School's Out: Family Matters: Lessons from Reconciling Radical Politics with Not-So-Radical Loved Ones

This post is about exclusion and the ethics of disagreement. Not exclusion by a dominant society of marginalized populations, but rather the selective practices of alliance and exclusion in anti-oppressive political circles. The theme I want to use to think through these questions is one of maintaining family ties (chosen family, birth family, or otherwise). I wonder if the idea of “unconditional care” (not to say this is the actual experience of all or many families!) or the practice of making a distinction between thinking critically and being critical/making ethical judgments versus being judgmental might help to foster an ethics of disagreement within social justice communities prone to being divided by political differences. I’m thinking of examples from school-based groups, to civic community organizations, to online commenter communities like the ever-changing group drawn into conversation by Bitch.

In my last post, touching on males and feminism, there was a great comment conversation thread that highlighted another issue with which I am perennially concerned: getting down on people, maybe even dismissing them entirely, for not being radical enough or feminist enough or otherwise politicized in “the right way.” I’ve had a number of tremendously disheartening experiences confronting the irony of this take-down culture (thanks to Shira Tarrant’s interview with the F Word for introducing me to this term!) among the student-led queer groups at my university. You know what these experiences always made me wonder? If other students at the university—who are already privileged by a post-secondary or graduate education spent thinking and reading about queer and feminist politics in immense detail—aren’t doing their politics radically enough for the satisfaction of these young radicals, then what do these young radicals do about their families? Or old friends? Or the people for whose emancipation they are agitating, but whose oppression means that they may not have the time or resources to think in such a nuanced, high-theory, complicated way about the politics of their own situation? How do people who get furious with other feminists, activists, academics, etc. navigate their social and familial relations who aren’t even on the same page about the need for social change?

And questions like these aren’t just for the self-appointed gatekeepers of “the right politics.” When experiences and/or education radicalize us in particular ways, couldn’t any of us find ourselves struggling with how to maintain our political commitments, while still, say, having Thanksgiving dinner with our racist grandma? While still respecting our heterosexist father who is “fine with your being that way” but introduces our gay lover as a friend? While still loving our best friend who doesn’t think that sexism isn’t that big a deal in North America anymore?

On the topic of language such as “feminist ally” or “queer ally,” one commenter who goes by the handle Margarite Von Diter offered an excellent reply to my previous post: “I want to try to better inform myself as to what [terms like “ally”] might mean to others [but] it makes me a bit sad that we are at such a loss for proper language in these situations that even trying to express respect or support becomes problematic. (I can’t even begin to get into the awkwardness I have, as a White person, trying to discuss race respectfully. Every option seems as inappropriate as another.) Language is a reflection of our culture and values. When we don’t even have appropriate language for discussion it further illustrates the extent of the sexism, racism, homophobia, etc.”

It completely gets me down, too, when, as this commenter describes, even trying to express respect or support becomes problematic. I agree that simply claiming good intentions never excuses oppressive attitudes and behaviors, but I’m not really interested in the concept of “excusing,” “giving a pass for,” or being “right” in one’s politics to begin with. I’m more interested in how we can model a politics of friendship and an ethics of disagreement (to use a favorite phrase of my friend Mohamed’s), for younger generations of feminists and others with social justice agendas. Even the concepts of “inclusion” and “tolerance” currently popular in curricula dealing with the homophobic bullying of youth can often incite us fall back on simplistic centre/periphery models and binarizing notions of “us” and “them.” I’m interested in what it would mean to take our commitments to radical democracy and solidarity seriously in our personal lives and in our politically charged interactions with other activists, thinkers, and organizers. I would love to see more discussions that acknowledge the problems of, for instance, what it does to claim the term “queer ally” or “feminist ally” for oneself without anger, without writing off differing opinions, and without cutting out controversial voices from the debate.

I’m not arguing that righteous anger can’t sometimes be productive, nor am I advocating that we tolerate intolerance or give up hate speech protections. I only mean to suggest that we periodically renew our attention to practicing a kindness, a generosity of spirit toward others. Such attention works in the interest of building more expansive and effective coalitions and solidarities—coalitions and solidarities that thoroughly interweave through our families, friends, co-organizers, and others.

Previously: What *Does* A Feminist Look Like? Teaching Boys About Feminism, Activist Quandaries and the Benefit of the Doubt

by Sharday Mosurinjohn
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7 Comments Have Been Posted

shaming, exclusion, etc.

these are such important questions to ask and i definitely feel a lot of frustration and anger with "take down culture" (i've also heard this referred to as "call out culture") and really don't feel like it's the most productive way of engaging in a dialogue. i actually feel like this kind of self-righteous shaming of those who are deemed "less radical" (hello? we all have knowledge and opportunities for learning in different areas) can create such a hostile environment that otherwise sympathetic people just shut down altogether.

my only other comment about this article is that i found this really difficult to read because of the academic language it is couched in. i've got a university background but just feel SO much resistance to reading critiques that aren't accessible. i'm not saying you should "dumb down" your writing - just that i think it's important when talking about exclusion, as you put it, to consider how tone, vocabulary, etc. can also operate to exclude folks.

thanks again for raising these important questions!

Margarite Von Diter,

Margarite Von Diter, sometimes I think you're in my head! And then I see wonderful phrases like "ambassadors and advocates" and I know you must be in a better place than my head, because your comments offer such clarity. Your idea of knowledge-sharing, which mirrors your image of process in your comment below, really makes sense to me. I think this concept offers a way to make sense of all of our necessarily different positions in common struggles. Not everyone can be everything when it comes to research creation and knowledge sharing. Sometimes our strengths in one area translate into weaknesses in other areas, but it takes all kinds. And in a democracy, we want to affirm the value of all kinds.

Also - microaggressions! Amazing new term I'm adding to my stockpile. And what is gaslighting??

I popped back in this thread

I popped back in this thread to link to it in another post, and just noticed your reply now. Thanks so much for the nice sentiments. And seriously, ditto! Right back atchya. It's always a joy when I stumble on someone else who helps me better understand issues or clarify my own feelings. And I appreciate hearing that my ramblings also offer some clarity to someone else. :)

To answer your question -- <a href="">Microaggressions</a> is a term I recently learned and quickly adopted because it so perfectly sums up the experience of daily biases that get dismissed as "irrelevant" or "over sensitive," but actually contribute to the greater issue of sexism, racism, etc. You may be interested in <a href="">the Microaggressions Project</a> (another link I recently found).

<a href="">Gaslighting</a> is another one I hadn't previously been familiar with. But as soon as I learned about it I had a "lightbulb" moment, recalling all the times I've been gaslighted and the anxiety it produced. (Also: Ingrid Bergman. Awesome ;) ) There's an article in <a href=" Today</a> that discusses it in the context of daily interactions.

I've been bookmarking these things as I find them, in a "feminism" folder, to help me in discussions or debates on the subject of feminism or sexism. Or simply to help me understand the issues and the language surrounding them. Hope that helps.

I would love to know tips

I would love to know tips around navigating one's personal politics and having dinnertime conversations with family. Much of my life right now revolves around peer support, politics, and trans* advocacy. I'm into radical feminism but have no idea how to have respectful discussions with my family around politics when they come up because they put down my opinion. Written into these discussions is a lot of ignorance around other cultures and in particular, trans* identity. Practicing my active listening skills only gets me so far, you know?
Maybe it will "get better" after I move out? (Dan Savage has made that such a loaded phrase.)

ethics and 'others'

I love this post. I think our ethical behaviour is put to the test when we are confronted by those who disagree with us. However that is the time when it is most necessary. People need space to change, they need to feel like they have a choice and freedom to explore when they are unsure.

There is definitely a huge

There is definitely a huge difference between call-out culture online and in face-to-face interactions. I think that, in most cases, call-out culture is virtually non-existent or at least a lot more docile in "real life." Calling out people for their "wrong" or not-radical-enough view points is so easy in anonymous, virtual environments, but when it's a lot harder to confront people about these things in person.

Not to self-promote, but I wrote a series in my blog about calling people out who are in your family ( and people that you are fiends with ( It's not as academic and more light-hearted than this post, but it answers some of the same questions. I think that in most cases, the way you call out someone is the most progressive and useful tool, because if you choose to harass someone for their beliefs, that person will shut down and refuse to change his/her way of thinking.

As someone often accused of

As someone often accused of being too critical, I am very interested to see how this works in practice. How do we respect each others' differing opinions while still holding each other accountable? How do we do this without falling into cultural relativism or losing sight of the dynamics of oppression? I've been told that the way I say things is often too "hard to hear" for people so they aren't interested in the message; but it's my experience that this stuff is never easy to hear, and a lot of responsibility is on those of us with more privilege to make sure we are listening with all our might. I want to find new ways to discuss issues around feminism and anti-oppression work with people who aren't so well-versed (IMO) in this stuff, but I'm not interested in softening my point to save the feelings of someone who is only looking for a pat on the back because gosh-golly they sure had good intentions. Where is the line here? At what point is it no longer about communication but instead just oppression dynamics playing out on an individual scale?

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