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“Everybody Is Someplace”

I’ve been searching, for some time, for a concise way to convey the factors to keep in mind when crafting activist strategies within an ecological framework that takes intersectionality into account. Last week, for a talk at Temple University, I tried out a new mnemonic device. The basic idea is that keeping this phrase (in all its simplicity and complexity) in mind will remind activists to exercise “eco-logic” both while assessing the problems they are trying to solve and while imagining and testing interventions.

The phrase is: Everybody is someplace.

We’ll look at it from three angles, finding hidden meanings, and this will remind us to look at situations from different standpoints simultaneously and to be alert for factors not evident at first glance.

1. The phrase as a whole

Everybody is someplace. Every person (human or nonhuman) involved in a problem is in a particular physical, social, and psychological position as a result of a conflux of past and ongoing factors, which tend to include both choice and happenstance. Where people are matters. Material circumstances both enable and delimit choices.  Values, desires, perceptions, and habits of mind all are shaped by culture and reinforced by social groups.  So, wise activists will take local circumstances, both material and social, into account when analyzing problems or imagining solutions.

2. The phrase broken down

EBISP1

Every means all. That reminds us to account for all of the participants and stakeholders in the situation, not just the most obvious victims and perpetrators. Paying attention to everybody may help you avoid being surprised by unexpected resistance and also may help you identify unexpected allies. Paying attention to everybody also helps you avoid interventions that accidentally hurt some person (human or nonhuman) you weren’t thinking about.

Everybody has a body. This reminds us to attend to the material aspects of the situation, rather than focusing solely on ideological factors or imagining that we can solve every problem by means of persuasive rhetoric. Remembering that everybody has a body also reminds us of the animality of all of the people involved, including their emotionality. Thus we will be less likely to fall into the trap of treating people as if they were disembodied rationality, as if the speciesist and ableist logic of mind-over-matter were true. Instead, we will remember that people are motivated not only by their ideas but also by their desires and other feelings, and we will also remember that physical facts help to shape people and their choices.

What is is what’s real right now. Effective activism requires accurate assessment of the problem(s) to be solved, and that depends on the willingness and ability to face reality, no matter how much the facts of the matter depart from what we wish was true.  On the upside, one very hopeful fact is always true: Change is ongoing. As Angela Davis has said, “We have to absolutely refuse to attribute any kind of permanency to that which is simply because it is.” What’s true right now is what’s true right now. So, we don’t have to “create change” (which would be exhausting). All that we have to do is make adjustments so that the change that is always ongoing flows in the direction we want.

Someplace means a particular place. This reminds us that every place, and therefore every situation, is different. That reminds us to look for the particularities of the situation, especially those that might open up fresh possibilities or, conversely, lead to especially fierce resistance. Particularity is the daughter of diversity, so this also reminds us not only to remember cultural diversity among people but also to value tactical diversity in activism.

Every place is different. This reminds us to match tactics to places rather than relying on one-size-fits-all solutions. We can and should learn from activists in other places, and we can and should participate in national or international campaigns. But, in the end, all politics really is local, so we must (like real estate agents) repeat to ourselves: location, location, location.

3. The phrase as a mnemonic

EBISP2

This mnemonic device reminds us of five key elements of the kind of eco-logical thinking we should use (keeping all of the above considerations in mind)  when analyzing problems, imagining interventions, and assessing our efforts.

ECOLOGY ~ Ecologies are systems of relationships, such as ecosystems, economies, or communities. Ecologies often overlap and interact with each other. Systems tend to reinforce themselves, and interlocking systems may be mutually reinforcing. In which ecologies is the problem you are hoping to solve situated? How do they all work together to maintain the status quo, and what might you do to destabilize the situation?

BIOLOGY ~ What kinds of animals are involved in this situation? Animal advocates will want to take note of the biology, and therefore ethology, of those for whom they purport to be acting, remembering that different animals want different things. All activists will want to take note of human ethology, the key element of which are sociality and behavioral plasticity. Individually and collectively, human beings are capable of a range of behavior from the most empathic and generous to the most callous and selfish. Circumstances, mostly, dictate which it will be. As social animals, human beings are hard-wired to respond to social cues. Thus, social circumstances play a particularly important role in shaping behavior. In addition, as alluded to above, emotion is as important, if not more important, than reason in shaping human ideas and perceptions. Again because people are social animals, social circumstances also shape ideas, perceptions, and emotions.

INTERSECTIONALITY ~ Intersectionality refers to the systematic interrelationship of different forms of oppression, and thus is a way of bringing ecological thinking to the analysis of social problems. Seemingly different forms of oppression (such as racism, sexism, ableism, and speciesism) not only overlap but interact with one another, leading to problems from which it is not possible to disaggregate the contributing factors. The various forms of oppression also tend to support and reinforce one another, working together to create dauntingly stable systems of oppression. Once this is understood, however, it is possible to weaken those systems by targeting the intersections, or joints, where two or more forms of oppression are active. Even if focusing on only one form of oppression, we must remember intersectionality, so as not to accidentally undermine some other struggle, thereby inadvertently bolstering the very system we are trying to tear down.

SITUATIONISM ~ Every problem is a situation, a set of circumstances at a particular time and place. That set-up is undoubtedly at the confluence of multiple systems, and therefore may be “overdetermined” in the sense of having multiple causes and multiple reinforcing factors. However, that also means that there will most likely be multiple avenues of intervention, which it may be fruitful to undertake in a coordinated manner. This also means that there may be multiple potential allies, if only you can analyze the situation well enough to discover them. Finally, because it is a situation –a happening– both energy and flux will already be present, again if only you can analyze the situation well enough to discover them. In any event, your task will be to adjust the parameters of the situation to bring about the outcome you desire.

PICTURE IT! ~ Wow, that’s a lot to think about. How can you keep it all in mind at once? You can’t! You may find that even trying to write it down may be difficult, if you are relying on sentences marching in straight lines into blocks of paragraphs. Try sketching, charting, mapping, or graphing instead. Try layering sketches on maps or doodles on charts. Reach for other non-verbal ways to discover and then express your evolving sense of the situation, and bring other people into the process. Assign roles (trying to remember everybody) and then ad lib interactions among the stake-holders in the situation. Try to dance the economics of the situation. Remember that you probably were schooled to think in exactly the opposite direction you need to think, and then do anything you can to spark your ability to perceive relationships and to imagine alternatives. And, when you begin to settle on a strategy (or, set of tactics), be sure that you can “picture” how what you plan to do could possibly lead (or contribute) to the change you seek. If you cannot, if you find yourself saying something like, “I know it won’t make a difference,” don’t settle for that. Instead, go back to the drawing board until you can set out from a position of hope rather than despair.

What do you think? Is this a useful way to organize this material? Or not? I’m ambivalent, so you can be honest without worrying about hurting my feelings.

 

3 comments to “Everybody Is Someplace”

  • I’ve visited this post several times. I’m going to print it out to highlight parts and think about and read again and again…and yet again.

    My first reading resulted in my being overwhelmed just in the first few paragraphs. I was able to get a little further with each subsequent visit. I think it is a spectacular way to organize the material…yet…for me…it’s sort of like someone took the essence of a textbook for a graduate course (or maybe a whole graduate degree program) and distilled it into an incredibly potent and dense substance and said: “Here, what do you think of this?”

    And I’m just standing there blinded and stunned. I’m sure that your audiences are much further along than I am with their breaking out of the snares and traps of the seemingly infinite ability of U.S. America’s cultural adeptness at suckering you into thinking you’re doing something to “help” or at least not harm when you’re actually just recreating another variation of hierarchy making or unknowingly contributing to an existing structure of harm or devaluation.

    Reading this makes me feel as if I’m still crapping in my diaper and trying to figure out how to walk more than 2 or 3 steps without falling over and I’m looking at a guidebook for how to train for an olympic marathon.

    So…in sum…I think it’s a beautiful and exquisite way to organize the material…but…my own “location” in my efforts to somehow struggle through the culturally induced blindness and bentness that has deformed me means I haven’t grown into someone (yet…I do have hopes for me though) that can do much more with this right now than use it as a study guide for struggling with my own stupifications.

    When you’ve been listening to short, snappy little rock and roll songs with inane lyrics and simple repetitive melodies for a lifetime…being exposed to and trying to follow Beethoven’s Ninth is a daunting task.

    I salute and am in awe of your growth and development and genuinely believe this is terrific…but I would probably have a seizure if I was in the audience listening to it. If the audience that hears it is mostly sophisticated connoisseurs of classical music…it is golden. If they’ve underdeveloped and twisted like me…it will be tough going for them.

    My positionality is that of an elderly white male, sorta middle class, retired psychotherapist, highly educated, relatively able bodied, heterosexual…who grew up in rural Oklahoma with christian parents who were of working class status. My “privilege” was of adequate density and strength to keep me pretty much blind deaf and without coherent speech or comprehension (except for spots here and there) until about 9 years ago when I grasped that hurting animals for “food” was not necessary.

    A year or two ago I read “Bastard Out of Carolina” and a switch tripped (there were other factors too) and I starting looking into feminism beyond having a vague admiration for Gloria Steinem and eventually found the logic of domination and then Audre Lorde and Marily Frye and Joy DeGruy and and and. I struggle with not weeping and cringe incessantly when I think of my unknowing participation in the ongoing debacle of living in U.S. America and on planet Earth as a human animal with a penis and white skin.

    And I thank you for providing some needed light and direction in an ocean of human darkness.

  • Dallas
    I, too, have come back to this post several times with the earnest diesire to understand it. I have refused to delete the notice from my inbox because I so want to “get it” – but I’m thinking this isn’t something I’m going to be able to read and internalize.

    I agree with veganelder in tha this seems like the basis for an incredible course. I’m thinking in order for me to adequately grasp it, I think I’d need a conversation that happens over time with several people from differing perspectives. Even better would be to work with others on applying these ideas to an actual campaign, event, or program.

    Thank you for taking the time and making the effort to organize those thoughts and share them. Posts like these challenge me to expand and deepen my sensitivity and actively look for my own blind spots when it comes to my work.

  • pattrice
    So, that’s two votes against this as a mnemonic device to make these concepts easy to remember and use. Just like activism, writing and teaching are trial and error affairs. Back to the drawing board for me, then. It’s on me, as the person trying to communicate something, to make what I’m trying to say understandable. It’s true that this blog post condenses what was a two-hour lecture on what could be a whole semester’s worth of material. And it’s also true that what I’m asking people to do is think in a very different way than they may be used to doing. Still, there’s nothing inherently hard to understand about what I’m trying to say, so the fault is clearly mine if two people trying very hard have not understood it. Stay tuned for another try…

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