I’ve recently returned to a something I wrote in my twenties. Back in 2005, I contributed a “Letter to older activists” to the book Letters From Young Activists. In that piece, I described a kind of “advice” that older leftists sometimes give to their younger colleagues that “sounds more like condescending lecturing than sincere sharing.” I elaborated:
Those of you who do this are often socially positioned in ways that lead you to feel deeply entitled to your expertise. And when you wield your age, experience, and achievements with self-righteous certainty, I find it hard to trust you. I’m thinking, for example, of some of you who are veterans of the often-mythologized ‘sixties.’ There is certainly much we can all learn from the 1960s, as well as from many other historical moments, but the danger lies in romanticizing or demonizing the past, turning it into something that wholly trumps our new and creative ideas in changing circumstances. Young activists don’t need your status plays or your simplistic impositions of your past onto the present. Rather, we need you to recognize self-consciously how your past forms you, how it shapes your experience and understanding of the present in both limiting and illuminating ways.
From my now older vantage point, I can’t help but read this as cautionary guidance.
Many of us have been at a typical activist event wherein, during the question and answer session, an older leftist (frequently white, usually a man) steps up to the microphone and lambasts everyone with a list of reasons why the initiative at hand is insufficient or misguided.
Since turning 40, I’ve been thinking a great deal about this kind of conduct. I increasingly recognize aspects of it in myself and others I know. In recent years, I’ve witnessed radicals my age and older dismissively discuss newer movement efforts, including the Movement for Black Lives, labour organizing campaigns, anti-fascist mobilizations, climate justice activism, and feminist and queer initiatives. Even if they don’t step up to a microphone, these activists don’t hesitate to share their criticisms in smaller discussions and online.
For sure, critical discussion can strengthen movements, and even comradely debates can sometimes be harsh. At the same time, I’m concerned with the responsibilities that older radicals have in how we deploy our knowledge and social status in criticizing movement activities, particularly the efforts of younger people and people new to activism. This is something with which I struggle: how should I distinguish between useful and harmful criticisms? When is it appropriate to raise reservations and what is the best way to do it? How can I avoid taking a corrosive, self-assured approach?
To answer these questions for myself, I’ve looked to experienced radicals who have solid track records of cross-generational collaboration. Such a longtime organizer is Mariame Kaba, she’s been involved in struggles against the industrial prison complex and for transformative justice. In a 2017 interview, Kaba offered this advice: “if you’re a veteran organizer it is your duty, I believe, to come into spaces with an open heart and an open ear and not to go in there with your arms crossed, ready to pounce, on how these young folks are doing everything wrong all the time.”
Part of what I take away from Kaba is the need to intentionally cultivate curiosity about other people’s activities – and to nourish those dimensions that are most promising. In political work, so often, clarifying questions are more useful than sharp criticisms or aphoristic wisdom.
Another person to whom I look to is Silvia Federici, a veteran feminist activist and theorist. In a 2016 interview, Federici remarked, “I’ve made it a principle not to indulge in speech that is destructive.” As I understand it, this principle calls for deep thoughtfulness about the effects of our words and actions on others engaged in struggle, even – and maybe especially – when we disagree with them.
In that same interview, Federici also emphasized learning “to be more humble” and this is key. Part of being humble is being courageously and compassionately self-critical. Some of the greatest gifts I have received from older radicals have been frank reflections on their uncertainties, miscalculations, and mistakes. That kind of vulnerability, especially from those who are relatively privileged, is tremendously valuable. It encourages us all to re-examine assumed certainties, and to admit when we’ve been wrong.
If we show up with open hearts and ears, curiosity, thoughtfulness about our words and actions, and stay humble and vulnerable, we aging activists can offer so much more than criticism, to movements today.
Chris Dixon is a long-time activist, writer, and educator. Originally from Alaska, he lives in Ottawa on unceded Algonquin territory, where he is a member of the Punch Up Collective. Find him online at writingwithmovements.com.
This article appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Canadian Dimension (CD Goes Digital).