“What we are now witnessing is the death of compassion, a repudiation of our obligations to the most vulnerable, the death of the social and a dishonorable discharge from the obligations of a democracy.” Henry A. Giroux
I’ve been thinking lately of the old recovery adage: nothing changes if nothing changes.
Though its been over 30 years since Audre Lorde prophesied the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house (Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 1984), the movement for a just, equitable society continues: a large, lumbering conglomerate creature, stuffed to the water-starved gills with organizations and leaders hell-bent on using every tool from the master’s box, tightly gripped in one hand, while extending the other to shake hands with the master’s gate-keepers. This, despite the cries—and the deaths—of the people. And, so it is; the empire grows bigger and stronger and fatter on the diseased fruits of its own planting, while the dream of a just peace flops and flounders, gasping for breath on the littered beach of the common good.
It’s a seemingly ageless quest, one made across time and cultures. We are living, now, in the consequences of the unresolved foundations of this country—a thing, itself, born in the self-serving trespasses of men of power bent on colonization, exploitation, profit and unearned comfort. Since that time, the overarching question has remained the same: will the high, spirit-uplifting principles of a humanity created equal in value and endowed with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness ever be both accessible and applied to all of us, or will these needful endowments remain the commodities of a self-preserving, self-appointed, greed-stricken and morally bankrupt elite?
Nothing changes if nothing changes.
Still, struggling in the long narrows of a worldly birth canal, the dream of justice persists. It persists, ironically, because nothing changes if nothing changes.
Yet, the truth is, while the substance of the thing—the combined disenfranchising, marginalizing, resource-hoarding, hate-stirring, person-devaluing ideologies that oppresses us—doesn’t change, the form, functions, and force of it do change. A maple tree does not become a blueberry bush. It does however, without hindrance, grow.
And, so it has been. Over time, the collective forces of capitalized colonialism have grown more height and more branches. Fed by a divisionist hegemonic fertilizer (otherwise known as empire excrement) passing as a universalist, attainable American Freedom, disparity gaps widen. Branches grow and block the sun. A leafy narrative justifying the unfettered exploitation of the many for the prospering of the privileged few becomes assimilated as the way of life in the forest. The disease hidden on the underside of the shiny leaves spreads. And everyone wants the fruit of the tree—no matter the cost.
And who can blame folks for wanting the bitter fruit?
After all, we—all of us—have been breast-fed, spoon-fed, and otherwise nearly strangled on messages that tell us the measure of our liberty is how free we are to attain what the master has, to live in his house, and grab with both hands all the tools he carries, believing that we, somehow, will use these for the good. The temptation of the disenfranchised is, always, to follow the way before us, to use the tools, strategies and systems of the oppressor under the rationale of beating him at his game, thus, righteously rebalancing socio-political power toward the good.
However, as even recent history reveals, this is never what happens. Trapped, as we are, in the natural-order myths of our colonialist capitalism; mesmerized by the messaging of neoliberalism and a culture of immediate gratification, entitled rights to comfort, and egocentric individualism increasingly devoid of communal connectedness, we are lulled—by the demands of daily life in the empire—into becoming unwitting participants in the very systems, ideologies and practices that subjugate the majority of us. We become servile to the emperor we seek to dethrone.
Though there is some truth to Lorde’s observation that the master’s tools may, properly used, sometimes allow us to temporarily beat the master at his game, we forget that failing to address the corrupt underpinnings of the rules and structures of the game ultimately leaves us like dis-empowered hoards, hanging on the pendulum trying to slow its swinging, failing to notice the sharp, heavy thing is still cutting to ribbons all those who, grasping tightly, hang on at the bottom—all this, while the pompous, misshapen, naked and over-fed emperor watches in bemused self-satisfaction.
The truth is, our problems are no longer about party or who is fighting on what elected team; the problem is in the imperialist court, itself. As we also say in recovery communities: if it ain’t working, do something different. Usually, it’s as simple as doing the opposite of our first impulse, but most surely, we need to be willing to recognize and accept when what we are doing is not working. It seems pretty clear, now, we are all out of sometimes and temporarily.
Many of us working in various places and levels of the wider movement for just change are aware what we have been doing isn’t working at all. And, in truth, it never really has. Over the last several decades, even when we have elected presidents espousing more progressive rhetoric, those movements have not resulted in any significant change in or removal of deregulatory measures, for example, or other significant legislative measures that have been foundational to our current slide into the murky muck that gives rise to overt fascism.
Thus, the dream of the founding fathers thrives as the dream of a common good coughs, chokes, and sputters. Nothing changes if nothing changes. Yet, in this lies a certain profoundly hopeful truism: the more a thing becomes fully and insistently what it is, the more it stands out.
This has inspired some of us to more actively engage exploring the dire call to decolonize the systems, processes, and operations at the core of our wider movement for justice. The belief there will be no meaningful intersectional justice without earnest decolonization resulting in rejection of status quo strategies, elimination of privileging systems, a complete rethinking of the nature and uses of power and resistance drives to ring the bell more loudly.
At least a handful of us have been holding workshops and training seminars with various local and national LGBTQ organizations, particularly, around envisioning a process of decolonizing the movement.
In workshop after workshop, I have observed the results are the same: praise of the concepts and denial-based resistance to self-reflexive application of the principles. Resistance often sounds like this: we’re the last people who would ever colonize you all; (or) we get it; (or) you’re preaching to the choir, my friend. Unfailingly, these same voices—almost always, the straight, white, wealthier, cisgender allies—are the very voices who express the colonizing practices we are addressing: they dominate all the conversations; direct us to points of necessary compromise; and offer advice regarding tolerable, lesser oppressions, absorbable in the required incremental movement toward to a just success.
It’s no surprise when allies say such things. They don’t have much skin on the street, so to speak, let alone on the mat. But it’s not just allies who profess faith in working and compromising within our larger, socio-political systems. More and more LGBTQ leaders (of varied identities and social locations) continue to believe we can work with the master’s gatekeepers to create change within the master’s house. Again, on a practical level, who can blame them? Who wants to give up the security and comfort of a worldview that, generally, supports and offers a relative appearance of progress—even, or especially, when that mythical progress is personal?
I get it. It’s hard to see the things that make us uncomfortable. Certainly, my own life has offered me plenty of practical experience with how hard—and sometimes, painful—it is to be called to wake from the stupor that cradles us, whispering promises of safety and security in a precarious daily life. But I also know that my survival—indeed, any hope of thriving—depends on the healthy, equitable, and just survival of the whole, that my liberation is deeply and profoundly bound the to liberation of others. This is the troubling reality we all live in. And, if we accept it, give ourselves over to it, it is also the means not only of our salvation, but the hope of all who come after us.
But, if we are committed to a practical and meaningful justice, it seems evident that we will need to become willing to do the work of justice-imagining and just-action, first, within ourselves—uncovering our own biases, attachments, entitlements and fears of potential discomfort—before we can even hope to create meaningful change in our world.
If we have learned nothing else as variously located members of an oppressed collective, we ought to have learned by now that we cannot create the change we are not, ourselves, willing to be.
Perhaps, the most uncomfortable, troubling thing is knowing that nothing has really changed, in large part, because this thing we dream, the justice we seek, is a fledgling thing. It has never, really, existed, grown-up and matured. Cultures that came close were occupied, colonized, and appropriated by some form of empire. Creating the new thing will mean learning from the past and the present, imagining and re-imagining, practicing what we imagine, refining and perfecting it. It will mean doing this work together. It will require letting go of the comforting lies culturally transmitted and assimilated onto the worldview we cling to, unconsciously and consciously, as we march habitually toward the sticky, dangling fruit in the master’s orchard—the fruit that is killing us, bite by bite. Mostly, it will require being willing to change ourselves, our own individual ways of thinking, doing and being in our daily lives to create the needful change in the world.
Creating real change means waking from the dreamy stupor and interrogating the doctrinal tenets of capitalism and colonialism. It means rejecting the distracting euphoria of immediate gratification, owning and resisting our various entitlements and letting go of a right to comfort that exploitatively denies the same comfort to the many. Creating a meaningful justice means deconstructing our conditioned egocentric individualism by realizing that we, as individuals, come into being and become persons within a temporal condition of interdependence, mutually responsible, communal interconnectedness. It means disputing the lie of the self-made person. It means acknowledging the strength and defining features of our humanity lie not in our position, our relative comfort or individual successes, but in our relational nature, the exercise our compassion and concern for the most vulnerable among us, and our expression of accountability and obligation to one another.
Creating a just society means putting ourselves—our will, our imaginations, our hands and our feet—to the task of finally answering the question: will the high principles of believing in a humanity created equal in value and endowed with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness ever be both accessible and applied to all of us, or will these needful endowments remain the commodities of a self-preserving, self-appointed, greed-stricken and morally bankrupt elite?
Otherwise, nothing changes if nothing changes. And, if nothing changes, we remain servile imitators of the diseased, immoral, self-serving emperor we seek to dethrone.