How We Decide

By Terri Fredlund

In Sinister Wisdom #48 Winter 1992/93

In order to effectively oppose oppression, we need to know which of our actions are resistance, which serve to strengthen ourselves internally, and which are symptoms of being caught up in petty bullshit. It’s not always easy to tell the difference.

What do we and don’t we consider to be resistance? How widely and how narrowly should we define it?

Is being a lesbian in and of itself resistance?

Is remembering and describing our victimization resistance?

Is taking revenge resistance?

Is envisioning using magic that we don’t possess resistance?

Is not giving in to self-destructive behavior resistance? Is self-destructive behavior resistance?

Is recycling resistance?

Some of these could be considered internal resistance, or building the necessary foundation of strength for a more direct, immediate outer resistance.

Are only nonviolent actions, which incorporate the desired goal in its means, resistance? For example, planting a military tank with flowers to render it useless rather than putting sugar in the gas tank, as was debated in 1983 at the planning meeting for the German Wimmin’s Resistance Camp.*

To what extent is it helpful to explore the politics of theoretical actions? Reality often presents a different set of variables. The German Resistance Camp wimmin never got close enough to a tank to do anything to it, but did occupy a crane and succeed in halting military construction for an entire day.

If oppression is achieved through violence, is all violence oppression? Can violent acts be resistance? Is the violence of the oppressed different from that of the oppressors? Who has the right to violence in patriarchy? Does a womon have a right to defend herself if she’s attacked by a rapist? Does a group of people have a right to riot if they are being continuously attacked by armed racists? Will oppressive conditions ever change if the oppressed never use violence? Who is responsible if the oppressors escalate the violence?

If one of the oppressors’ strategies is criminalizing and incarcerating resistors, is not getting caught resistance? Are only secret acts of sabotage resistance?

Is withdrawing our support from the system resistance? Is disregarding the rules of the oppressors resistance? If so, is stealing resistance? Is whether or not we break the law a measure of the strength of our resistance?

Is becoming ourselves resistance? Is creating our own spaces, so we can become ourselves, resistance? Is setting them up so we are safe and at ease resistance? Is setting them up in a way that excludes less privileged wimmin so we can maintain our own comfort level resistance? For example, wimmin’s music festivals which, after all these years, are still not adequately accessible to disabled workers and festival goers.

Is an internal process, in and of itself, resistance? Are external actions, alone, resistance? Is it resistance when we’re just following instincts? Or is resistance only an internal process combined with external actions?

Is it possible to find a definition of resistance we can all agree upon, such as: "An individual or collective act of courage, strength and integrity in response to violence, threat of harm, wrongdoing or untruth"?

Does even the best general definition inappropriately include or exclude some cases? Rather than attempt a definition, perhaps it’s more useful to consider context, as in: resistance to what? To oppression (of course!). Namely a system of unjust distribution of resources, opportunities, privileges, recognition; and the oppressive acts that hold it in place: manipulation, intimidation, lies of omission, fabrications, hatred, disrespect, invalidation of our reality, supremist belief systems, and violence. Violence, or the threat of violence, is the means through which all oppression is achieved and maintained. These acts are committed by individuals with names and addresses, and by the institutions these people are a part of.

One might think that the more an individual has been oppressed, the more she would understand about oppression, and the more she would be able to resist and form alliances. But ironically, the effects of being oppressed also help create the conditions for continuing oppression. Namely, fear of the consequences of being our best selves; fear to act; self hatred; mistrust of our own perceptions, talents and strengths; identification and agreement with the oppressors.

Consequently, we find ourselves not only fighting the systems and institutions of oppression (such as corporations or the school system) and their acts of violence and injustice, we also find ourselves fighting our own unconscious internalization and perpetuation of oppression.

These three spheres–oppressive systems or institutions; specific oppressive acts; internalized oppression–provide the context for our resistance and our examination of it. The issues involved are interrelated and overlap in infinite variety. For example: fighting invalidation of my reality while someone is calling me on my ableism is not resistance, though it may feel like it at the time. Can we agree that not everything that feels like resistance is resistance?

It’s not always easy to distinguish between resistance and complicity. For example: If the patriarchy keeps us hooked through our need for money to survive, is it resistance to become as self-sufficient as possible, even if we are impoverished? Is living this way resistance, knowing that one of the main ways patriarchy keeps women down is through poverty?

Is it resistance to be in the system in order to extract the money we need to create change? Is it resistance to work within the system because we can’t wait for the revolution?

Is running a wimmin’s press in order to not be silenced, resistance? Even if the press buys and uses a computer which was manufactured in bad working conditions by poorly paid wimmin in Asia, whose health is ruined by age 25?

Almost all of us are oppressed or oppressor at different times. What happens when privilege and oppression overlap? The phrase "unlearning oppression" is easily embraced, easily adopted as a goal by lesbians with good intentions. More difficult is the task of distinguishing between individual personality traits and learned oppressive behavior.

This task is a major challenge we face in our work, yet we have little to guide us. The phrase, "If it feels oppressive, it is oppressive," isn’t always reliable. Recall for instance the ever-recurring cries of "reverse discrimination," Recall that many batterers really feel that they are defending themselves. As Estelle Crone once said, "You can feel threatened without actually being in any danger." At the same time, as Monifa Ajanaku points out, many things lesbians do or don’t do, say, or remain silent about, have actual negative effects on other lesbians.

Our emotional well being is necessary in developing to our full potential, both as individuals and as a community. We also need emotional honesty and clarity. How can we maintain a balance between being accountable to other lesbians, and not being manipulated by lesbians for whom the feeling of being victimized is really a vehicle for something else? How can we express our feelings without being hurtful or manipulative? In evaluating feelings, how can we balance openness and compassion with wariness? We need to be able to tell the difference between political issues and our emotional responses, and not confuse the two. We need to avoid taking our old hurt and frustrations out on one another. We are a movement, a community of wimmin who have been wounded, some much more severely than others. We have suffered pain and damage for which we are not responsible, but we are responsible for our own healing, and for supporting each other in healing. How can we resolve conflicts of needs in ways that are fair to all involved? Coming from backgrounds that differ in culture and privilege, how can each of us become worthy of the respect, trust and understanding of other lesbians?

Individuals and groups will each have their own criteria for determining political validity; how can we coordinate our efforts and priorities? What is the right mix of collective and individual resistance? What really matters?

What matters is to educate and challenge ourselves to live by increasingly inclusive politics. By inclusive, I mean not only of as many different kinds of wimmin as there are, but also of the different conditions and nuances that affect wimmin’s lives and politics.

Wimmin with differing life choices and experiences can hold different, but equally valid, political views. It is presumptuous and misogynist to think that we know what is best for other lesbians and have the right to enforce it. Besides legitimizing policing, this attitude, by extension, also calls into question our own ability to think for ourselves.

We need to realize that it is a dyke’s actions, rather than her identity, which can harm other dykes. White lesbians can be ignorant, or committed to anti-racism. A class privileged dyke can use her privilege and resources to increase access for poorer dykes or she can be self-centered and arrogant. A lesbian raising a son can respect wimmin only space and separatists’ choice not to give any energy to males, or she can insist on trying to include him in every sphere of lesbian culture. A hearing lesbian can ignore deaf lesbians or can make the effort to learn ASL. An SM dyke can have respectful behavior toward all lesbians or she can be disrespectful and abusive. So can dyke separatists, so can festival organizers, so can we all.

What matters is to learn each other’s stories and understand, rather than label each other. A lesbian who has made even serious mistakes in the past can have changed and deserves respect, if her present actions are respectful. Good community depends on our being open and compassionate not only when it’s easy and convenient but also when we disagree.

What matters is not to exclude each other through our carelessness or rigidity. There is enough dyke energy to respect and include each other in ways that can work for all involved. It’s not only possible, but absolutely necessary. Otherwise, we will isolate ourselves from one another to the point that we can’t even sit together in the same room at an event, much less sustain a community or any viable movement for change.

What matters is having integrity and inspiring each other.

What matters is that our resistance include more than our individual personal development.

What matters is to persist in the extremely exacting task of resisting in the face of the overwhelming forces that try to keep us down.

What makes it possible for us to resist and keep resisting?

1. The ability to overcome fear. There is much we fear. We are afraid of violence, of ridicule, of lack of money, of not being able to survive. We are afraid of incarceration, of rejection by our peers and family. We are afraid of losing our sanity.

We overcome fear by demystifying and learning to deal with what we are afraid of. For wimmin learning self-defense, this means coming to recognize the dynamics of threatening, manipulative situations, as well as learning simple, powerful, physical techniques. For wimmin doing an illegal political action, it means learning how to respond to police, realizing that we can be strong and continue political resistance in court and in jail.

2. Success. Taking risks and succeeding gives us self-esteem, confidence, the strength and incentive to keep trying. It can be speaking up at a meeting and being listened to. It can be telling an obnoxious and exceedingly tenacious man who is holding one’s arm to let go, punching him in the nose when he doesn’t, and experiencing the satisfaction of watching him walk away bleeding and whimpering, as did a disabled student from one of my self-defense classes. It can be successfully blockading, and speaking to every employee of, a nuclear power plant. It can be going to court and winning an anti-discrimination law suit.

There’s nothing like success.

3. Support. Support gives us the strength to take new risks and gives us validation for our experiences, feelings and thoughts. It helps us utilize our collective strengths, intelligence and creativity, as well as helping us deal with hard times and failures. It also helps develop trust between us.

We can each be individually strong at different times. But mutual support allows the strength of our resistance, and the quality of our lives, to become more than the sum of our individual efforts. Our willingness to truly be there for sisters in need is a measure of the quality of our community.

4. Desperation. Desperation, as in: We’ve got nothing to lose. Desperation, as in: We just can’t or won’t take it any more. Desperation, as in: Nothing’s changing and we’ve just got to do something. Desperation doesn’t care about the consequences. It might sound negative at first, but on second thought, acts of desperation are often fearless or done regardless of fear. This, combined with a reservoir of justified anger, gives these acts their power.

One day, my friend put her fist under her incestor’s chin and said, "If you ever touch me again, I’ll beat the shit out of you." (He never did.)

Sometimes, acts of desperation can lead us to break oppressive rules, allowing us, for example, to scam the government or corporations for survival, rather than continuing to be "wage-earners" at jobs that threaten our health.

Acts of desperation can be spontaneous, such as breaking a police ribbon in order to drive a disabled friend to her destination. They can have explosive energy, as in finally telling off a jerk boss and quitting. An act of desperation can be very empowering. Though acts of desperation aren’t always well-thought-out, they can be the start of breaking a cycle of fear, submissiveness and despair.

5. Choosing our battles. By evaluating the risks and our chances, before acting, we can cut our losses as well as keeping the costs of resistance within the limits of our ability to cope.

If we want to be able to continue to resist, what should our priorities be?

The answer, of course, is, "It depends on the form of oppression and on the individual variables affecting the one who is resisting." Each of us can decide for herself, in accountability to others. How do we deal with all of us making different choices? It doesn’t matter. As long as we act out of integrity and mutual respect.

You decide.


*The purposes of this camp were to resist the stationing of Cruise missiles specifically, and patriarchy in all its forms, as well as to work toward creating new ways of living.

Special thanks to Jasmine Marah and Dolphin aka Julia Trahan for invaluable editorial assistance.