and flow regularly and quickly. Periods of intense movement activity rarely last longer than two or three years. Sure, the movement organizations most affiliated with the global justice movement, sections of the women’s movement, queer movements, and labour movements may be weaker than they were, say, ten years ago. But the immigrant rights/no borders movements, First Nations movements, and movements around public space and the environment are pretty effective at gaining real successes in terms of policy, impacting public debate, and informing cultural practices.

This may be partly a “glass half-full/glass half-empty” difference of perspective. Regardless, I have three difficulties with your explanation of why we’re “weak and ineffective.” The editorial says that comradeship should be the model of relationship we nurture rather than friendship. Like Francesca Polletta and Jo Freeman, you’ve pointed out the weaknesses of being unreflective about the idea that “we are all friends.” I don’t think this is the main way activists think about the relationships they build and in addition, I think that you offer a bit of a caricature of friendship. No friendship I’ve ever been part of is simply about “being nice.” Friendship is about establishing trust so that one can reveal one’s weaknesses. This is crucial for building sustainable organizing relationships. Comradeship, as you portray it, may not allow for such vulnerability. Years ago, when I was first becoming active, an experienced activist told me that “it doesn’t matter who you are, the only thing that matters is the work you do.” What a dour and disappointing attitude! Knowing each other well – in a supportive, challenging, but emotionally available way – enables us to build the trust that is needed for long-term organizing. Whether we call it comradeship or friendship is irrelevant; what we need to do is reflect on our relationships and how to engage with each other, not just critically, but with a thought to our future engagements, not just as comrades, but comrades with families, workplaces, emotions, hopes, dreams, and desires.

My second concern is with the question of difference and identity. You argue that movements today revere difference, voice, and identity to the extent that they are unable to think strategically. I’m not certain which movements you are talking about here. The immigrant rights movement? Indigenous youth movements? Environmental movements? Anti-poverty movements? I recognize that when organizations and movements are in crisis, they often turn to discussing process in various ways, and factionalism becomes prevalent – whether in terms of race, class, or ideological approach. However, in my experience, this is something that has become much less common in the last ten years. In many movements today, I see a strong awareness of the intersections and complexity that make up identities – and serious efforts to make connections between different experiences instead of the picture you paint. To me, this is one of the real lessons learned from the last ten years of anti-colonial feminist theory and praxis.

My third concern regards your argument that, if we avoid “valorization” and shift toward a politics of self-abolition, we have more of a hope of building strong movements. Valorization seems to be the whipping post of UTA, blamed for a multitude of sins. You argue that, instead of valorization, we need to abolish the self and our emphasis on identity. This brings me back to the dour face of my early mentor telling me that who I was didn’t matter. He argued that it was only the work I did for the movement that made me valuable. Such sentiments appear to be rooted in the Protestant work ethic and a model of social relations that deny the body, emotion and the spirit. Recognizing our differences, our complexity, and our contradictions is how we build relationships with people outside of our movement subcultures. We need to talk beyond ourselves as “activists.” As a result, we need to talk about identities, the histories that shape them, and how our diverse strategies for change intersect. Instead of such conversations, you celebrate the 19th century when people shared a model of change and the empowered worker as their goal, heralding the “revolutionary hope and vision that was characteristic of the Old Left.” For better or worse, we live in a different moment that calls for multiple models. That ideal of unity rings hollow, at least to me. We need to find ways of converging, without merging into a single path. We need to find ways of both being and becoming that are grounded in the past, but that recognize our complexity.

Recognizing and valuing our different histories and identities doesn’t mean sinking back into the morass of identity politics. I believe movements have learned from those mistakes. The roundtable considering things ten years after Seattle in the last issue recognizes that that moment was a trap, but also that that moment has passed. I believe that many activists see anti-oppression politics and the valuing of difference as being so important partly because such listening and sharing builds trust for future shared solidarity and partly because it allows us to develop better strategies and campaigns – but also because it provides us with a glimpse of a better world.

Thanks to Chris Dixon and Heather Hax for their comments on this letter – any weaknesses are my responsibility.

In solidarity,

Lesley Wood