Wherever there's war, there's a danger of toxic rhetoric in the name of something laudable. How we talk about "resistance" matters.

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If you’ve ever spent time around small children, you might recall one of their most fascinating phases: when a child first learns “no,” and starts to use it. It’s an extraordinary leap into self-recognition, this moment when they discover that they have the option to resist. And they’re curious about it, of course. They want to see what happens when they say “no.” Will there be anger? Physical retaliation? Can they change an adult’s behavior? Will their “no” be accepted? Is it safe?

It is often said that an entitled adult “wasn’t told ‘no’ enough as a child,” but we might also argue that the world is filled with people who still struggle to use their “no” well. And not without good cause, either. For many of us, to resist is not safe. For many, by virtue of unjust social contexts, any resistance can quickly become a matter of life and death.

Then there’s the broader question of “going too far.” In Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,” a clerk suddenly refuses to work, uttering the famous phrase “I would prefer not to.” The situation progresses until Bartleby, out of a job, on the street, then in prison, dies of starvation, having preferred not to eat. There are many readings of this story, but at its heart lies the sense that one cannot resist everything. Life requires some measure of concession, even when we’d rather resist, if we’re to go on living at all.

But where is that line? When and how is it acceptable, even necessary, to resist?

To resist in the here and now

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine fills our feeds, we’re also seeing pointed reminders of how selectively our culture praises resistance. When Ukrainians defend their land against direct state assault, most are in full solidarity. When Indigenous communities in Canada and the U.S. resist occupiers appropriating territory for oil, or when people in Africa and the Middle East resist oppressive regimes, many equivocate. Maybe even fund the oppressors.

But the rhetoric of “resistance” is also far more complicated than any one media moment. And that’s because the very concept of resistance is easily spun to channel the feeling of resistance, that thrill of having resisted. This is how we get people who resist police violence, and people who resist the people resisting police violence, both feeling righteous in their causes.

Radicalized right-wing groups in the U.S., for instance, stoke the belief that one needs to resist government encroachment on civil liberties by taking up arms in the street or in the Capitol. This show of force might look like top-down violence to outsiders, but participants believe they’re merely resisting another monopoly on violence, just like everyone else. “Just like” people taking to the streets for voter or immigrant rights, or against war.

And so, even if such shocking public spectacles rarely achieve their primary objectives, extremists can still “win” simply by showing up. By “resisting” at all. Why? Because presenting themselves as the oppressed party is enough to cultivate moral malaise about justice in general. Who can claim a monopoly on righteous struggle, after all, if everyone thinks they’re embroiled in resistance-work on every side? It’s all just… relative, right?

Overcoming the spin

Unsurprisingly, these obfuscation tactics have a long history of use by the Russian government. As noted in a U.S. Global Engagement Center report from August 2020,

The perpetual conflict that Russia sees in the information environment also means that officials and state media may take one side of an issue, while outlets with a measure of independence will adopt their own variations on similar overarching false narratives. The ecosystem approach is fitting for this dynamic because it does not require harmonization among the different pillars. By simultaneously furthering multiple versions of a given story, these actors muddy the waters of the information environment in order to confuse those trying to discern the truth.

“Pillars of Russia’s Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem,” GEC, August 2020

And it works. The moment folks believe “everything is propaganda,” they start to forget that specific stances can still hold greater value than others, in the construction of a more just state.

The question then becomes, how do we overcome the “spin” in our own political climates? How do we zero in on those acts of resistance that are actually in service to a better world for all?

I’ve written before on how we need to reduce our use of online argumentation that rolls out the welcome mat for conspiracy theorists. I’ve also written on how seasoned political actors use word games to distract us from immediate humanitarian nightmares. But when it comes to how we “resist,” we might be facing our most daunting social literacy challenge yet.

Simply put, we cannot allow resistance to be romanticized.

The moment it is, we up the appeal of being seen as “romantic” over truly bettering our world.

And that’s where the messaging around real-world crises start to fall apart.

What’s the alternative?

Resistance often has to be extreme, but we don’t have to behave as if delighted by the excuse to give over to actions that, for the bulk of our lives, would be inappropriate. In the case of Ukraine, for instance, videos have been circulating to terrify Russian military into surrender, videos that promise gruesome death and use rape as an analogy for the hardships that will befall them if they don’t. And yes, there is a reason for the use of this horrific language: to spare lives, to try to get young Russians to choose to go home to their families in one piece.

But to glorify that violent language, to glorify the need for it, as we armchair commentators often do, is to move past the primary work of resistance. When consumed by the “rush” of the struggle, we train ourselves to pay less attention to our desired end results. We become more interested in building a catalog of the struggle’s “greatest hits,” the moments that most delighted us in their horror and their courage, their audacity, and their extremes.

Meanwhile, no one should be looking forward to seeing the slaughter of anyone else, even an invading force. And no one should come away from an act of resistance encouraged to seek out other positions where they, too, would get to say or do heinous things “out of necessity.”

Resistance-work is a means to an end. It should not be the end unto itself.

And let’s not forget our firsthand experience

Do we even need a war to grasp the difference, though?

I would argue that OnlySky also aims to be an alternative to the usual glorification of resistance. Why? Because its stated aims are not reactive, not vindictive. They’re about inclusion, and about building from a proactive sense of the world we want to live in next. When we take our one natural life as the baseline for human action, what happens? Well hopefully, we give ourselves greater license to imagine a better world for all. And ideally, the results of our activism can then come to matter more than the thrill of fighting for them.

It’s not easy, though. Many atheists have spent their whole lives in resistance to something: organized religion, faltering church-state divisions, abusive domestic and societal beliefs. And speaking up against bad actors and religious encroachments can consume a person. Similarly, though, plenty of theists believe that they, too, are simply “resisting” the spread of secularism. So, we’re just two different flavors of the same Crusader, no? Po-tay-to, po-tah-to?

We cannot allow resistance to be romanticized. The moment it is, everyone’s going to want to be seen as a “romantic.” And that’s where the messaging around real-world crises starts to fall apart.

Obviously not, but this sort of moral malaise crops up whenever the thrill of the struggle, and of beating someone in that struggle, becomes too important to us. Righteousness is a dangerous sentiment, and no more so than when we chase that feeling more than we do the struggle’s end. Right now, in Ukraine, many people’s actions are being forged into hero narratives. And yet, I strongly suspect that most would gladly swap out “being a hero” for not having needed to resist at all. The same is true in Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Ethiopia… dozens of active crisis zones where average people didn’t have the choice of a peaceful life. Where families want the return of living loved ones, not “martyrs” for a greater cause.

So let’s not glorify the act of resistance. Let’s instead see it as a sometimes-necessary means to an end. And let’s think about how to organize with that better end in mind.

How to resist without being consumed by resistance

Some acts of resistance are set upon us by circumstance. An invading army’s tank at your door. A law on the books that criminalizes you or your loved ones. A government or corporate action that does damage to all of us, directly or through our shared ecosystems.

And when driven by circumstance to act, we should, of course. We should learn as much as we can and dig in as deeply as we’re able.

But our attitude toward that struggle is everything. As cheerful as we might need to be, to build a common cause across a wide range of allies, we also need to be emphatic and unwavering about our endgame. And we need to minimize our delight at any suffering on the road to it.

We also need to allow for sorrow. Sorrow can and should go marching with us, into a protest as into a battleground. Sorrow, that we have to be there at all, fighting these same battles for what sometimes feels like the millionth iteration. What fully empowered human, after all, would need or want to spend their precious-fleeting days alive acting centrally in reaction to others? Where is our better world, in which all humanity finds itself freer to pursue more proactive ends?

So, resist, of course. Resist! But also, remember the things you’d rather be doing. Name the world to which you want to return, when this latest need to combat oppression and cruelty has finally passed. Don’t make a forever home out of your resistance.

Because to resist is just the beginning.

To flourish is the dream.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.