The claim that free speech is under attack is everywhere. Given how important the concept seems to be, you’d think people would be more concerned with carefully explaining what free speech is and why it matters in the first place. Instead, you tend to get vague remarks about a “free society,” or hypothetical scenarios that have no bearing on actual reality. Most of us have been raised to believe that free speech is a good thing, and we tend to take this idea for granted, so maybe it’s not surprising that we rarely ask ourselves more fundamental questions like “What does free speech mean?”, “Why is free speech important?”, and “Who is benefiting from the support of free speech?”. In an effort to clear up some of the confusion around free speech, who has it and who doesn’t, and how it’s being used, I’m going to tackle some of these questions head on.
What is free speech?
What do we mean when we talk about free speech? Free speech laws such as the First Amendment in the United States are supposed to protect individuals and organizations from government censorship and repression—they have nothing at all to say about how ordinary people treat one another. This distinction is important, in part because most governments, even those that are supposedly democratic, are in practice run by and subservient to the interests of the rich and powerful. With corporate lobby groups and private donors wielding so much power, the state can’t be trusted to regulate speech. Even hate speech laws, which are supposed to protect marginalized groups, tend to be abused. For example, in 2015 the Canadian government used hate speech laws to criminalize protests against the Israeli state’s occupation of Palestine by equating criticism of the Israeli state with anti-Semitism.
There’s also a big difference between having the right to speak, and having the right to a platform. While social media has made it easier for ordinary people to share their views with an audience outside their immediate friends and family, most of us don’t have access to large, established platforms, which include things like TV appearances, articles in widely circulated newspapers or magazines, popular YouTube channels, public speeches, etc. These platforms significantly magnify the effects and reach of a person’s speech, granting them a disproportionate amount of power and influence, and so it makes sense that this person’s views should be subject to some degree of scrutiny and public oversight. When someone like Milo Yiannopolous is invited to speak at a university, he is making use of resources provided by the student body and, through government grants and subsidies, the public at large. When members of the public decide that they don’t agree with how those resources are being used, and show up to protest the event (usually after trying to go through official channels and being repeatedly ignored), they are not only exercising their free speech, but also asserting democratic control over the use of public resources. This kind of public accountability is essential to any real democracy, since it helps to prevent abuses of power.
The only way you can support Milo’s right to “free speech” in this situation is if you have a very broad interpretation of free speech, and a very narrow interpretation of democracy. In other words, you have to see free speech laws as applying to everyday interactions between ordinary people (which, legally speaking, they do not), while at the same time arguing that democracy is limited only to procedures involving the government, and is not about ordinary people acting collectively or making decisions about things that affect them on a day-to-day basis.
In theory, free speech is a right available to everyone; in reality, it’s a function of power. The more power you have, the more freely you’re able to speak, the larger your platform, and the less likely you are to be silenced by the threat of violence. Because of widespread inequality and differences in power, some speech also prevents other speech. When a cop tells you “stop talking or I’ll have you arrested,” chances are you’re going to shut up. Similarly, you probably aren’t going to tell your boss that the joke they just made was racist if you think they might fire you because of it, but you will be careful not to mention that you support Black Lives Matter in front of them. And when someone’s YouTube video containing copyrighted materials is taken down because of a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) complaint, people rarely say that the corporation that owns the intellectual property and/or YouTube is infringing on that person’s free speech. The point is that the broad definition of free speech doesn’t actually hold up in the real world, because very few if any people are free to say whatever they want whenever they want without consequence. It takes a whole lot of power, money, and privilege to have that kind of latitude, and most of us aren’t Donald Trump.
Why is free speech important and who is benefiting from the support of free speech?
Free speech can play an important role in preventing government abuses or empowering people who are typically disempowered. However it can also be used to hurt people and reinforce existing hierarchies, which is why it’s essential not to talk about free speech in the abstract, but instead look at how the concept of free speech is actually being used, and to what effect.
Because we’re taught that free speech is automatically good, we also tend to think that anyone “attacking” free speech is automatically bad. This knee-jerk reaction can be used against us, and so we need to be able to recognize when arguments in support of free speech are being used selectively to benefit certain groups, while dismissing or demonizing others.
For many, free speech only seems to be an issue when it affects people in positions of power or authority. One of the reasons we’re seeing so much talk about free speech these days is because groups that are historically silenced and denied access to public platforms are making use of tools like social media and collective action to speak up and share their experiences and criticisms with the rest of the world. Critical discussions about race, gender, capitalism, policing, borders, and so on are becoming more mainstream as different voices enter the public arena for the first time. This situation makes people in positions of power, people who aren’t used to being challenged or held accountable for their actions, uncomfortable and defensive. But we should be asking ourselves, why are these people’s comfort more important than the well-being of the people who are being hurt by the systems of oppression and exploitation that they’re trying to address?
Strangely enough, some of the staunchest “supporters” of free speech, are also the ones terrorizing Muslims, people of colour, and other marginalized groups. White supremacist and neo-fascist groups have discovered that rallying under the banner of free speech is an effective way to push their far-right views into the mainstream, while benefiting from the protection of well-meaning liberals. Often these groups will tone down their language, re-frame their views, or use humor and irony in order to appeal to a broader audience and maintain plausible deniability (for example saying “I didn’t mean it that way” or “it was just a joke” when called out), knowing all the while that their arguments are a stepping stone to more extreme and violent forms of racism, misogyny, transphobia, etc.
This is why the white supremacist website Daily Stormer celebrates Pewdiepie, a famous YouTuber with over 50 million subscribers who has recently taken to making anti-Semitic jokes, for his “normalization of Nazism and Jew hatred.” Fascists understand the importance that a large platform plays in growing their movement and achieving their long-term goals. Pewdiepie, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Milo Yiannopolous, and other relatively well-known figures may not be fascists themselves, but they play a crucial role in creating the conditions that allow fascism to take hold.
Free speech is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. It’s essential that we learn to think about free speech in critical terms, especially when the mainstream media is stoking fears about “social justice warriors” and “political correctness,” as a way to avoid deeper discussions about the role our institutions play in maintaining and justifying systems of oppression.
From what I’ve been able to gather after several years of research, there are 2 strategies that are effective against fascists. One is to disrupt their ability to organize by shutting down their meetings, rallies, shows, conferences, message boards, and anywhere else that fascists get together to talk to one another, spread their views, attack or terrorize marginalized people, or recruit new members.
Recently there’s been a lot of uproar over the protest that forced authorities to cancel Milo Yiannopoulos’s scheduled appearance at UC Berkeley. Whatever you think of Milo Yiannopoulos as an individual, there’s no doubt that his speeches are serving as a recruitment ground for fascists. While Milo repeatedly tries to distance himself from the more extreme elements of the far-right, he still welcomes their presence and legitimizes their views. If you actually pay attention to the content of his speeches, they’re all about painting white men as the victims of a leftist conspiracy called “political correctness” (also known as cultural Marxism in more anti-Semitic circles), and delegitimizing the grievances of oppressed and marginalized people. It’s a message that’s particularly appealing to the disaffected white men that his speeches tend to attract, and it plays directly into the hands of the fascists, who similarly argue that white men as a group are under attack and must band together to defend themselves from the invading hordes. Fascists also hate SJWs (social justice warriors), liberals, and leftists, and people like Milo and his entourage provide a convenient cover for their activities, as well as a rich recruiting ground.
No one is going to change Milo’s mind. Trust me, people have tried. But his softcore white supremacism—rebranded as edgy anti-establishment conservatism—is working extremely well for him, providing all the fame and money he could ask for. He’s found his niche, and he’s going to run with it (same goes for Richard Spencer, Steve Bannon, Matthew Heimbach, and others). So you’re left with two options: 1) try to convince everybody that attends his talks that his views are wrong (good luck with that), or 2) shut them down. If you’re currently assembling an army of rhetorically-gifted people to follow Milo wherever he goes then great, but there are other people who don’t have the luxury to wait for well-meaning liberals to get their act together. These are the people who are directly targeted by the violence Milo legitimizes and tacitly encourages, people like the transgender student he singled out and mocked at his talk in Milwaukee, people who have been harassed and doxed by his followers online, people who are racialized or disabled and have to deal with both state violence and racist vigilantes.
The second strategy that works against fascists is providing a viable alternative to fascism by directly confronting the conditions that produce it in the first place. That means more than talk, or ideas about tolerance; that means real, concrete alternatives to capitalism, which brings with it the gradual collapse and privatization of public infrastructure and social services, unprecedented levels of economic inequality, ever-expanding prisons and the militarization of police, ongoing wars and bombings carried out in the service of corporate interests, climate change, and the eventual destruction of the biosphere.
The only effective way to fight fascists, other than confronting them in the streets, is to organize to address the very real needs and inequalities that make fascism appealing in the first place. Instead of accommodating racism or protecting it under the guise of free speech, we need to make racism irrelevant by ensuring that everyone has access to basic necessities and that no one is in a position to systematically dominate, oppress, or exploit others. Racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of oppression are tools used by the ruling class to maintain and protect their position of power. The seeds of fascism were planted long before Trump became president, and until we take the fight directly to the capitalists and their institutions, fascists will keep popping up and demanding a platform. We not only have to deny them that platform, but also pull out the carpet from under their feet. In short, we have to fight capitalism if we’re going to fight fascists.
The US elections have made it increasingly clear to many of us that things need to change, and fast, before they get a hell of a lot worse. But while you may have heard plenty of calls to “take action” and “organize,” it’s not always obvious what that means. Not only that, but I know from experience that activism can seem scary and intimidating when you’re on the outside looking in, especially when all you really have to go on are stereotypes and sensationalized media reports. If you’re going to take a chance by getting involved, it helps to know what you’re signing up for, so in the spirit of demystifying activism, I thought I’d share a bit of what I’ve learned in the last few years. Just to be clear, I’m hardly a seasoned veteran, and while I’ve spent a fair bit of time studying social movements of various sorts, I still have large gaps in my knowledge. So please take what you’re reading here with a grain of salt, and definitely read other things about activism and organizing if you can. But for those who feel like they’re grasping at straws, hopefully this is a start, at least.
1. Pick an issue. This can be switched up with step number two, but if you haven’t already joined or formed a group with people who share some common ground, then the first step is figuring out which issues take priority for you. The most important thing to remember here is that you can’t do everything at once, so don’t try to—you’ll only burn yourself out. A good rule of thumb is to start with the issues that have a direct and immediate impact on your life, because those are also the areas where you’re likely to have the most amount of influence and the most enduring motivation to make some kind of positive change. Your personal experiences will help you figure out what needs to be done, and also build connections with people who are in a similar position.
That doesn’t mean that if it doesn’t affect you, it doesn’t matter of course. Solidarity is really important, because all issues are interconnected on one level or another. But you can show solidarity when it really matters, while still focusing mainly on the things that impact your day-to-day life. For example, two of the major things that impact me and make my life harder as a mixed race cis woman are sexism and racism. I also work in digital games, which is why most of my organizing efforts have been focused around combating racism and sexism in games and/or tech, and making games more accessible. I didn’t pick this issue because I thought it was THE MOST IMPORTANT ISSUE EVER or that everyone should care about it as much as I do; I settled here because it’s an area where I’ve managed to build up a sense of community and a knowledge base, and where I have some amount of social capital that I can use to try to make things just a little bit better. There are lots of other areas where I could potentially make a difference, but this is the place where I feel like my words and actions have the most impact, at least for now.
If this doesn’t really speak to you, here are some other things to consider. Are you unhappy with your working conditions or pay? Do you live in an area where they are planning to build a pipeline or other destructive infrastructure project? Are you a student being affected by cuts to university funding or high levels of student debt? Are you an immigrant struggling to be allowed to stay in a country that you consider home? Are you and your neighbours being driven out of your neighbourhood by high rent and gentrification? Are there industries nearby that are poisoning your air, soil, or water? Are you dealing with barriers related to a disability or your mental health? Do you have family members or friends in jail who are being mistreated? Are you a sexual assault survivor trying to reclaim your life? Are you a visible minority worried about getting beaten up by fascist thugs? All of these are issues you can organize around. If you’re just starting out though, I recommend picking just one–whichever feels the most urgent or the least scary to you–and going from there.
2. Form a group, or join one. If you live in a larger centre, chances are that there are already lots of groups out there, from established non-profits to grassroots community groups to reading clubs, political parties, and artist collectives. If you happen to live in a smaller town, or if the groups that exist aren’t tackling the issues that you care about, try starting your own. We’ll get into the specifics of this a bit later, but first I want to mention some things that I think are important to consider when choosing or creating a group.
a. Is it not-for-profit? Many of the problems that exist in the world today can be traced back to one thing: profit. The transatlantic slave trade was started for profit. Fossil fuels continue to be exploited for profit. Wars are fought, more often than not, for profit. In a capitalist society, profit takes priority over people, and the people who make the most profits are the people who call the shots. No matter how much effort for-profit companies put into branding themselves as progressive, or “green,” or socially conscious, as long as they were created to serve the bottom line, they cannot be trusted to make decisions for the benefit of anyone other than their owners/shareholders (note that the situation is slightly different for workers’ coops, where the workers are the owners and can make decisions for themselves, although even they have to deal with market pressures).
b. Is it beholden to corporate backers? Unfortunately, corporations and banks control the vast majority of the world’s capital, which means that even non-profit organizations often need to turn to them for cash. Sponsorship deals almost always come with strings attached, but those strings can range from “you have to include our logo on your website” to “we control the direction of your entire organization.” Figuring out how much power private interests have over your chosen group is very important, because it will affect pretty much everything about what they can or cannot do or say. For example, I once worked for a national non-profit environmental organization that prevented its staff from writing or saying anything about climate change or corporate destruction of the environment, because they were afraid of scaring away their major donors, which included oil companies. By the time I finished working there, it was fairly clear to me that this organization was doing more harm than good, providing a large scale greenwashing service for the very same companies that were directly responsible for damaging the environment in the first place.
c. Is it inclusive and welcoming to marginalized groups? While no group is ever going to be perfectly inclusive, groups that perpetuate classism, racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of oppression (even if it’s through silence or inaction), and refuse to change when they’re called out on it, are likely going to fall apart or make themselves irrelevant in the long run. Why? Because the people who are the most invested in progressive social change, and who can teach us the most about how to move forward, are the groups that are harmed and marginalized by the status quo. By playing into the divisions created by capitalism and other forms of oppression, we only make ourselves weaker. That means all groups that are striving for social change should be making at least some effort to include marginalized people who aren’t already well-represented within their group, unless there is some obvious reason not to. For example, a women-only group might not include men of colour at some or all of their events, because that’s not what they were created for, and that’s fine, but they should be open to working class women, women of colour, trans women, and disabled women. What’s the difference? Well men, as a group, have systemic power over women (even if class, race, and other factors complicate how the power relations actually work out on an individual level), meaning they have certain kinds of advantages that women, as a group, don’t enjoy. Excluding men is a temporary measure meant to make it easier for women to organize or do certain activities until we manage to eradicate patriarchy forever. Trans women, however, do not have power over cis women, just as women of colour do not have power over white women, and so excluding them is a matter of bigotry rather than practical necessity.
d. Are the people who are directly affected calling the shots? Lots of organizations claim to “help” people, while never directly involving them in the organization or decision-making. Sometimes there are practical reasons why the affected groups can’t be present at every meeting (for example, a solidarity group working with people abroad, or people who are imprisoned in institutions), but at the very least you should be consulting with them about major decisions, including questions about where resources are directed. Most environmental groups, for example, should prioritize the needs and experiences of the people who are most directly and negatively affected by climate change and environmental destruction, including indigenous people, people living in the global South, farming communities, etc.
3. Talk to people around you. The best way to figure out what needs to be done is to talk to other people who care about the same issues you do. These conversations can happen in person, online, over the phone, or whatever else works for you, but they need to happen. All organization depends on communication, and while you don’t want to spend ALL of your time talking, you also don’t want to rush ahead and just do something for the sake of doing it, without knowing if it will be effective or if you have the necessary support to pull it off. Collective action often comes with costs attached, including time, energy, and material costs, so unless everybody involved is fully onboard, it’s not going to happen. That means you’ll probably need to spend a lot of time listening to and sharing concerns, coming up with possible solutions, and potentially convincing those who are on the fence.
If you’re playing any kind of leadership role, self-criticism is SUPER important here, because whatever you do will have an impact on other people’s lives and welfare. Make sure you are clear with yourself and with others about where your interests really lie, what you have to lose and what you have to gain, and how far you’re willing to go to achieve your goals. If other people have power over you and might influence your actions, that needs to be discussed too. Learn about anti-oppressive practices like active listening, and don’t dismiss concerns out of hand, especially if they make you feel guilty or uncomfortable about your own privilege—chances are those are the things you most need to hear. Collective action can be incredibly powerful, but once you’ve broken someone’s trust, it can be very, very difficult to win it back, which is why communication and consent are so essential.
4. Dream big, but don’t forget to participate in the little things. A lot of activism and organizing work is thoroughly unglamorous. If you want to have a meeting, someone needs to send an email or notify people, someone needs to find and book a space, someone needs to bring food if there’s going to be food, and someone needs to clean up the dishes and garbage afterwards. All of this takes work, and while it may seem boring and mundane, it’s important that everyone participate in these little tasks, and try to share the labour equally (for example, make sure it’s not just the women or people of colour who are cleaning up and doing the dishes!). Capacity-building takes time, so have patience. It’s also worth noting that even if you don’t have major goals in mind right away, building up a community of people that can look after one another and support each other still has a lot of value. People tend to turn to fascism when they have nowhere else to go, and if you can provide an alternative, one that promises to make a real difference in their lives, it can make a huge difference. While direct action is an important piece of the puzzle, not all activism involves chaining yourself to heavy equipment or marching on city hall, and behind every dramatic, headline-grabbing event that happens, there are countless people working behind the scenes trying to keep the wheels turning. If putting your body on the line is scary or inaccessible, there are still plenty of other things you can do that are just as valuable.
5. Apply pressure. Only the rich and powerful get what they want just by asking (or paying) for it. Unless you’re a member of the elite, the people who have the power to make the changes you want to see in the world are going to take some convincing, because as far as they’re concerned the status quo is working just fine (for them). While it would be nice to think that a well-reasoned argument that’s supported by strong evidence would be enough, that is almost never the case. That’s where pressure tactics come in. Protests, strikes, occupations, media campaigns, petitions, boycotts, and acts of sabotage are all ways to apply pressure to groups that can tip the scales in your favour. It’s all about making sure that the perceived costs of continuing with the status quo are greater than the perceived costs of giving in to whatever demands you’re making. This is ultimately how companies and governments function, and it’s also why protests, strikes, and other actions usually have to be as disruptive as possible in order to work. The people who complain about sitting in traffic because protesters are blocking the streets often aren’t aware that this disruption is the main thing that makes protests effective. Yes, they can raise awareness about an issue and help get more people involved, but if they aren’t causing problems for someone, no one (other than the people who are already invested) will pay attention to them, including the mainstream media. In order for progressive change to happen, you need to make it impossible for corporations and governments to continue with business as usual, even if it’s just for a few hours. This may lead some people to get angry and dismiss protesters, and it may even turn “public sentiment” against them, but often it’s a choice between doing that, or having no impact at all. It’s also worth noting that direct action, meaning occupations, strikes, sabotage, etc., is almost always a last resort, something that happens after “official channels” have already proven to be dead ends.
6. Don’t let them divide you. One of the best ways to bring an organization down is to turn the more moderate members of the group against the more radical members. Attempts to demonize people who engage in direct action, or refuse to compromise with people in positions of power at the expense of marginalized groups, are widespread and, in many cases, incredibly effective. It’s helpful if you can recognize this tactic, understand where it’s coming from, and try your best to keep this from happening within your own group.
7. Find a balance. Burnout is a big problem in activist communities. The work can be exhausting, all-consuming, and very unrewarding at times, especially if you’re facing major setbacks. Remember that every project has its ups and downs, and just because things aren’t going as planned, doesn’t mean you’re failing. Also try to keep in mind that you won’t be able to help anyone if you’re too sick or depressed to get out of bed. There are lots of guides out there to help you identify and deal with burnout (for e.g. here, and here)—make sure to take some time to look them over, not just for your own sake, but also for the people around you. Activism isn’t a competition, so try to avoid comparing yourself to others or feeling bad about yourself for “not doing enough.” Remember that there’s nothing wrong with just surviving—for lots of people, that’s a full time job. While projects can be more rewarding if you stick with them for a long period of time, there are also times when you may need to let go and move on, or step back for awhile, and that’s ok too. Just because you’ve spent the last 5 years working on something, doesn’t mean you have to spend the rest of your life there, and in some cases you may actually learn more and be more productive if you switch to something new.
8. Learn from the past, plan for the future. The best thing about organizing is that you don’t have to do it alone. Not only is it by definition a collective activity, but it’s also something that has been around for a really, really long time. That means that there are lots of great books and other resources out there for you to learn from, like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, so please don’t stop here!
Do you have other suggestions, stories, or tips that I haven’t mentioned here? Do you have fears or concerns that I haven’t addressed? Please feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to incorporate them.
Why is Trump getting so much support? Wouldn’t you like to know? Well, according to articles like “The Psychology Behind Donald Trump’s Unwavering Support” there’s a simple explanation for it all: Trump supporters are just less intelligent than everyone else. There are a lot of these sorts of articles floating around. They’re appealing, reassuring even, because they appear to offer an “inside look” into a phenomenon that lots of people just don’t understand. However, I think we need to look critically at these articles for a number of reasons. Let’s start with the one I linked to above, which is as good a specimen as any.
The biggest problem I have with this piece is that it completely decontextualizes (or recontextualizes) the results of the scientific studies it cites to encourage one, overly simple interpretation: conservatives are dumb, lesser beings driven by emotions rather than reason. I think this message is appealing to liberal intellectuals and anyone else who doesn’t support Trump, because it makes them feel superior, and allows them to avoid any sense of responsibility for what’s happening. But when you combine this with stereotypes about “white trash” and conservative “rednecks,” it gets pretty classist pretty fast. There are a lot of possible ways of interpreting these studies, the first being that heightened fear responses amongst conservatives are a response to repetitive exposure to stressful environments and more precarious living conditions. Without knowing anything about the studies’ participants, other than that they were identified as “conservatives,” it’s impossible to know how many of these differences are a result of past trauma, financial instability, recurring threats to physical safety, etc. The point about conservatives having a bigger amygdala implies that there are innate biological differences, and that no other explanation is necessary, which is an incredibly lazy and irresponsible way to frame a complex social phenomenon.
The argument that Trump supporters “aren’t smart enough to know they’re dumb” is even worse. I’ve personally seen just as many, if not more, instances of the Dunning-Kruger effect among liberals as I have among conservatives. In fact, I’ve probably had more productive discussions with conservatives, who are at least willing to admit that something is terribly wrong with how things are currently working (even if we completely disagree on the underlying cause of those problems and the solutions), than I have with the “America is already great” brand of liberals. And if anyone is tempted to say, “hey this is just anecdotal evidence, it’s not science!” then yes, I completely agree, but I’m also providing just as much scientific backing for this statement as the author is for theirs: none.
The conclusion to the piece, which states that there is nothing we can do because Trump supporters are just biologically wired to support Trump, is also incredibly suspect. One of the major reasons that people support Trump (that isn’t mentioned in this article) is because he seems to be the only alternative to Clinton, aka the establishment, aka the status quo, and people are sick and tired of putting up with a system that isn’t working for them and only seems to be getting worse. Both liberals and conservatives have pushed the “there is no alternative” message pretty hard, for quite some time now, both through media messaging, school curriculums, etc., and by concretely repressing any individuals or groups that threaten the two-party system and the neoliberal, capitalist agenda it supports. The Red Scare, the systematic undermining of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, the violence committed against pipeline protesters and Black Lives Matter activists– all this stuff contributes to creating the “polarized” environment that we see emerging in the US, where you’re either for Clinton or for Trump, and no other position is possible. This benefits both the liberal and the conservative political class, as well as the ruling class which supports both sides, because the threat of one drives people into the arms of the other (the Canadian system works the same way). Both of these options are bad for the vast majority of people, but most people don’t know what to do about it, and articles like these aren’t helping. Personally, I suggest dismantling the whole system and/or working outside of it until it collapses in on itself, but that option is almost never put on the table, because it’s considered too threatening to the powers-that-be, and will probably get you fired.
I write this as someone who is virulently anti-Trump, so I have my own biases, but I don’t think alienating conservatives in this way is helpful. If you’re going to alienate conservatives (or liberals), do it by fighting racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, and every other oppressive system. Relying on classist, ableist language and assumptions is a step in the wrong direction, no matter how good it might make us feel in the face of the terrifying spectacle that is Trump vs. Clinton 2016. We don’t need op-eds that dehumanize the “other side” through naïve appeals to scientific authority, especially when those narratives lead us towards some very scary places. What we need are collective movements and organizations that can build lasting, democratic alternatives. What we need is a way out.
When people talk about the “myth of meritocracy,” they’re usually referring to the fact that so-called meritocracies rarely work as promised. These arguments claim that instead of doling out rewards and punishments based on someone’s merit, i.e. their inherent abilities, decisions are made on the basis of race, gender, class, and so on. However these critiques, as much as they can be helpful for pointing out existing inequities built into the system, often assume that something called “individual merit” really exists, and that it can be separated from other aspects of a person’s identity, background, and social context. They assume that a “true” meritocracy is the ideal, and that the current system is a broken and dysfunctional version of that ideal, a pale shadow of the perfect form. Few arrive at the conclusion: “What is merit, exactly, and do we really want merit to serve as the basis of our imagined, ideal society? Is this really what we should be striving for?”
In their article, The Meritocracy Myth, Stephen McNamee and Robert Miller state that merit is “generally viewed as a combination of factors including innate abilities, working hard, having the right attitude, and having high moral character and integrity.” They then go on to examine each of these qualities in turn, questioning what, if anything, is inherent, innate, or individual about abilities, hard work, having the “right” attitude, or having high moral character and integrity. Aside from pointing out that these qualities are often vaguely defined—what do we mean by the “right” attitude, exactly?—the authors also note that each of them is ultimately inseparable from the social context and experiences of the person whose abilities are being “measured,” as well as those of the people doing the measuring. Talents, attitudes, and morals are never recognized or developed in a void; they are as much a product of the society we live in as anything else in this world.
At this point, many people fall back on biological arguments—the idea that some people are “naturally” better at performing certain tasks thanks to genetics or other biological factors. This argument is flawed in two ways. First, it relies on an artificial division between “nature” and “culture,” human society and the natural world. Just because we treat biology and sociology as two separate fields of study, organizing them into disciplines and departments, doesn’t mean that this separation exists in reality. Even a person’s physical characteristics are influenced by socially-conditioned factors, such as their mother’s diet, stress levels, and access to quality care during pregnancy, which is in turn tied to issues like poverty, food sovereignty, working conditions, the chronic underfunding and privatization of healthcare institutions, and so on.
Secondly, even if we accept that there are certain biological differences that are “natural” and therefore outside the realm of human influence, we’re still left to wonder why we would want to accept a social order that discriminates on the basis of genetics or other biological traits, particularly given the bloody legacy of so-called “scientific racism.” Referring to something as natural, and then using that as a basis for normative arguments about how things “ought” to be, is known as the naturalistic fallacy, and is often used to reinforce the status quo.
Morals, meaning socially-held assumptions and norms that separate people, objects, or behaviours into categories such as right and wrong, good and bad, are also a product of our society. While McNamee and Miller stick to debunking the myth that moral integrity and wealth are closely aligned, pointing to corporate ethics scandals and white collar crimes like insider trading and tax fraud as evidence, the argument that the rich are not so noble or pure as they’re often made out to be is hardly a revolutionary idea at this point, even in the birthplace of the American dream. Instead, we could go one step farther and say that morals are themselves the product of a society disproportionately controlled by and organized in favour of the rich and the powerful. This is how you end up in a world where ultra-rich capitalists like Bill Gates are put on a pedestal and praised for “giving back,” while their “charities” buy shares in Monsanto and Cargill, companies responsible for innumerable human rights violations and widespread environmental destruction. This also explains why Black Lives Matter activists are criminalized and imprisoned for protesting police brutality and racism.
What we consider to be right and wrong, good and bad, has been shaped over generations. Far from being natural or universal, these values and morals are the product of our collective interactions with institutions like schools, the criminal justice system, the Church, the job market, and the media. Together these institutions create a system of rewards and punishments that we internalize over time. Eventually we no longer need to be told that failing a test is bad, or that arriving to work on time is good. We learn that our survival is dependent on pleasing those people who have power over us, the people in positions of authority, whether they are our parents or teachers or bosses or bureaucrats. We also learn to suppress the fact that we ever learned these lessons in the first place. From a young age we’re told that it’s considered rude, taboo, or just plain depressing to talk about power, inequality, and social control in any direct sense. In order to get by in this environment, we unconsciously accept the things that are rewarded as good/right, while rejecting the things that are punished as bad/wrong. This allows us to continue believing that we’re free, even when we have very little power or autonomy, while still conforming to social norms: “I didn’t clean the kitchen because my mother told me (and demonstrated through her actions) that that’s what women are expected to do in our society, I cleaned it because it was dirty and I wanted it to be clean,” or, “I did it because it was the right thing to do.”
Of course saying that the elite have a disproportionate influence on the rest of society isn’t the same as saying that they’re the only influence. If that were true, critiques of racism would probably never have developed or become part of our moral landscape. People who are exploited, enslaved, and oppressed have a tendency to push back, and in the process, morals shift and change, becoming a site of struggle and resistance. You can see this happening right now in the debates over sexual assault on college campuses, which include arguments about what “counts” as sexual assault, and who should be held responsible. Similar to the fight to include non-consensual sex with a spouse (i.e. marital rape) under the legal definition of rape in 1983 in Canada, this push to establish new moral (and legal) norms is coming mostly from people who are harmed and disempowered by the status quo.
Perhaps one of the most deeply ingrained moral norms that exists today is the importance of hard work. Insults like “a waste of skin” and “good-for-nothing” often connect a person’s value as a human being with their productivity, while terms such as industrious, entrepreneurial, active, and diligent are considered compliments. There’s nothing worse than being seen as lazy or unable to work in a society that valorizes hard work, particularly if you’re poor or racialized. Aside from the fact that it’s often difficult, if not impossible, to determine exactly how “hard” someone is working, there’s also the question of why hard work is so valuable, and for whom. What exactly are we working for, and who benefits from all this hard work? Most people need to work to survive, but when we start to see the act of working hard as valuable in and of itself, such that working hard becomes a central part of our identity, we open ourselves up to whole new forms of exploitation.
It’s no coincidence that the notion of a “strong work ethic” has emerged and developed within a capitalist system that depends on maximizing profits through lowering pay, increasing productivity, and extending the length of the working day. While it’s possible to coerce people into working harder through threats of violence or deprivation, it’s even more effective to encourage workers to self-police, especially in industries that rely heavily on intellectual and creative labour. Teach people to think of “hard work” as a positive trait, as something they can brag about to their friends or carry around as evidence of moral fortitude, and you no longer need to hold a gun to their head.
And where does merit fit in all of this? In some ways, merit functions as a smokescreen for the social and material relations that make up our society and determine our place within it. Merit is the simple story that we tell ourselves to explain away all the societal factors and influences that authority figures refuse to account for directly. The reason we have so much trouble separating merit from “non-merit” factors is because there is no separation, not really. And yet throughout our school years and our working life, our value is constantly being measured and quantified in relation to something called merit. If we fail to get the job, get a low grade, or get paid less than other people, we’re told that it’s because we just don’t have what it takes—we lack merit—which also implies that we don’t deserve to have what other people have: we don’t merit it. Since merit is supposedly the property of an individual, we’re told it’s our own responsibility if we fail according to these measures. Merit, by focusing the gaze inwards rather than outwards, both naturalizes the status quo and cuts short any attempt to examine the collective effect of these structures and systems that determine who is rewarded, when, why, and how. It becomes about our own personal failure, our own inadequacies, rather than the inadequacy of a system that values some lives above others.
Merit is a constant source of insecurity, stress, and anxiety, but it can also act as a source of pleasure for those who find themselves on the winning side. I work in videogames and academia, two areas where the concept of merit is very deeply embedded. In mainstream gaming culture, competition and demonstrations of skill are highly valued, often under the assumption that what distinguishes games from “real life” is that games present players with an even playing field. Equal opportunity is seen as an essential component of any “real” meritocracy, however it’s unclear where exactly the equality begins and ends. If the only thing distinguishing players is their skills, then should players not also have an equal opportunity to acquire those skills? If one player has 60 hours a week to practice, and the other only has 5, can it still be called an even playing field? What about players who have different physical abilities due to an accident of birth or circumstance? What about players who don’t speak the language or are bullied or harassed due to their race, sexuality, or gender presentation? Who exactly is this “even playing field” for, and who is being invisibly excluded by our reluctance to challenge the concept of merit?
You might expect academics to “know better,” however academic institutions have the dubious honour of being both the source of many of the critiques of meritocracy, and a place where the concept of merit is systematically reinforced through grades and performance metrics, honorifics and degrees, grant committees and various other forms of gatekeeping.
In the case of academia, it can be tempting to replace merit with “intelligence” in an attempt to dodge the issues I’ve raised above, however the concept of intelligence also needs to be unpacked. There is a long history of separating the body from the mind (or soul) in Western philosophy and science that I won’t get into here, except to say that the process of assigning the body to a lower status has served to naturalize a social order where the ruling classes, who are free to engage in “higher” pursuits like education, politics, and the arts, are viewed as innately superior, while the lower classes, who are typically forced into manual labour and are more likely to be preoccupied by basic, bodily needs like food and shelter, are seen as inferior, crass, vulgar, and unfit to govern their own affairs. The concept of the mind, and everything that follows from it, has important social and political implications, lending power to some groups while disempowering others; however it is also, itself, shaped by those relations of power. This comes through in the devaluation and erasure of indigenous knowledge by colonial powers, as well as the selective application of terms like “genius” and “madness,” concepts which are closely linked to prevailing social norms.
The argument that intelligence is not about what you know, but about your ability to learn, does not erase the fact that the development of any skill, learning included, is highly dependent on free time and access to resources, something that is rarely taken into account by academic structures. When I’m grading students, I’m asked to assess them based on the work that they’ve produced, without giving any consideration to the context in which the work was created, or the background of the student who made it. To give you an idea of just how much this leaves out, here’s a partial list of some of the things that instructors aren’t expected to think about when giving grades to undergraduate students:
Were they working full time? Do they have children or other dependents they need to care for? Are they sick and/or suffering from mental health issues but won’t reveal this to me because of social stigma? Do they have a safe and quiet place to work? Are they taking the class simply because they need the credit and the structure of the university left them with no other options? Are they put off by the fact that my course outline consists entirely of work by white men, which doesn’t reflect or even directly discounts their experiences? Is the content forcing them to relive past trauma, which is affecting their ability to work? Is English their first, second, third, or fourth language? Has their attendance dropped because they were abused by other students in the class? Are they living with high levels of debt and stressing out about their future? Are their family or friends supportive of their decision to go to university? What else is going on in their lives?
There’s no room for any of these questions in a system dominated by GPAs (grade point averages), especially when that system is also expanding the size of classes, reducing the number of staff, demanding more work for less pay (often under precarious conditions), eliminating essential support structures like health services and benefits, and generally screwing teachers and students alike in the name of “cutting costs” and “improving efficiency.” In this context it’s difficult—if not impossible—for instructors to provide the individualized attention and care that students need. Students are reduced to a series of letters and numbers on a page, as are the instructors, and most of us are too tired to do anything about it.
Despite these obvious problems, many people work to protect and reinforce the status quo, because they’ve come to identify their own self-worth with that system of letters and numbers. Whether it’s gamers protesting the “casualization” of their favourite series or genre while pining over the “good old days” when games were really, really hard and only real men… ahem, I mean real gamers, could rise to the challenge, or professors reminiscing about the sleepless nights they spent desperately trying to get through the 5 million books they were expected to read as graduate students, the old guard vigorously defends the rituals and barriers to access—the “rites of passage”—that also function as the source of their own legitimacy. “Why should they have it easy, when I suffered so much?” “I worked hard to get where I am today.” “This generation is so coddled and self-centered.” This is the inevitable outcome of a system organized around the concept of individual merit. When your own worth depends on the exclusion of others, on your capacity to succeed where others fail, then equality and access will appear to work against your personal interests, rather than for them. This is why we are so hostile to the notion of privilege, because it runs counter to the idea that we worked hard and suffered for what we have, that we “deserve it.”
Merit is ultimately about deserving, and about legitimizing private ownership and inequality. It is ideological through and through, perhaps even more so than the things we typically think of as “ideological,” because it often works subconsciously and involves strong emotional responses. When we’ve invested so much in the current system, through our own blood, sweat, and tears, it can be hard to let go. I think we must let go, but to do it, we also need to support each other, to find new ways to invest in one another and in ourselves. We can’t strip away a person’s sense of self-worth, replace it with nothing, and expect them to simply let it happen. That void needs to be filled, somehow.
We can start by telling the people around us that we care about them, that they matter to us, that they are worth so much more than their productivity or their ability to “succeed” in a fucked up system based on “merit.” We can start by guiding each other through the process of deconstructing that system, helping each other to ask the tough questions, and standing by each other in moments of despair and desperation. We can start by questioning our own investments, and the way we punish or reward people based on their behaviour. We can start by listening to the people challenging inequality, wherever it exists, and instead of tearing them down, recognize that all our struggles are connected. We can start by organizing new systems and new structures that can replace the old, and by changing the ones we currently occupy. We can start by imagining something better than a “genuine” meritocracy. We can start by practicing solidarity. We can start by believing that another world is possible, and that we have what it takes to get there.
Below is a transcript of the lightning talk I gave at the Pixelles Cookies n’ Cocoa Social on January 23, 2016.
I want to start with a quote from an amazing piece by Mattie Brice called “Our Flappy Dystopia”: “There is something unspoken, that of COURSE we’re all run by money. But to say it outloud is taboo, and it’s seen as rudely airing someone’s dirty laundry. That we are aware that the methods of how many institutions make money are unethical but are okay with keeping it just below the surface since we know others are doing it is a cause for extreme alarm.”
One thing I hear over and over and over again in games is “Don’t burn bridges.” This becomes especially important when there are other people depending on those bridges, when you’re running a non-profit, for example, or mentoring marginalized creators.
We’re forced to balance the desire to speak critically about the things we see and hear and experience, against the work we do as organizers. The same goes for marginalized people working in the industry. Do I call out this injustice, do I try to stop it, knowing full well that I’ll never work in games again? It’s an impossible position to be in, and an emotionally draining one. Fighting for change is hard work, but often it feels like the hardest part is not being able to fight, not even being able to acknowledge that we’re fighting.
There is no such thing as money that comes with “no strings attached,” whether it’s a paycheck, a space, or a grant, there are strings EVERYWHERE, even if those strings are never explicitly mentioned. While I can’t speak for everyone, I think many of us, myself included, feel pressure to perform our gratitude for even being allowed to exist in this space, and the less privilege we have, the more pressure there is.
We feel pressured to justify ourselves in terms of how capitalism values us, not as complex, fallible human beings, but as potential profit, as untapped markets, as innovators, as positive PR, as productivity, as a more “dynamic” workforce.
We feel pressure to repeat these stories about how diversity is good for business, even if we don’t believe them, because that’s what gets the attention of the higher ups, the people that run this city, run the industry, and run the world.
But in doing so we paint ourselves into a corner. We accept, implicitly, that profit comes before people, that diversity is good and just and worth fighting for only so long as someone, somewhere, is making money.
People also repeat these stories because it’s considered impolite not to. None of us wants to be labelled as “difficult,” “overemotional,” “trouble-makers,” “attention-seekers,” or “wet blankets.” We need to appear calm and rational but also supportive and non-threatening—friendly, but not too friendly—or else no one will take us seriously.
I worry constantly about the day that I step over the invisible line, about what happens when I do. I also worry that I’ll never have the courage to step over that line.
I wonder how Mattie Brice felt, publishing that article. I wonder why it still feels so difficult to name the system.
Mattie was one of the first people writing about games that I encountered who really did that, and while she’s far from the only one, her work still inspires me. I’m going to finish with another quote from the same piece, but I strongly encourage you to read the whole thing:
“Capitalism is informing what creations are considered good and of value, and what are bad form and derivative. Gamers and others see quality in games that show high production value, and defame games that seem to be a waste of money in this model, EVEN IF THEY ARE FREE GAMES. The idea of success outside the conventional method of capitalism, which is intersectional in its effects, is met with contempt. ‘Success’ is also very dubious and misguided; simply having a lot of attention for a period of time is considered successful, even if all that attention is harassment and you are not better off personally or economically for it. As much attention as the DIY ethos had in the past few years, minority creators are still impoverished while indie games that incorporate marginalized themes and design philosophies into the acceptable model receive praise like pets at dog shows. It’s not necessarily their fault, it’s that the system chooses what looks like it from the margins to seem adaptive. In the end, the system is perpetuating itself, only allowing games and people complicit with how things are going to thrive.”
I’ve had mixed feelings about this election from day one. On the one hand, I’ve seen more posts about Canadian politics on my social media feeds in the last couple months than I’ve seen in my entire life. I’ve seen mentions of the controversial police state…ahem I mean anti-terrorism act, Bill C-51, as well as Bill C-24, the new immigration law that makes it harder to qualify for citizenship and easier to take it away, posts about the failure of our government to call an inquiry into the shocking numbers of murdered and missing Indigenous women, articles about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the terrifying implications of giving new powers to multinational corporations to override democracy, posts decrying the Islamophobia that is being whipped up by right-wing parties throughout Europe and North America, and a few that essentially amount to: “Stephen Harper is an unrelatable douchebag and he’s running this country into the ground.” Honestly though, what I’m most afraid of is not that the Conservatives will be re-elected (although that is admittedly a scary prospect), but that the moment they’re kicked out of office, this whole conversation will grind to a halt, and people will go back to living their ordinary lives. I’m afraid that all these calls for people to get out and vote will ultimately be limited to just that. I’m afraid that the notion we’ve been fed that voting is the only legitimate form of political participation available to the masses is going to have precisely the effect it was intended to have, siphoning off all that critical energy and desire for “real change,” and pumping it into a rigged system designed to have only one outcome: politicians from neoliberal party X continue cutting essential public services and polluting our environment in order to feed the insatiable machine that is global capitalism.
Part of the problem is that I don’t see the Liberals or the New Democratic Party as significant alternatives to the Conservatives. All three parties are pro-capitalist and nationalist, all three support the expansion of the tar sands, and all three are running on promises that they are unlikely to keep once they step into office, thanks to corporate power and lobbying, and the pressures of maintaining control during periods of capitalist crisis. As far as I’m concerned, the difference between the three major parties, like the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans in the United States, is based on talking points and little else. The Liberals, who are poised to play their traditional role as the “lesser of two evils,” have a pretty bad track-record when it comes to fulfilling campaign promises and defending public services, and the party voted in favour of both C-51 and the Barbaric Cultural Practices Act. Meanwhile the NDP have been drifting further and further to the right as they come closer to winning their first federal election. If even parties like Greece’s Syriza, which positioned themselves significantly further to the left than either the Liberals or the NDP, failed to live up to their promise to reverse austerity measures, what hope is there that two parties that are openly in favour of “business-friendly” policies will challenge the directives of business owners and investors, who are increasingly desperate to keep their profit margins up at any cost?
This on its own is frustrating enough, but my uneasiness with the hubbub around the current election runs deeper than that. For one, the emphasis on voting, and the shaming of people who don’t, implicitly ignores and devalues the crucial role played by social movements and collective struggles in applying the necessary pressure behind almost every progressive reform that ever actually been implemented, including women’s suffrage, civil rights reforms, shorter work weeks, the right to collective bargaining, environmental regulations and workplace safety standards, unemployment insurance and parental leave, state-sponsored health care and child care, etc. In doing so, it alienates a large portion of the population, who don’t vote for one reason or another, but who often contribute in much more significant ways to enacting social change. This group disproportionately includes Indigenous peoples, recent immigrants, single parents, and poor folks who are already disenfranchised and may be (understandably) disillusioned by the current system that provides them little or no room for direct participation. As the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde put it, “When you don’t feel part of a system, when you don’t feel part of a society, you don’t feel you want to go out and vote. And you’re not going to be concerned about voting and politics when you’re looking for a place to live, when you’re trying to put food on the table.”
Behind this statement is the pernicious effect of liberal ideology, which limits politics and democracy to a specific set of “respectable” people, statements, and actions, providing a comforting (if fragile) illusion of personal freedom and choice for some (the privileged), while repressing anything that is too material, too direct, too real, too threatening to the status quo. By creating a simple equivalence between voting and democracy, we’re steered away from a broader definition of politics that goes beyond the electoral system to incorporate all areas where power is felt and exercised, from classrooms to workplaces to prisons, to comment sections and public squares. It’s this broader sense of politics that we need to tap into if we’re going to put a stop to austerity, climate change, the rise of police states, and imperialism, all of which pose mortal threats to millions if not billions of people, not just in Canada, but around the globe.
We can’t afford to put our hopes in politicians who have repeatedly failed to address fundamental questions of power and wealth. We can’t afford to limit ourselves to symbolic gestures or pat ourselves on the back for a job well done just because we’ve managed not to elect the worst possible government. If real change is what we want, then real action is required, and real solidarity. While I don’t know what that action will look like, I do know that none of us can do it alone. So please, please, please, please, DON’T STOP rallying your friends and family to take action just because the election is over and voting is off the table. DO stand alongside those who are already on the front lines, battling against corporate giants and repressive governments, including our own. DO hold on to the belief that you have the power to change the world around you. DO learn as much as you can from the history of oppression and collective struggle (but don’t forget to look after yourself as well—self-care is important!). DO view this election, not as the finish line, but the starting point for mobilization. There’s a lot riding on it.