Culture of Resistance: Intergenerational Struggle

This excerpt from Chapter 4 of the book Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet was written by Lierre Keith. Click the link above to purchase the book or read online for free. This is part 3 of this chapter. Part 1 is here, part 2 is here.


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 (see Figure 3-1, p. 85). 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.

The transition from one generation to the next, and an increase in confrontational tactics, is rarely smooth. The older activists may try to obstruct the young. It often splits movements. When the WSPU embraced more militance, women who had been crucial to its founding had to leave the organization. Wrote Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence,

Mrs. Pankhurst met us with the announcement that she and Christabel had determined on a new kind of campaign. Henceforward she said there was to be a widespread attack upon public and private property, secretly carried out by Suffragettes who would not offer themselves for arrest, but wherever possible would make good their escape. As our minds had been moving in quite another direction, this project came as a shock to us both. We considered it sheer madness . . . Although we had been at one with Mrs. Pankhurst in her objective of women’s political emancipation, and for six years had pursued the same path, there had always been an underlying difference between us that had not come into the open, mainly because of the close union of mind and purpose . . . we found ourselves for the first time in something that resembled a family quarrel.62

These are painful moments inside organizations and across movements. But it is more or less inevitable. The overall pattern is one we should be aware of so we can work with it rather than struggling against it. This transition is likely to be linked with the ethical issues around nonviolence. As with those disagreements, we have to find a way to build a serious movement despite our differences.

Building radical movements has been harder since the creation of a youth culture. Breaking the natural bonds (could there be a deeper bond than the cross generational one between mother and child?) between young and old means that the political wisdom never accumulates. It also means that the young are never socialized into a true culture of resistance. The values of a youth culture—an adolescent stance rejecting all constraints—prevent both the “culture” and the “resistance” from really developing. No culture can exist without community norms based on responsibility to each other and some accepted ways to enforce those norms. And the “resistance” will never amount to more than a few smashed windows, the low-hanging tactical fruit for an adolescent strategy of emotional intensity.

Currently there are young people emboldened by a desperate fearlessness, ready to take up militance. I get notes from them all the time; each one both revives and drains my hope. Because, though they burn for action, they have no guidance and no support. This is the deep irony of history: the countercultures of the Romantics, the Wandervogel, the hippies—created by youth—have stranded our young.


This chapter will be continued next week. For references, visit this link to read the book Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet online or to purchase a copy.

Featured image via Truthout flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

3 thoughts on “Culture of Resistance: Intergenerational Struggle”

  1. Resistance to authority is a good thing in civilized society. in some manner, consciously or unconsciously, young people realize that civilization is evil at its root, and they rebel against the authority that supports it. Rebellious youth are not an issue in hunter-gatherer societies. I totally disagree that in this context, opposition to authority is a bad thing. In fact, it’s a very good thing. The alternative would be bowing down to and automatically complying with the authority that supports civilization.

    As to the counterculture of the hippies in the 1960s being a failure, it did not fail for the reason that Keith claims. The ’60s were easily the best time of my life, and I don’t mean personally. Young people aspired to much higher goals than making money or being “successful” (whatever that means) and had a much better understanding of what life is about. Revolution and rebellion were in the air, and we lived in cultural heaven compared to other times (punk rock was and still is great, but it was underground for the most part, and very dark). The reason that the counterculture of the ’60s failed was because people grew up and had to earn livings (another evil of this society), and in many cases started families, as Keith points out in another part of this excerpt. You can’t stay in the streets protesting forever because you have to spend time earning money and living up to your other responsibilities eventually. The problem is that no one followed the hippies, not that the hippies sold out, as most people do when they get old enough. It was the youth that followed the hippies that sold out.

    I do agree that we need a balance between youthful rebellion and anger on one hand, and wisdom and guidance from the elders on the other hand. Without both, there will be serious problems that will bring down a movement. Just like we need both personal change and major societal change in order to get the radical changes that we here desire. Just like the ecosystems and species that we seek to protect and restore, it’s all about balance.

  2. I am a Baby Boomer who was raised in the 50’s and 60’s in a counter culture group of artists, poets, singer-songwriters, thinkers and such. As a young teenager (puberty in ’62-’64) in the 2nd largest city in OK, I found myself resentful of my parents who lived so differently from the norm is xommon in a young person. I never felt I fit in like I wanted to but in some ways I knew it was because I had been brought up to see and understand much more than my peers at school. Still, I wanted to be ‘normal.’ My youthful ‘rebellion’ consisted of getting married and having two babies by the time I was 21 while my husband finished college in engineering. When I later divorced and started college at 23, my whole attitude changed and I happily went back to my roots, hanging with other young people in the counter-culture and returning to my parent’s way of living, where I was exposed to little activism but where I began exploring ideas with my peers and reading everything I could get my hands on. I am by nature a person who tends to stay in the place I grew up. Both my older kids found my counter-culture lifestyle to be uncomfortable for them and all tried to ‘fit into’ average, ‘normal’ American Culture. Their father probably had something to do with that because he became very conservative. But over time they also had to face the fact that they understood, saw and questioned more than most of their peers. Both are brilliant and active in educating themselves and understanding what is happening in the world. My last child from my second marriage was able to grow up in a counter-culture community from infancy with other kids his age which made all the difference. I don’t remember him having any trouble at all with ‘fitting’ in or not. We also home-schooled him through Middle School. He has passed the age of 40 and is still very unique. I am constantly surprised by his knowledge and awareness. However we are all continually shocked by ‘the-powers-that-be’ and what they are capable of, creating a dystopian future in the here and now. I think the problem is that intelligent, decent people who are busy trying to live a fulfilling life that does as little damage as possible and possibly makes the world somewhat better, simply find it too hard to see or imagine how there could exist other people that could do the damage they do and use their power in such destructive ways. I believe that is where I failed by not understanding that and not teaching my kids. And yes, human beings in the stage of life where they are developing the mastery of talents and skills they use to meet their material needs and to meet the needs of their communities and who are having and raising children probably are less in a position to take chances. I agree, we need balance. I wish I had been around more elders though that could have given me a better picture of what we need to watch for and work against. I did learn a lot from my grandparents but I wasn’t warned of the serious, potential dangers inherent in our social systems. I never trusted those in power but distrust is not enough. There should have been more of us calling out those who misused their power while holding them accountable.

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