Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Theory and Gains of Excess, Expanded

There has been a long pause in my posts; life has interfered with my writing, as it tends to with the less disciplined of scribes. I will spare you the details and leave it to your collective imagination. Shall I jump right in and address the topic that has been my foremost preoccupation for the past many months, the area in which I've been organizing feminists in the trenches, building community, and protecting women from self-righteous bullies? I'll cease waxing grandiose and explain.

This post is a follow up to my theory of excess, at the request of exactly two readers (the masses!) who asked me to expound upon one passage in particular. The idea has now ripened in my head long enough to make an attempt, and my nearly year-long and seemingly never-ending, never-improving battle with religious extremists in my own neighborhood lends me what might be considered some kind of authority on the matter.

Now for the original quote and post in question. The original example, Abortion Barbie's purportedly successful filibuster, was a socially acceptable procedural strategy that - although the media labeled it successful - in fact, ultimately failed. Only the excessive actions on that particular evening arguably accomplished anything for women's rights and pro-choice activism. Using that example, I claim that gains are made on the margins of socially acceptable behavior, beyond the boundaries of hegemonic political activism, in a space I deem excessive, saying:

Gains are made at the point at which activism exceeds accepted and acceptable standards of procedure. Excess destabilizes the boundaries of patriarchy. Religious fundamentalists consistently attempt to expand and fortify patriarchy by challenging its (constitutionally-based and judicially-enforced) boundaries. Anti-capitalists must challenge those same boundaries in order to destabilize them and undermine patriarchy. I am not promoting constitutional lawsuits or an ALEC of the Left; I am suggesting a distinctly Leftist activism of excess.

Zone of Acceptable Practices

The fundamental idea of my theory of excess is that there is an understood zone of acceptable practices for any given political situation. This zone varies constantly. The boundaries of the zone differ with each issue, circumstance, and set of conditions. The end caps of the zone might not even be identifiable, and if they are identified in a specific instance, they will likely change when applied elsewhere. I suspect that attempts to identify the specific bookends of the acceptable zone of a particular issue is not essential to our understanding of the role of the zone and the theory of excess. The importance, for now, lies in the acknowledgement of the existence of an acceptable zone, not necessarily its exact borders.

One may wonder if there are no identifiable boundaries (or even if there are, they might not matter very much), how we are to determine which activities fall outside, or exceed, the zone. This is a question each activist, each comrade, each feminist, each anticapitalist must ask herself about a given set of circumstances. Perhaps we can approach ways to identify and mark the boundaries in a future post. For now, let's agree that the location of the boundaries doesn't matter as much as recognizing their existence. Now let me suggest that we all attempt to exceed these amorphous boundaries at every opportunity. 

To illustrate the zone of acceptable practices, let's take anti-choice activism. On one end of the acceptable zone (or point on the spectrum, circle, or however you envision it) there might be group discussion and prayer, volunteerism at anti-choice non-profit organizations, and soliciting elected officials to support anti-choice legislation. On the other end of the acceptable zone lies disruptive street preaching in high-traffic areas, displaying enormous gory photos of questionable veracity and unidentified origin on college campuses, and verbally abusing patients and clinicians entering abortion clinics.

Most people occasionally, or even routinely, encounter activism from the acceptable zone as they attend church, pass a clinic, or cross a campus. The general public is aware of and tacitly accepts the range of tactics in the acceptable zone (on "both sides" of a given issue, here abortion, which are fundamentally inevitably similar). They accept it as a matter of free speech, freedom of religion, freedom to peaceably assemble, someone else's business, and so on. Occasionally, they might participate on one end of the zone to adhere to cultural norms or appease their social circle. For example, they might happen to be in church when a prayer for murdered fetuses is said, or they might "like" a relative's anti-choice post on Facebook. However, they are ultimately disinterested in entering the fray; this aloof collective awareness in some ways determines and shapes the acceptable zone. 

Beyond the Zone, Into Excess 


Actions taken within the acceptable zone may or may not be effective, may or may not make a difference, may or may not "count." Roe v. Wade falls within the zone and made abortion more accessible for many women; the Hyde Amendment is also within the zone and denies many women access to abortion. Praying and picketing abortion clinics falls within the zone and happens regularly, yet patients and staff come and go and abortions are performed unhindered; religious conversion also falls within the zone and has undoubtedly caused unwanted pregnancies to be carried to term. I have not yet devised a reliable method of determining whether actions taken within the zone are consistently successful or not.

What happens outside of the zone, on the margins, beyond the boundaries, in the periphery, or however might describe a kind of uncharted no-man's-land of activity is vastly more interesting and has the potential to have far more impact. Sure, religious conversion may stop a medical student from becoming an abortion provider, but assassinating Dr. George Tiller gave many more potential providers pause. And while praying outside of an abortion clinic may bring the occasional patient to tears, mailing defamatory flyers to the neighbors of the OB/GYN and staff and informing their children's school teachers and administrators of the parents' profession causes high turnover, resulting in understaffed clinics, thereby lowering the number of potential abortion providers. Anti-choice activists have gained impressive ground by exceeding the limits of the acceptable zone and entering the land of excess. To protect women's right to safe, accessible, legal, affordable abortion care, the pro-choice movement must learn from these masters of excess and transcend the boundaries of the acceptable zone.

Since the fundamental justification for anti-choice activism is the religious belief that life begins at conception paired with a moral opposition to murder, then their primary motivation would seem to be to convert everyone to their belief system and secondarily to prevent these perceived murders. However, in practice at the clinics, they make no effort to convert anyone. In fact, only two of the usual ten or so weekly protestors at my community clinic will provide the name of their church when asked. Their collective prime concerns seem to be 1.) creating a spectacle to draw the public's attention to the clinic, "outing" it, in a way; 2.) shouting guilt-invoking insults at and intimidating staff and patients as they walk from the parking lot to the door; 3.) gathering information about the doctor's and clinic owner's personal lives in order to harass them in other spaces. They spend little to no time converting anyone or preventing conception. Their actions do not match their motivations; they exceed them. This makes me wonder why our actions simply meet our motivations. A woman needs an abortion, so we make sure she gets from her car to the door, we make sure Roe v. Wade doesn't fall (although it does not guarantee much in these days due to its basis in privacy rights), we make sure Planned Parenthood can give her a discount. The pro-choice position at present is well within the acceptable zone and matches our presumable motivations - safe and accessible abortion care.

Changing Our Demand: Back to Basics


After much thought, I now think access to safe, affordable abortion should is not a sufficient demand. Our primary demand must meet the extremity of their demand--that uninformed, selfish, myopic demand that no one have an abortion no matter what the circumstance. Our demand would preferably exceed their demand, as well as exceed our motivation. After weeks and weeks of reflection, I have tossed around several ideas, ranging from themed abortion trucks (like food trucks, but for abortion) to imposing strict restrictions in an attempt to criminalize childbirth, and time and again as I weigh potential pro-choice excess demands, a powerful and vivid memory returns to me.

During Occupy, it was nearly impossible to find a camp free of sexism, even free of sexual harassment and assault, and took a minor miracle to bring feminist concerns to the group's collective agenda. Women's caucuses popped up around the world in response to this. Those who know me know my role in Occupy Women of Tampa (I have written of transphobia and misogyny in Occupy several times; perhaps I will repost some of those pieces on BAMF someday). Progressive stack was developed to create a space for women's and people of color's voices to be heard over the booming anger of the young, white, able-bodied, hetero men who showed up in Guy Fawkes masks ranting about the New World Order.

Nevermind all of the things that went so terribly wrong in our beautiful historical moment. Something that went right stays with me to this day. There was a march planned through downtown Tampa. Some media representatives were in attendance. Members of the International Socialist Organization were in town from Gainesville and elsewhere to show solidarity with the Tampa camp. Freedom Road Socialist Organization members were also present. Trots and tankies marching shoulder to shoulder. It was an impressive gathering of people. Chants ranged from "Chop from the Top," to "End the War, Tax the Rich, That's How You Fix the Deficit" to "Whose streets? Our streets!" and so on. Someone would start a chant and others would catch on, suddenly several hundred people were speaking in one voice, demanding the same thing: a glorious tableau that many of my readers have surely experienced at some point in their activism.

The moment that continues to preoccupy me occurred about at the intersection of Ashley Drive and Kennedy (SR 60), when we turned onto Kennedy to cross the bridge over the Hillsborough River and approached University of Tampa. I started chanting "Free abortion on demand. Can we do it? Yes, we can!" And someone from ISO with a megaphone near me started chanting it. And then FRSO started chanting it. And then the liberals started chanting it. And then the libertarians, whose positions on abortion were generally uninformed at best and outright anti-choice at worst, began chanting it. It was a simple, classic, timeless demand. And everything was perfect at its core. We chanted it a few blocks, then faded into an anti-war chant.

Every time I attempt to formulate an excessive pro-choice position, my mind returns to that elegant and concise demand. It summarizes my particular brand of pro-choice activism. And I have, for now, decided that this demand is my new focus. Free abortion on demand. No questions. No bills. No picketers. No waiting. No shame. No danger. No guilt.

The political and cultural climate surrounding abortion (in the US) at present is so stymied in disingenuous rhetoric, so clouded by unspoken religious assumptions, so tainted by outdated gender roles, so stagnant with excuses, so muddied with partisanship, that it is easy to exceed the acceptable zone. Even suggesting that a woman have access to 24-hour free abortion is excessive. I am deeply hopeful that someday it will seem silly to consider free abortion on demand excessive, for it will be commonplace. Until then, let us rally.

In the spirit of this newfound clarity, I urge us to spend less time sign-waving, less time tracking anti-choice bullies, less time promoting toothless legislation, less time in meetings about "health care" that don't involve realistic, honest discussions about abortion, less time forming superior rhetorical strategies, less time signing petitions, less time campaigning and lobbying, less time making excuses and concessions ("Obviously, in the case of rape and incest abortion is okay, but..." and "I would never have one, but..."). Let's spend our time collecting money for those who need abortions. Let's present fiery, heartfelt speeches to potential medical schools about the desperate need for numerous quality abortion providers. Let's organize internships at clinics. Let's donate to free abortion funds. Let's approach OB/GYNs and ask them to become abortion providers. Let's donate to clinics to pay for an anonymous patient's abortion. Let's approach abortion doctors and ask them to perform free abortions. Let's reach out to communities and ask women how we can help them get free abortions on demand. 

Embrace the chant, fully understand it and all of its implications, then take action however and as often as you can. Free abortion on demand. Can we do it? Yes, we can.