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Comrades: A complicated love story
Notes on solidarity, heartbreak and repair within activist spaces.
The photos in this essay are of some of the people who’ve taught me what solidarity can look like, and whom I consider to be my comrades in the deepest, most abiding sense. I love them all so.
‘Solidarity’ is perhaps one of the most frequently invoked ideas on the Left, and has been increasingly articulated within progressive quarters of Singapore civil society in recent years. As with most political ideas or rallying calls, it is assigned varying meanings by people within and outside of social movements. There are many nuances to how and when different actors invoke ‘solidarity’. When we call for solidarity, say we stand/act in solidarity, or decry an individual/group’s lack of solidarity, different assumptions and expectations inflect our expressions.
I spent a lot of 2022 thinking about the possibility and energy, as well as the weight, tensions and fractures that the word can evoke within progressive movement-building work in Singapore. As the anti-death penalty movement took off last year, I was moved and greatly encouraged by the tremendous amount of care, kinship and courageous support that people on death row, their loved ones, and anti-death penalty activists received (both online and offline) from many members of the public, artists, civil society organisations, community groups and independent media platforms. As someone who has been lucky to have witnessed much of this up-close, and who has learnt from and grown with different quarters of civil society for over a decade now, I have experienced that solidarity is expressed in many forms, all precious.
Social media is certainly a powerful way to express support and make the growing groundswell of dissent against state violence visible. This is especially so when mainstream media continues to betray the people. For the same reasons, public-facing support of different kinds is crucial. People have organised online petitions, letter-writing efforts, vigils, done their own research and political writing on the urgency for abolition, created music, published poetry – it is all incredible.
Some people and organisations have offered solidarity in less visible but equally valuable and material ways. Some have quietly contributed funds at crucial times, some have reached out privately to provide care and friendship to organisers, some have opened up their homes, some have organised drinking sessions for us to let off steam, some have held us tenderly while we’ve cried and ranted, some have silently and steadily offered their time and skills to the movement, some have been patient and infinitely understanding while we’ve dropped the ball on other projects, some have held steady and continued to work on other equally important struggles.
At certain junctures last year, I noticed anger, disappointment and criticism directed at peers in civil society who were perceived by some to have failed in publicly demonstrating solidarity with the anti-death penalty cause. A similar anger also surfaced when some groups were accused of failing to speak up on racism within LGBT communities. Certain people received flak online for discussing or advocating for other issues at a time when executions were taking place, others were condemned for not using their social media platforms to support specific causes. Sometimes, if people in civil society circles didn’t re-share certain posts or petitions, they received messages accusing them of not caring enough. This concerned me because I knew many of these people to be deeply caring, and have witnessed them perform valuable acts of solidarity, though these acts were not displayed on social media.
Since, I have continued to see similar responses expressed in different contexts within civil society. For example, when people have different ideas on how to respond to conflict or harm within certain spaces, or when peers in civil society who may have similar values disagree on certain strategies or specific actions/language, when they centre different priorities from that of another group, or when the specific ways in which someone demands that ‘solidarity’ is demonstrated with them are not fulfilled by those it is demanded from, these responses can surface.
I see cynical accusations of hypocrisy and betrayal that are circulated privately, semi-publicly or publicly. These tendencies then coalesce around a potent narrative that people/groups who espouse certain values publicly or have received attention for their political work in certain circles are, in actuality, frauds or hypocrites who have betrayed their peers/their own commitments because in one or more instances, they arrived at a different perspective on a particular matter, or didn’t do exactly what was asked of them by others in specific situations.
Such a narrative is often accompanied by expressions of how such betrayal is expected, or unsurprising, signalling a worldview in which most people who prominently express commitments to progressive values and aspirations – and are engaged in building organisations/movements premised on such values – are inherently suspect. Often, without direct discussions or attempts to make clarifications with these groups/individuals on how and why they arrived at certain decisions, ties are cut off, and the work they do is declared tainted and denounced.
Disapproval for them can also extend to withdrawing support from any good work they do. And in its most organised form, this tendency leads to concerted campaigns to turn supporters or members of these individuals and groups against them, with inflated and distorted claims about their actions or character.
It is not that I believe it is never the case that people are, in fact, hypocritical or that they don’t, in fact, fail to enact the values they espouse. This can be incredibly disappointing and hurtful to the people who trust them to do so. But sometimes, I am worried that such a characterisation or conclusion is too quickly projected onto people in situations that may in truth be far more complex and nuanced. Anxieties, tropes and mistrust/bad faith interpretations can cloud how we make sense of a situation, and these narratives can become self-fulfilling prophecies.
First, I must say that this sort of anger – and shades of this cynicism – is familiar to me. I would be lying if I said that, as someone who has often chosen paths in my political work that have been shunned, derided and under-supported even by many quarters of civil society, I have not felt this pain. I have certainly desired more solidarity from peers at many points, and have felt hurt and discouraged when there’s been silence, when my peers have looked away from devastating violence and injustices, when they have scorned earnest efforts, or when they have sided with power rather than standing by me, or with communities on the margins.
From this position, and after having examined and worked through much of this pain (it is an ongoing process), and questioning what solidarity means to me (this has shifted so many times over the years), I have arrived at some reflections that I feel moved to share. I am not prescribing that everyone must adopt these views (though I must admit, my style of writing tends to be declarative). I am not rejecting anger and frustration at apathy, inaction or harmful behaviour – it is something I feel in my bones daily. I don’t seek to police expressions of this anger either. I share these thoughts with affection and hope that some of these reflections could be folded into a movement that is awakening to its own power. I share this mostly as a reminder to myself, because I struggle with these impulses.
1. If we are serious about liberation, then it is essential to consider, as activists/organisers, what we want for our communities, why we want this, what strategies and tactics will get us there, how we can build resilient movements, what kinds of energies we and others respond best to/are moved by, and whether we are enacting the values and offering the qualities we aspire to and ask of others.
2. We encourage solidarity when we are understanding of others’ present limits (which can and do shift), rather than demand that they “educate themselves” or “do better”. When we make mistakes, we shouldn’t be abandoned, but supported in putting things right.
3. It is possible – and I have found, far more generative – to draw attention to weaknesses and fault lines in civil society, to offer critiques of certain dynamics or practices, to share our desires for change and solidarity, in terms that do not single out specific people and organisations. This, I have experienced, people receive more willingly because it allows them the space to reflect without their nervous systems being triggered by shame or feeling attacked.
4. So much life-affirming and transformative engagement with comrades happens through recurrent, private encounters in settings where we all feel safe, respected and heard. Over drinks, at each other’s homes, sharing a smoke after an event, talking late into the night by a river – this is where the magic happens. We must create more opportunities and invitations for this, across movement spaces, with those outside of our existing circles. And in these moments, we must give each other the space to try on different ideas, to fumble through our politics, asking questions that come from a place of genuine curiosity about what stirs us, what we’re afraid of, what keeps us up at night, what the futures we dream of are.
5. There can also be a lot of value in more public debates, where respect and curiosity underscore a rich exchange focused on the substance of arguments and a sincere engagement with a different political stance. But when our interpersonal conflicts and disappointments with each other play out online, in public, people are more likely to posture, be defensive or overwhelmed. The voyeuristic attention and drama that this generates can be paralysing, addictive, demoralising, disillusioning and distracting.
6. One of the things I find most challenging and rewarding about political work is how much self-reflexivity it demands. I stumble and fail at enacting my values so often, because the gentler ways of being I desire for myself and all of us is at odds with so much of how dominant systems and cultures encourage us to act – in controlling, competing, hoarding, unkind and discarding ways. But it is so fulfilling to keep trying, so thrilling when we see how transformative it can be when we do succeed, even fleetingly, at resisting these impulses and practising the principles we hold dear. Most importantly, failing is humbling, if we are honest with ourselves about these failures. It allows us empathy for when others fail at practising these values too. The work is to keep struggling, and celebrating every clumsy attempt and misstep, every moment of vulnerability, every tiny evolution and revolution. There is so much power in being gracious with ourselves and each other. People don’t have to be or act perfectly for them to be valued as organisers or activists. Such pressure makes participation in our movements prohibitive to many who are finding their way.
7. Love for comrades is the most radical kind of love I have known. It is love that makes room for fallibility, for fear - why, for betrayal, even. This love does not condone, excuse or enable harm, but seeks to transform it. This love means we have difficult conversations as equals. To hold each other so well that we feel able to each hold ourselves accountable to our principles. Such love might mean we withdraw (sometimes temporarily, sometimes forever) when we realise that a relationship is doing more harm than good, and that we are not ready to shift into a generative space, but this love does not seek to coerce or punish the other. It gives space, waits for the right time, is attentive to rhythms, to openings. It is patient and generous. It knows that love is dialectical and contains both resonance and dissonance. It recognises, not just in lip service, but in everyday practice, that we are all terribly broken and terribly beautiful.
8. This radical, comradely love seeks to rouse and uplift comrades to action, not to shame, repudiate or make demands of them.
9. We have to be so, so tender with each other, so that we can be dangerous together, to the systems that seek to oppress us, and so that we can taste, in the present, the futures we desire. At the same time, we have to protect our organisations and movements from divisive and depleting forces that bring unbearable stress, draining our energy from the work we are trying to do, and the cultures we are trying to create. This sometimes mean that we draw boundaries with certain people, or withdraw from certain relationships when they become toxic.
10. A small group of people who already happen to be like-minded cannot, on their own, change the world. Such spaces are important for comfort, for commiserating or venting with people who get us, to draw energy from resonance, to quell self-doubt. But to end the rampant violence, injustice and suffering we care so deeply about, we must build people power – this requires us to care for, respect and work with people who hold very different beliefs from us, or don’t always act in ways we want them to. This also means we have to win others over to our side, working against the very powerful forces that are determined to keep us divided, misinformed and complacent. It takes tremendous effort, perseverance and trust-building.
11. When we feel threatened or betrayed, we often resort to behaviours that are not in alignment with who we want to be. But I have also experienced how this can and does change with conscious effort, and peers who hold us in check. To have each other’s backs doesn’t mean supporting everything the other person wants or says they need, even if it is careless or disruptive. It involves exploring with them other, less harmful, ways of meeting their needs.
12. Solidarity is not owed or demanded, it is evoked and inspired. And what evokes and sustains solidarity is an expansiveness that comes from an embodied experience of connectedness. In other words, solidarity is the deeply felt sense of “we are in this together”.
13. It is incredibly important to make distinctions between comrades – however flawed, however relatively privileged, however cowed by power – and architects of our oppression. Our analysis of power has to be grounded in material conditions – someone who is a recognised activist, or an advocacy group that has mobilised a small following, doesn’t have power in the way that politicians, government agencies or employers do, and our strategies in relating to each other have to be proportionate and distinct from our strategies in pushing back against oppressive institutions. Sometimes, I am struck by how unyielding and ungenerous we can be with each other, and at the same time, unwilling to take bold action or express in strong and direct terms our resistance to those who uphold cruel systems and cause the greatest amount of suffering for the most people.
14. People in civil society who disagree with us are not the enemy. When peers don’t do exactly what we demand, when we demand them to, they are not the enemy. Even when we feel very strongly about what someone should do in a particular situation, we need to be willing to listen – really listen – to the considerations and concerns that others have, and respect independent thought, boundaries, autonomy, and the decision-making processes through which an individual or organisation arrive at their choices. Otherwise, there can be no integrity to our relationships. To try and force someone’s hand by making threats or attacking their character and assigning / exaggerating the harm of their choices is nothing short of bullying. Our relationships with each other cannot be coercive - we must support each other in developing and following our own, internal compasses.
15. Sometimes, we can be so anxious to be on the “right side” of something, to be seen as publicly demonstrating unconditional support at the speed that it is demanded, that we are at risk of suppressing our internal compass, our intellectual, emotional and moral integrity. We may hesitate to take the time we need to learn more, verify what we are being told, or consider what our own position on an issue may be (and that might include not being able or ready to take a position) because of an insistence that we “show up” and “show solidarity”. Yes, there are situations where we have to move quickly, where there is urgency. But in my experience, it is possible to do some harm reduction first, to offer immediate care to those who are feeling distressed, and doing this doesn’t require us to immediately accept, without question, what we are being told. With sensitivity and intention, we must ultimately be led by a thoughtful assessment of how we can truly make a situation better, and not get swept up by the fever of others’ emotions, however hard it is to resist peer pressure.
16. We will have differences in ideology, strategy, tactics, temperaments, strengths, preferences, pace. We don’t need to mute these differences or gloss over them. We must draw attention to these differences as much as our similarities, but we can do it in a way that doesn’t shame or demand allegiance to our position.
17. Respect for each other means respecting each other’s freedom to have different priorities, different capacities, different comfort levels with publicly taking a stand on some things, different life circumstances and constraints. It also means having loving disagreements, rather than disavowing each other the moment there is friction or fissure in the paths we choose to take.
18. There will be times when things blow out into the open when other avenues have been exhausted and there is no other recourse for pent up frustrations. There will be times when the disruption of publicly exposing certain harms or toxic dynamics/tendencies within our movements is necessary and powerful. But I hope that we can, together, build foundations, infrastructures and pathways for other meaningful choices that don’t involve so much pain and high stakes for everyone, so that when we choose this path, it is a real and intentional choice, rather than the only option we have if we want to address pain. I hope that we make our choice after considering the costs, and whether it will move us closer to where we want to be, or whether we might injure ourselves further. That we ask ourselves whether patience, creativity and taking other kinds of risks with each other might ultimately lead to more satisfying outcomes.
19. As some civil society groups’ platforms grow bigger, or if they have more resources at their disposal, it is natural to hope that they can use the assets they have to support/speak up with other disenfranchised communities and share their resources. We must keep exploring ways to encourage this, but I am convinced that we cannot make this happen – at least, not in a sustainable or sincere way – through aggressive demands or shame.
20. A sanctimonious culture makes the Left an intimidating and uninviting space. While we might think we are only criticising those who *should* know better, many who are observing, and are new to these conversations and spaces, experience our communities (whether online or offline) as toxic. A culture that is accusatory and aggressive about decrying or mocking those who have different politics, language, priorities or strategies from us is demobilising because it makes people even more reluctant to participate, for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. If we find ourselves walking on eggshells around each other, for fear of repudiation or exclusion in response to our honest positions/expressions, something is terribly wrong. Sometimes, it can seem like the culture on the Left is one where we wait for each other to trip up, rather than lift each other up when we stumble.
21. Sometimes, the easiest targets for our legitimate anger and pain at injustice are those whose politics and positions are just a few degrees away from ours. This is partly because we recognise the (unfulfilled) potential of their solidarity, and partly because there is enough overlap in our values that they are often genuinely hurt by such criticism (whether or not they will admit it), and might acquiesce more easily. Whereas, the President who doesn’t grant clemency, the Cabinet Ministers who authorise state murder, powerful religious leaders who are complicit in a murderous drug policy – they remain unmoved by our anger and pain. This is disempowering, but taking it out on our peers, while it might offer some temporary pain relief and catharsis, alienates them and puts solidarity that much further out of reach. At times, even when our peers do respond to our calls for them to do more, their efforts are not acknowledged and they continue to be dismissed, because a rigid narrative has already taken shape.
22. There are so many powerful ways to express solidarity, and some who are publicly criticised for not doing so do, in fact, express solidarity in ways that their critics fail to recognise or are not privy to. Just because we don’t see something happening in a particular form/style that we are familiar with/we ourselves practice, doesn’t mean it/other things of value are not happening.
23. If we are troubled by a certain perception of each other, or what we hear about one/some of our peers, there is so much value in pause, in first finding out more, in looking into the history of things, in reaching out directly in good faith (unfortunately, this rarely works *after* a painful public exchange or accusation is made), in not repeating or amplifying narratives without examining the (sometimes complex) truth behind them, in being quick to give each other the benefit of doubt and slower to condemn/write each other off.
24. The quicker we are to put people on a pedestal, the easier it is to become disillusioned with them. It is natural to admire, and even look up to each other (and we should!) when we are moved by the courage and character of our peers, and at the same time, we can remember that we are all only human, and have our own struggles, and inner demons to fight. We are not black and white, either good or bad. “Both/and” is a helpful lens through which to see each other as our full selves.
25. If we are dissatisfied with the politics of certain spaces, we must occupy our power to create the spaces and movements we believe in and want to see more of. We can be critical of what exists, but to express that criticism as only contempt, cynicism or eyerolls, works against our desire to create a better world. If I believe in something, then it is my duty to build it, rather than insult others for not having done so. If we have not participated in creating or contributing to a certain organisation/space, we are not entitled to it doing whatever we want it to. We can make suggestions (and our suggestions go a much longer way when we have built friendships with people within the organisation), but we cannot require one group to be everything to everyone.
26. It is possible both to honour the work that has come before us, and work towards evolving it. Honouring doesn’t mean we are uncritical. Supporting change, evolution and bolder action within certain movements doesn’t mean we disrespect or don’t value the efforts of our predecessors either.
27. I believe we grow stronger when we make demands of our oppressors, and loving, respectful invitations to our comrades. This, crucially, includes respecting when they say ‘no’. This means we disagree with each other without discarding each other.
28. There is so much we are not privy to about the internal workings of any organisation. The history and evolution of a group is insulted when they are judged entirely for what they are (seen to be) doing/not doing at one given moment in time. Sometimes, there are really good reasons why they cannot/do not do something we think they should be. I hope for a culture where we engage each other with curiosity, and are inquisitive about others’ motivations, rather than to be quick to default to simplistic judgment or reductive villanization.
29. So much goes into building civil society organisations and progressive community spaces in an impossibly hostile political climate like Singapore, where so much can be taken away, so quickly. There are many extremely carefully calibrated compromises, choices, struggles, pressures and sacrifices. We might not agree with all of each other’s choices (and we shouldn’t), but we need nuance in understanding that they are often not made easily or painlessly.
30. Every time I feel angry that someone/some group is not stepping up, doing more, not speaking up about something that matters, not standing by me in a difficult situation, I remind myself to be angry, instead, at the extremely trying and stressful conditions of surviving in Singapore, as workers, as parents, as students, as activists, as artists, as academics, as journalists, as NGOs, as grassroots organisers.
31. Just because a platform has a large following doesn’t mean there is a large team behind it. Often, it is one (or at best, two) overworked, overstretched, exhausted people who are doing their best, and doing this without pay, on top of very demanding jobs that leave them on empty. They cannot satisfy all of our desires for action. People have toilets to scrub, parents to take to medical appointments, children to feed and bathe, friends who need to be cared for, bills to pay, exams to pass. They need rest, which they often don’t get.
32. What we pay attention to, and celebrate, grows. We can pay attention to, and celebrate the solidarity that exists, the small and big gestures that people make, so that this grows.
33. It is important to distinguish between actively causing harm and not feeling prepared/confident/preferring to be silent on something/not expressing support in the specific ways we desire, at this moment in time. It is unfair to respond to both with the same intensity of outrage.
34. We need to move on all fronts at once. Crisis work does carry an urgency, and some kinds of violence – like someone’s execution – can feel all-consuming (it certainly is for me), and viscerally more horrifying than other kinds of injustice and oppression, but the work that is needed for our liberation is not just putting out the fire that is blazing within view. It is also preventing some fires from starting, it is discovering other fires that are less visible, putting out fires in other places, and preparing new places for us to take shelter when this place burns down. We don’t all have to do everything, at once.
35. We all look away from pain, destruction and devastation. We do it to cope. We do it because we cannot cope. Some days, we can turn towards it, some days we can’t. Some issues may be easier for us to turn towards than others. This can be because we care more deeply about some things, but sometimes, however strange it sounds, it can be more difficult to work on or respond to some things that we feel too intensely for. This can be because we are under-resourced, we have learned to rely on avoidance or repression to survive, or because our nervous systems are so overwhelmed by some things that we cannot function. So, sometimes, we work on the things we feel we can be effective at, contribute to, without being self-destructive. We can build (both in individuals, and in collectives/communities) greater capacity to confront horrors and take action, rather than look away - not through accusations or shame, but radical empathy and care for each other.
36. We build power when we think and act like organisers who meet people where they are at, who work first to build connections, who offer support before asking for support, who try to uncover what it is people care deeply about, and then draw connections between these desires and the work we are doing within our movements.
37. If we want to create solidarity, we must ask more and more what we can do to support others, and not fixate on what we imagine others owe us.
38. If we see ourselves as organisers or activists who care about collective liberation from oppression, if we are invested in gentler futures, our work is to make the Left a welcoming, accessible, supportive, vibrant and energising space that diverse individuals and communities feel excited to participate in and shape. This requires patience, cooperation, sitting with discomfort and being very, very care-full with each other, so that we don’t have to be careful of each other. To cultivate such patience, when change feels so urgent, is sometimes torturous. It takes discipline, but I think, mostly, it takes compassion.
I hope 2023 is a year where we can build stronger intergenerational ties within civil society, form enduring friendships and coalitions across varying political positions, honour the strengths and limits of our peers, have loving disagreements, address harm in intentional and transformative ways that fortify our movements, draw our boundaries and respect others’, and, yes, in these ways, build a more real and formidable solidarity.