One of my biggest fears in undertaking this new site and a more open posture is that I will be judged by colleagues and comrades, people I’ve worked and organized with in the real world and online, as selling out, going soft, turning liberal. In the past, I very much adhered to a type of role or persona in carrying out my work. I held onto an internal narrative that I constructed which said I must present myself as a strident, uncompromising, militant radical of the anarchist variety lest I be thought less of, judged unworthy. Of course such thinking is flawed and problematic on numerous levels, yet that narrative became very loud, drowning out the parts which desired to share a more complete version of myself. It still holds a lot of sway and tells me I will be judged for writing these very words. All the more reason to continue doing so.
It happened that I was indulging in this particular fear on Malcolm X’s birthday, May 19. A common ritual on a commemorative day such as that is to share quotes from the deceased. And so I was looking over some quotes and found a few of his that resonated with me around this very topic.
“If you have no critics you’ll likely have no success.”
“Every morning when I wake up, now, I regard it as having another borrowed day.”
“Stumbling is not falling.”
Then I recalled how after Malcolm X went on Hajj, where he had a spiritual experience, he was viewed as being “softer.” His letter from Mecca is a profound recounting of the opening that occurred for him. Later, upon speaking with Alex Haley, he shared, “Because of the spiritual enlightenment which I was blessed to receive as the result of my recent pilgrimage to the Holy City of Mecca, I no longer subscribe to sweeping indictments of any one race. I am now striving to live the life of a true Sunni Muslim. I must repeat that I am not a racist nor do I subscribe to the tenets of racism. I can state in all sincerity that I wish nothing but freedom, justice and equality, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people.”
Reading that gave me courage. I, of course, am no Malcolm X. Nor have I gone on Hajj, as I’m not Muslim. But I have had spiritual experiences. I am not enlightened, but they have taught me things. And as with Malcolm X, I have learned some of my past sentiments were not constructive and were not serving me (or others) well – including my monochromatic outward presentation.
In Loren Eiseley’s autobiography, All the Strange Hours, he wrote, “A man [sic] comes into life with certain attitudes and is inculcated with others of his time. Then some fine day, the kaleidoscope through which we peer at life shifts suddenly and everything is reordered…Then, to most of us, the lines reassert themselves, reality steadies out. It is better so. Every now and then, however, there comes an experience so troubling that the kaleidoscope never quite shifts back to where it was. One must then simply deny the episode or adjust one’s vision. Most follow the first prescription; the others never talk.”
Eiseley talked. Malcolm X talked. They had to. They didn’t deny. I desire to do the same.
What is being talked about here? I view it as a sort of narrated ongoing educational process. One that involves reflective honesty and openness; things that the dominant culture (and my own head) say are either to be shunned or taken advantage of. A process that led Malcolm X to say, “I can state in all sincerity that I wish nothing but freedom, justice and equality, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people.” All people. And for me to say I agree with him. And that, unfortunate quoting of the Declaration of Independence aside, wanting those things for all people, then acting towards that end, is militantly revolutionary – much more so than just wanting it for people who one agrees with or who aren’t engaged in oppressive behaviors.
I would argue that Malcolm X’s spiritual enlightenment in Mecca did not change or weaken his values, but precisely the opposite. It allowed his values to achieve a higher state of development. Had he not been assassinated so soon after his trip, who knows what level of articulation and action his values would have reached.
We all know Malcolm X’s wishes for all people did not stop him from doing his work. Rather, it informed his work. My experiences over the past couple of years inform my perspective and my work. They don’t change the core of who I am, but allow for a more full expression of that core.
Freedom, liberation, is my primary concern. My views on what that looks like and how to achieve that still very much align with anarchist thought, though are by no means exclusively determined by it. By wishing for freedom for all people – and I would extend that to all sentient beings and the ecosystem we all comprise – I do not give a pass to oppressive behaviors, whether they emanate from an institution or individual, myself included. However, “all people” includes those we really don’t like and actively oppose. But I believe it is quite possible to wish for a person’s freedom, justice and happiness and also take militant action against their activities which run counter to freedom, justice and happiness.
So, no, to respond to my own concern, I have not become softer or more liberal. Simply more open to layer and nuance. “I no longer subscribe to sweeping indictments…”
Softly flowing water will take down the walls of the enemy. -Laozi (Lao-Tsu)
To act in anger, to injustice, is a very different response than to feel the anger completely (not repress), then act on the values of compassion, understanding of the of emerging reality and personal integrity. To act in a free response to injustice ,rather than react from ones need for power over others, has proven time and time again to be more effective in righting injustice. Steady flowing water wears away at the vulnerabilities of seemingly immovable objects while at the same time carrying it away, transforming it and cleaning it. If the water is dirty it will likely just deposit more debris and make it larger and stronger in the long run. Water may be considered to have a ‘soft’ relationship/response to reality.
Allowing a different relationship to an emerging problem requires a shift from ‘solving’ it( with the same consciousness that created it) to action based in compassion for the Human Condition. Many people develop compassion when they turn the focusing lens toward ones own motive in actions. We can trace many of our ‘reactions’ to reality back to the three primitive brain survival instincts of power, pleasure and security. The power of these instinctual reactions should not to be underestimated in how they run most of our day. Until some new neurons are grown by not reacting to their frustrations, we find ourselves caught by them more often than we would like. One of the best ways to grow new neurons, science has now proven over and over again, is to just sit down, observe, without a response of any kind for twenty minutes a day. Gradually the practice of this simple activity will overflow into all your actions so you can have a free, fierce (if needed) compassionate response to events as they arise in your day.
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How could anyone liberate society, unless they can liberate themself? What’s truly anarchistic is to overcome the influence of oppression and slavery on your own personality and stake a claim to the liberation of your own soul. I think you’re completely right about this.
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