An interview by Devon Douglas-Bowers
Seeing the bombings, killings, and general injustices committed in the US and around the world is extremely disheartening and discouraging. Hopelessness and a general feeling that nothing can be done can easily over-wash a person. It is even more frustrating if you are in a situation where you are unable to attend protests, rallies, or marches. However, there is something that we can all do: bear witness. By that I mean we keep abreast of what is going on in the world and make a point to discuss important issues and topics with people in our everyday lives, especially those who may not be too interested in politics. To discuss this in more detail, I recently had an email interview with Melissa R. and Geoff W. about “bearing witness.”
Melissa R. is a queer woman living in the southern United States. She works full time in healthcare and encourages self-education.
Geoffrey W. is an activist and economics student at Washington State. He is the president of his campus’ Queer-Straight Alliance, and enjoys spending his time attempting to overthrow the colonialist, patriarchal, discriminatory powers that be. When asked for comments, one person said Geoff was, “…born in the cesspool of multiculturalist liberal propaganda.”
1. How do you define this idea of ‘bearing witness?’
Melissa : I think of this in a broader sense so that it includes practices of mine as well as what I imagine would be a more common interpretation. By a more common interpretation I mean those interactions with other people that involve sharing experiences, knowledge, and ideas without the religious missionary aspect. In my broader explanation it’s really about developing a wide ranging base of knowledge and ideas without being locked into any so that others are off limits. There is self study and education at the core. I suppose that bearing witness would come in again to personal practices of mine would in conversation, observation, conflict resolution, and then again sharing information and ideas. For me it isn’t about changing someone’s core ideas or bringing them over to a team but more about giving them an impetus to consideration on their own.
I also take bearing witness to mean putting thoughtful attention to what is going on around me or in the world. One could on a level know that there is a drone program and maybe even know details of it to the extent they are available. Many people do and yet choose to turn off at the junction of seeing the testimony of the families who were fortunate enough to have survived, such as Rafiq ur Rehman and his two children. They came to D.C. to testify about the drone attack on Waziristan in which Rafiq’s mother was killed and children injured. Only five “lawmakers” and very few journalists showed. Hearing and spreading these truths be it pretty or harsh is a form of bearing witness that is essential, in my opinion.
Geoff : Christians have the best definition, “to share the good news.” Unfortunately, not everything lefties bear witness to can be considered remotely close to “good,” so we must adopt our own definition. Let the truth be said, then. At the least, let your truth be said.
2. Why do you think that bearing witness is important?
Melissa : So many are in debt to extend their education, didn’t complete their high school education, or are engaging in self education because they don’t want to add to debt in order to go to college. In addition to these means of education bearing witness can be educational moments as well. Even if this is watching documentaries, listening to programs, talking to people of varying opinions, a new takeaway can be gained. I think there is also something gained for both parties when a compassionate or attentive audience is present for particularly important moments. It doesn’t have to lead to a change of mind or an urge to move. It could just give someone perspective or give one person a sense of dignity for being recognized.
Geoff : Bearing witness startles people. I can’t speak for humans globally, but in America we tend to segregate ourselves based on personal beliefs. When an individual has the opportunity to say something contrary to their peers’ opinions, there is a small moment where people have to decide either to dismiss the new opinion out of hand, or think critically about both options presented. It’s that latter action we as activists should hope to prompt.
3. How do you go about doing this in your own lives?
Melissa : I feel in addition to having a wide base of knowledge we also need to take in a wide variety of experiences and kinds of life, not necessarily through having them ourselves. We can do this by earnestly communicating them with other people. It’s never been easier for this to take place than in this time of instant mass information. One problem that I see is what I call “teaming” which is really just tribalism. The corporate media is only distributing limited information and even within those there are sides to be chosen. Even with so much information available many people still choose to wall themselves off in these reinforcement chambers. What I think we can do in our own lives is just engage with people, read a wider variety of information with a critical eye, but not with the intent of moving from one side to another. This whole notion of “sides” is problematic and exactly what enhances power structures. Be with people and give them compassion. Smile at people who flick you off in traffic.
Geoff : I’m a student and an activist, so an overwhelming number of opportunities to discuss controversial issues are made available to me. They run the gamut, from voicing an opinion in a classroom to directing weekly workshops. My university is in a fairly conservative region, so many people are unfamiliar with concepts of neocolonialism, of queer theory, feminist thought, racism, and most all of the anti-prejudice work radicals in left-leaning areas take for granted. As a queer transgender individual, I find myself most often bearing witness to my own experience, through questions asked by professors and students alike. It’s not something I can keep on all the time, eventually any person becomes weary of defending their own existence. This leads into the next question,
4. Would you consider bearing witness a form of activism?
Melissa : The label of activism has been contested over the past few years in such a manner that it is constantly changing but that happens with language so I do and I don’t. In certain situations, I can see where it could be applicable but I don’t seek that label out. There is a real problem with language policing even among more conscientious people so I don’t really think too much about if I am being an activist today or not. I do think that the spreading of knowledge and information is an act that is so important that it is activism even if you aren’t outside with a microphone, especially when you don’t have the means or opportunity to do other things. Arthur Ashe said “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” It’s simple but it says it all.
Geoff : Is bearing witness a form of activism? Yes. Unabashedly, whole-heartedly yes. The first time I realized how important bearing witness is as a form of activism, I was fresh into college. A professor had decided we’d spend the quarter having a variety of conversations around controversial issues, and would let the students work things out between ourselves. For one day of class, affirmative action was the topic at hand. Unsurprisingly, no one in the class supported (or had bother reading up about) affirmative action, except for myself and one woman. The conversation quickly devolved from any constructive discussion of the policy, or even of systemic prejudices, into one peppered with seriously racist commentary.
As a white person, this would have been an opportunity to cash in my privilege card and step back. Instead, I decided it’d be better to “bear witness.” The woman and I spent the entire 50 minute class period arguing against 33 other students. It wasn’t fun, nor did it feel terribly productive. It was after the class, however, that the significance of what seems to be a small action was explained to me. The woman, whose name I have since forgotten, pulled me aside and thanked me. It turns out, this wasn’t the first time she’d had to discuss racism in class, but as a woman of color in a predominantly white campus, she was always forced to be the sole defender of anti-racist, anti-discriminatory policy. She’d gone into the discussion expecting to play the role again, but having a second person there to back her up, and to call out bullshit as I saw fit, meant that the burden of proof was shared.
In a similar vein, every time an issue in classes or conversation comes up that relates to me specifically, I wish desperately that I’ll not be the only person defending the politics I align with. Because it’s isolating, exhausting, and downright demoralizing to be the only person in a class of 60 who speaks up in defense of transgender people. It puts minority groups on the defense, and perpetuates a campus environment that effectively excludes us. This can be applied to the workplace, social spaces, activist groups, and more.
5. How would you contrast it with more traditional ideas of protesting such as marches and rallies?
Melissa : Marches and rallies seek to bring masses together. What I’m talking about is examining everything and not taking a single issue focus, which is one of the things that has bothered me. It should be noted that I do not live in a large city that is noted for even good turnout at protests. The few that I have been to were very disheartening. I do see that among protests taking place when they do happen they are single issue focuses and it appears that nationwide there is a problem with this. Another thing that keeps me from participating with causes I would mostly agree with is their tactics. I’m not going to go and join a PETA protest outside of Barnum and Bailey’s Circus even though it is a tortuous affair because I don’t see how dousing a naked person in fake blood on a busy street for children to walk by conveys that message. That is just the tip of the disaster that is PETA.
I’m not trying to downplay the work of activists; I am speaking from my perspective as someone who thinks that there should be a broader focus. The handful of Gay Groups receiving millions in funding pushing marriage initiatives are a prime example of single issue focus. They completely leave out the trans community, issues of elder rights, job protections, and have written off Chelsea Manning as if she isn’t still serving a prison sentence for telling the truth. This is just my perspective as one queer person.
Geoff : Rallies and marches are effective tools for changing top down policies. Campus administration, corporations, and especially governments are more responsive to a rally and other forms of direct action. I don’t know how effective they are at changing the hearts and minds of people. In many instances, just making your opinion known is a radical action. Ideally, traditional forms of activism and bearing witness should go hand in hand.
6. Some would criticize this as doing nothing and not having any major impact. What would be your response to such an argument?
Melissa : Doing nothing will have no impact. Like I mentioned before, use what you have and do what you can. I didn’t know about Leonard Peltier until a teacher of mine in high school told me his story. I learned about Leonard Peltier, AIM, John Trudell, read Malcolm X’s autobiography, and began relearning history. You never know the thing that will be a catalyst for change whether for yourself or someone else. It could be a book, a documentary, being with a person through an experience, living through intense trauma or bullying just to name a few.
Geoff : I would say the people arguing against it need to step back and think critically about their position. There are many people who cannot safely do more than voice their opinions. There are even more people whose opinions are unsafe to voice. In some areas of the country, probably more areas than people in urban areas might believe, bearing witness can and does result in a job loss, isolation, and violence.