The Zapatistas chose to start their war on January 1st, 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect. They took over the Plaza de Armas in San Cristóbal de las Casas without frightening the tourists on their Christmas holidays–this was so much the case that Marcos told some tourists who were going to the beach at Cancún that he hoped they would have a good time, and he told some others who planned to go to the archeological site at Palenque that the road was closed and, not without humor, added: “Excuse the inconvenience, but this is a revolution.”
– Elenia Poniatowska, “Subcomandante Marcos and Culture”
In her column on yesterday’s issue of The Philippine Star, Cate de Leon argues that “activism is passé.” I think her view reflects a lot of popular middle-class sentiments about how the students of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines burned chairs and school equipment on the school quadrangle – and how some students of the University of the Philippines wrote graffiti on the walls of UP Manila – to protest tuition fee increases that allegedly contributed to the suicide of Kristel Tejada. It’s the popular middle-class (or, using the term loosely, “bourgeois”) point of view that this kind of “hooliganism” and “vandalism” is unnecessary, ineffective, and inefficient.
I agree with Cate this much: “When you have a cause and you’re committed to seeing it through, you make it your responsibility to make sure you are listened to. If one method doesn’t work, you try something else.” There are a lot of methods of activism that I personally do not agree with, like pelting eggs at government officials or destroying the gates of school buildings. But if we continue looking at activism from that point of view, we’re missing the point of activism altogether.
My issue with Cate’s sweeping generalizations is that it frames activism on a very narrow point of view: one framed by “limited and actual experiences,” a shifty standpoint betrayed by her own tempting thoughts that “maybe oppressive structures are illusions.” Some corporations and industries don’t deny that anymore anyway, and spend so much on “corporate social responsibility” that it somehow becomes a shield for all the environmental destruction, or the mass layoffs, the very causes that activists find themselves at odds with.
But the word passé carries with it a notion of being fashionable, which isn’t true for the principles that make activism perpetually relevant. And while it’s true that certain protests are done out of sumusunod sa uso or sumasakay sa isyu, activism carries with it a certain longevity. That’s why it’s still here. A certain desire – a need – to topple the oppressive structures that give us the illusion that we’re living in a just and fair society. The pointed criticism that Cate is trying to make didn’t hit the mark that well.
Let’s get rid of the platitudes and draw this rather complex thing in a very simple refresher.
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Modern society was built on the back of activism, as much as it was built on the cogs and wheels of capitalism. The men and women who stormed the Bastille were activists. Those in the Thirteen Colonies who stood up against British rule were activists. The heroes that we often take for granted in our coins and bills were activists. Every convenience we enjoy today is made possible in part by the struggles of activist movements: civil rights movements, workers’ movements, feminist movements, indigenous peoples’ movements, cancer support movements, AIDS awareness movements, students’ movements, and so on and so forth.
These are made up of people – “ordinary, relatable people who shit in the morning,” may I add – who rally against ordinary, relatable pieces of shit called oppressive structures. Things like tyrants, taxation without representation, colonization, racism, worker abuse, sexism, discrimination, a lack of healthcare, the high costs of education, and so on and so forth. And there are people – like myself, Cate, and whoever is reading this right now – who are continually dehumanized by oppression, reduced to being just cogs in the wheel. It’s like seeing how much you pay in taxes and have to suffer through a bad road and see the insufferable face of a politician somewhere there. Just as there are working-class people who don’t get paid with things we take for granted: I’m not talking about 13th month pay and bonuses, but an actual wage.
Yes, there are people who fight small battles in a really big war. People like Kristel Tejada, who fought a small battle with her tuition fees and lost to the big war of poverty. People like Cristina Jose, who fought a small battle with donations that were hoarded from her community, and she paid for it with her life. People like Jonas Burgos, James Balao, Sherlyn Cadapan, and Karen Empeno: fought their small battles in a really big war, and now we don’t know where they are. And yes, it goes without saying that we are surrounded by cold, dehumanizing, abject poverty that we see from the comfort of our comfortably middle-class windows: we don’t have to experience that, but it’s real.
Now when all those oppressive structures – or “illusions” – trample on the rights you have, when they disrupt your daily life and prevent you from making your way in the world, what is your choice? Surely you’re not in a position to do some “actual, authentic, two-way communication” with tyrants, colonizers, racists, sexists and so on. We try: Cate talked with her college secretary, Kristel’s parents talked with the UP Manila administration. Heck Rizal, MLK, Malcolm X, Jesus, Gandhi, they all did the same thing.
But sometimes, and all too often, when power is not on your side, you are not at liberty to do any “actual, authentic, two-way communication.” People who tried doing that didn’t find the road easier, but harder, and next to impossible. A lot of the things we enjoy today – like next week’s holidays, health benefits at work, the right to vote, gender equality, civil rights, vaccination, women’s healthcare, hygiene – those are things that weren’t achieved by “actual, authentic, two-way communication.” They were achieved by things like jail, protests, rallies, pickets, strikes, and yes, in at least one case, a crucifixion.
As responsible as we are for our own actions, there are people who do it wrong by us. There are people who selfishly want the world for themselves. And yes, all too often, poor people are left with little to no choice because this world revolves around your ability to make one. There’s suicide on one end, there’s kapit sa patalim on the other, there’s the right to starve, there’s the off-chance of winning the lottery or making good on the business.
You find a way, or you make one. Some people look out only for themselves. Some people work for the welfare of their brothers and sisters in mind. When you find a way or make one for the latter, there is cause. There is activism.
I’m sure that spending years in prison before getting shot, leading millions of people to speak about your dream or to the seaside to gather salt, turning tables over at the the synagogue, or raising your indignation over the death of a schoolmate is inconvenient, disagreeable, or perhaps even debatable. That while there is no excuse for rowdy, unreasonable behavior, there is no excuse in doing nothing about the things that oppress your brothers and sisters, much less denying the existence of large-scale oppression in modern society. When things are wrong, people stand up. When structures oppress them, people fight. And when people stand up to fight, they’re activists. When people speak for change, they’re activists. When people act for change, they’re activists.
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Which brings me to this: the color, ideology, and political beliefs of these activists are immaterial to the argument at this point because it was not pointed out: the author lumped them all together with the sweeping generalization. But more that that, by saying that “activism is passé,” the piece betrays itself as something that I hope isn’t intentional: a shallow defense of the status quo, an apologia for the bourgeois and the burgis, that “grating speeches” and militancy aren’t things that hit close to home if you’re not the one bearing the brunt of the suffering.
It sounds naïve because it is, especially on every time the slip revealed itself: in “limited but actual experiences,” in the shallowness of saying that that “maybe oppressive structures are illusions,” and asserting an “oppressor-oppressed dichotomy” where there is none. Or something as simple as friction, even: that it exists, that it is necessary, and in the real world, you need resistance to make things work.
This much I agree with Cate. I don’t subscribe to chair-burning, to spray-painting, to clogging traffic. I do, however, recognize their existence, and sometimes I do recognize the importance of the most radical actions to move the world. But as far as things like the Arab Spring, breast cancer fun runs, and the undercurrent that keeps PUP tuition that low, again: excuse the inconvenience. But some things about the world need to change, whether it’s the way we protest, or the very things that we are protesting against.