Contradictions and Guilt: Everyday Activism

Siddh: So our discussion starts with this video It’s a TED talk by Ash Beckham about contradictions and duality. I highly recommend you watch it, but if you haven’t got the time for that then this is the relevant part to our discussion: Ash describes an anecdote about the time she took her niece to this store which had a ‘Frozen’ meet and greet. Her niece was crazy excited to see Anna and Elsa, but when they get to the front of the (2 hour long) line a store clerk approaches them and refers to Ash as her nieces’ “dad”. Because Ash does not dress or style herself in a stereotypically female manner the store clerk made a snap decision and assumed she was a man. This left Ash with a moment of conflict: should she be an advocate or should she be an aunt? As she says in the video, she had to decide whether to explain to the clerk the harmful nature of judging people’s gender based on their haircut and their clothes, at the risk of ruining her niece’s special day, or whether to let it slide and thus relinquish the chance to educate someone and to be an advocate for a cause she believes in, causing herself guilt and self-hatred when she gets home. Ash’s point is that though often it seems we are presented with a binary choice like this one; an either/or situation: aunt or advocate, in reality we can all own our contradictions and find a middle ground, because at the end of the day we all have contradictions within us. We can be Christian and for gay marriage, feminist and wear a hijab or a veteran who is anti-war. What’s important is knowing how to unite those contradictions in a way that doesn’t compromise your beliefs.

Louise: And that’s what we want to talk about today: the dilemma we all face pretty regularly. When should we be activists for causes we believe in and when should we be individuals who want to fit into society? I’ve already touched on this in my post about make-up, but as a woman I regularly experience conflict as to my appearance and what I believe. Sometimes it’s easier to conform and wear make-up than to not wear it and be a ‘political message’. No one is expecting you to go out and set Superdrug on fire in an anti-cosmetics protest, but can you justify ever conforming to something so damaging and against your personal beliefs?

Siddh: Well you had a very real example of this dilemma the other day that you were telling me about Louise.

Louise: Yeah, Siddh and I graduated last week. For the ceremony I had to decide how much make-up to wear and whether to shave my legs and everything like that – it was a source of personal conflict, but as I do conform pretty regularly to these grooming habits, it wasn’t that hard for me to go along with them for a day. However, for my mum, it was a very different matter.

Now my mum and I for weeks before were trying to decide on the right outfit for her. We boiled it down to two essentially – a knee-length dress or trousers and a top. If she had worn the dress, though, she would have had to shave her legs. Now, my mum hasn’t shaved her legs for like… well I’ve never known her to shave her legs. Recently coming into awareness of topics like body hair and gender conformity, we both knew what this would mean – she would have to conform to something she had rarely, if ever, done just for one day, so that she would fit in with the other mums. It seemed a pretty uncomfortable decision for her personal sense of gender politics, as well as for her sense of self. She has told me it was never a ‘thing’ when she was growing up, never a social pressure she encountered in her immediate or wider society. She never felt like she needed to remove body hair to conform – this was who she was, and doing otherwise would be far more foreign than the act of leg shaving would be for me.

Eventually, she went for the trouser option. Part of that decision was comfort and the fact that the trouser outfit did look better, but it would be naïve to think there wasn’t some relief for her in not having to shave after all. The decision was made for her. But for a moment she was suddenly wondering if she should shave, because the event involved being a mum among other mums and fitting in with them. If she wore a dress with her legs out, it would be more invisible for her to act and shave her legs than to not act and leave them natural. She WOULD have shaved her legs because she realised the event was about fitting in for her daughter (which caused me no amount of guilt). But she justified having to make that decision to conform because she knows when to ‘play their game’.

Her argument is that she is aware of the social expectations of a woman/mum and most of the time she doesn’t ascribe to them. But when it’s expected, she can step up and say ‘Right, I’ll play your game now, and I can look good doing it’.

Siddh: Yeah, it’s interesting – it’s not even an internal pressure to look ‘good’ that made her not want to have her legs out, it was a perception of what other people would think looks good and how other mums would look. That she had to match that and not stand out and not draw attention – or unwanted attention – to her daughter.

Louise: I mean, she doesn’t believe shaved legs look better. She thinks it’s a load of shit, because she’s never grown up with that pressure. For her, shaved legs or plucked eyebrows don’t associate to ‘looking good’, and her lifestyle now rarely puts her in a position to have that challenged. But she knows it’s the norm and was willing to fit that description for the day.

Siddh: Yeah for a lot of people, they think shaving/waxing makes them look better, even if they recognise the bullshit societal pressures that cause them to think like that. For your mum though it was nothing like that. It was just about being generic mum that day.

Louise: If she had worn her unshaved legs out anyway, it wouldn’t be her ‘taking a stand’ or being an activist, it would be her being herself.

Siddh: Which inadvertently takes a stance because it defies the norm, even if it simply comes out of a desire to be yourself, rather than an active desire to defy the norm.

Louise: The point here is choosing your moments to get across a certain appearance or meaning. We are all always projecting something in the way we behave and dress and if we want to be intelligent and engage in a discussion about anything we have to choose the moments and the message wisely. For instance, we can’t all be bra-burning activists – it’s simply not practical. If every woman in our Western society simultaneously decided to rebel and not shave, like an organised union, then sure, but we can’t change everyone’s minds all at once.

So for the everyday woman who is a mum and a worker and all these other roles, and HAS to conform to certain things for the everyday maintenance of her life, she can’t always rebel so obviously. It would be cruel to ask her to. Because maybe it would jeopardise her career, or her children’s lives in the school playground, and sometimes knowing when to fight your battles is better. Sometimes you have to set aside – not discard! – your beliefs.

Siddh: Yeah it’s like you’ve gotta protect yourself. You can’t be asked to or expected to let your political stance significantly damage your life. Discretion is the better part of valour!

You also want to stay within the system to change the system. If you’re always outside it you can get ignored and people can just dismiss you like “oh that’s the crazy feminist lady, she’s always going on about it, so let’s ignore her”.

Louise: That’s what people tend to do.

Siddh: But if sometimes, for example, you’ve got shaved legs and then another time you don’t people might be like “hey how come you’ve not shaved your legs?” and you can tell them why. It may not even happen as directly as that. People might notice and think; “Hmm interesting. I’ve seen her with shaved legs rocking it, looking cool and now she’s here chilling with unshaved legs, rocking it, looking cool like it’s nothing… maybe it is nothing… maybe I should try?” I mean that’s a hyper-simplified, idealised version of it but…

Louise: That’s why I like the way my mum thinks about things – you’re better off changing the world as an insider. Whenever you step outside your own door you’re a spy constantly in enemy territory and you have to decide when to reveal who you really are or what you really believe and when to go along with everyone else.

Siddh: The idea of being an activist or not seems like sometimes you can’t embody both, like you can’t have progressive beliefs and make a stand while also trying to fit into the system. You spoke about it in your post about make-up, Louise. If you conform you’re made to hate yourself for conforming to patriarchal expectations of yourself. If you don’t conform then you risk being ostracised, mocked and shunned from the system; marginalised. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Giving the examples of your mum at your graduation and even of you wearing make-up – it might actually be more about picking your battles.

You’re human so you shouldn’t feel bad about not becoming a monk and sacrificing your life and social happiness in order to make a social change. You’re allowed to try and stay within the social boundaries and still change them, in fact it may well be more effective, as we said. You don’t have to be outside the system and break it, you can be inside the system and influence it.

Louise: The argument against that would be, when should you know when to stand up and when not? How can you tell when it really is a crucial matter and when to fight for your beliefs, or those of others, in the face of any harm that might come to you because of it? When should you conform, and when does conforming lead or contribute to widespread inequality and oppression? How can we live with the fact that every moment we’re not actively fighting against some inequality or for some progressive belief, we’re not only allowing the oppressive norm, we’re also directly contributing to it by performing those values we despise?

Siddh: Well I mean this is the point – it’s your discretion what you wanna do. There’s no universal point where you need to step in and only your moral compass can tell you what is right and what is wrong.

It’s about assessing the harm you’d receive, social or otherwise, from making the stand and weighing it up with what you’re willing to do for the cause. So in the example of shaving your legs; if you are willing to take the stand permanently, no matter how much society might shun you for it, then that’s great. But that’s not what everybody can do nor should they be expected to, or made to feel guilty for not doing. You can’t be a front-line activist for everything, for every cause you believe in or for every injustice you see, especially if you’re not as moved by a cause as other people are.

So with your mum – she realised that her non-shaved legs might not just affect her but also her daughter, so in order to avoid that she simply wore trousers (as well as for other reasons of comfort etc.). So if it affects someone else as well as you, you may well not wanna take a stand in order not to damage that person too. Don’t feel guilty about it, and other people don’t have the right to make you feel guilty for that.

But in a case where maybe it’s just you and you are moved enough to make a stand then do it, keep pushing yourself to do as much as you feel comfortable doing.

Louise: So, with Ash’s example in the video, she knew that jumping to say something would possibly ruin her niece’s experience. Weighing the possible outcomes – although with only a split second to do so – she chose to be the aunt first AND then more quietly be the activist.

Siddh: Yeah, because being an activist there would be very damaging for her social relations – her niece would have been undoubtedly upset and may have resented her aunt for ruining her special day, the people in the store would be hostile or awkward, plus it would have caused general embarrassment for the family because there may have been people they knew there thinking, “Uh-oh they’re creating a scene”.

Luckily for Ash, the clerk realised their mistake and apologised, which sorted it out for her. And let me clarify with this: we’re not saying people should take shit just to save face in society. But it IS about finding the right way and the right time to get your message across and not feeling guilty on the occasions you do choose to save face. Alienating yourself from your society, your friends etc. is not the purpose of activism – it’s to unite everyone.

Sometimes you need to obviously, when the moment justifies it and when the stakes are high, but everyday activism is about picking your battles. And only you can decide when those stakes are too high.

Louise: It’s so hard to make that decision in a real-time, real-life moment, to either voice your belief , or keep quiet. As usual, there isn’t one concrete answer. The hard thing to accept is that if you want to be a responsible and active person in social discussion but not completely isolate yourself from family and life, you have to decide on a case-by-case when to speak and when to be quiet. It would be an easier life to be ignorant and never have to worry about anything, but it wouldn’t be a better life.

Siddh: And I mean, having said all this we are both far from perfect on this issue as well.

Louise: FAR…We’ve both passed up on chances to speak out when we should have. But in a way this blog is one way of speaking out and drawing attention to things we feel are important. And what’s key is not to blame ourselves when we do occasionally take the easy option out, as long as we’re willing next time to try and make amends…or maybe the time after that.