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
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
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.