What Is a Response?

NOW THAT, with the new regime, we face an acute material and moral crisis in our already unequal, dysfunctional society, some of us are planning to hide, to try to stay out of harm's way. Some are clearly chomping at the bit—there is oil to be seized. Others are asking ourselves how we can fight back. For those who are forced or feel compelled to respond, there are two problems to consider: ethics and effectiveness.

Ethics involves a loss. On an intimate level, when we challenge or engage a person we know, we risk discomfort. And discomfort means questioning ourselves, having to adjust. In this way, we lose the pretense of perfection—something will change. Sometimes people choose to shun rather than negotiate, to refuse the interactivity that acknowledges another person as equally human, often at great cost to the larger community. Shunning can be so destructive as to become a form of harassment, especially if we do it collectively, creating our identities as part of negative groups rooted in bonds of exclusion, scapegoating, and blame.

The ethics of response on a social or political level, when we are part of a targeted community, involves an active fight for our own survival. This requires us to take risks, to go down fighting rather than choose passive complicity. It implies an acceptance that what is happening is real, that no one else will rescue us, and that we must abandon our concept of ourselves as powerless. As documents from the ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) Oral History Project reveal, although six hundred thousand people have died of AIDS in America, only a handful actively fought to change the conditions they were living in. ACT UP's largest demonstration drew only seven thousand people. Unfortunately, most people do not participate in efforts to transform society, even when their own lives are at stake. When we are not the targets but the witnesses to someone else's victimization, we have a very different responsibility: to intervene. This too is an obligation most people avoid, because they fear losing status and access. A complicit bystander can be the most dangerous person on earth.

But once one does embrace the ethical duty to respond, one must confront the other question: how to be effective. Response without impact is a futile, wasteful gesture. That's why in this moment, as we anticipate widespread pain and suffering, predicated on scapegoating and the politics of false accusation as a smokescreen for the true dynamics of greed and racism, I turn to two lesbian texts for inspiration.

In Audre Lorde's iconic essay "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action," published in 1977, she recalls the fear she felt whenever she had to respond to injustice. Response itself, she writes, "is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger." As "a Black woman warrior poet," as a lesbian and as a mother, whenever she spoke her truth she was dogged by fear, "fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation." Yet when she had her first brush with the cancer she would live with for over a decade (until she died at the age of fifty-eight), she realized that even if she had never spoken out, she still would have had to face this illness. That understanding led to one of her most powerful and influential insights:

I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.

Shunning, hiding, refusing to talk to the people we know, refusing to fight back when our groups are targeted, refusing to intervene when other people are being victimized—these silences will not protect us. In fact, they do the opposite: They bind us to negative groups and deny us the chance to develop new understandings.

Implicit in the desire to be effective is a deep emotional and philosophical acceptance of difference and a willingness to coexist intimately with it. To understand in practical terms how to approach that position, I return to a document I helped create: The Lesbian Avenger Handbook, from 1993, which lays out the guidelines of the direct-action movement. The Lesbian Avengers organized a series of Dyke Marches that still take place around the world—the last vestige of public queer expression without corporate sponsorship or police permits. The movement, which was trans inclusive, also fought antigay ballot measures and trained thousands of women who had been profoundly excluded from power in leadership techniques. Three of the Avengers' principles for facilitating effectiveness may be especially useful to us today: No. 1: No theoretical discussion. If responses are rooted in action, the theory will emerge as people make decisions and learn from them. Whereas theory without application creates polarization and paralysis. No. 2: If you have an idea, you have to do it. In this way, everyone is accountable for realizing their vision and no one can play armchair critic. No. 3: If you disagree with a proposal, you have to suggest a viable alternative. This relieves us from being only in a position of refusal, obstruction, and withholding, and allows each person to take an active part in the collective task of solving problems.

When we look back at Audre Lorde and at the queer and AIDS activism of the 1990s, we can see political response as a recognition of the fragility of human life and connection, a time-limited experience in which being effective is both a responsibility and a right.

Sarah Schulman's eighteenth book is Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016). Her most recent novel is The Cosmopolitans (The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2016).