Social movements expect to elicit both derision and sympathy in the course of their struggles. Paradoxically, it is often the sympathetic voices of concerned outsiders that are the most exasperating, especially when genuine concern takes the form of counsel that is inappropriate or ill-informed. Adam Goldenberg’s recent Op-Ed, “Idle No More needs to go over Harper’s head” offers a good illustration.
Goldenberg points out that the ‘Idle No More’ movement needs to make itself politically relevant if it is to be successful. Because First Nations are not high on the Prime Minister’s priority list, activists must carefully craft their messaging and direct it at those whom Harper identifies as legitimate stakeholders: the voters. Accordingly, activists must avoid “squandering public sympathy for Chief Spence and her cause,” which means they must abjure activities that threaten Canadians since these will be “unlikely to win friends or influence people.” That sounds reasonable.
There is no doubt that Goldenberg intends like so many others to be a sympathetic ally of this Indigenous rights movement, but his piece nevertheless exhibits the classic soft paternalism that drives social movements crazy. I say ‘classic’ because the piece rehearses the same misplaced pattern of unsolicited (and just plain bad) advice that has obstructed virtually all political struggles. It echoes, for instance, the counsel directed at Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders in 1963 by sympathetic white clergymen in Birmingham, Alabama. In a letter titled ‘A Call for Unity’, the clergymen cautioned against non-violent demonstrations, referring to them as “unwise and untimely” given their propensity to backfire and “incite hatred and violence” within their intended audience. They urged King and others to seek out “proper channels” for negotiation and resolution.
In response, King penned the now famous ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’, wherein he expressed his severe disappointment in those who supported civil rights for blacks while demanding that such rights be pursued in terms that were palatable to white society. One cannot help but cringe when members of dominant society tender their prudent instructions to the oppressed. I could not help but cringe when Goldenberg expresses anxiety that Idle No More may devolve into an unpalatable “dog’s breakfast of protest and pageantry” so distasteful that it “alienates the very Canadians who should be its audience.” The message to Indigenous peoples here is that their expressions of cultural resurgence and resistance may be a big turn-off for nervous Canadians, in much the same way I suppose as the genres of jazz, blues, and hip-hop in black cultures of urban resistance were so threatening to white society. I suppose that’s why they disappeared.
But the biggest fear among allies like Goldenberg seems to be that the movement will become politically ineffectual as it resorts to direct action, as activists “overplay their hand”. This is an empirical claim, and it is one that appears inaccurate given, for example, the context of direct action and confrontation that precipitated the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Moreover, it does not seem to reflect the realities of past struggles. It was King’s belief that seeking to educate white society through civil discussion – the program preferred by many of his white allies – had failed to move a society steeped in racism. He believed that a more fundamental unsettling of white perspectives through civil disobedience was required before dialogue could gain any traction. That unsettling would occur as black activists “preset our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community.” Many white allies continued to argue against direct action on the grounds that white audiences found it discomforting. To that end, King suggested that his self-appointed advisors, however well-intentioned, were some of the movement’s greatest obstacles: “the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate.”
I don’t wish to overdraw the parallels between the ‘Idle No More’ Indigenous rights movement and other movements. Naturally, there are important differences, not the least of which is that blacks and women sought meaningful equality under the law, whereas Indigenous activists seek meaningful self-determination. The one thing these movements agree on, however, is that our responsibility as members of the dominant society is to listen and learn, and that if we insist on offering prescriptions, to advance these within the privileged circles to which we belong. To be an ally means applying your acumen and expertise appropriately, to your own house, while others put their bodies on the line.