Techniques for Resistance
by Meg Riley, senior minister, Church of the Larger Fellowship
There are many ways to resist. Some folks are in the streets or other strategic places, engaged in direct actions to shut down oppressive systems, and that kind of resistance is getting a lot of attention these days—for good reason!
But in the course of every day, everyone is resisting multiple things in multiple ways. Basically, any time someone wants us to do something we don’t really want to do, our (expressed or unexpressed) patterns of resistance emerge. Just as oppression is perpetuated through millions of acts of injustice, large and small, so resistance can take place at any scale.
Take, for instance, the baby I live with. He’s not yet into the full throes of tantrums that two-year-olds are famous for, such as yelling “NO!” and refusing to do what is asked. But if he doesn’t want his diaper changed he can corkscrew his body faster than an Olympic gold medalist so that I can barely get a fresh one fastened.
His older sister, on the other hand, is much more prone to passive resistance. When the eight-year-old’s mother says something like, “Time to set the table!” this child’s general response is to say “OK” and then to keep doing exactly what she is already doing—reading, for instance, or playing the piano. Often it takes two or three louder and louder demands from her mother to move her to whatever the new activity is. That’s passive resistance!
As I contemplate ways to resist injustice, I’m open to learning what I can from people of all ages and from other species—plants, insects, mammals. How do we manage to keep ourselves whole despite the intention of others that we bend to their way of being? I practice a wide variety of resistance forms myself.
Many of the ways that I resist are located in my social identities of privilege and presumed “harmlessness,” which I am keenly aware are not shared by all. Others will need to employ different methods. But here are ten ways that I practice resistance in a range of situations. Words in quotations are things I might say that are, if you look at them, all forms of resistance. (As the numbers get smaller, I am increasingly direct and more and more challenging authority.)
10. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.” I pretend not to have gotten a bill or email or voicemail I didn’t want to see. You can say this to someone’s face, too, if they say something you don’t like. Blinking helps.
9. “Is what you’re saying kind of like the War of 1812 / eggplant parmesan / lizards?” This one was well practiced in junior high—asking irrelevant questions to teachers who were occasionally delighted by our curiosity enough to forget about the planned quiz. Distraction can be resistance.
8. “Silly me; I just can’t figure out how to type / yodel / change tires.” Incompetence can take you a long way! My friend Pam worked at MacDonald’s, where she was instructed always to ask people if they wanted more. (If they ordered a burger, would they want fries? Etc.) She used the “Silly me” form of resistance very well. If someone said they wanted a burger, she’d say, “How about five?” If they wanted a happy meal, she’d say, “Why not feed your kid something more substantive? How about a super-sized meal?” Finally her boss told her to stop, believing that she was very, very thick-headed, when truly she was a genius.
7. “I’m super busy; can we talk about this next week / month / year?” Busy-ness is so normalized in our culture that this one can buy you a lot of time.
6. “That’s not making sense to me; can you explain it again?” This is a question to make someone line out, over and over, things that don’t make sense, until they (perhaps!) begin to realize themselves that what they are saying is nonsensical or irrational.
5. “What you’re saying has not been my experience / the experience of people I know. Would you like to know what I’ve observed?” This is a way to resist oppressive statements by other people without directly challenging them. Asking them to say yes or no to your question puts them into the hot seat and takes you out of it, at least for a minute. If they say no, they’ll need to admit they don’t want to know what you’ve observed.
4. “This doesn’t feel like a real conversation. You’ve said you don’t care about my experience, but you expect me to care about yours. Do you think only your experience is real?” Again, this shifts the onus onto them.
3. “You say that you care about X but when you do Y it feels like all you care about is Z.” This is a formula that can work with elected officials or other public figures about decisions they make which contradict their espoused values. Again, it hands them back the need to explain themselves.
2. “I won’t be spending my money / subscribing to this publication / using this platform / joining this group so long as you continue to XYZ.” Use this one with extreme caution—you can only have credibility doing this once! Make sure you have a new bank / news source / political organization that will work better for you before you dramatically leave.
1. “NO! HELL NO!” Full on stop-business-as-usual obstruction. There are times when it’s the best choice.
Good luck honing your own techniques for resistance. We need every one of them!