Are English and Activism Incompatible?

Some of the values I learned as an English major pushed me into activism; others proved to be thorns in my side. Lovers of language and fighters for justice have a tricky balancing act to perform, whose results can be either rewarding or disastrous.

Kerry Martin UVM Denver Colorado

I’ve spent most my life around people who treat literature as infallible. Writing, I’ve always known, is the noblest practice, freedom of speech the noblest cause, opinions worth their weight in gold, and every life answer can be found between two covers somewhere. Growing up, my dad, a (very unpretentious) American Lit professor, inflated authors and titles like balloons of meaning bouncing about our ceilings, and my tall brother, the young know-it-all and to-be English major, mocked me for being too short to reach their strings. (We’re cool now, I was a sensitive boy.)

Geoffrey Chaucer, biggest shit-slinger of the Middle Ages.
Geoffrey Chaucer, biggest shit-slinger of the Middle Ages.

English eventually became my beloved major, less so for giving me navigability of the literary canon (no way–dreadfully slow reader, I console myself skimming columns and tweets) than for teaching me to “read, write, and think critically.” It’s a tagline I told to myself and others to convince us that studying The Canterbury Tales and writing satire would one day help my career.

The first embryo of that career formed in the immigrant rights movement, first (briefly) with the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, then (for nine months) with Migrant Justice, a grassroots organization of Vermont migrant dairy farmworkers. I felt at home with both these organizations and never had to explain my reasons to myself; but in cover letters, I would use another tagline to explain my involvement, something like: “I brought my love of writing to the immigrant rights field, using my writing experience to advance activism on the behalf of marginalized groups.”

But this was not totally true, sometimes quite the opposite. Whenever I would “use my writing experience to advance activism,” I often used the wrong tone and made low-level gaffes that, had I been more than the lowly intern, could have been disastrous. Self-doubt erupted whenever language–the thing I supposedly knew best–was what I got most wrong.

Journalist/immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas balances his loves of writing and of justice real well.
Journalist/immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas balances his loves of writing and of justice real well.

I am in the midst of a long learning process of how my (white, male, documented, no-college-debt) voice can serve the immigrant rights movement–or almost any rights movement, for that matter–but I have found it useful here to recount the facets of my English and literature background that have proven greater obstacles than advantages. Reading and writing certainly opened up more doors than they closed, that I’ll never deny, but some of the values taught to us linguaphiles and bibliophiles clash with those taught by rights activists. Some of these I’ve long since rejected; with others I’m still conflicted.

1) Literary Veneration & Canonization

Venerating certain voices above others is how every (exclusionary) society defines itself, and canonization usually reflects everything that activists oppose. By the mid-20th century, literary-types were already deconstructing how the “literary canon” had systematically excluded non-white, non-male, non-straight, non-wealthy, non-Western voices for centuries. (To their credit, most English Departments teach this.) The Civil Rights Movement went hand-in-hand with an uplifting and revisitation of literature by marginalized groups, past and present. But still today, too many English curricula look like a long list of white men, be they Shakespeare and Marlowe or Fitzgerald and Kerouac. Though lit-nerds like me may be raised on these names, they should use their word-brains to find writers of equal or greater talent whose names have grown less iconic simply for the shape of their bodies or the color of their skin. English majors should use their understanding of the literary canon’s problems to understand how other institutions have worked and still work to exclude people: mass media, nation-states, gender roles, urban spheres, so on.

Kerry Martin UVM Denver Colorado
From left: Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Edwards, Mario Vargas Llosa, José Donoso, and (I don’t know). Latin American “Boom” writers, pero un poco macho.

This basic idea of systematic exclusion was something that pushed me towards immigrant rights, having spent time in the developing world, reading African/Latin American lit and postcolonial theory. But I’m still learning the nature of exclusion and how it feels when people are truly written out of history. Nowadays I read the “classics” for their negative space.

2) Satire & Oversensitivity

No English teacher should overlook satire. From Boccaccio to Swift to Colbert, the subtle art has been used to rip down some of history’s great idiocies. Rarely taught, though, is the distinction between good satire or bad satire, or perhaps better said, satire that falls on the good or bad side of history. Inherently critical, satire should be studied as a strange weapon that draws laughter instead of blood, whose wielder, even if successful in the moment, history will judged by the side from which he/she jokes. Today, we are quick to glorify satire and chastise its opponents because the canonized satirists (see above) fall on the side of history we agree with: Chaucer chastizing corrupt clergy, Twain mocking racist Southerners, Orwell jabbing authoritative governments, The Onion mortifying sensationalist news media, the list goes on and on.  But when we look at old cartoons that mock people of different races or listen to outdated variety-show comedians trash-talk their wives, we just call this racism and sexism, instead of what many of it contemporary writers and readers would have seen it as, satire. This type of satire (which could fill whole libraries) ended up on the wrong side of history, yet no doubt it elicited much the same laughter as other humor of the day.

What perceptive English-types must then do is 1) expand their definition of satire to mean any media that uses humor or sarcasm to criticize a group or individual, 2) recognize that high-quality satire is aimed at people in power and is meant to destabilize unfavorable power structures, and 3) distinguish high-quality satire from low-quality satire, which is often aimed at groups with little power, exploiting assumptions and stereotypes for a cheap laugh, reproducing the power structures that make these groups vulnerable to mockery in the first place. Such satire is cheap, counterproductive, and not worth defending simply in the sacred name of satire, or of free speech; it will look foolish in a few decades anyway. Kerry Martin UVM Denver Colorado

As I grew more involved with Migrant Justice, I was still News Editor for UVM’s quasi-satirical newsmag The Water Tower. For our Halloween issue I wrote a satire article about which (racist) Halloween costumes to avoid, listing the physical inconveniences of each costume rather than their social implications; it was an attempt to ridicule any insensitive student who would think about donning these costumes in the first place. Its humor still relied on tacky jokes and age-old stereotypes. From the article’s awful backlash I learned that implicit in all satire is a power dynamic, and it is a writer’s choice and responsibility to place his or herself on the right side. High quality satire is more difficult but more productive and rewarding; racist one-liners aren’t worth anyone’s time.

3) Unique Voice & the “Great American”

What makes literature good literature? Many say that the best authors are those who say something new, those who strike out on their own, or those who try to do what everyone else is doing and ingeniously fail. This is especially true in the US, where our maverick history and raging national ego demands of each iconic author “the Great American Novel,” an idea so ingrained that even in the hyper-democratized digital age, amateur writers barely touch the keys without planning to write the next Great American Reader’s Comment, Great American Facebook Status, or Great American Tweet. This grows more true each day that it grows more futile: as media shrinks ever smaller in word count and attention duration, writers try harder and harder to stand out. With limited space, the room to expand lies in tone and diction rather than nuanced argument.

Kerry Martin UVM Denver Colorado
“I love it when you call me Big Papa…”

These values of (American) literature defy those of rights activism in a number of ways. The core ethic of the “Great American” is individualism, a bold Hemingwayesque claim to utter independence and self-reliance, which flies in the face of activism’s core tenets–community, collaboration, collective strength, and recognition of privilege. Authors have certainly been activists and allies, but the most effective and welcome ones rarely try to speak as leaders on behalf of movements or to diverge from activists’ message for the simple sake of unique voice  And this same tension still exists in modern mass social media: while activist groups have very successfully harnessed the power of social media to send a single message or petition millions of times at once, their greatest liability is the Great American Tweeter, who will imbue their cause with his own tone and diction, just to stand out. Writers who have purged themselves of sinful repetition may cringe at the mere thought of retweeting, but in many cases things are said best the first time, by the first person who said them. Spreading that single, unified message over and over again may have more value than putting your own unique twist on it, just for the sake of you.

This for me was the hardest lesson, one that I am still learning, the one that causes me to reflect most deeply on my activist motives. I have found the bold individualism of American authorship that my English background so celebrated was something I would have to set aside, permanently perhaps, or at least while fighting for the rights and representation of people who don’t look like me.

I’m better off trying to write the Great American Blog Post on my own time.

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2 thoughts on “Are English and Activism Incompatible?

  1. Good stuff, kerry – i see the conflict between individualism and social/communal solidarity, though our friends Stalin and Mao made that same argument (“no bourgeois individualism!”), which was a nice short cut to eliminating dissent or even questioning, if not a short cut to the camps. Marching in lock-step is effective, but also soul- and mind-destroying. Why can’t there be a nice balance? Many great “individual” voices have also been great voices for social change + protest – you know the list, including the Lat-American writers you listed. Why this binary? Just quibbling with you!

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    1. Thanks for the quibbling, Dad, no one better qualified to quibble than you! There totally needs to be a balance, it is just a difficult balance to strike. In a diverse and factionalist society like the US, dissent and nonconformity often take the form of joining a dissenting faction, what often gets labeled activism. But once people have identified themselves with a dissenting faction, is it worth it to differentiate themselves from that dissent simply for the sake of exercising free speech and practicing individualism, especially if it destabilizes the faction’s message and potentially threatens its message-driven cause? Strategically, a cohesive movement can only carry so many messages and stories, it must chose the right ones. So for an activist and exerciser of free speech, it not individualistic enough to join a dissenting faction and play by its rules…and then exercise free speech on one’s own personal behalf and not on the faction’s? I’m still struggling to answer that. I don’t want to march in lock-step, but if that marching is alongside people advocating for positive and clearly-stated social change, against governments or companies who would rather silence this dissenting faction, then I find myself more useful (and indeed more individual) by marching in unison with this movement then by expressing my difference from it.

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