The “Trump supporters are just dumb” argument isn’t helping

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.

The “Trump supporters are just dumb” argument isn’t helping

Merit is a Myth

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.

This isn’t to say that arguments for the value of certain forms of labour aren’t useful when they’re made strategically. Care work and domestic labour have historically been devalued alongside the women and people of colour who most often perform these tasks, and it makes perfect sense to fight back against that trend. But problems arise when we stop connecting these arguments to actual, material conditions, such as when we fail to recognize that people are working harder and longer for less pay, because the joy of working at a job you love is assumed to be its own reward.

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?


FireShot Capture 15 - Casual gamers are ruining gaming I IGN_ - http___www.ign.com_boards_threads_

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. 


by Nicole Em

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.

Merit is a Myth

Capitalism, games, and diversity work

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.”

Capitalism, games, and diversity work

Thoughts on #Elxn42

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.” 2015-10-20 12-36-03

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.

Thoughts on #Elxn42

A (partial) guide to treating women with respect and avoiding subtle sexism

Reblogged from:

This is a (partial) guide for any men who want to build considerate and respectful relationships with women. If you think you already know how to do that, you should probably read this anyway (especially point #11) since a) it never hurts to have a refresher, b) you might be surprised by some things and, c) you can then make an informed decision about whether or not to recommend this guide to other men. A lot of men who consider themselves to be feminists still unintentionally engage in behaviours that hurt and marginalize women. This may be due in part to the fact that a lot of feminist discussions assume that people already know “the basics”–they have to, or else we would spend all of our time repeating ourselves. However my experiences, which are based mostly on working in academic and game-related communities, suggest that a lot of things that seem basic on the surface tend to be overlooked, particularly when they’re expressed in a more subtle fashion.

Subtle sexism is, in some ways, harder to tackle than the obvious stuff–like the use of sexist slurs, sexual assault, or refusing to let women vote–because it’s almost invisible to people who aren’t on the receiving end. This “death by a thousand cuts” still has a huge effect, however, on women’s lives. It also impacts men, who often don’t understand why women react in the ways that they do to behaviour that seems perfectly harmless to them. This guide is intended to help address that gap in understanding, although it should be understood from the get-go that it’s very incomplete and not without lots of caveats, exceptions, and exclusions. With that in mind, the first step to creating respectful relationships with women is…

1. Give women space to talk and make sure you listen when they do

Listening is a highly under-appreciated skill. It’s also a skill that is absolutely crucial to building a more just and equal world, not just between men and women, but across other categories of difference and oppression. Listening involves two steps, the first of which is learning to recognize when you’re taking up too much space by talking over others and not giving people an opportunity to respond on their own time and in their own ways. Sometimes that means letting go of that really smart remark that you’ve been dying to share, but it also means opening yourself up to lots of amazing insights that you might never have encountered otherwise. Remember to keep in mind that traditional gender roles designate men as the speakers and women as the listeners (despite the “chatty woman” stereotype), so there’s a good chance you’re underestimating how much the men in the room are talking, and overestimating how often women talk.

The second part is actually listening, especially when the person is saying things you don’t really want to hear, either because you disagree or because they’re being critical of you or your actions. The moment you start to feel defensive in a conversation is the moment that you should be turning the “listening dial” all the way up, because that’s when you’re most likely to learn something new. Also keep an eye out for gestures, shifts in vocal tones, and other social cues. Is the person you’re talking to displaying any signs of discomfort around you, such as nervous laughter? Are they looking away frequently and avoiding eye contact, or shuffling and fidgeting? It’s ok if you have trouble reading these kinds of signs; staying attentive and checking in verbally if you’re unsure about something can still help to create a safer environment.

In some cases the safest way for women to deal with certain issues is to create a space of their own, outside the presence of men. If the idea of women meeting on their own is frightening or if it makes you feel angry or excluded, you might want to think long and hard about why you have so little trust in women operating outside the supervision of men. You might also want to think about why you feel entitled to that space, given that there are lots of spaces where women can’t go, either because of an explicit rule, or because the conditions in those spaces are unwelcoming and unsafe for them. Rather than challenging the need for such a space or accusing them of being “divisive,” allow women to make their own decisions about what they do or don’t need.

2. Be prepared to take “no” for an answer.

This is absolutely key, and something that a lot of people still struggle with. Rejection can be painful, and for a lot of folks the most “natural” response is to lash out against the person who rejected them. Unfortunately men are often encouraged to behave this way through subtle cultural signals and cues, which teach them that their masculinity, and thus their self-worth, hinges on their ability to assert dominance over others, to demonstrate persistence in the face of adversity, and to not take “no” for an answer. For example, think about the ways that male athletes, entrepreneurs, generals, and superheroes are often portrayed. Women, on the other hand, are taught to view persistent, non-consensual behaviour as “romantic,” and a sign of men’s dedication, confidence, strength, and overall superiority (Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey are well-known examples). These gender norms are incredibly harmful, creating an environment where care and consideration for others are viewed as a sign of weakness–something to be avoided at all costs–while violence and domination are glorified and celebrated.

It also makes consent impossible, because it’s not consent unless the person giving it is free to say no, without repercussions. You may think you’re asking someone for their consent, but if your response to their “no” is to scream at them, shun them, insult them, fire them, or physically attack them, then you aren’t really giving them much of a choice in the matter. The fact that this sort of response is what many women expect when a straight man propositions them should give you an idea of just how common this sort of behaviour is, even among men who declare themselves feminists. It should also tell you something about why women will often give a noncommittal, half-hearted response rather than a direct no, because a direct no is too risky, especially if the woman is also poor, racialized, trans, dealing with a mental illness or disability, is a member of a stigmatized religious minority, or is otherwise disempowered. Which leads to the next point…

3. Don’t get mad at women for “failing to communicate” their needs or expectations.

The important thing to remember here is that women are often punished for communicating their needs. Sometimes the punishment is subtle, for example when a woman complains about how she’s being treated by her male colleague and is immediately told that she’s being “too sensitive,” or is questioned about minor details by people acting under the assumption that she’s unreliable, and is probably making things up. Sometimes it’s more overt, like when women talk about feminist issues online and receive death threats and doxings in return. In other cases, their concerns are heard, and then promptly ignored, which is disempowering and a form of punishment all on its own, since it’s the equivalent of saying that that women’s needs and safety are unimportant. Regardless, the result of this repeated punishment is that many women are either afraid to speak up or, perhaps even worse, are convinced that whatever problems they face are their own fault, a result of their personal failings rather than external factors that are outside of their control. In a lot of cases, women will simply “suck it up” and bear it, even when someone is being abusive towards them. When the behaviour becomes unbearable, they’ll leave the space (if they can), rather than raise a complaint and risk repercussions, sacrificing a lot of opportunities, and personal or professional connections, in the process.

If a woman isn’t communicating with you, there’s probably a reason. It may be because of your personal behaviour, or it may be because of the factors described above. In any case, the best way to deal with it isn’t to punish the woman for “misleading” you, but to think about how you can contribute to creating an environment where that woman feels comfortable being direct and upfront with you. No one owes you their trust, regardless of your relationship to them. Trust is something you have to earn, and insisting otherwise reveals a sense of entitlement to someone else’s time, as well as their private feelings and experiences. In other words, it’s just another way of asserting control and domination over others.

4. Don’t insist that women explain sexism to you.

There are lots of resources available online that will help you understand how sexism and other forms of oppression work. In many places there are also workshops and community organizations that are focused on educating people about these issues, and can help you find resources. If you see a woman talking about her personal experiences with sexism, don’t jump in and demand that she explain to you how and why it’s sexism. Chances are this is something she’s had to explain a hundred times before, and it’s exhausting having to repeat the same lines over and over and over again, especially when you suspect that the person asking isn’t really listening to you, but is instead looking for a way to prove you wrong. A lot of the time these questions about why something is or is not sexist are asked in bad faith, because the person asking has already made up their mind. This unfortunately impacts men who genuinely don’t understand what’s going on, since women are less likely to respond to them. This isn’t the fault of the women however, but rather of all the people that have tried to derail their conversations about sexism, questioned their personal experiences, and punished them for speaking up. Rather than forcing women to explain sexism to you and then getting angry at them when they refuse, try doing the research yourself.

5. Don’t make her responsible for the harm you cause.

It’s ok to make mistakes, everyone does. What matters is how you respond when someone calls you out. If you fuck up and hurt someone, take responsibility for your actions, rather than placing that burden on the person you’ve hurt. This applies to everyone, but it’s particularly important when you’re in a position of power in relation to the person that you’ve hurt, and when the critique is specifically about how your actions reinforce that relation of power (for e.g. when a man is sexist towards a woman, when a white person is racist towards a non-white person, when a cisgender person is transphobic towards a trans person, etc.). Some general guidelines include:

Don’t make false apologies like “I’m sorry that you’re offended,” which shifts the blame and the focus of the conversation from your actions to their reactions.

Don’t insist that the person you’ve hurt is “overreacting,” or that they “misunderstood” your intentions. Your intentions aren’t what’s important—even the most well-intentioned people can cause a lot of harm. What’s important is the impact of your actions.

Don’t try to turn a critique into a personal attack on you and your morality. Again this is just another tactic for shifting responsibility onto the victim, while insisting that only people who can be proven to have “bad intentions” (i.e. virtually nobody) can be criticized. Chances are it was extremely difficult for the person criticizing your behaviour to even raise the issue in the first place. By arguing that they’re just trying to shame you or make you look bad, you’re actually implying that they’re the one at fault, making it more likely that they’ll keep silent the next time something bad happens to them.

6. Treat women as potential friends, colleagues, and fellow human beings first, everything else comes second.

Just because you’re attracted to a woman doesn’t mean this is the only way you can or should relate to her. Keep in mind that a lot of women are used to being treated as potential sexual partners, or “conquests,” first and foremost, while everything other than their physical appearance is either ignored, or else exploited in an effort to “win them over.” As soon as men discover that these women aren’t available for dating or sex, they suddenly lose interest in talking to them. This can be a pretty disheartening experience when it happens over and over again, particularly since women are taught–through everything from Snow White to cosmetic ads–that their main source of value lies in their ability to attract and please men, a lesson that is repeatedly reinforced by these sorts of experiences.

To avoid unintentionally playing into the sexual objectification of women, try to be conscious of how your level of attraction to a woman affects your behaviour. Are you more polite or friendly with women that you find attractive? Are you ignoring qualities about them that are more relevant to the given context, such as their professional background or technical skills, while paying undue attention to their physical appearance? Why? Would you be acting any differently if they were men? Note that casual sex and respect for women aren’t mutually exclusive. Just because you don’t want a long-term relationship, doesn’t mean they’re less deserving of your respect and consideration.

7. Don’t dismiss her just because she presents in a feminine way or likes “feminine” things.

Many of the things that are coded as “feminine” are also seen as less serious, frivolous, unprofessional, or juvenile. Sparkles, frills, ribbons, jewelry, the colour pink, cute stuffed animals, and cheerleading are all examples. The additional layers of meaning that these objects and activities have is partly a result of embedded sexism, and allowing those meanings to dominate your perception of the women who own or like them is essentially the same as viewing them through a sexist lens. The fact that a woman wears a lot of pink clothes with sparkles on them says absolutely nothing about her personal or professional accomplishments, her intelligence, or her ability to carry out “serious” tasks. The same goes for men and genderqueers who like feminine things or present in a feminine way.

8. Be careful with your compliments.

A lot of “compliments” that are directed at women aren’t really compliments, but rather a means of asserting control over them. They do this by making women feel obliged to show gratitude and acknowledge the person “complimenting” them, or else risk being punished by the man or their peers.

When the women suspects that the man complimenting them is attracted to them, but they don’t feel the same way, the simple question of if and how to respond can become a virtual minefield. On the one hand, they need to be extremely careful not to be too friendly with the guy, or they’ll be faced with more unwanted advances, and may be accused of “leading him on”–an interpretation that plays into the “seductress” and “slut” stereotypes. At the same time, they don’t want to be rude or come off as a “cold-hearted bitch,” another common stereotype, which could also escalate the situation or even lead to violence. As a result, women will sometimes feel trapped in situations that, from the outside, seem relatively harmless.

One way to avoid creating such a situation is to make sure that you get to know a woman before you compliment her. This will not only make your compliments more meaningful, since they’re more likely to be based on a real assessment of her strengths and interests than on some superficial feature of her appearance or her personality, but it will also give her a chance to assess where you’re coming from, and how you’re likely to respond to her actions.

Another possible way is to compare the compliment to one you would give a male friend or colleague. If the compliment sounds even slightly inappropriate to give a male friend or colleague, question why it seems appropriate to pay this compliment to the women you meet. Note that this thought experiment has its pitfalls, but is a good starting point when reflecting upon the comments and compliments you could make.

9. Don’t show up unannounced.

You might think that showing up at a women’s home or workplace is fun, casual, spontaneous, or “romantic,” but for many women this kind of behaviour is threatening and scary, particularly if they have been stalked, harassed, or abused in the past. By showing up without their permission, you’re signalling to them that they have no control over where or when they see you. If there is any uncertainty at all about whether or not it’s ok for you to come over without asking, even if you’re close friends and you’ve been to her place before, make sure you ask. Don’t assume it’s fine just because she “seems chill” or has been friendly with you in the past.

10. There’s no universal line for discomfort or distress.

These guidelines aren’t meant to apply equally to all women in all situations. Some women may be fine with you showing up at their place unannounced, while for others it could trigger a panic attack. The key is that you ask them first. Don’t assume they’re fine with it and then wait for them to tell you otherwise. Similarly, don’t assume that because one woman is ok with something, other women must feel the same way. Women all have different experiences and histories, and while there are definitely some common patterns that emerge, there are also countless variations and exceptions. Asking that someone spell out to you, in precise detail, a universal rule for when something is or is not ok is an impossible demand, since it depends both on the people involved and on the specific context. Power relations are tricky that way.

11. “Feminist” and “ally” aren’t badges for you to wear.

There’s nothing more frustrating than watching someone who claims to be a feminist or an ally use these words as a way to hog the spotlight or deflect criticism when they’re called out on oppressive behaviour. Ally isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card or a badge you can wear to signal that you’re part of “the feminist club” whenever it’s convenient; it’s an approach or a way of acting in a given situation that is about transferring power to, and operating in solidarity with, the marginalized and the oppressed. What this means is that you don’t get to decide when you are or are not being an ally. It also means you need to be accountable to the groups that you’re trying to support. Just because you did something helpful for someone that one time doesn’t mean that you have now been branded an ally-4-life and are free to do whatever you want. Taking on oppression requires constant effort and is a never-ending learning process. If you think that you’ve already got it all figured out and have nothing left to learn, you’re probably doing it wrong. If you love to talk about how you’re an ally but haven’t actually done anything to change your behaviour, you’re probably doing it wrong. If your response to being told that you’re doing it wrong is to shut down the discussion or “quit”… well you get the idea. Yes it can seem like a lot of work, but just remind yourself how much harder it must be for the people who are part of that oppressed group, because they don’t get to choose whether or not to care about their oppression, they live with it every day.

Thanks to everyone that helped me put this together.
(Have any other points that you think I should add? Let me know on Twitter @ckjong)

A (partial) guide to treating women with respect and avoiding subtle sexism

Too Busy to Resist

“For ages, the rich and their sycophants have written in praise of ‘honest toil’, have praised the simple life, have professed a religion which teaches that the poor are much more likely to go to heaven than the rich, and in general have tried to make manual workers believe that there is some special nobility about altering the position of matter in space, just as men tried to make women believe that they derived some special nobility from their sexual enslavement.”

– Bertrand Russell, “In Praise of Idleness,” 1932


When I get really busy the first thing to go is usually the housework. I can only put this off for so long though, because I don’t live alone, and because sooner or later we’re going to run out of dishes – the housework is never really cancelled, it’s just delayed. After that are the political demonstrations, conferences, general assemblies, and other open invitation events that I like to attend, but often don’t. Next are the personal social engagements: the parties, the invitations to hang out, that sort of thing. Then there are my volunteer commitments, the things I’m organizing or helping out with, but that I might be able to offload onto someone else. Last is my work, which, as a student, includes assignments, papers, critical readings (i.e. the ones I can’t skip or pretend to have read), and so on.


A while ago I sat down and thought about this list, and about how the things that are the most important to me, are often the first things to go. I thought about how often we’re pushed to give up on our opportunities to learn from one another, and connect, and organize, and discuss the “big picture,” in favour of checking off another thing on our to-do list, or taking on an unpaid internship, or working overtime, or filling out another application, and how troubling this is when I think about the broad, social implications. I think there is an (ironically) widely shared sentiment that we live in a society that is increasingly alienating, isolating, and individualizing us to the point that we don’t even have a real understanding of what it means to live together, on one planet. A lot of these fears get projected onto social media, mobile phones, and the Internet, which are alternately viewed as either the source of or the cure for all our social ills, but I think it runs deeper than that.


About a year ago I read an essay by Roy Rosenzweig called “The Rise of the Saloon,” which talks about the effect of industrialization on the ability of workers to socialize during work, and the emergence of leisure time in the late 19th and early 20th century. As people moved from farms and workshops to industrial factories, they were forced, in the name of efficiency and profit, into more structured working regimens that were better suited to the monotonous rhythm of the machines, putting an end to the casual drinking, gambling, storytelling, singing, and debating that had characterized their previous places of work. The crackdown on workplace drinking however, and the tightening of other disciplinary measures, also made working conditions more intolerable. As a result, employees began resisting en masse, demanding shorter working days and higher pay. As working time and leisure time became increasingly distinct, new industries formed to fill the gaps. Where drinking was at first a largely informal affair carried out at work or in kitchen barrooms run mostly by working-class women, new regulations on the sale and distribution of alcohol pushed people out of their homes, and into the new saloons, which became the only establishments where alcohol could be reliably acquired. In effect this allowed the upper classes, the people who owned the factories and the saloons, and who wrote the legislation, to recuperate the money that they had ceded to their employees in the form of increased pay. Having fought so hard to acquire (or rather recover) some small amount of free time, workers were now compelled to spend that time consuming alcohol and other commodities.

This essay, I think, perfectly captures some of the dynamics that are still at work today. The pressure to enjoy ourselves, to spend what little free time we have on “leisure activities,” most of which cost us money (bars, luxury vacation packages, spas, amusement parks, IMAX movies, shopping sprees, videogames, conventions, concerts, the list of pay-to-play entertainment options goes on and on), goes hand in hand with the pressure to feel pride in how busy we are, and to feel shame any time we feel we’re “slacking off.” From this point of view, leisure is just another task we need to squeeze into our calendars.

polyp_cartoon_rat_raceI work in academia, and while it’s definitely not the worst working environment, it’s certainly one in which everyone feels constant pressure to be more productive, more “passionate,” and thus busier, than everyone else around them. It’s a rat race, and it’s terrible for us—it hurts our work, our mental health, our families, our friends, and our society. Of all the things that tend to fall through on a regular basis, it’s the collaborations with people and organizations outside our institutions or departments, because socializing and connecting with one another is not considered to be a productive use of time in and of itself. Unless you can put it on your CV, meetings are a waste, conferences are a waste, conversations are a waste, non-academic writing like this blog post are a waste, self-expression is a waste, it’s all a waste. Not everyone actually believes this (most probably don’t), but almost everyone acts as if it were true, because our careers depend on us playing along. This is how ideology works in the end—it’s not about what we think, it’s about what we actually do, how we perform, how we act with one another.

Little known fact: graduate students tend to be obsessed with their productivity, or lack thereof.

The first thing to go when we run short on time is the one thing that actually makes social change possible. And the busier we get, the less effectively we’ll be able to organize. Organization for social change takes time: time when we aren’t working for others, time when we can imagine something other than the next deadline, time to care for ourselves and others, time to discover how we all fit together, time to be productive on our own terms, as opposed to somebody else’s.

This is why I think the labour movement is so important. Because when we work, and how we work, affect everything else. The 15Now campaign, to take just one example, isn’t just about underpaid employees finally making a living wage. It’s about a whole lot of people suddenly having a little more time and freedom to think about something other than how they’re going to eat that night, or which bill they’re going to pay off, or when they’ll get evicted. It’s about all that human potential, which we’re currently squandering on the altar of the “bottom line,” because everything that happens under capitalism, so the dictate goes, should happen only so long as someone, somewhere, is profiting.


To quote, once again, Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness”:

“I shall not dwell upon the fact that, in all modern societies outside the USSR, many people escape even this minimum amount of work, namely all those who inherit money and all those who marry money. I do not think the fact that these people are allowed to be idle is nearly so harmful as the fact that wage-earners are expected to overwork or starve.

If the ordinary wage-earner worked four hours a day, there would be enough for everybody and no unemployment — assuming a certain very moderate amount of sensible organization. This idea shocks the well-to-do, because they are convinced that the poor would not know how to use so much leisure…

The wise use of leisure, it must be conceded, is a product of civilization and education. A man who has worked long hours all his life will become bored if he becomes suddenly idle. But without a considerable amount of leisure a man is cut off from many of the best things. There is no longer any reason why the bulk of the population should suffer this deprivation; only a foolish asceticism, usually vicarious, makes us continue to insist on work in excessive quantities now that the need no longer exists.”


If this was true in 1932, it is even truer today with the current advances in automation and computing. The question is, who is benefiting from this automation, and what will happen as more and more people are replaced by machines? Why are so many of us spending all of our time working in bullshit jobs that seem to serve no purpose beyond generating a profit for a few wealthy investors (not to mention certain sectors, such as the arms industry, that actually cause widespread harm)? If things continue along their current path, it seems we are heading for a world in which mass unemployment, and mass starvation, are the norm. Without adequate mechanisms for the redistribution of wealth, unemployment, rather than granting us some much-needed free time, becomes a death sentence, or at the very least a burden, as we compete with one another to find another job, not because we want to work, but because our survival depends on it. If the power of the labour movement lies in the ability of workers to withhold their labour, to refuse to work, what happens when that labour no longer holds any value to the people in power?


This is the real threat of the doctrine of work: that we will end out working ourselves into obsolescence. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be part of a system that puts profit over people when we reach that point.

Perhaps we’ll never reach it, but I think it’s worthwhile, at the very least, fighting for the time and space to imagine, and produce, alternatives.

Too Busy to Resist

The Importance of Solidarity

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how kids these days (i.e. the millennials) are self-absorbed and need to learn to empathize with others, an accusation that has also been levied against the rich (albeit with more scientific backing). However I want to argue that a critical politics based on social solidarity is what we (meaning those of us on the political Left) are really after, and what many of the calls for “empathy” lack.


Social solidarity means social cohesion based on interdependence, which, in our current, globalized societies, is a global interdependence. This idea is encapsulated by the phrase, “Workers of the world, unite!” — a call for solidarity amongst the vast majority of people that must sell their labour to survive (including those who are struggling with unemployment). While we all have different bosses, and work under very different conditions, our fates are bound together: a gain or loss in the standards of living and rights for one group affects all others, especially if those changes occur at the bottom of the ladder. Because we have very little power as individuals, the success and failure of these struggles is dependent on our ability to stick together and support one another, while still being conscious of the differences in power and privilege that divide us. The 8 hour work day, weekends, paid parental leave, pensions, public health care, universal suffrage, desegregation policies, employment equity, and other important historical gains won by labour unions and mass movements around the world are proof positive of the importance of social solidarity.

Social solidarity relies on critical thought and political action. While empathy usually leads us to nod our head in understanding, and sometimes prompts us to blindly accept what we’ve been told about the situation because we happen to connect to an individual or group emotionally, a critical politics pushes us to ask questions about where those feelings and experiences come from. A lot of human beings can empathize with anything, including an IKEA lamp, if it’s presented to them in the right light, but a critical politics based on social solidarity is what drives us to do something with those feelings.

By Stephanie McMillan

Before I go any further, I should point out that I’m not trying to downplay the importance of interpersonal connections, or make a “reason over emotion” kind of argument (as if it were actually possible to divide the two). Empathy can certainly help enhance our sense of social solidarity, but what makes the latter especially useful is that it isn’t dependent on the former. You can stand by someone and support them even if you’re totally unable to understand, on an emotional or experiential level, what they’ve been through or how they’re feeling, and that’s a powerful (and I would say necessary) thing if we’re actually going to change our lives for the better.


Not convinced yet? Here are a few other perks:

  1. It encourages us to think of politics as more than just a career choice, or a subject that ought to be left to the “experts.” Politics is not just something that happens in parliament; it also happens in the streets, in the lessons we teach to our children, in the relationships, organizations, and objects we build, in the things we read, watch, and play, and in our most mundane conversations.

    “I think the two-party system is working just fine. Besides, buying a third one would be a bookkeeping nightmare.”
  2. It connects us to a rich history of struggle. There is so much more to learn from the past than what we’ve been taught in school, and some of the most thrilling, inspiring, and heart-wrenching tales come from the parts we never hear about. Listen to the story of the POUM and its demise during the Spanish Civil War, read about Rosa Luxembourg and the German Revolution, learn about the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo whose children were “disappeared” during the Argentinian Dirty War, or watch a documentary about the Brookside Strike.spanish_civil_war_poster
  3. Based on this history you will learn to see how different forms of injustice and discrimination, such as (neo)colonialism, classism, racism, sexism, and ableism, as well the abuse of our natural environment, are interconnected. This means that even if you don’t have much (or even any) experience with a particular form of oppression, you can still appreciate how each of our respective struggles are intertwined and, ultimately, interdependent.
  4. It’s all about the big picture. While empathy tends to highlight the individual, a politics based on social solidarity focuses on the system as a whole. It recognizes that people are, more often than not, constrained to play a particular role within that system, and that punishing a person for the part they’ve played may be much less effective than challenging the system itself. This does not mean that we fail to hold people responsible for their actions–only that we think carefully about when and why we’re doing so, and consider whether it contributes to the broader changes that need to be made. For example, will blaming union members for striking solve the problems that led them to strike in the first place? What changes when we try to identify with their position, instead of the position of the people that have been inconvenienced by the strike, or their employers? While the media will often try to direct our empathy towards one group rather than another, we should always consider the political motives and assumptions that underlie these attempts to manipulate our emotions, and assume that there is more to the story than we’re being told, no matter how “right” it feels. Empathy may lead you to help someone in need, which is wonderful, but a critical politics will give you a clear and consistent reason for doing so.
  5. We can do away with universalizing conceptions of “human nature” and morality. Empathy is a nice, feel-good concept, but by assuming that everyone has it, or needs it, or ought to have it, we unintentionally discriminate against those people that have difficulty identifying and matching emotions in others. Just because someone has trouble empathizing doesn’t mean they’re a bad person, and vice versa. You may be able to empathize with mens’ rights activists (MRAs), but if doing so means you also adopt their hatred of women, and particularly feminists, no one is better off because of it. There will always be limits to our empathy, but so long as our actions express a commitment to improving our collective well-being, that shouldn’t matter.


Empathy is a good start, and something worth cultivating when we can. But it’s not enough on its own to get all of us up that hill. For that, we need a plan.

The Importance of Solidarity