When I was in graduate school, the field of social justice education was largely stuck in the minefield of siloed social identity politics and did not often talk about the deep and complex interconnections of various issues of oppression and their corresponding pathways to liberation. In fact, to do so was often viewed as a way to take refuge in one’s subordinate identities instead of attending to the privilege and access one had due to their dominant identities.
In truth, however, all forms of oppression are interrelated, not just in how they intersect, but in deeper ways that speak to their interdependence and how they actually need each other to persist. For example, race needs a socially constructed and ruthlessly enforced gender binary in order to justify and make “normal” its own socially constructed categories. Because of this, racial oppression does not just intersect with gender oppression, but goes even further by policing gender, enforcing gender binaries, and connecting its own whiteness to gender oppressive ideologies such as “ideal female beauty”. Underneath this interdependence, however, lies an even deeper common element of all oppressions – their interconnection. At its worst, this represents the profoundly toxic impact that any form of oppression has on the entire web of life and its disruption to the ways our human family is connected. At its best, however, this deep interconnection can provide clarity and hope regarding social justice work– if all oppressions are connected to each other and to the greater web of life, then social change can begin anywhere at any time by any one. Thus, while it is possible to view the interconnection of oppressions as evidence of their intractability, I prefer to see it as testimony to their vulnerability and the power each and every one of us has to overcome them. Seen at its fullest, this web of connection is the ultimate threat to oppressive structures that rely so heavily on xenophobic responses to centuries (or millennia) of created “others”. Perhaps this is the reason it is so often poo-pooed by those in power: if we all truly understood that what we do to each other ultimately will always come back to us, as is the case in deeply interconnected systems, we would be highly motivated to care for each other instead of oppress each other. As Robert Thurman and Sharon Salzberg state in their book Love your enemies, “if my enemy is safe and happy, they have little reason to stay my enemy.”
And while all of this is true, it feels too utilitarian of a way of understanding the import of interconnectedness. Viewed in its full complexity “interconnection” is more than just a means to end oppression – it speaks truth to the profound biological, spiritual, social, and ideological “inter-being” (Thich Nhat Hanh) that we all share not only as a species but as a small part of this planet’s incredibly dynamic fabric of life. When I was growing up my aunt Marta used to talk like this and I would hear other members of my family chuckle and label it “hippie talk”. Fortunately today there is “evidence” (so essential to the Western mind) from all directions (neuro science, social science, educational theory, botany, climate science, cosmology, etc.) that points to what our bodies already know – we are a small part of this larger natural world, so deeply connected to its beautiful and troubling perturbations that every single step we take has consequences…so tread mindfully.
Which brings me to my hope for this coming year (not much different form my hope last January): that I more deeply awaken to, or perhaps just re-member, all that I am connected to and in so doing tread ever so carefully as I do my part in working for social justice, addressing climate change, participating more fully in my community, and learning to actually live within life on this glorious planet. I’ve written a few blog posts on climate change and climate justice and as so many others have noted, it’s our profound separation from each other and the severing of our connection to the wider, natural world that has set the table for climate change and all of its ramifications. It makes sense, right? Wide-spread industrialization and “endless” consumption combined with ruthlessly hierarchical structures of power all held in the hands of such a disconnected group of folks has obvious consequences not the least of which are the steep and relatively quick changes to our climate. Conversely and just as powerfully, however, the deep internalization of how each and every one of us is connected to all life is not only capable of dismantling the various systems of oppression we have created, but also provides a viable pathway for navigating climate change (and the future of our species on this planet) with dignity, grace, and peace.
This teaches me that the space I perceive between “me” and “you” is really just a fiction. It’s not empty “space” at all. It’s actually energetic, electromagnetic interstitial tissue connecting my life to yours and to every other life. When I ground into this, I feel it, I know it in my bones. And when I do not, I can feel that too – lost, alone in a crowd, “busy”, frustrated with the world and my place in it, and an inexplicable emptiness that I am encouraged to fill with “stuff”. And so my commitment for this year is to be ever more mindful of that connection – THE connection of all things to all things – and tread lightly. By honoring it, nurturing it, and letting it feed me, it will in turn improve the efficacy of my work, feed and support my relationships and bit-by-bit help heal the greater whole. Isn’t this what social justice work is ultimately about?