In this concluding part to my argument against heroism I’m going to describe two approaches which do not work, although they both have useful lessons for us, before offering a third way out of our present dilemma. This isn’t new material, all of these arguments can be found out there in literature on feminism, critical race theory, queer theory, black feminism, privilege theory and activism research. I do however think that we are very good at recognising what we should not be doing, but the effort and strength required to move forwards is challenging so much of critical, radical and progressive politics and action gets lost in constant critique of one another.
But constant critique, constantly focusing only on the differences between us and the flaws and weaknesses of different groups or politics can be paralysing. It needs to be balanced by a need and effort to recognise our places of sameness, our strengths and our abilities to work across difference. Nobody is perfect; everybody gets some things wrong some of the time. This doesn’t mean we can’t still work together. Quite the opposite in fact; we must work together despite the mistakes that we make and the pain that we cause each other.
The first thing that we must do is recognise the value and strength of marginalised voices. This is an essential first step. We must listen to those who experience the pains and exclusions of power, because as has been shown time and time again, those who do not suffer within a given system struggle to see the ways in which that system causes others pain. Men have trouble seeing the indignities of patriarchy just as whites struggle to understand the effects of racism. This is a fact.
We must, therefore, listen and learn about the world we live in from those who are excluded from it, because many of the processes are normalised to the extent of invisibility for those who benefit from the current organisation of our society. But this doesn’t mean that the lives and experiences of those who are privileged are meaningless or that they do not have anything useful to say.
those who do not suffer within a given system struggle to see the ways in which that system causes others pain
The second thing that we must do is accept the criticisms that are being made, recognise our weaknesses and the ways in which our actions hurt those around us and to do what we can to change ourselves so that we stop marginalising others. I mentioned last week that some elements of some of our lives will get harder as we move towards a more equitable society. It will be harder for whites to get high level careers and promotions as these become more evenly distributed amongst people of colour; men will no longer be able say misogynistic things without being called on it and will have to police their selves; the middle class will not be able to live in places that are reserved for them and will come into contact with people who are different from them; the able bodied will need to become adept at using technologies and spaces designed for others.
It will be harder and it should be harder, because inequalities are not merely existing situations that we have little or no control over; they are directly and unequivocally the result of our actions. All day, every day, our actions contribute toward the reinforcement and maintenance of the status quo. We are guilty of contributing to the death of every teenage suicide, every sexual assault, and every violent attack. All the suffering of poverty and the cruelties of exclusion are the result of the social order in which we all collude and for which we all bear responsibility.
But one of the most basic things we can learn from the sheer complexity and number of causes that exist in critical politics at the moment is that everyone shares a part of this guilt for we are all complicit in what Hurtado describes as ‘the dirty process of racialising and gendering others’.
No-one is totally and irredeemably guilty to the extent that they cannot play a role in helping to resist oppression and create instead something better. Conversely, no matter who or what we are, none of us are irrefutably innocent. While some of us may have more work to do than others, to believe that some are beyond redemption and others are beyond reproach is to create absolutes and homogenies where none really exist. This life we share is bewilderingly complex and each of us is a fractal part of that complexity. We will each oppress somebody, somewhere, we are each a part of that social order of exclusion and inequality. But equally we each have the potential to learn how to do better, to learn how we might help and to resist the violences that are perpetrated upon one another.
But we can’t do that if we continue to subscribe to the pernicious worship of heroism because at its core heroism requires that there be some kind of a struggle between two mutually incompatible ‘sides’; good and evil; right and wrong; us and them.
Such dichotomies have plagued modern thought for centuries, in the dualisms of mind/body, male/female, self/other, here/there, familiar/foreign. This style of thinking is dangerous because it attempts to describe two groups which are utterly different from one another and can never be reconciled. Heroism therefore represents the heroic struggle for righteous liberation from oppression; yet it does so without ever considering the ways in which none of us is ever just one thing. We are never just women struggling against patriarchy, for we always also possess a raced, classed and sexual identity, amongst many others. So we can never escape that while in one struggle we are the victims of oppression we are simultaneously a part of the oppressions of others.
We can never be the ‘pure’ ideal hero, and to believe that we can be is to shut ourselves away from all the other aspects of our social position, all the other ways in which we are connected and positioned within our communities and societies.
We have to give up the myth of heroism. It is damaging to us, even if it can be a place where we find the strength to carry on our struggles against the very real oppressions and exclusions that we face.
This, I think, is one of the most vital contributions of black feminism; to offer a way out of this complexity, a new path which simply does not exist in previous forms of identity politics which ground themselves in a struggle between innocence and guilt. We must give up our belief that we are the righteous heroes of our stories, accept our multiple positionings and accept our shared guilt. But we must also recognise that we all play a part in these struggles, despite our guilt. We all, also, have the capacity to resist.
But to do that we must recognise the differences between us, we must recognise that there are times when we are the thing that must be resisted. Being a good ally means being able to recognise that there are things that cannot be learnt, only lived and some battles that we don’t get to play a leading role in; we can only provide whatever support is requested of us and accept that. We must build coalitions based on humility and recognition of the connections between one another and there being no boundaries to separate us into discrete boxes in which we are only a woman, or only a white. We need coalitions so that during those times when we must step back and allow others to speak, we can continue to support them from that role, rather than separating ourselves into narrowly focused identity groups which of necessity fragment further and further searching for the true single identity of that group.
We need coalitions to enable us to work together despite our differences and despite the fact that as white I am a part of racial oppression and there are other voices who should (and do) lead in that struggle yet as an ally, and as someone with a raced identity, even a privileged one, the struggles of race and resistance do affect me and there are things that I can contribute. But I must do so within a context of working together and understanding of one another and our shared commitments, our shared connections. Yet just as much, we also need humility.
Humility will allow all of us to learn from one another, learn to forgive, learn how to not fuck up so much, learn to fight the right things in the right ways and learn to accept that none of us are perfect. Learn also to accept the times when we must be silent, and learn to make allowances for the times when those who mean well do the wrong thing and hurt us, because we know that there are other times when we have done the same and without the humility to forgive them, then there will be no humility for them to forgive us.
If we do not understand why men act in the way that they do, or whites continually reinforce their privilege then it is impossible to work with them in our shared feminisms or socialisms. We shouldn’t allow these things to be left unchallenged, racism and white privilege is a struggle that must carry on concurrently with all others, but there are times and places to do those things, times and places where those who are the victims of those oppressions will show us how we should act. And there are times when it will be others’ turn to speak, even our turn to speak, whoever we might be and whatever oppressions we might face. And each of us will be a part of these coalitions, built upon shared values, shared understandings and a cognizance of our connections and reliance upon one another.
We cannot do this without letting go of heroism and searching instead for something more complex, something harder, but also something fairer, and something which will enable us to make further progress changing the world around us for the better.
Glen is a critical human geographer whose research focuses on privilege and inequalities. You can learn more about his work here
Heroes and Villains Part two
Everyday Heroes Part one