The Revolution Will Not Be Romanticized

Not too long ago, my friend needed to talk about a “work dilemma.” He spent most of his time advocating for condemned men in prison, investigating their cases, learning their stories, building relationships, and finding any mitigating factors that might get them relief.

He said he’d recently begun working with a new client and despite his best efforts to remain open to the man’s goodness, my friend just couldn’t seem to like him. “I feel so bad saying it,” he confessed, “but the guy really does seem like an asshole. I’m pretty sure he consistently beat his wife before his incarceration, and he doesn’t seem too sorry about it. I’ve never had a client I didn’t like.”

I nodded with understanding, having spent a significant amount of time visiting that prison too. But I didn’t see the dilemma.

My friend explained that he worried he wasn’t as radical as he thought, that not liking his condemned client perhaps meant he wasn’t truly “down with the revolution.

 

This conversation illuminated an increasingly noticeable pattern, especially among my peers: put simply, the more we get “radicalized,” the more we’re tempted to romanticize. This is particularly pronounced in the work of advocacy and solidarity. We sometimes seem to think that to be true advocates we must believe rosy stories of those we work with or for.

I get where this comes from. When I speak and teach in Nashville, for example, about the injustice of the Israeli occupation, someone almost always pushes back with, “What about the corruption of the Palestinian Authority?” “You know Muslim men oppress their wives, right?” “What about the internal conflicts between Palestinians themselves?” The implication of all such questions is that Palestinians do not deserve freedom because they’re flawed; they don’t deserve equality because they’re not exceptional.

Over and over, I’ve seen this need for a perfect victim. For too many, solidarity seems contingent on excellence; an uncomplicated cause becomes a prerequisite for compassion. It does not surprise me, for instance, that people who’ve never stepped inside prison tend to believe ungenerous and un-nuanced stories about prisoners. The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls these “single stories.” Part of my vocation has become combating these single stories. I use storytelling to flesh out the humanity of marginalized friends for people living with fear and underdeveloped imaginations.

Much of social justice work has been and will continue to be challenging single stories. It’s essential we make clear the beauty of those burdened by other people’s bigotry and narrow-mindedness. And yet, like in most historical movements, we may find ourselves swinging the pendulum too far. We can end up operating on the flipside of the single-stories coin.

In a legitimate effort to challenge damaging single stories, we may find ourselves crafting romanticized ones. These certainly contain essential truths that must be heard, but they can also become tainted. I cannot count how many times I’ve heard social justice/movement/woke/etc. people shut down the first whisper of critique with immediate labels beginning with “anti-” or ending with “-ist.” We then script our own ungenerous and un-nuanced stories of the people we seek to silence. To be fair, critiques of marginalized people do often sprout from racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and a host of other oppressive ideologies. And—sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, and only sometimes, some truth lies in critique.

I believe our hearts and bodies are in the right place. I believe we try to shut down dissent and critique because letting it breathe has literally taken the breath of people we love. We shut it down because we know in our bones that the people in those single stories are more than those simplistic reductions. We shut it down because we’re tired of letting poisonous language win. And we must continue fighting these stories.

And…

We also must take great care not to find ourselves walking unknowingly into another harmful way of thinking: i.e., that people’s worth is based on their goodness. We cannot decide that those on the other side of the battle lines are less worthy because of their vices, all while claiming that the people on our side are worthy because they have none. If we arrive in such a place, we must finally admit that we are in fact not all that different than what we’ve been resisting. We may realize that all the bigotry, narrow-minded groupthink, exclusivity, and rigid rules we’ve been reacting against for years, we actually brought with us on the journey. We just chose different targets, different ideologies, different parameters and rules.

Telling fuller, even “romanticized” stories may indeed be a necessary strategy for challenging the sheer weight of the systemic single stories at work in our world. But my fear is that in this necessary work, we unnecessarily internalize such romanticism, attaching belief of these rose-colored stories to beliefs about true radicalness. The revolution will not be won by romanticizing who and what we’re fighting for. And we cannot give in to the belief that to be truly radical we must see no guile, no flaw, nothing suspect in the people on “our side.” Being radical is not standing with perfect people; being radical is embracing their imperfections and demanding their right to life and liberty anyway.

17 Comments

  1. lisabatten says:

    This came at a very timely point in work I am involved in. Thank you for speaking prophetically into our human frailty.

  2. This is the best thing I have read all week, and I’m in school so I read a lot. Especially love this “We also must take great care not to find ourselves walking unknowingly into another harmful way of thinking: i.e., that people’s worth is based on their goodness. We cannot decide that those standing on the other side of the battle lines are less worthy because of their vices, all while claiming that the people on our side are worthy because they have none.” So very true, thanks for sharing these profound and helpful thoughts. Following you everywhere from now on.

    • Michael McRay says:

      Jen, thank you for this lovely comment. Pleased to hear this resonated! Peace to you in your studies.

  3. Matthew Sample II says:

    We ought also to be cautious not to excuse the conduct of those who fight with us or for those for which we fight. There can be a great danger in viewing our fight as morally high ground, and excusing what what we do in the name of that moral high ground. Revolution often does evil… and sweeps it under the rug.

    • Michael McRay says:

      That’s true. I’m not a believer in “the ends justify the means.” Sometimes, revolutions—or at least the causes and motivations that launch and fuel them—do in fact have the moral high ground in what they are reacting to. But that does not mean that the tactics chosen have moral impunity simply because the motivations of the revolution are morally sound.

  4. Cathy Fox says:

    Embracing the imperfections in myself and others. Accepting those I dislike into my circle. Including instead of rejecting. Listening. God help me; the challenge to live this way exceeds my ability and skill set.

    • Michael McRay says:

      Me too! They require muscles I need to keep strengthening.

    • Reverend Karen Kinney says:

      Mine too! I have found when I can find common ground, and there is always common ground, that is when I can embrace rather than reject. But that usually comes about through personal relationship – I wonder sometimes how willing I am to let relationships continue or develop with those who do think differently than I do.

  5. John McWade says:

    Timely and well presented, thank you. Our righteousness is not our own. Dovetails beautifully with Romans 14, which we were reading this morning.

  6. Reverend Karen Kinney says:

    Thank you for this. I encounter this kind of single story thinking all the time whether it be about those who suffer addiction in the small Appalachian county where I serve as a pastor or about Muslims or any “other” folks want to comment on. Sometimes it is so exhausting to both balance my romanticizing with trying to offer a different way of viewing the single story as part of a much larger story. As a long-ago history major, I am grateful for professors who always made us look at the larger story. Thank you for your work – it has been an inspiration to me as I contemplate the next phase of my vocation.

    • Michael McRay says:

      Thanks for sharing that Reverend Kinney. I too was a history major! What we’re talking about here is indeed a great balancing act. We need a good community around us to help hold us steady, yes?

  7. Katie says:

    I have been trying for a very long time to find the words for the feelings and ideas you describe here. For years, the idea has floated in my brain that we expect marginalized people to be perfect victims, when in reality, they’re just human too. This blog post addresses that beautifully. It took my breath away. Thank you so much.

    • Michael McRay says:

      I am delighted that this piece was helpful. Thank you for reading it, and for taking the time to comment. Peace to you in your work.

  8. Kathy Plourde says:

    A wonderful essay on how easy it is to be changed and not realize it is happening… learning to listen without judgement and/or always think my way is the right way…..I read recently that most people believe their ideas are reasonable…

    • Michael McRay says:

      That’s read. My friend Pádraig Ó Tuama writes, “Most people do what seems reasonable to them at the time, most of the time.” I always try to hold that truth in my mind. It’s hard though. Sometimes, people seem so remarkably unreasonable!

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