I’ve recently returned to a something I wrote in my twenties. Back in 2005, I contributed a “Letter to older activists” to the book Letters from Young Activists. In that piece, I described a kind of “advice” that older leftists sometimes give to younger leftists that “sounds more like condescending lecturing than sincere sharing.” I elaborated:
Those of you who do this are often socially positioned in ways that lead you to feel deeply entitled to your expertise. And when you wield your age, experience, and achievements with self-righteous certainty, I find it hard to trust you. I’m thinking, for example, of some of you who are veterans of the often-mythologized “sixties.” There is certainly much we can all learn from the 1960s, as well as from many other historical moments. But the danger lies in romanticizing or demonizing the past, turning it into something that wholly trumps our new and creative ideas in changing circumstances. Young activists don’t need your status plays or your simplistic impositions of your past onto the present. Rather, we need you to recognize self-consciously how your past forms you, how it shapes your experience and understanding of the present in both limiting and illuminating ways.
From my now older vantage point, I can’t help but read this as cautionary guidance.
Many of us have been at an activist event when, during the question and answer session, an older leftist (frequently white, usually a man) steps up to the microphone and lambasts everyone present with a list of why whatever initiative at hand is insufficient or misguided.
Since turning forty, I’ve been thinking a lot about this kind of conduct. I increasingly recognize aspects of it in myself and others I know. In recent years, I’ve witnessed radicals my age and older dismissively discuss newer movement efforts, including the Movement for Black Lives, labor organizing campaigns, anti-fascist mobilizations, climate justice activism, and feminist and queer initiatives. Even if they don’t step up to a microphone, they don’t hesitate to share their criticisms in smaller discussions and online.
For sure, critical discussion can strengthen movements, and even comradely debates can sometimes be harsh. At the same time, I’m concerned with the responsibilities that older radicals have in how we deploy our knowledge and social statuses in criticizing movement activities, particularly the efforts of younger people and people newer to activism. This is something with which I struggle myself: How should I distinguish between useful and harmful criticisms? When is it appropriate to raise reservations and how? How can I avoid taking a corrosive, self-certain approach?
I’m trying to answer these questions for myself by looking to experienced radicals who have solid track records of cross-generational collaboration. One of these people is Mariame Kaba, a longtime organizer involved in struggles against the prison industrial complex and for transformative justice. In a 2017 interview, Kaba offered some advice that has stuck with me: “if you’re a veteran organizer it is your duty, I believe, to come into spaces with an open heart and an open ear and not to go in there with your arms crossed, ready to pounce, on how these young folks are doing everything wrong all the time.”
Part of what I take from Kaba is about intentionally cultivating curiosity about other people’s activities – and nourishing those dimensions that are most promising. So often in political work, clarifying questions are more useful than sharp criticisms or aphoristic wisdom.
Another person to whom I look is Silvia Federici, a veteran feminist activist and theorist. In a 2016 interview, Federici remarked, “I’ve made it a principle not to indulge in speech that is destructive.” As I understand it, this principle calls for deep thoughtfulness about the effects of our words and actions on others engaged in struggle, even – and maybe especially – when we have disagreements.
In that same interview, Federici also emphasized learning “to be more humble.” This is key, I think. Part of being humble is being courageously and compassionately self-critical. Some of the greatest gifts I have received from older radicals in my life have been frank reflections on their uncertainties, miscalculations, and mistakes. That kind of vulnerability, especially from those who are relatively privileged, is tremendously valuable. It encourages us all to examine what we take to be certain, and to admit when we’ve got something wrong.
If we show up with open hearts and ears, intentional curiosity, thoughtfulness about our words and actions, and humbleness and vulnerability, we aging activists can offer so much more than criticism to movements today.