When I was in college, one of my classmates was in the US on a student visa, and he was concerned about jeopardising his status, so he didn’t want to attend protests and politicised events. Thus when everyone was organising and talking about going to the latest thing, he felt sort of left out, set aside, marginalised because he couldn’t go, and people would always raise their eyebrows and judge him over it. Some laughed off his fears, saying it wasn’t that likely he’d get in trouble here, while others implied that if he was really committed, he should be willing to put his immigration status on the line.
We were talking about this one day, and perhaps because I was the only person who wasn’t a dick about this, he asked me, shyly, if I’d mind carrying something to the next anti-war protest for him — ‘so I can be there in spirit,’ he explained, and thus it was that I ended up with a handkerchief tucked into my pocket on the day of a massive protest in San Francisco. It might have been a symbolic gesture but it was important to him, and it’s one reason why I’ve long made a habit of showing up for those who can’t.
I’m not going to speak for them, unless they give me statements to read or request that I advocate for their interests, and in those cases, I take that responsibility and trust very seriously. But I do show up at government meetings for them, whether they can’t go because they’re sick or traveling or have some other reason why attending isn’t an option for them. And I show up at other meetings and events for them, sometimes reporting back to them, sometimes adding my presence to the numbers at an event I might, honestly, not have attended on my own.
There are a lot of people, for a variety of reasons, who can’t engage in acts of protest large and small, ranging from advocacy to direct action that might get them arrested. And there’s a culture of shaming that surrounds them, with people implying that they don’t care enough or should get over whatever the block is or should be willing to budget time and energy to political activity — you know, because the only thing at stake is the fate of the free world, and all. I don’t know if people genuinely believe that haranguing those of us who aren’t able to engage is somehow going to have a meaningful effect, or if they just derive pleasure from it, or what the deal is, but it’s very tiresome.
When people tell me they can’t do something, I don’t challenge them on it. If they wanted me to know the reasons why, they’d tell me. Saying ‘I can’t do that’ is fine. Saying you don’t want to do it is also fine. Everyone has varying ability levels in different settings, and varying degrees of energy. I’m happy to assess my own and determine what’s feasible for me, and that’s quite enough. I really don’t need to get on other people’s cases for failing to be involved to my exact specifications, though I also try to provide guidance on getting involved effectively and efficiently, because I hate to think of people wasting their energy on things that don’t work.
I assume that if the ‘can’t do’ is the result of a surmountable obstacle — ‘I can’t do that without a ride’ or ‘I can’t do that unless we can leave early’ — people will tell me that, and ask for help to figure out a good solution to the situation. I try to be proactive when it comes to thinking about these obstacles so that people don’t have to feel awkward about asking — ‘I’m going to the city council meeting this week, do you want me to pick you up from work? I can bring a snack for you.’
But sometimes people just can’t. And that is okay. And we need to build a structure where that is okay because we are all pulling together, and it’s easy to step in for those who can’t. If someone was traveling for work and unable to attend a town hall, you wouldn’t fault them for it, right? So why would you fault someone who has complicated schedule obligations that make it logistically impossible? Why would you fault someone with a chronic illness who is too fatigued to go? Why would you fault someone who has anxiety and can’t cope well with a large crowd? These and many others are totally valid reasons to pass on an event and your opinion about them isn’t really relevant.
If you invite someone to engage in an action and their answer is ‘no,’ don’t press them on it. If they say ‘I can’t,’ don’t back them into a corner. If they say ‘I can’t because…’ reach across the divide and explore a solution. Maybe they need a little help. Or maybe the answer is ‘I totally understand, it’s really difficult to get affordable childcare — I’ll totally bring that up at the town hall. If you’re really interested in going sometime, let me know and I’d be happy to watch the kids for a few hours.’
Going for those who can’t is an act of service. And someday, someone may be going for you.
Image: Interesting use of Braille, RNIB, Flickr