Posted on behalf of Abbie Goldberg, Video Coordinator for the North Shore Team
“We’re here to fight the good fight and combat climate change one battle at a time”. This isn’t something I’ve said, not exactly, but I can imagine myself saying it or any of my friends saying something like this in anything from a speech at a rally to a 30 second pitch for climate action at a farmer’s market. It’s snappy, and inspirational, if empty and it sounds like strong commitment to power and action. Lately though I’ve been thinking about the language I use and how it relates to my values and ideas. My vision of a better world doesn’t stop at no fossil fuels, but also includes a structural and cultural shift towards a world that respects all life and works to find understanding and common ground. That means a lot of things, way too many to go into now, but one piece is not resorting to violence to solve conflicts. As such, using militaristic words like “fight”, “combat” and “battle” doesn’t seem to be in line with my values. I would also like to acknowledge that I come to this movement privileged enough to not have to be here for my own immediate survival which is not the case for everyone. In other situations these words may make a lot of sense or be used with specific intention. This entry is about only my experiences, and not-yet-sorted-out thoughts on my personal use of violent language.
Calling something like the Salem Gas Plant a “battle” or a “fight” feels powerful and strong. War is sexy. It’s about glory, power, and strength. Not to mention there’s a certain legitimacy to the word fight that any substitute words I can think of just don’t hold. But where did that legitimacy come from and do I really want to be affirming that legitimacy? When I operate within the systems already in place, in the “territory” (to use a vaguely combative sounding word) of all I’m against, I think it limits my vision to stay within this preexisting structure. I take the story that’s been given to me and then end up fighting it on someone else’s terms rather than writing a new story.
Often times it’s just practical to use this sort of language. It’s obvious and I don’t even know the alternatives. For instance, the English language has no word for nonviolence, that is to say an active commitment to a lifestyle of transformative acts of empathy rather than simply the passive absence of violence. The word itself puts the act in the context of violence. I don’t even really know how to talk about what I mean when I say things like grounding myself in love or solidarity. Words fail when I try to express my thoughts about bold nonviolence or the power of art and music. One of the reasons we need art and music is to create a language for the margins and experiences outside of dominant ideas, but in the day to day, I struggle to speak with clarity without sounding idealistic, “hippie dippy” or just plain naïve.
Beyond that there’s something weirdly intuitive about using militaristic language. Even though I know I don’t agree with violence I still think “yeah, but calling it anything besides “battle” else wouldn’t really do justice”. Which is ridiculous. Because in actuality, I think using the word “battle” doesn’t do these struggles justice. The Salem Gas plant is a complicated issue around a thriving and beautiful community with a history of resistance. It is people coming together, building power and standing strong even when the issues around natural gas can be complicated even to people who consider themselves climate activists or environmentalists. This is not about two sides trying to destroy each other; it’s recognizing the underlying values we all share of health, safety and happiness and from that engaging with the process of building the future we need to see. How could the word “battle” do justice to something so layered and intentional and complicated and beautiful?
And on some level it might not really matter what individual words I’m using. Not to mention it’s just really, really hard sometimes to think of alternatives that hold the same amount of resolve and oomph. At the same time, I want to be intentional in my messages and visionary of a world with a paradigm of mutuality and understanding. I think using the framework of militaristic language can limit my ability to be truly visionary of what that future might look like and maybe even perpetuate a culture of antagonism. I don’t know what the alternative is any more than I know all the alternatives to the economic and social structures that have led to so much oppression, but I wonder if there’s a way to liberate language from the dominant paradigm and in doing so work to embody the vision of a better future.