by Litsa Chatzivasileiou
Dr. Litsa Chatzivasileiou is a sessional lecturer at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice where she teaches critical theory, cultural studies, literature, film and popular culture. The following is a transcript of her keynote speech delivered at the F Word Undergraduate Student Conference on April 27th, 2013. She dedicates her speech to “all my wonderful students out there who have taught me to never give up on hope!”
“One of the most salient factors of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his [sic] share. But we tend to take the situation for granted… In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves…” – Harry G. Frankfurt: On Bullshit
I’m not gonna bullshit you this morning. I swear; I won’t! But I’m going to talk to you about lots of it and how much of it surrounds us and what to do to put the skids to it. The idea for this talk on bullshit and the possibility of hope was inspired by a random graffiti message on one of the newly constructed buildings at UBC that simply declared: “New World.” Of course you might notice the mere irony of it. This very hopeful message was, indeed, inscribed on hard core bullshit, bullshit made out of brick and metal and lots and lots of money; the kind of bullshit that has every student on campus reeling with frustration and often rage: for how else than bullshit could one describe the insane amount of money thrown to the construction of phallic buildings erected all over UBC; courtesy of undergrad students and their fees who would rather have more teachers and classrooms and a future, and a New World, and hope, and jobs, and not the bullshit of fountains that makes the campus look like some corporate courtyard, or some plutocrat’s mansion? I would describe this as bullshit!
But just as you think that this is the only bullshit going on out there let me just burst your bubble and break some bad news for you. This bullshit is the other kind that also despairs my students, or anyone for that matter that has the slightest human decency and observes a worldwhere domination (white, supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal domination, to borrow bell hooks’ terms), is the primary mode of human beings dealing with each other. And I despair as much as you do. In the words of Walt Whitman (from “I Sit and Look Upon”):
I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all oppression and shame;/ …/ I see the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny—I see martyrs and prisoners;/ I observe a famine…/I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon laborers, the poor,…and the like;/ All these—All the meanness and agony without end, I sitting, look out upon, / See, hear, and am silent…
I hear the cries of children in the reserve, the aboriginal woman’s whimper under the weight of the white supremacist in Thunder Bay Ontario that assaulted her back in January and the cry of 600 other aboriginal girls and women across Canada that have gone missing and murdered.
I am haunted by the face of 17 yr old Rehtaeh Parsons who recently committed suicide after being raped and cyberbullied and her pleas being ignored by the RCMP allegedly lacking enough evidence to pursue the perpetrators of this crime. I am fed up with the lie of the Western world that we, in the West, are somehow liberated and not oppress women for “[s]omewhere along the way [in this so-called liberated West] it has become a game to grab photos of young women,…while they are being assaulted and trade them like baseball cards.” I am appalled by this Western lie and its rape culture that allows the sexual assault and filming of young girls by boys for Rehtaeh’s story is a replay of numerous others that have taken place in California, in Wisconsin, in Steubenville, Ohio, in Australia, in London, England. We must also not forget the less tragic but nonetheless serious case of our homegrown infamous Dimewatch played out by athletes here at UBC. This reflects nothing but a “profound problem about violence against women, and the extent to which our society is willing to humiliate and denigrate [us].”
I see the constant displacement of homeless people in Downtown East Side and Dave that soldiers on his hunger strike against gentrification; I hear the panic in the voice of the migrant workers as they are being raided last month by Canadian Border Services to entertain Canadians in their Reality TV show with live action human suffering. I taste the salt of tears shed by their loved ones as they depart deported by the CBS on a plane back to abject poverty. This is a society of human cruelty and a porn culture of Reality TV on suffering as the ultimate form of entertainment based on gazing upon, to quote Henry A. Giroux’s Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future, “the pain of others, especially those considered disposable and powerless…[who are] no longer subject of compassion but one of ridicule and amusement.”
I hear the ground shake, the land struck, dug, lacerated, the forest sighing in pain, and trees being uprooted, the hooves of animals thundering in their fleeing, the fish dying in the streams and fowl slick in oil, I see the Enbridge pipeline wound the land, I smell the bitumen gushing out in the rivers.
Anywhere I turn I see despair: in my country of origin, Greece, I observe the neo-colonial subjugation of its people through the financial crisis brought about by the banks and chaining the country to massive debt; I look upon the rampant theft of people by the IMF and the banks; I see children’s faces waiting in line for a bowl of soup; I see immigrants having escaped war and genocide and landing in Greece to experience it once more; I smell the fire that burns to the ground their little shop in a corner street in Athens; I hear the racial slurs thrown at their faces and the faces of their children at school; I hear the cries of the pregnant immigrant woman being beaten up by the fascist thugs of Golden Dawn, the neo-nazi, xenophobic party in Greece that patrols the streets of Athens to cleanse Greece from immigrants under the auspices of government authorities and police. I see the irony of it all for I, myself, am an immigrant.
I see the agony of poverty, war and massive displacement of people, destruction of the environment. I see walls and borders and checkpoints that separate communities and tear people apart, I see Palestine and Gaza choked by occupation and ripped apart by apartheid walls. I see the gated communities of the wealthy and rich keeping the riff raff outside, and at bay.
I taste the bitterness of unapologetic hate: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans populations are a target of incomprehensible hate, evident for example in the recent violent riots in France propagated by far right groups and Christian fundamentalists against the legalization of gay marriage.
To paraphrase Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco’s words in Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt:
There comes a moment…when dead ideas and decayed systems are exposed and discredited by a population that once stood fearful and supine. So, ENOUGH ALREADY WITH THIS BULLSHIT! We must begin to think in terms of REVOLT and HOPE. We may feel powerless in the face of so much oppression and suffering. But we are not. As the Occupy movement, youth revolts across the world, the Arab spring revolutions and student revolts here in Canada, in Montreal and in London, England have shown any act of rebellion keeps alive the ambers for larger movements that follow us. It passes on another narrative. It will, as the system devours itself, attract larger and larger numbers. Perhaps, the full time revolution will not happen in our lifetimes. But if we persist, we can keep this possibility alive. If we do not, it will die.
So now I will turn my attention to the possibility of hope. My Manifesto For Hope.
What is hope? Is there hope amidst so much destruction that often paralyzes us with feelings of political fatigue? The kind of hope that I profess is linked to a radical feminist politics and towhat I call a feminism from the gut geared toward social justice on all possible fronts, being tuned to the plight of multiple marginalized communities, and people, locally and globally. Feminism from the gut for me is the dream and the vision of a “New World” (as reclaimed by the graffiti on the wall at UBC), a hopeful message that I refuse to let it be muddled by bullshit.
But you might ask: how can we as feminists “keep alive the ambers of hope” while remaining unscathed by political fatigue and bring about this “New World” that demands urgent political action and change? This is a question that I have often being asked by my students but also by other young activists that thirst and strive for social change. I have a list, a radical feminist list of principles that I always keep in the pocket of my heart where no one can reach to appropriate it. Justice and a New World are possible because hope begins where, indeed, everything seems so bleak and hopeless. Paradoxically, hope begins in despair.
So here is my list of a feminism from the gut where I derive much of my hope. Yes, I know it sounds like a laundry list but please think of it as a useful set of principles for cleaning much dirty political laundry:
To begin with: I draw my inspiration from other rebels, visionaries and other movements of revolt. These words of Gloria Anzaldua, from her book Borderlands/La Frontera, resonate with me: “My Chicana identity is grounded in the Indian woman’s history of resistance.” “There is a rebel in me—the ShadowBeast. It is that part of me that refuses to take orders from outside authorities…It is that part of me that hates constraints of any kind, even those self-imposed. At the least hint of limitations,… it kicks out with both feet. Bolts.” So I harbor within me the spirit of resistance, the obstinate Beast of revolt against those that constrain me and seem to constraint or dominate all vulnerable others.
I draw my inspiration from rebels and those that do not conform, those that history declares them as idealists and the media repeatedly discredits them as crazy. I believe in the small, puny, grassroots movements of revolt that rise like unstoppable tidal waves and agitate the calm of our very privileged existences blind to the misery of others. I believe in these movements that provoke us, haunt us, torment our conscience when our conscience is at its most apathetic moments. Precisely at the moment when we sit at Starbucks sipping our wonderful lattes these movements raise the spectre of abject poverty, marginalization and colonial plundering of aboriginal people and their land. I’m inspired by Nina Weelson, Sheilah McLean, Sylvia MacAdam, and Jessica Gordon, and Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence and the countless, nameless others of the Idle No More Movement, who despite the Harper government and its cronies, the media, to dismantle it by slander that is by bullshit, they have prevailed and spread like fire across the continent and the world.
But most of all my hope comes from young people, their passion to bring about change and their political action to do so. A report in Rabble wrote that, on March 25, 17 year old Cree
from the isolated community Whapmagoostui on Hudson Bay in northern Quebec, decided it would be a good idea to walk 1,600 kilometres to Ottawa in support of the Idle No More movement. Some of his friends joined him. So with temperatures apparently hovering at around -50C, he and six others left home on Jan. 16, trekking on snowshoes and pulling their supplies, stopping at communities along the way to tell people that they wanted changes to how Indigenous people are treated in Canada. Along the way hundreds of supporters indigenous and non-indigenous joined them. They want to change the contempt with which they are treated, they want to end the blockage placed in front of them designed to quash their aspirations and heritage, they want to end the mentality of relegation that sees so many First Nations forced into the lowest status imaginable by the political and cultural mainstream.
David: you have made history! David: you have challenged the Golliath of Harper and its colonial policies that attempt to bring to its knees aboriginal people. For Harper you are what Thomas King calls an “Inconvenient Indian,” the annoying nouissance standing in the way of their rampant pillaging of your land. Your journey in your snow shoes has left the indelible mark on the ground and in the heart of those your words touched along your journey to raise awareness. David: no snow, no media barefaced falsehood can ever erase, wipe out clean the truth that your protest happened precisely because your people have been systematically subjugated and denied a future. I am indebted to your journey of hope and your message of resistance and revolt.
I see hope rising out of garbage and solid waste dumped in a landfill in Paraguay, hope flying with its dazzling wings in the form of beautiful music made by slum children who have recycled trash and made musical instruments: a violin, a cello, a flute. This is the recycled orchestra made up by slum children in Paraguay. Their music, their resilience, their survivor spirit make me cry. I sit transfixed hearing the little girl that talks about how her life would be worthless without music; the sad, rich, deep notes that come out from a boy’s cello made out of a rusty oil can; my heart swells with hopefulness hearing the ecological music teacher who says: the “world sends us garbage, we send back music.” They all fill me with hope renascent from poverty, ecological destruction, and the excrement, the bullshit, indeed, of what is called Western capitalism and the social inequality and the waste it generates. I am inspired by small miracles that turn into movements of powerful solidarity among disparate groups against the Apartheid Walls in the occupied territories in the West Bank. In The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, Slavoj Zizek writes that in 2012,
Palestinian women demonstrating against the wall were joined by a group of Jewish lesbian women from Israel. The initial mutual mistrust was dispelled in the first confrontation with the Israeli soldiers guarding the Wall, and a sublime solidarity developed, with a traditionally dressed Palestinian woman embracing a Jewish lesbian with spiky purple hair—a living symbol of what our struggle should be.
But make no mistake. My list of hope and what propels me to political action is not a political platform that is based on sets of happy ever after principles. I leave those to politicians, governments, authorities, and policy makers and their cronies that are experts of happy ever after promises—or, shall I say bullshit?
My list of hope seeks to stir some trouble: it cannot guarantee us happy endings and rather seeks to make us feel profoundly uneasy, uncertain and uncomfortable for if we believe in the paradox that hope arises out of absolute despair and ashes then hope is no bed of roses. I am a firm believer in these principles that guide my feminist politics: its non-innocence, its self doubt, its call for humility and its demand for responsibility with no grounds.
First and foremost I want to embrace the fact that I am a flawed and imperfect human being and that similarly my feminism is riddled with countless flaws and imperfections. In “The End of Innocence,” Jane Flax cautions us against what she calls feminist dreams of innocence that have been deeply rooted in white feminist politics in the West based on the idea that there is some common ground, and political platform to be had that will benefit everyone and in particular all women regardless of their struggles. This feminism has ignored its class and race privilege and has subsumed all struggles into a generic idea of women’s emancipation. There is no magic formula that will emancipate us all regardless of our race, class, ability, sexuality and so on and would help us solve all our social problems. Magic formulas are nothing but another kind of bullshit.
We should constantly undermine our Western context and our social position or privilege particularly when in the name of emancipating other women we become accomplices in their domination. Indeed, this is exactly what we did when we, Western feminists appeared to lend a hand to the US and Canadian invasion in Afganistan, (branded as a feminist war by Canadian propaganda). We patted ourselves on the shoulder, self-congratulating at how great feminists we were while we hid ourselves behind the excuse that we were helping our so-called Afgani sisters in struggle to unshackle themselves from the clutches of their men. I am enraged by how the Canadian government used me and abused my feminism to fight its own imperialist wars. In other words, as bell hooks urges us in “Feminism: A Transformational Politic,” we should kill the oppressor within. We should avoid the white, liberal, feminist dream of so-called innocent “sisterhood”. Let me say it out loud and clear: I am not the sister of any woman but I am a flawed and imperfect ally in the struggles of many women and many marginalized people. My political activism begins by killing the oppressor within.
Let me say this again: kill the oppressor within.
We should abandon the myth of neutrality. Let me also be clear on this: we can never be neutral political activists whose only goal is to help altruistically others for however we identify we can never shed our race and class privilege as if it were a second skin. As Jane Flax puts it:
In all relations of domination, no subject can simply or voluntarily switch sides. We receive certain privileges or suffer certain injuries depending on our social positions, no matter what our subjective intent or purposes may be. Men can no more easily resign from masculinity and its effects than I can from being white and my white privilege.
In other words, we should take responsibility about our actions by becoming honestly and with absolute humility self-critical of our own shortcomings as individuals and as activists. We must remain always uncomfortable within our own feminism and political action questioning our motives, and often our complicity with modes of domination. We must remain attuned to those marginalized regardless whether they are women, men, immigrants, animals, children, the LGBTQ community or any oppressed community, people, creature, culture or subject or the environment that has to put up with us and our follies.
My last principle borrows again from Jane Flax’s work in “The End of Innocence.” She writes: “Political action and change require and call upon many human capacities including empathy, anger, and disgust.” I would like to point out here that traditionally these have been seen as so-called feminine emotions. As such they have been vilified by a patriarchal culture and its political manifestations, “benevolent” male rulers and political authority with their absolute faith on reason and its alleged emancipatory effects. Harper, his bullshit social policies and his international politics perfectly exemplify the dead end of reason. So do the G-20 big economic powers. Reason alone is a defunct faculty and an impasse for effective political action toward democratic emancipation of people. Reason alone breeds monsters. As history has shown the effects of so-called benevolent rational powers on the world we live in can hardly classify as emancipatory as the catastrophic events of colonialism, slavery, war, violence, and genocide of entire populations amply testify. These are not effects of emancipation but deformities of reason.
My aim here is not to abandon reason entirely but to qualify it with other faculties of a visceral kind, what we call emotions from the gut such as love, compassion, frustration, anger, revulsion that can propel us into action, awaken us from apathy or political fatigue and make us refuse to be silent. For me it is this despair that fills me with the emotions of compassion and anger and awakens the “Beast” of resistance from within. The hope of a “New world” is linked to a feminism from the gut that rises in exasperation at the unbearable weight of bullshit that threatens to drown us with its political toxic: oppression of all kinds, social inequality, racism, sexual violence, imperialism and so on and so forth.
I can say with absolute clarity that my political activism is fuelled by love and anger, two seemingly paradoxical emotions. Love describes my unconditional loyalty to the vulnerable other, any marginalized subject. Love is proper of a feminism from the gut. I take here my cues from bell hooks who writes, in “Feminism: A Transformational Politic,” that feminism is linked primarily to love which “can be understood as a powerful force that challenges and resists domination. As we work to be loving, [that is] to create a culture that celebrates life, that makes love possible, we move against dehumanization, against domination.” Love creates a society of compassion in which we find impossible to bear the pain of others, we find impossible to see fellow human beings being abused, subjugated, dehumanized, and suffering. For hooks revolution begins in love. She writes citing Paulo Freire:
I am more and more convinced that true revolutionaries must perceive the revolution, because of its creative and liberating nature as an act of love… When women and men [human beings] understand that working to eradicate patriarchal [and any other kind of] domination is a struggle rooted in the longing to make a world where everyone can live fully and freely, then we know our work to be a gesture of love. Let us draw upon that love to heighten our awareness, deepen our compassion, intensify our courage, and strengthen our commitment.
A feminism from the gut also requires anger; anger at the injustice that surrounds us and which propels us not to take it for granted or abide by it. This anger tells us that there is no moment to lose and that there is an urgency to bring about social change. In her own funny way Caitlin Moran calls this “angry feminism” “strident feminism. ” In her book How to Be a Woman, she says:
[W]e need to reclaim the word ‘feminism’. We need the word feminism back real bad. When statistics come in saying that only 29 percent of American women would describe themselves as feminist…I used to think, What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay?… Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF SURVEY? These days, however, I am much calmer since I realized that it’s technically impossible for a woman to argue against feminism. Without feminism, you wouldn’t be allowed to have a debate on a woman’s place in society. You’d be too busy giving birth on the kitchen floor—biting down on a wooden spoon, so as not to disturb the men’s card game—before going back to hoeing the rutabaga field… Personally, I don’t think the word ‘feminist’ on its own is enough. I want to go all the way. I want to bring it back in conjunction with the word ‘strident’. It looks hotter like that…I want to reclaim the phrase ‘strident feminist’… ‘Go my strident feminist! You work that male/female dialectic dichotomy,’…
I will end this talk by a poem, (paraphrased from a poem published in Adbusters), to those that love, and are angry, have compassion and are frustrated, to those who do not abide with bullshit, to those who believe in hope, in change, to those who resist, survive, rebel, to those that we call crazies but are, indeed, visionaries for they dare dream and act upon their vision of justice and of a “New World”. If you listen carefully, you might find yourselves in these words:
Here’s to the crazy ones.
The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The strident feminists.
The ones who see differently.
They are not fond of rules.
And they have no respect for the status quo.
You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them, disbelieve them, feel contempt for them, glorify or vilify them.
About the one thing you cannot do is ignore them.
Because they change things.
They invent. They imagine. They heal. They rebel. The defy. They resist. They fight. They transgress. They survive. They create. They inspire. They rise up. They push the human race forward.
Maybe they have to be crazy.
How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art?
Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written?
Or imagine a better world that includes them and their children?
Or see justice and change where before there was despair and heartbreak?
Or see future where before there was none?
Or see a heap of garbage and create music?
Or be the most despised and create a movement that rises them as people?
We make fools of these kind of people.
While some see them as the crazy ones, I see them as visionaries.
Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
Rebel: A New World is Possible.
GO MY STRIDENT FEMINISTS!