Limited and restrictive view of resistance

Given that society tends to value the big and the grand, the types of action that get viewed as constituting resistance are often ‘contaminated by spurious notions of heroism’ (Brown, 1994, p. 26) and focused on moments of collective protest. Such a view of resistance neglects:

  • • the ways people always resist oppression
  • • the ways we all struggle with contradictory positions and ways of responding to oppression that can coexist
  • • the back and forward movement towards liberation that is forever shifting and changing
  • • the place of our relationships and social circumstances in supporting or constraining movements in our preferred direction
  • • the possibility of being both oppressor and oppressed.36

If we focus purely on periods when overt protest and organised struggle directly challenge domination, we reinforce a view of resistance that is narrow. We assume that domination enjoys an unchallenged life until moments of societal upheaval. We also assume that the cultural practices and identities of the dominated remain firmly grounded in a terrain mapped by the dominant. Stage models of liberation are in danger of implying that movement towards liberation is linear, rather than what seems to be the case - that people often move in and out of positions, or occupy more than one position at once.37 There is a danger that liberation theology leads us to focus on overt forms of resistance as more sophisticated than covert forms, which ignores the creativity of everyday acts of resistance. Gail Valaskakis argues that for first national people ‘resistance is cultural persistence . . . continually negotiated in the discourse and practice of everyday life’ (1993, p. 293).

As well as examples of overt resistance such as the Ndebele and Shona risings against Rhodesian imperialists and colonialists in 1896 (Ranger, 1986, p. 32), Paul E. Lovejoy charts untold stories of everyday acts of resistance among people classed as slaves in Sokoto Caliphate. This was the largest state in nineteenth-century West Africa, where slaves undermined the wealth and authority of their ‘masters’ through escape. This absolute loss of ‘property’ meant that even if captured their worth was reduced as a result of having been fugitives. This is in contrast to more ‘dramatic examples of slave revolts and sabotages’ (Lovejoy, 1986, p. 72). Although escaping slavery was ultimately about freedom from cruelty and bondage, the idea of human beings as ‘property’ was so fundamental to slavery that a by-product of escaping meant using ‘their chattel state as weapons against their masters’ (Lovejoy, 1986, p. 71). Resistance in whatever form reduced the worth of slaves to their ‘master’, so slaves worked more slowly than their ‘masters’ wanted, feigned illness, ‘misunderstood’ directions, stole crops and other valuables, burnt fields, broke equipment, and so on. As Lovejoy (1986) argued, ‘by manipulating their value as commodities, slaves invariably asserted their identity as human beings, even if they suffered as a consequence’ (p. 73). This resistance was viewed as a psychiatric illness by White slave owners and psychiatrists, who labelled the incongruent desire for ‘non-humans’ to be viewed and treated as humans as drapetomania.38 Similarly, dysaesthesia aethiopis was a psychiatric diagnosis given to slaves who ‘break, waste and destroy everything they handle . . . raise disturbances with their overseers’ and generally refuse to work (Cartwright, 1851, p. 321). Craton (1986) argued that ‘resistance has always been far more common than usually described . . . anything other than resistance is scarcely history at all’ (p. 96). Resistance is often not organised, collective and overt, but localised as a response to everyday conditions of living where domination and oppression can have their greatest influence.

A limited view of resistance limits our view of social action. It is important to develop broader definitions of social action because narrow definitions can themselves serve to alienate and marginalise people who do not see overt forms of political protest as anything to do with their everyday lives. Martin-Baro (1996) dismissed the definition of ‘political’ as ‘to do with the functioning of the state and its various branches’ as too narrow (p. 53). He concluded that ‘behaviour is political when it plays a role in the social confrontation of class and group interests’ (p. 55). This opens up a variety of possibilities for taking action in the interpersonal, family, local community, government, and other spheres of society. It would therefore be incomplete to view a lack of overt public activism as a sign of passive resignation, satisfaction or insufficient dissatisfaction with the status quo. Social activism is obviously important and yet it is only one of many manifestations of resistance.

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