If activists want to win the battle against ignorance and bigotry, we must act with the gentility that we would like to promote. The very structure that supports maladaptive societal standards is the blind, unchallenged acceptance of them by well-meaning people. As much as we must challenge all forms of ignorance that lead to the subjugation of people, we must not, in our zeal, punish the people we seek to convert. We also must be careful not to subscribe so strongly to our own convictions that we fail to give real consideration to contrary viewpoints.
In the midst of the fallout from Amanda Todd’s tragedy, there has been much editorializing about how such a thing could have happened. Social critics like blogger, Krissy Darch, rightly identify the bigotry and intolerance (Darch’s article zeros in on misogyny.) that are embedded in our society as at least one of the roots of the tragedy.
Critics like Darch are visionary and well informed. They have put much effort into studying social issues, and they are able to contextualize tragedy and point to it as a natural outcome of a some of the social ills they study. The shock of the tragedy incentivizes them to renew their ardour in pressing for change. The vision and studied knowledge that they bring to their activism are what is meant by intellectualism.
Intellectuals are able to recognize that intolerance is supported, taught and reinforced in societal structures like families, schools, media and laws, and intellectuals know that the life blood of intolerance is ignorance. Surely if people had a clear understanding of the world, they would participate in the rebuilding of societal structures so that the world would be better.
Embedded into the world view of the intellectual is a recognition that everyone is culpable – including the intellectual herself, and that change starts with recognition of one’s own maladaptive practices. This recognition is difficult, because everyone wants to believe she is a good person. No one wants to be accused of having had a part the tragedy that happened to Amanda Todd.
How, then, can the intellectual accept this knowledge when others can’t? The answer is in the intellectual’s recognition that as much as her own past behaviour contributed to and supported an intolerant society, she herself is a victim of that society, and has therefore been taught maladaptive behaviours like intolerance. She can forgive herself as long as she now participates in enlightening the public through her study and activism.
Unfortunately, most people are not intellectuals. They are equally shocked and equally incentivized by tragedy, but they do not have the education or vision to contextualize the tragedy. Without the ability to understand how they themselves have been the unwitting protegés of wrong teaching, they simply can not accept their culpability. Frank discussion of issues becomes impossible as they purposely cast their gaze away from their own behaviour and look for someone or something to blame.
For this reason, people learn about the Todd tragedy and come up with solutions like “teach your daughter not to expose her nude body to anyone online”, and “teach kids to step in when they witness bullying”. They may be quick to jump on teachers for not doing anything to prevent such tragedy, and they push for anti-bullying policies that will identify villains, and punish them. These people are well-meaning. They want to go after the people or structures that are to blame, but they simply can not recognize their own role in propagating harmful ideologies. In a sense, they must not. They are looking for the simple solution where one doesn’t exist. Their focus is too narrow, and the policies they advocate are doomed to fail.
Further complicating this problem is the frustration felt by the visionaries whose ongoing efforts to illuminate the issues that harm society are met with a collective yawn, or worse, opposition. The message of the visionary is threatening. It suggests a need to change – to give up the structures that are supported by delusional thinking that has been repeatedly refuted by research. For this reason, visionaries resort to in-your-face tactics.
Slutwalk is one such tactic. The purpose of Slutwalk is to bring attention to the problem of systemic misogyny by shocking the sensibilities of a complacent public. But often, instead of achieving its purpose of enlightenment, such activism works against the visionaries, as the public can now objectify them and write them off as radicals.
In the case of Slutwalk, the behaviours that are intended to shock sensibilities are the uncensored use of the word “slut” in order to disempower the word, and the dressing up (by some women) in traditionally sexually provocative costume in order to disempower the sexual objectification of women associated with such costumes. But unwilling to internalize slutwalk’s message, which calls for the public to recognize its own misogynistic attitudes, the public derides the activists because of their “inappropriate” behaviour and attire. The irony that underscores the important message cannot overcome the entrenched taboo against using foul language or dressing like a “slut”.
This is not to say that Slutwalk as a form of activism should be discontinued, but what the activist must do is support the message with sober, well-articulated, patient rhetoric. Intellectual activists must be seen to have something to say, and they must not come off as accusing. As frustrated as they may be, they must not give in to their frustration and verbally lash out at the ignorant. Protesters can never expect an immediate societal change as a result of their protest. The activist’s victory is the fact that her activism was noticed. It will take years of repetition of the truths learned through vision and scholarship to effect change. We must be patient and genuine, and we must act with compassion for the ignorant, remembering that those who oppose us are the victims of the ideology that needs to change.