Your Colleague

I write to you today not as a researcher, but as a colleague and friend. I am writing anonymously, because what I have to say is squarely political. My expertise offers no special insight into the subject, and my words could easily come back to haunt me in the right circumstances. My current post is outside the tenure system, and I am more or less institutionally alone as a kind of pet STS scholar in a sea of positivists. Being “political,” or worse, “feminist,” comes at a particularly high cost here. In a larger sense, that’s the very problem I want to talk about. What does it look like to act politically from wherever we sit, in the times we’ve been given, being realistic about the costs we pay? As you’ll see, I’m still learning how to do that. I’m not that brave yet, but I’m working on it.

When Louisiana joined the wave of abortion bans passed in the early summer, it hit me as most things do these days—with exhaustion.  So there it is, I thought. We knew this would happen. In any year other than 2019, a near total abortion ban would be shocking and galvanizing. Two years into a political climate ruled by base cruelty and abject dehumanization, and it’s hard to get riled up. I felt a bit of relief that at least a small handful of Hollywood actors had decided to move filming elsewhere in response. Surely a fuller boycott would eventually ensue, right? Surely sane people would assert unequivocally that this is not normal, right? Right.

In a recent Nation article, Katha Pollitt asks, “it’s 2019, where have all the protesters gone?”. She argues that much of the energy that we poured into the 2017 Women’s March has thankfully gone into more robust progressive organizing, but at a street level, we haven’t exactly kept up the pressure. “Resist” stickers seem to outnumber large scale acts of resistance, at least in my town. So what happened? Maybe Trump just wore us out. We spend our time reeling, because any decent person can’t help but reel from the shock of constant assaults on basic human rights. It’s plain as day that “never again” is now, regardless of which crisis you are most worried about. And yet, while our permission structures that support resistance are perhaps the strongest they’ve been in a long time, they’re still not strong enough. It takes time to unlearn the lessons of quiet atomization that neoliberalism taught many of us.  Amid climate grief, children’s internment camps, open and violent displays of racism, permanent war, and whatever else comes our way next week, it’s a minor miracle we’re not all completely frozen from despair. Naomi Klein would remind us that this is all part of the shock doctrine, a deliberate strategy to make it so that the public’s energies can only go into steadying itself, rather than challenging any one agenda effectively.

So, when faced with the choice of whether or not to visit an abortion ban state, I’ve chosen not to.  It’s not a choice I made lightly. I know that one person’s decision has little to no political effect. Worse: the privileging of individual action over collective action is a notoriously effective strategy for taming social movements and making them ineffective. While there’s no wisdom in playing into that, those mass boycotts didn’t materialize in time for me to join either, which meant I found myself back to disoriented spinning. I also know that even if 4S as a whole wanted to lead a boycott by moving the conference, that would most likely mean full-scale financial suicide (note to future organizers: be picky about your hotel terms and conditions). These considerations perhaps miss the biggest problem of all, which is that it is not even obvious that boycotting abortion ban states is the best tool altogether. Local reproductive rights organizations haven’t called for one to my knowledge, and I applaud the 4S organizers for opening up paths of communication with those groups, and taking their lead. What really matters here is not the views of some conference-goer choosing where to fly, but the desires of those most directly affected, who have a right to live unharmed in the places they call home. Those groups deserve our full support, obviously including mine.

Why stay away, then? The truth is that while it isn’t strategically smart in the least, I’ve got to live with me longer than anyone else does. The abortion bans hit particularly close to home.  The idea that a person would be forced into bearing children against their will, in all cases but especially in cases of rape and incest, sends such shivers down my spine that the problem is no longer political or philosophical. It’s bodily. In pure disgust, my survival instincts kick in. The only thing I can manage to do is to assert absolute dominion over where I, and my uterus, will be. I still have some agency left. That means I can remove myself from being subject to such odious and illegitimate jurisdiction, and lay claim over how my body is governed. It’s a rejection of others’ attempts to control my body with my body. I do this because I need to believe at a fundamental level that it is not normal to strip people of basic autonomy over their own bodies. That belief is a necessary precondition for me to continue existing in this world at all, and staying at home makes it possible to maintain it, even if as a life-sustaining fiction.  I wish I could claim that this were a bold act of intersectional, cross-region, and cross-class solidarity, but it’s not. It’s a boring act of self-preservation from a person whose bodily integrity has been threatened too many times before. It is the “no” that is available to me now, and I am taking it.

Strangely, the situation has clarified for me the difference between caring about something and discovering where your red line is. As an STS scholar, I know full well there is no purity to be had in the world. I can only imagine what scholars from abroad must contemplate as they debate whether to travel to the US. Those who are serious about the climate crisis pay a professional cost for refusing to fly, and yet still somehow work out how to live in a world that makes sustainability impossible to fully “choose.” Indeed, I question why it was an abortion ban, and not the impending extinction of entire ecosystems to which I would be contributing, that forced the issue of not getting on that plane for me. Even having these dilemmas is itself a privilege, as younger or more precarious scholars have to think about that job that could be on the line, which for some makes not coming to a conference unthinkable. Regardless of one’s situation, it is impossible to not be complicit in something terrible on a daily basis, because complete, full-scale opting out isn’t an option. The deck is stacked so that we cannot be the people we like to imagine we are. None of it is okay. It’s all a drip, drip, drip from our already drained collective psyche.  Still, most of us have a red line somewhere. In these horrific times, if yours hasn’t been crossed yet, it will soon.

I suppose, then, what I’m really doing is trying to hold on to the sense that none of this is normal. That requires saying no in public, which, as I said, I’m still learning to how do. Still, I hope that sharing my reasoning has some value, even if indirectly. I trust that the 4S organizers will facilitate ways for conference participants to channel their energies productively in solidarity with the people most directly affected.  In the meantime, I share my private dilemmas in hopes of making refusal seem a bit more commonplace. When we see other people respecting their own red lines, “no” becomes a more routine reflex. It’s not a strong reflex for those of us who were taught to be that good student, appropriately but unthreateningly ambitious, who quietly accept the demands placed on them. “No” deserves some exercise. When “no” is routine and second nature, our reserves are strengthened and we can countenance larger, shared action. I suspect we’ll be needing those reserves in the days to come.