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Letter to Myself: Shut Up And Listen


Dear Hugh,

I am a fan of your enthusiasm for organizing. I deeply appreciate the time you have spent postering in the cold, chopping vegetables with dull knives, and wiggling your fingers in rooms full of marijuana smoke. It is not always an easy thing to care and I know sometimes it gets you down to think about the scale of the problems that our species faces – not to mention the problems they cause. It can be difficult, but don't ever lose hope, ok? Deep down, beneath all their shortcomings, human beings are capable of kindness. There is every possibility that kindness can be turned into a force for good, and that our planet will survive.
But I need you to do me a favour, to help make sure this happens: shut the fuck up. I mean it. You are constantly posting on message boards, talking in meetings, chatting the ears off strangers in parties, bars and bus stops. You can't see a post about midnight cookie delivery without turning the conversation into an advertisement for anarcho-syndicalism. It's great, really awesome, that you are so stoked on radical politics. It's alright when you and your friends sit around drinking beers and discussing the ins and outs of revolutionary theory.
But please, shut the fuck up. I know that this sounds harsh, that it is maybe hard to hear. But activists are one of the single greatest obstacles to social change in the developed world. I know how counterintuitive that must sound to you, with your activist pals and causes. Be honest with yourself – you know how frustrated you feel when there's a protest full of familiar faces and no one else. You see the failure of the left in meetings where the same points are rehashed ad nauseum, and a majority of first-time meeting attendees never make it out again. This is not because you are wrong about the issues. It's because you need to talk less, and listen more.
As a history student, didn't you learn about how important it was to let the oppressed speak for themselves? To push away not only the white male voices but the voices of the present, to allow as much as possible that the past should reveal itself? Don't you recognize now that you and your friends are the hierarchs of social justice, as it has been expressed elsewhere? The green shoots of social change are trampled by our marches. The fresh blossoms of hope are plucked bare by activists, their petals dried to make a potpourri to mask the scent of death in our meeting spaces. It is not our death, but the death of resistance: we seek to contain every spark of revolt in our understandings and discourses, succeeding only it stealing the oxygen it needed to burn brighter.
So please, as frankly as possible: shut the fuck up, and listen. Anarchists and activists have no monopoly on suffering. The self-anointed concscientious few, you among them, must learn that brevity is a virtue. You must join the community around you, instead of a community of interest that only isolates. Seek the company of people who are active instead of activists, whose struggle to survive is political but not politicized. Join the wider world and do not be a fisher of men, but go instead to mend their nets. Be prepared to be challenged, to be alienated and feel unwelcome. But come as a servant, not a diagnostician. Give what is asked of you, abandoning all notions of your own tactical wisdom.
Hear the workers, the mothers, the caregivers and community anchors. Do not look for leaders to identify but friends to share in the experience of life. Hear their troubles and offer the aid they need instead of the prescriptions on your pad. Go as a convert instead of a colonizer, seeing the value of their lives instead of their capacity to become like you. In this, abandon the mantle of activism and become simply human – a companion in the struggle.
Know that as a white man, you carry the greatest obligation to speak less and listen more. Understand that you must listen not only to regular people but to activists whose experience of oppression is deeper than yours – add your voice to theirs, but take responsibility instead of credit. Put up posters instead of facilitating meetings. Put out chairs instead of lecturing. Make space for important voices that we often cannot hear.
And please, practice in place of preaching. Do not go into your own communities and demand these things of your fellows, but show in your practice that we have more to learn from our communities than they have to learn from us. That our social isolation is evidence enough of our shortcomings, and that our strategy must change. Our rallying call has been “join us” for too long – we must go out into the world and serve where we have sought to lead.
Do this, and you can help to build communities that will change. You can fuel the sparks of revolt, watch the flames burn down the bastions of the powerful and build a new world in the ashes. In the trust born of real friendship, in mutual aid that is received instead of administered, we will grow a solidarity hardy enough to flourish even in the rocky soil of neoliberal authoritarianism. You will find neighbourhoods where you are known and welcome, where you may be called for aid and give it freely, knowing yours will come in turn. You will know you have done right when there are no more activists, only brothers and sisters in struggle. And then there will be, finally, friends and comrades on the barricades.
But only if you listen.
With every possible affection,

This piece was originally published on Hugh Goldring's blog.

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