Editor’s note: The following is from the chapter “Culture of Resistance” of the book Deep Green Resistance: A Strategy to Save the Planet. This book is now available for free online.
by Lierre Keith / Deep Green Resistance
Radical groups have their own particular pitfalls. The first is in dealing with hierarchy, both conceptually and practically. The rejection of authority is another hallmark of adolescence, and this knee-jerk reactivity filters into many political groups. All hierarchy is a tool of The Man, the patriarchy, the Nazis. This approach leads to an insistence on consensus at any cost and often a constant metadiscussion of group power dynamics. It also unleashes “critiques” of anyone who achieves public acclaim or leadership status. These critiques are usually nothing more than jealousy camouflaged by political righteousness. “Bourgeois” is a perennial favorite, as well as whatever flavor of “sell-out” matches the group’s criteria. It’s often accompanied by a hyperanalysis of the victim’s language use or personal lifestyle choices. There is a reason that the phrase “politically correct” was invented on the left.51
There’s a name for this trashing. As noted, Florynce Kennedy called it “horizontal hostility.”52 And if it feels like junior high school by another name, that’s because it is. It can reach a feeding frenzy of ugly gossip and character assassination. In more militant groups, it may take the form of paranoid accusations. In the worst instances of the groups that encourage macho posturing, it ends with men shooting each other. Ultimately, it’s caused by fighting horizontally rather than vertically.
If the only thing we can change is ourselves or if the best tactics for social change are lifestyle choices, then, indeed, examining and critiquing the minutiae of people’s personal lives will be cast as righteous activity. And if you’re not going to fight the people in power, the only people left to fight are each other. Writes Denise Thompson,
Horizontal hostility can involve bullying into submission someone who is no more privileged in the hierarchy of male supremacist social relations than the bully herself. It can involve attempts to destroy the good reputation of someone who has no more access to the upper levels of power than the one who is spreading the scandal. It can involve holding someone responsible for one’s own oppression, even though she too is oppressed. It can involve envious demands that another woman stop using her own abilities, because the success of someone no better placed than you yourself “makes” you feel inadequate and worthless. Or it can involve attempts to silence criticism by attacking the one perceived to be doing the criticising. In general terms, it involves misperceptions of the source of domination, locating it with women who are not behaving oppressively.53
This behavior leaves friendships, activist circles, and movements in shreds. The people subject to attack are often traumatized until they permanently withdraw. The bystanders may find the culture so unpleasant and even abusive that they leave as well. And many of the worst aggressors burn out on their own adrenaline, to drop out of the movement and into mainstream lives. In military conflicts, more soldiers may be killed by “friendly fire” than the enemy, an apt parallel to how radical groups often self-destruct.
To be viable, a serious movement needs a supportive culture. It takes time to witness the same behaviors coalescing into the destructive patterns that repeat across radical movements, to name them, and to learn to stop them. Successful cultures of resistance are able to develop healthy norms of behavior and corresponding processes to handle conflict. But a youth culture by definition doesn’t have that cache of experience, and it never will.
A culture of resistance also needs the ability to think long-term. One study of student activists from the Berkeley Free Speech Movement interviewed participants five years after their sit-in. Many of them felt that the movement—and hence political action—was unsuccessful.54 Five years? Try five generations. Movements for serious social change take a long time. But a youth movement will be forever delinked from generations.
Contrast the (mostly white) ex-protestors’ attitude with the history of the Pullman porters, the black men who worked as sleeping car attendants on the railroad. The porters were both the generational and political link between slavery and the civil rights movement, accumulating income, self-respect, and the political experience they would need to wage the protracted struggle to end segregation. The very first Pullman porters were in fact formerly enslaved men. George Pullman hired them because they were people who, tragically, could act subserviently enough to make the white passengers happy. (When Pullman tried hiring black college kids from the North for summer jobs as porters, the results were often disastrous.) Yet the jobs offered two things in exchange for the subservience: economic stability (despite the gruesomely long hours) and a broadening outlook. Writes historian Larry Tye:
The importance of education was drilled into porters on the sleepers, where they got an up-close look at America’s elite that few black men were afforded, helping demystify the white race at the same time it made its advantages seem even more unfair and enticing. That was why they worked so hard for tips, took on second jobs at home, and bore the indignities of the race-conscious sleeping cars.… It was an accepted wisdom that they turned out more college graduates than anyone else. And those kids, whether or not they made lists of the most famous, grew up believing they could do anything. The result … was that Pullman porters helped give birth to the African-American professional classes.55
The porters knew that in their own lives they would only get so far. But their children were raised to carry the struggle forward. The list of black luminaries with Pullman porters in their families is impressive, from John O’Bryant (San Francisco’s first black mayor) to Florynce Kennedy to Justice Thurgood Marshall. Civil rights lawyer Elaine Jones, whose father worked as a porter to put his three kids through prestigious universities, has this to say: “All he expected in return was that we had a duty to succeed and give back. Dad said, ‘I’m doing this so they can change things.’ He won through us.”56
One reason the civil rights struggle was successful was that there was a strong linkage between the generations, an unbroken line of determination, character, and courage, that kept the movement pushing onward as it accumulated political wisdom.
The gift of youth is its idealism and courage. That courage may veer into the foolhardy due to the young brain’s inability to foresee consequences, but the courage of the young has been a prime force in social movements across history. For instance, Sylvia Pankhurst describes what happened when the suffragist Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) embraced arson as a tactic:
In July 1912, secret arson began to be organized under the direction of Christabel Pankhurst. When the policy was fully under way, certain officials of the Union were given, as their main work, the task of advising incendiaries, and arranging for the supply of such inflammable material, house-breaking tools, and other matters as they might require. A certain exceedingly feminine-looking young lady was strolling about London, meeting militants in all sorts of public and unexpected places to arrange for perilous expeditions. Women, most of them very young, toiled through the night across unfamiliar country, carrying heavy cases of petrol and paraffin. Sometimes they failed, sometimes succeeded in setting fire to an untenanted building—all the better if it were the residence of a notability—or a church, or other place of historic interest.57 (emphasis added)
Add to this that they performed these activities—including scaling buildings, climbing hedges, and running from the police—while wearing corsets and encumbered by pounds of skirting. It’s overwhelmingly the young who are willing and able to undertake these kinds of physical risks.
A great example of a working relationship between youth and elders is portrayed in the film Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance.58 The movie documents the Oka crisis (mentioned in Chapter 6), in which Mohawk people protected their burial ground from being turned into a golf course. The conflict escalated as the defenders barricaded roads and the local police were replaced by the army. Alanis Obomsawin was behind the barricades, so her film is not a fictional replay, but actual footage of the events. Of note here is the number of times she captured the elders—with their fully functioning prefrontal cortexes—stepping between the youth and trouble, telling them to calm down and back away. Without the warriors, the blockade never would have happened; without the elders, it’s likely there would have been a massacre.
Youth’s moral fervor and intolerance of hypocrisy often results in either/or thinking and drawing too many lines in the sand, but serious movements need the steady supply of idealism that the young provide. The psychological task of middle age is to remember that idealism helps protect against the rough wear of disappointment. Adulthood also brings responsibilities that the young can’t always understand. Having children, for instance, will put serious constraints on activism. Aging parents who need care and support cannot be abandoned. And then there’s the activist’s own basic survival needs, the demands of shelter, food, health care. The older people need the young to bring idealism and courage to the movement.
The women’s suffrage movement started with a generation of women who asked nicely. In an age when women had no right to ask for anything, they did the best they could. The struggle, like that of the Pullman porters and the succeeding civil rights movement, was handed down to the next generation. Emmeline Pankhurst recalls a childhood of fund raisers to help newly freed blacks in the US, attending her first women’s suffrage meeting at age fourteen, and bedtime stories from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She wrote,
Those men and women are fortunate who are born at a time when a great struggle for human freedom is in progress. It is an added good fortune to have parents who take a personal part in the great movements of their time.… Young as I was—I could not have been older than five years—I knew perfectly well the meaning of the words “slavery” and “emancipation.”59
Emmeline married Dr. Richard Pankhurst, who drafted the first women’s suffrage bill and the Married Women’s Property Act, which, when it passed in 1882, gave women control over their own wages and property. Up until then, women did not even own the clothes on their backs—men did. (The next time you buy your own shirt with your own money, remember to thank all Pankhursts great and small.) Emmeline and Richard’s daughters, Sylvia and Christabel, were the third generation of Pankhursts born to be activists. It was in large part the infusion of their youthful idealism and courage that fueled the battle for women’s suffrage. Emmeline wrote,
All their lives they had been interested in women’s suffrage. Christabel and Sylvia, as little girls, had cried to be taken to meetings. They had helped in our drawing-room meetings in every way that children can help. As they grew older we used to talk together about the suffrage, and I was sometimes rather frightened by their youthful confidence in the prospect, which they considered certain, of the success of the movement. One day Christabel startled me with the remark: “How long you women have been trying for the vote. For my part, I mean to get it.”
Was there, I reflected, any difference between trying for the vote and getting it? There is an old French proverb, “If youth could know; if age could do.” It occurred to me that if the older suffrage workers could in some way join hands with the young, unwearied, and resourceful suffragists, the movement might wake up to new life and new possibilities. After that I and my daughters together sought a way to bring about that union of young and old which would find new methods, blaze new trails.60
Emmeline raised her girls in a serious culture of resistance. As a strategist, she wisely understood that the moment was ripe for the young to push the movement on to new tactics. Thus was formed the WSPU. “We resolved to … be satisfied with nothing but action on our question. ‘Deeds, not Words’ was to be our permanent motto.”61 Those deeds would run to harassing government officials, civil disobedience, hunger strikes, and arson. They would also be successful.