Beyond Enemy Thinking

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I want to start by distancing myself from the concept of objectivity, as any good feminist would – that is, I want to start by naming my point of view. I choose to focus on certain themes, movements, and social actors because I come from a working class background in the United States. I began developing an anarchist, anti-capitalist philosophy at an early age. I now identify as queer, though I have not always felt welcome in LGBT spaces due to my sense of “not being gay enough.” I have many friends and associates who are transgender, and I consider myself gender-fluid.

I first noticed Quakers at Iraq War protests back in 2003-2004, but I didn’t make my way into a Quaker meetinghouse until 2011. That connection led me into a one-year internship with FCNL’s Advocacy Corps, which then inspired me to go back to school and get my degree in Latin American Studies. My time among Quakers and my time among Latin Americans have come together to focus my mind on a bit of irony about people who want to make the world a better place. While Friends and other advocates of nonviolent action purport to value “peace” and “dialogue,” we often end up supporting agendas that actually stabilize the status quo (which is decidedly violent). Sometimes we want so much to support peace and to move away from violence that we too easily condemn the “violent” tactics of would-be allies in our common struggle for social justice, the foundation of any real peace. Sometimes we forget that “violence” is an act of desperation.

As a sort of “case study” of the kinds of tensions that seem common among progressive organizations and to explore ways that such organizations sometimes work at cross-purposes, I will share below some observations I have made during my recent studies in Latin America. These reveal tensions among various organizations that serve the interests of queer Latin Americans in Central and South America.

The phrase “queer Latin Americans” might seem odd. After all, the term “queer” itself expresses a relatively new concept – one that was first developed in the United States. The term has only recently expanded into usage throughout Latin America, where it has not always been accepted. U.S.-originated ways of understanding gender and sexuality can sometimes be helpful and liberating to Latin Americans. But other times, U.S.-inspired understandings can supersede traditional, indigenous understandings, which can then lead to pushback.

A growing body of research shows that many indigenous cultures of Latin America have traditionally held unique understandings of gender and sexuality. Anthropologists have observed that binary understandings of sex and gender are culturally specific, and such binaries were originally unknown in some oral societies. Examples of “third genders” in Latin America include the muxe in Juchitán, the ipa in Aymara, the orua in Quechua, and the quariwarmi of the Andes.

With financial and political support often coming from Northern-funded initiatives, LGBTI Latin Americans regularly negotiate tensions between local perspectives and U.S.-based priorities. (I use the acronym “LGBTI” for  “Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex” here because I have seen it used more often in Latin America than “LGBTQ” (with “Q” for “queer”), which is more common in the U.S.) While international agencies like Amnesty International work for human rights of LGBTI Latin Americans – including the decriminalization of homosexual acts; protection from violence and discrimination; protections for gender-nonconforming families, including civil unions and legal marriage; and HIV/AIDS prevention and care – some of these agencies’ goals are driven primarily by the agendas of their international donors, which sometimes override local priorities in the process. These programs can have reputations for ignoring rural and indigenous perspectives in pursuit of Western-oriented urban models.

Some Latin American LGBTI activists, ideologically opposed to neoliberalism, reject all collaboration with internationally funded agencies. They reject any focus on changing laws by working from within institutions. Many of them work instead to normalize same-sex love in the culture at large by creating works of art and poetry. Through spontaneous street performances, immersive art exhibits, and public demonstrations, LGBTI activists bring their lives into “hyper-visibility” as a way of transforming the culture, so that eventually the LGBTI aspects of their lives will become unremarkable.

This tension – between change agencies that represent inter-nationalist orientations and ones that strive to maintain strictly indigenous perspectives – is frequently expressed in conflicts surrounding the term “queer.” For example, to some activists, this term is a Western import that implies an urban, capitalist fashion ethic – one that does not really challenge social structures of oppression. However, in other communities, activists actually prefer the term “queer” over terms like “lesbian” and “homosexual,” accepting the first as coming from the working class and rejecting the others  as imposed by white academia.

I find it unfortunate that some LGBTI activists take hardline stances against the use of certain terms and miss out on possibilities for meaningful alliances with others who do not share their definitions, but who do share their goals, experiences, and values. Similarly, I find it unfortunate that some lesbian activists seem to take trans activism as a set of personal attacks on their efforts toward feminist liberation and as expressions of patriarchal oppression. There are no fundamental reasons that feminist activism and trans activism should be incompatible. Instead, I see hardline commitments to “correct” ideologies as ways of ignoring real differences between groups, which are real differences in wealth, education, and class. Countless historic victories for social justice have been won through the power of alliances that bridge such differences – alliances that bridge spectrums of wealth, education, and class.

One meaningful role that Friends could play when such conflicts arise would to be to serve as advocates of omnipartiality. This term, coined by Dominic Barter in his work for restorative justice in Brazil, means “being on everyone’s side.” And by “everyone,” it means “everyone,” not just some.

A helpful framework for bridging differences is one I have found in the work of psychologist and communication teacher Marshall Rosenberg. Within his body of work, Nonviolent Communication (NVC), Rosenberg has developed the concept of “enemy images” to describe our thinking processes when we focus on what is wrong with another person or group, rather than seeing them as human beings who are trying to meet their needs just like we are (Speak Peace in a World of Conflict by Marshall Rosenberg, 2005).

After many years of experience with training in NVC, I can often recognize when I am holding an enemy image by noticing that I am engaging in “should” thinking, also known in academia as “normative” thinking. I have observed “should” thinking expressed by exclusionary feminists in statements like: “Trans activists should form their own movement. . . They shouldn’t have come to our march. . . They shouldn’t call themselves women.”  My own “should” thinking in response runs something like: “They should get better informed about trans experiences. . . They shouldn’t focus so narrowly on the meanings of words and should focus instead on lived experiences. . . They should see the commonality of oppression among all queer people.

However, even though the antagonistic tone that some Latin American feminists take toward the trans community – and towards North Americans – might seem counterproductive to alliance-building, I do not want to perpetuate an attitude of cultural colonization by focusing (as a North American) on the I mistakes I see in indigenous-centered feminist activism. I admire their work in many ways. Instead of criticizing, I want to understand the ideological conflicts among various LGBTI communities in Latin America. In keeping with the principles of Nonviolent Communication, I am trying to identify the needs and concerns of these communities as I learn about them. I am trying to shift from normative thinking to descriptive thinking, trying to ascertain the reality of each situation.

As far as I can tell, the feminists’ main concerns are: keeping the focus on issues concerning “female bodies” and lower-class communities, which have long been neglected; gaining recognition for work that feminist organizations have done in these communities; and liberation from neoliberalism/capitalism/colonialism.

Meanwhile, transgender communities in Latin American have extreme needs that are not readily met by local grassroots organizing, even though the grassroots approach is held up as an ideal within activist networks. When lives are on the line – for example, when funding for HIV/AIDS prevention is not coming from local governments – desperate people will turn to any organization that offers support, including foreign NGOs.

In fact, the distinction between grassroots activism and institution-based initiatives for social change is another false binary. Many activists work across a variety of contexts – grassroots, NGO, and even within state agencies. Much like the identities of LGBTI individuals who do not fit within the social scripts for gender and sexuality, LGBTI activist organizations do not fit within the script of rigid categorization of social-change methodologies.

Those of us who want to help strengthen global movements for social justice would do well to follow Rosenberg’s advice to transform “enemy” images into “potential collaborator” images. When we call to mind a person we think of as an enemy, our first step, according to Rosenberg, should be to identify some connection we hold with them. I have attempted to transform my enemy images of other activists by focusing on aspects of their work that I appreciate, by reading between the lines of their complaints so I can better understand their needs, and by giving them the benefit of the doubt that they simply have not had the same kind of experiences I have had.

There is a sweet spot, a delicately balanced perspective, from which I can both deeply empathize with the underlying human needs that fuel a person’s actions and, at the same time, I can also acknowledge the negative consequences of those actions. It is hard to stay on that sweet spot. It is easy to fall on one side of the delicate balance or the other – either to condemn another person as immoral, unethical, stupid, etc., because of some action they have taken; or to ignore the negative aspects of their behavior as a way of bolstering empathy with them.

I wonder if Quaker faith and practice can help us stay on the sweet spot. If Friends merely promote peace and nonviolence by rote, merely out of habit, then we will find it hard to respect the real human limits than many people feel in their abilities to empathize and seek understanding with others who are harming them. Unless we feel ourselves standing on that ever-shifting, delicate balance of continuing revelation, it will be hard for us to avoid treating those who resort to violence as somehow morally or spiritually inferior; it will be hard to avoid falling into condescending or patronizing attitudes; it will be hard to join and help build alliances that can work for real justice and peace.

In our efforts to make the world a better place, we need to stay open-minded about what “better” actually means. We need to remember that multiple perspectives are valid, and that even though perspectives might initially seem to stand in contradiction with each other, once we get beyond the surface, underlying commonalities often become clear. As prophets of omnipartiality, Friends can help transform battles for justice into creative contests for a better world. ~~~

Meagan Fisher is a student of Latin American Studies and Spanish, and a spiritual seeker. Her most recent relationship with Quakers was as an attender at Chico Friends Meeting (PYM).