Complicating Revolution

Today, HIA-Netherlands 2017 fellows started a revolution.

It was not a surprise revolution; in fact, tension had been building for days among fellows about the structure of the HIA program. Today, that tension snapped. At a moment’s notice, we gathered the program leaders in a room and voiced our discontents loudly and without reservation. It was a moment of honesty, and at the same time, a moment of hurt. It was a moment whose intentions I supported, but whose methods I questioned.

In this post, I want to discuss the different methods that we use to achieve change. I hope to raise the question: when is there space for revolutions? And when are other methods – less violent, but equally radical in form – more effective?

As shown by history, there are numerous upsides to revolution. It startles our opponents. Often, they realize the gravity and immediacy of the issue at hand. And, if successful, they are shocked into quick and bold change.

At the same time, revolution is divisive. In order for a revolution to be successful, it requires an “us” and “them.” Often, “they” are inaccurately grouped in order to mark a clean divide between the revolutionaries and the opponents.  As a result, many who might have been on “our” side are alienated.

Given the high risk/high reward nature of revolutions, we need to choose carefully when we choose to revolt, and when we choose a different route of achieving change.

In my mind, three conditions deem a revolution inappropriate. If 1) people are working toward a common goal, 2) people have positive intentions (this does not mean they won’t make mistakes) and 3) people are willing to listen to minority voices and respond with change, then a revolution is not only impractical – it is counterproductive.

On the other hand, if any one of these conditions is not met, revolution is both appropriate and necessary.

Today, HIA fellows revolted against people who were working toward the same goal of human rights, people who made mistakes but had positive intentions, and people who had articulated that they were willing to listen to feedback. Our revolution was loud and memorable – yet it hurt and alienated people who were on our side in the fight for human rights.

Today, while we revolted against a human rights curriculum we didn’t like, three mass shootings happened in my country. Today, while we vocalized our discontents with the setup of an elite program, more undocumented people were shoved to the margins of society. Today, while we ranted, injustice festered.

So let’s get smart about whom we choose to fight. Let’s build coalitions across differences to fight the good fight, instead of getting caught up in disagreements that are, quite frankly, privileged compared to the challenges of the real world. When we butt heads with those who share a common goal, instead of revolting, let’s be patient, honest, and bold with our words. Patience and boldness – if used correctly – can be just as radical as revolution.

And if we do decide to revolt against a curriculum, that’s fine. Let’s not kid ourselves, though – that’s not activism, it’s privileged scholarly debate.

But if we did, in fact, come here to act – well, there’s a lot of work to be done.

So let’s start a revolution against structural racism, and the institutions that sustain it. Let’s start a revolution against pinkwashing. Let’s start a revolution against transphobia and anti-Semitism and ableism and all the hateful ideas that pervade society. Let’s start a revolution for what matters.