This post first appeared on the author’s blog Ballastexistenz and is reprinted by permission.
Your politics have a problem when they contradict the real-life experiences of the people they’re supposed to be about.
Your politics have an even bigger problem when the people they’re supposed to be about become afraid to describe our real-life experiences for fear of angering the echo chamber. And when we become afraid to describe our real-life experiences, that reinforces your idea that our real-life experiences don’t actually exist. Which reinforces the idea that you’re right. Which makes you feel even more justified in attacking anyone who happens to contradict you for any reason at all.
I hate this.
I hate it because I am afraid to say certain things about my life.
Because I don’t know if I have the strength to handle the consequences if I do.
Because I understand, I more than understand, why the echo chambers believe as they believe. I understand what’s at stake. I understand why it’s so easy to believe that contradiction is a threat to your life, because in some areas, it almost, sort of, can be.
And yet I also understand what’s at stake when all of us little people on the ground aren’t allowed to talk about our lives.
And there’s more at stake there than you think.
When we can’t have a conversation.
When we can’t bring our little packages of our truth from our lives to the table, and unwrap them together, and look at them, and learn from each other, without judgment.
Then something is dying, and something has died, and something is dead. And your entire echo chamber smells of rotting flesh.
But we are still alive.
And we still pass around our little packages to each other.
But instead of doing it in the full light of day, where everyone can see and benefit from it.
We do it furtively, at night. We look around, make sure nobody is looking, tiptoe to the neighbor’s house, sneak in through the back door so nobody sees us coming.
We send each other packages in the mail with no return address.
We write our stories in invisible ink. We write them in code.
You should know all about this. This is what it was like for all marginalized people, before your movements got started.
But now, instead of just hiding from the oppressors, we are hiding from your movements.
You might want to take a really good, long look at why that is.
I once took part in a disability studies group we called Disability Studies Prometheus. Because we were people traditionally left out of disability studies. We were cognitively disabled, or too sick to make it to class, or other things. We called ourselves Prometheus because he stole fire from the gods for the benefit of humanity. We were stealing the fire of knowledge from the mainstream disability studies programs that wouldn’t let us in — our IQs too low, our behavior too wild, our bodies too unreliable for the university setting. So we stole what we could from them, and we made the fire our own.
Don’t for a moment believe that this isn’t happening everywhere.
There are disabled people stealing fire from the mainstream disability communities. Trans and genderless people stealing fire from the mainstream trans communities. People of color stealing fire from the mainstream PoC communities. Poor and working-class people stealing fire from Marxist and other anti-classism echo chambers. LGB people stealing fire from the ivory towers that theorize about queerness all day. Women stealing fire from mainstream feminism in all its incarnations.
More than that, there are marginalized people stealing fire from the marginalized people who have gained power. And the ones stealing the fire don’t always stick to the communities we’ve been taught to stick to. So you have nondisabled trans women of color stealing fire and bringing it back to cis men with profound multiple developmental disabilities, and both of them learning to tell their stories together. And you have elderly gay white rich healthy men stealing fire and bringing it back to children of color living on cancer wards.
All around you, in the night, where you can’t see us.
We are all around you. We are carrying little packages around. Packages wrapped in plain, nondescript, brown paper.
Those little parcels will overturn the world. They will overturn everything you’ve ever worked for. And they will make it better.
Because each little package contains the story of one of us. And it is a story untainted by ideology. It is a story untainted by who you say we should be. It is a story that says who we are.
And our stories. Our stories as ourselves. Our stories without someone to look over our shoulder and tell us that it can’t be the way it actually was. That the way it actually was, will automatically hurt someone else.
And we put our stories together. Even if we have to do it in the dead of night. Even if we have to do it in code, whether low-tech ciphers or high-tech encryption. Even if we have to send it to each other anonymously, one by one.
We are cautiously, furtively, forming real communities. Communities that are about helping each other, not about tearing each other apart, or about finding new people to tear apart.
You can even join us… if you learn to resist your impulse to jump down people’s throats the moment we don’t comply with expectations.
But the bottom line is: We are out here. Nothing you can say or do will stop us from carrying around our little packages, handing them out to each other, reading them, discussing them. We are being. We are being joyously and cautiously, furtively and with abandon, but we are being. We are handing out manuscripts and poems, index cards with recipes on them. We hide them, we bury them, we slip them into our bras, into the back pockets of our briefcases and false drawers in our luggage.
And then we pull them out. And we show them to each other. And we read them. We read them understanding each person as an individual, without judgement except where absolutely necessary. And we find ways of making connections. We find ways of making communities. Not based on shared individual traits, so much as on a shared desire to understand and protect one another. Shared understanding, based on learning about each other. Even the parts of each other that would seem inconvenient at first glance. Even the parts of each other, perhaps especially those parts, where our stories seem to contradict. Because it’s those parts that show us where we most need to grow, and understand, and learn to see each other in new ways.
But we form communities because that is what people do, when we begin to understand each other in depth. To understand each other enough to care what happens to each other. And when we form those communities, we do so because we’ve learned so much about each other, on a deep enough level, that we can’t avoid caring about each other.
The most important part about communities formed in this way? They’re not about ideas. They’re about people. Every single community member counts, and every single community member is the reason that we have come together in the first place. Those packages we have exchanged are our stories as people, our experiences in the world, our lives. And everything that happens in these communities are based around that. Not around ideologies, not around constructing the perfect set of ideas. Not around making sure that everyone’s thoughts are pure and free from dissent. But around making sure that each human being is valued to the fullest extent possible. Even if our stories seem to contradict each other. Even if our stories seem to contradict the ideologies we remember from before.
This is another way to do things. This is already happening, right in front of you. I am doing this. My friends are doing this. We are doing these things because we are being harmed so much by ideologies, that there has to be another way, there has to be a way that we can change the world and survive doing it without selling our souls. So if this seems like a far-off utopian dream, know that it is happening all around you. It’s happening offline, it’s happening online, it’s happening right under your feet. I’m doing it right here, right now.[Headline image: The photograph shows a light-skinned person with brown eyes and black hair. The person is in profile and looks pensive. Brown apartment buildings are visible to the left.]
Mel Baggs is a disabled writer and artist.