Archive | July, 2012

Can intellectuals be activists?

31 Jul

At university one learns that thought prevails upon action, that intellectual work has at least as much value as organizing. However, the principle that radicalism is to be discussed rather that enacted protects the interests of the institution. Paulo Freire said that you can only fight your own oppression. Only yesterday I wrote that “Privilege should imply responsibility” – doesn’t this suggest that responsibility is reserved to an elite which could “teach” others how to be free? At the very least, it implies that the so-called privileged in our society are free themselves, which is far from true. What is too often defined as activism can simply serve to maintain one’s rank by avoiding risks since, as Denis Rancourt points out, “There are a million elaborate and slogan-supported rationalizations to not be an activist and most involve re-definitions of activism in terms of actions that present no significant risk to one’s socio-economic status.” Rancourt’s definition of activism detaches itself from “dogmatically non-violent” forms of organizing and instead privileges direct action, and he denounces anyone who does not directly confront power as complicit with the oppressor (post). In this light, activities such as building community or political blogging do not qualify as activism, and theorizing is only”Useful as an aid to reflection for those practicing a praxis of liberation.” Intellectual thought, then, needs to serve action and reflect on it but should never stand on its own. At the theoretical level, ideas not only have limited reach but tend to maintain (and justify) the status quo.

Teachers as activists

30 Jul

“Dans ces conditions, accepter d’entrer dans le jeu des prix et des récompenses serait aussi donner ma caution à un esprit et une évolution, dans le monde scientifique, que je reconnais comme profondément malsains, et d’ailleurs condamnés à disparaître à brève échéance tant ils sont suicidaires spirituellement, et même intellectuellement et matériellement.” -Alexandre Grothendieck, declining the Crafoord prize in 1988

I remember my father saying that it isn’t teachers’ role to be politically involved (he may have changed his mind since). While teachers have no right to impose their opinions on students and should let them learn to articulate theirs instead, I do no see why this should be true. Although teachers may take risks by getting involved in radical political activities since they cannot afford to have a police record, I cannot imagine how an apolitical teacher could teach critical thinking because there is no such thing as apolotical: you either have learned to construct your own opinion or you merely convey the dominant discourse to your students without challenging it while calling it a “neutral” position. I believe that teaching how to think can only be done by people who practice critical thinking themselves.

Another aspect of this issue is that an overwhelming majority of teachers, especially in higher levels, come from a middle-class, bourgeois background and are thus members of a privileged section of the population. Too often, their attitude towards teaching aims to maintain and reproduce that privilege rather than to challenge discrimination within the institution. Privilege should imply responsibility. Neglecting to question the power that derives from privilege means that knowledge will be available only to a select few and denied to those who do not, or cannot, conform to the models already in place due to class, gender or race.

Activist teachers are working towards a better education system, one that fights against injustices and allows learning to take place by giving students more agency instead of training them to be passive employees and mindless citizens. See, for instance, Denis Rancourt‘s advocacy of radical pedagogy and the way in which his critique of the academic institution had him banned from campus. He writes that “There emerges the notion that risk is a necessary component of activism, without which one can be certain that one is not changing anything.” His is not an isolated effort to challenge institutional power or dismantle authoritarian practices in and out of the classroom. Education cannot be allowed to become the training ground of capitalism. Instead, it should aim to deconstruct systemic discrimination and encourage critical thinking. Transgression, then, may well be a necessary tool for teachers.

On finding community

28 Jul

Following my last post, I have been thinking about the ways I do or do not belong to certain communities. I am the sort of person who needs to be related to groups of people but is always wary of being absorbed by the group, so that I tend to stay somewhere on the margin most of the time. My ideal community would be one that favours a certain cooperative individualism and refrains from imposing its norm on its members while still facilitating exchange and a sense of belonging. Contacts I have had with subcultural groups, however, tend to show that once safe from mainstream normativity, the group quickly establishes its own norms of prescriptive behaviour and often remains unnecessarily biased against other minorities. While a certain level of group identity allows more cohesion among members and defines the group’s purpose, I believe that anyone who identifies with the group’s politics should be made welcome. In reality, I have often witnessed the emergence of a restrictive in-group which will then police the out-group. Thus, discovering that you are not straight, you may join a GLBTIQ group only to find that they do not believe that bisexuality exists. Once you have found the bi group, you may realize that its members are not educated about transgender issues. And what if you happen to be disabled? Is racism addressed within these communities?

It is very difficult, therefore, to develop a true sense of belonging in any given community. However, coming back to the idea of creating your own subculture, I would suggest that the internet is a great resource to locate culture, though it implies putting bits and pieces together yourself. The solution I have found is to use all sorts of ideas to create a (hopefully) coherent view of the world which in turn informs my sense of belonging to different communities as well as my participation in them. This blog is a way of doing just that, of attempting to answer the question: what new meanings does the word community take on when it is composed of scraps coming from distant sources?

Creating your own subculture

24 Jul

Creating your own subcultureLast Friday a friend said that following his coming out as a bisexual he had to create his own subculture. I know what it means when the references readily available in mainstream culture fail to match your self-perception and start to provoke a sense of dysphoria. I had to go through the same process of gathering new references by finding fiction, music, theory, and social contexts that would not only tolerate who I was but also validate the new set of values I was taking on, provide me with a lens through which to view the world, and allow me to express tentative opinions freely. Acknowledging that I was queer did much more than determine what my future relationships would look like, it changed my perception of my environment andmy way of functioning in it. As I integrated a minority group and came into contact with new communities, I became more acutely aware of social injustices of all kinds, uncomfortable in situations where I was assumed to be hetero-normative or expected to take on conventional gender roles, and unwilling to go along with  what is generally defined as “the norm” when it denies my right to self-define or my friends’ identity.

My new-found subculture, then, is made of many things including bi/queer theory, the riot grrrl and queercore movements, anarchist discourse, education for critical thinking, freedom, and transgression, and the concept of self-determination for both individuals and political groups. What is really interesting is to see how all these elements intersect and what will emerge from them, which is the purpose of this blog.

Did you create your own subculture, and what is it made of?