The difficulty (and necessity) of radical imagining in the face of oppression

It is not hyperbole to say that we are in a fight for their lives. As the government moves towards repeal of the Affordable Care Act, 30 million people are at risk of losing their access to potential lifesaving health services. As bills are proposed that restrict the use of gendered spaces for trans folks, trans and non-gender conforming people are further targeted for physical and emotional violence. As overtly racist and xenophobic rhetoric is used in the highest offices of the land, and not considered hate speech but rather part of our national dialogue, white supremacist terrorist groups are further emboldened in their acts of violence against communities of colour, particularly Black and Brown communities.

As threats to survival loom large, and as every piece of progress that as been gained over the past few years feels suddenly at risk of being taken away, I have found myself struggling with thinking about organizing and activism in ways that aren’t purely defensive. Much of my time, along with those of countless others, has been spent in the past few weeks and months trying to respond to each new assault on the humanity and lives of marginalized people; calling senators to stop the appointment of this racist or that corporate executive, trying to stop the passage of some discriminatory bill, trying to maintain at least the imperfect, troubled attempts at equitable and just policy and structures that the United States has. Definitely much less of that time, less than I had been able to dedicate before, at least, has been spent trying to push for further, truly radical transformation and alternatives.

The fight to prevent to the repeal of the Affordable Care Act is a good example of this. I am most familiar with efforts from within the medical community, in which healthcare professionals and students have come together under the banner of ProtectOurCare and ProtectOurPatients to urge Senators to prevent the repeal of the ACA. The fight is necessary and urgent, and is a question of life or death for the millions of people who are relying on the ACA for healthcare. I’ve noticed, though, that the dominant strategy in this organizing is to have a very specific focus on preventing repeal; that is the one ask, and there isn’t, as far as I can tell, a push to demand further building upon the law to improve access, or – what my personal stance would be – an attempt to push for a single payer system or universal access.

There are voices – both in my own head and out in the world – that would say that pushing for more is just not reasonable right now, and might even be a poor use of time and energy when there is such an immediate struggle at hand. How is it possible to fight for something so fundamentally different if even the ‘moderate’ system already in place is seen as unreasonable? It just isn’t tenable. I see that. That makes sense. But still it doesn’t seem like enough to me, and doesn’t bode well for the struggle ahead, if we need to constantly be playing the defensive. Specifically, I’m afraid of ceding ideological ground if we are willing to say that certain alternatives are just not possible. We’ve already seen the way that oppressive language and hate speech now seems to be a part of the way we engage in political discourse, is something that needs to be contended with and fought against rather than outright dismissed as unacceptable, and that has shifted what is considered possible in the way we talk about and to each other. I’m afraid of something similar happening in the way that we think about alternatives and solutions to injustice. I’m afraid that our goalposts for what is ‘progressive’ or even ‘radical’ is in danger of shifting, becoming limited. If the fight to protect the ACA is (somehow) won, and the law is maintained, do we celebrate that as a victory for progressivism even if the only ‘progress’ made is the lack of backwards movement? Now I hesitate to even write that last sentence because it feels dismissive of the tireless work that so many of my peers and friends are putting into this fight, and I don’t mean for it be taken that way. It just is important to me that we don’t lose our reference, our standards, for true progress would look like. That we don’t let our imagining of a just world be limited by the injustice that seems to be mounting around us.

Two other things that both embolden me and bolster me in this commitment. First is a reminder to myself that these struggles and these threats are not new (even if they are being newly realized by some who have not had to feel them before). And in the face of even more blatant violence and dehumanization than we are seeing there have been radical thinkers and doers who have held fast to alternatives and visions of a just world that likely seemed even farther out of reach than they do now (Grace Lee Boggs and Angela Davis are represent this for me but there are of course many others, and I would also love further recommendations of people to be reading and re-reading). The second thing, which I have seen in exploring the first, is that imagining truly radical alternatives in times of violence brings something else that I have found myself lacking recently: optimism, and hope. Holding onto positive alternatives allows me to imagine a world that embodies the values I want to hold, that supports the health and wellbeing of all, that repairs past injustice, that builds towards equitable freedoms and opportunities, that allows everyone to embody and celebrate their truest selves. It is perhaps the most optimistic thing I can do right now, to believe – despite current evidence to the contrary – that that world is still possible. I want to hold onto that belief. I need to hold onto that hope.

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