So what’s it like to be an activist from afar? In short, it’s not easy. It does, however, bring into relief some of the reasons why I helped to create Antigone Magazine. Expressing oneself politically is a right and a privilege AND a responsibility. I remain convinced now more than ever as Canada enters what is sure to be a trying five years under a conservative government that we are responsible for expressing ourselves, and expressing ourselves truthfully. Thus, the need for community-building exercises to leverage the voices that are underrepresented, unspoken for, and silent is even more pressing. I helped start Antigone to teach young women to express themselves politically and to act on their beliefs, and to help other women doing so. It’s often said that the only way the house of commons will become something more than the cockfights it currently hosts is if women start running the show: I agree.
It’s been nearly a year since I left Vancouver and moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan to start my PhD in English Literature. Aside from being heartsick for Vancouver and the beautiful souls I left behind, I have learned hard some truths while living in the “land of the free.” I put that adage in quotation marks because one of the many realities I have encountered while living here is an unwillingness to correct hateful, racist, discriminatory, or oppressive beliefs and speech full stop under that very banner. Freedom of speech here seems to mean the freedom to discriminate too. And the cautiousness with which my peers embrace censoring that discrimination is heartbreaking to me. Of course, part of this stems from the pedagogical environment itself. The unspoken truth of which seems to be that education, after all, is not political. To which I say: bull****. If we embraced anti-oppression politics as teachers in the same way we embrace anti-plagiarism rhetoric then maybe students might learn to start thinking critically outside the forum of an essay. Wait a minute, isn’t embracing an ethics of originality, creativity, and responsibility the same thing as taking an anti-oppression stance? No? But isn’t thinking for oneself all about questioning the hardened truths of those around us and the institutions we live in. No? Really? My bad.
More than anything, I dislike the race I seem to have entered as an academic “thoroughbred” in training. I spent my undergrad embedded in a community of doers unashamed to be politically brave and sometimes brash. I have suddenly entered a world where politics sometimes means silencing one’s own discomfort with the status quo and negotiating the unspoken rules of getting funding. Throughout all of this I have tried to remain mindful of the reasons I began Antigone. Here are some sticking points I present to you on being political in whatever path you pursue.
Number one: There is nothing “correct” about political correctness in the service of discrimination. Hold your ground.
As much as I dislike the metaphor that life is a fight and that one must defend one’s territory, sticking to one’s metaphorical ground seems to me to be useful advice. Even if you don’t win the battle, or the debate, insisting on ethical treatment for yourself or others is never wrong. I had a discussion with a teacher here regarding my tendency to incur incompletes: he seemed to advise me to leave them be and not to contest them, suggesting that “this is how the system works.” While I’d rather not incur an incomplete, sometimes my disability leaves me with no choice. That the university does not recognize my reason for doing so, or even if it did, that it would continue to treat me normatively, (i.e. as a person in full health) is discriminatory. That I was told to just live with it is even more upsetting. I was also told not to get defensive. What he read as defensive was my attempt to counter the stigma I was encountering as someone who was not “performing.” Frankly, it was deeply patronizing and insulting. The only thing that gets me through moments like this is to hold my ground. Speaking back to privilege is not being defensive, it is to question what is excluded in any politics.
Number two: keep your head away from the sand. The world is much broader than the stable.
This simply means not to stick one’s head in the sand when a metaphorical (or otherwise literal) earthquake happens. Part of standing your ground is being present in the moment and asking oneself what a given event means to you and to others. While I might being having an anxiety attack over my own struggles, there are still things I can do to effect change where others cannot.Keeping this simple fact in mind helps me to put my life in perspective and gives me the courage to keep going. Especially given the hardships people the world over face.
Number three: Beliefs are precious. Hold on to them.
This also goes along with holding one’s ground. One of my biggest struggles since moving to the states has been to challenge the “American” way of life. Being Canadian has its differences, however small; I hold on to those differences as a way of interrogating the norm I live in here. Being feminist, and an outspoken advocate of queer rights has an equally alienating effect for me: I often make people uncomfortable just by expressing my passion for things I believe in.
In the same vein, stepping outside one’s sphere of influence every once in a while has a similarly grounding effect. Try speaking up in an arena where your voice is underepresented or unwelcome: while sometimes dispiriting, it can also help you to define what matters to you and to interrogate those beliefs. Ultimately, it makes your beliefs matter.
I have never regretted anything more than choosing to do an English degree over an English and Women’s Studies degree in deference to the job market. That sacrifice rankles whenever my department’s traditionalism rears its ugly head and the truth of job-getting highlights the fact that working on gender and sexuality as I do is passé. It should never be passé and yet according to the white men who make the hiring decisions it is. Still, I should say, despite all my frustrations, I love what I do. Working with ideas that would never fly in highschool curriculum and sharing my research with students is absolutely invigorating. If I can convince just one of my students to think critically about what he or she does with her life then I have done something. Many students enter my classroom however with a set of beliefs that are dogma for them; an unwillingness to question that which is dearest to us is a human universal. We are attached to our ways of thinking: moving beyond them is scary. Feelings are tricky things, they stick ferociously to ideas and beliefs lending them political capital they might not otherwise have no matter how inane. Part of our task as political beings is not only to use our voices, but to ask how those expressions affect and effect others: what are their politics? Part of being political is being unafraid to confront what is scary and uncomfortable: our own attachments.