A friend shared this quote from Gloria Anzaldúa this week:
A counterstance locks one into a duel of oppressor and oppressed; locked in mortal combat, like the cop and the criminal, both are reduced to a common denominator of violence… All reaction is limited by, and dependent on, what it is reacting against… At some point on our way to a new consciousness, we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two moral combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once and, at once, see through serpent and eagle eyes. The possibilities are numerous once we decided to act and not react.” —Gloria Anzaldúa, “La Conciencia de la Mestiza: Toward a New Consciousness” (emphasis added)
All reaction is limited by, and dependent on, what it is reacting to.
Sooner or later, every social movement reckons with its relationship to the status quo, its enmeshment with the guardians of the way things are, and the temptation to build action around what some avatar of power has said or done.
For years, I advised one organization not to even name one of their ideological opponents in publications or press releases. I encouraged them to address the movement’s core issues, and to refute the weak critiques others frequently made of it. But I discouraged the organization from handing out free mentions of those rallying against it and also advised leaders against elevating those latecomers to peer stature by engaging them in named debate.
It was a controversial strategy at the time, and Anzaldúa’s point in this quote reminds me of it.
There’s something about battling an Other that’s consumptive rather than creative. Ultimately, identities based on dissociation from What We’re Not require an Other. The perpetual presence of that Other makes us feel whole and secure and functions as the ground where our What We Are makes sense.
With time, dueling with Others becomes something like the 20th Century Cold War: the United States obsesses about the USSR to the degree that it rewrites its civic pledge, redesigns its money, regulates patriotic customs for schoolchildren, expands the reach of its domestic and international surveillance programs, and generally stares back at a gaping abyss.
We can instead focus on what we can create and contribute, not just the people critiquing the work we do. “The possibilities are numerous once we decided to act and not react.”
Toni Morrison’s 1975 argument that we ought to focus on our unique work rather than the vicissitudes of others covers very similar ground. If it’s been a while since you’ve read Morrison at Portland State, do so now.