- Jessica Hartjes
Lately, I have found myself thinking about the big questions of life as though they were book titles. Specifically, as we head into a new year filled with both hope and uncertainty, I find myself thinking of Sheila Heti's novel How Should a Person Be?.
How should a person be in 2017? Let's face it: 2016 was a rough year. There have been some victories—the water protectors at Standing Rock, for example—but overall we've seen a rise in racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia. How can we be better in 2017? On my most tired days I think just don't be an arse. It's good advice, but let me try and unspool how we can be better activists, allies and thinkers in 2017.
First, though, it's important to hold space for the very real feelings that come because of all this disenfranchisement. The emotional effects of re-institutionalizing racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia are palpable. For example, I teach in university classrooms—which are themselves spaces of relative power and privilege—and I see the effects on my university students. I seem them struggle under the weight of increased debt and doubt and anxiety. I see them manage living in a patriarchal culture. I see them endure racism, or perpetuate it without realizing it. I see them grapple with how to be—and how to be better—without sometimes having the language to name what they are grappling with.
Here's a more specific example. The day after the American presidential election I witnessed students weep openly. In Canada. They were scared about the future. They felt helpless. They wanted to know what to do. They wanted to know how to be proactive in another historical moment which feels so disenfranchising for so many people. And so, to talk about these things, I did what I tend to do as a teacher: We started by defining our terms. What is your prevailing emotional register? I asked them. Anxiety they replied, without hesitation. These are anxious times, and anxiety is difficult to name. As writer Sara Ahmed suggests, anxiety is difficult to manage in part because it often has no definite object.
To give a name and a shape to some of our anxieties my students and I turned to language. We asked ourselves, How are oppressive systems entering our everyday speech? Our answer? Through normalization. During the US presidential campaign the phrase Make America Great Again stood in for a candidate whose policies and politics are predicated on racism, sexism and homophobia. Now we're seeing modifications of this phrase on xenophobic flyers in Montreal as well as in advertisements for discounts on gym memberships.
Normalizing oppressive language desensitizes us. We are left with feelings of anxiety and despair and frustration without the words to name our emotions. Resisting the normalization of oppressions is possible, my students realized. We can do it in our reading practices, by choosing to read books and articles by people whose experiences are different than ours. We can read and respect those differences and learn from them. We can resist the normalization of oppressions by finding outlets for positive action by supporting writers, artists, and community organizations that are doing the necessary work of dismantling oppression. We can do this by offering to lend a hand in very material ways. We can volunteer our time. We can attend the talk or the meeting and meet new people who are working towards the same goals. And we can resist the normalization of oppressions by naming them and learning together how systems such as racism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia work to oppress all of us differently.
Erin Wunker teaches in the fields of Canadian literature and culture at Acadia University. Her book Notes from a Feminist Killjoy: Essays on Everyday Life was published this fall.