I had the pleasure of attending an anti-fascism discussion circle here in Belgrade a few days ago, following an anti-fascism peaceful protest downtown. It was with an organization that will remain unnamed until I am granted permission to write about these events in their name, but those who do their research and know anything at all about peaceful protests/transitional justice/post-conflict Serbia will be able to narrow it down rather simply, mainly because NGOs are few and far between. In either case, this discussion circle had three guests from neighbouring countries (Montenegro and Croatia), all professors, and despite the fact that it is a predominantly women’s collective, these professors had a wealth of knowledge about women’s activism in former Yugoslavian countries, and of course, even more about the history/herstory of fascism.
The part of the discussion that stuck with me and made my mind reel was the idea of criticism, presented by professor Lino Veljak, who is a philosophy professor in Zagreb, Croatia. He began with the root of the word “criticism” and how its etymology suggests that it in fact means splitting things into two. Where we often mistake criticism is by utilizing it in place of “discrediting” or when we lean towards simply negative connotations. It means that when we have an idea or a theory or whatever it is we are “criticising” we ought to instead be dividing the idea between good and bad, right and wrong, what works and what doesn’t.
He explained how criticism in the activist sphere is often misinterpreted by the non-activist public. Activism is often grouped with “complaining”. The reason this is a misinterpretation is that activists’ criticism of social structures (for example, feminist activists who challenge heteronormative patriarchy) are viewed as activists’ complaints. This is a dangerous practice because it teaches the masses to ignore what is truly at stake. It creates an acceptable level of ignorance where it no longer matters what the issue is or why a group of people are opposing it, but rather it can be brushed off as “Those activists are at it again! There’s always something to complain about, isn’t there? They’ll always find something”.
According to Veljak, criticism in any sense of the word cannot be defined as a complaint because it loses its value. It loses the inherent idea of separating something into a dichotomy, whatever the dichotomy is. If criticism is to lose its value, not only would it affect the way we approach social sciences/philosophy/politics, it would also break apart important activist movements by reducing them to mere “complaints”. What I would add to Veljak’s brilliant discussion is how the present-day social structure in much of the world (and I am referring to the capitalist patriarchal socioeconomic structure) often uses this “complaints” approach to purposely dilute activist work and dismiss it as soon as possible. My dismantling the grassroots part of activism, entire movements can be destroyed. The first that should come to everyone’s mind is the Occupy Movement – one that I was part of in Ottawa. Even though we lasted for a short period of time, Ottawa did not come close to Wall Street, and Toronto lasted just a bit longer. This is an important movement because it represented everything and anything that the public wanted to challenge. Anyone who is fortunate enough to know how to read was bombarded with messages of the movement being an unorganized disaster that cannot possibly last. A group of students who are too lazy to get a job and are simply… here it is… complaining.
I won’t go on. That’s all that needs to be said on this topic. Keeping Veljak’s theoretical anti-fascist framework in mind, I ask myself, can we truly criticize something by creating the necessary dichotomy, and not choose a side? I have no answer, but I encourage you to think about your own activist work and refrain from choosing a side before you delve into both with great care, patience, tolerance, attention, and precision. Veljak’s important historical studies of fascism show that you cannot simply discourage fascism across the board without first dissecting its history/herstory through a case-by-case approach. Anti-fascist activists are not complaining about fascism (or their country’s historically fascist regimes), but rather they are challenging it through a carefully constructed criticism. I understand that this entire post is very repetitive, but I cannot stress the importance of approaching activist work as a form of criticism the way Veljak argues we should. It is easy to complain, but it is very difficult to criticise properly. If it was simply a complaint, community organizers would not have been able to spark a single movement in human history/herstory.
Do not allow yourself to be swayed; take it to the streets, demand justice.
Peace, love, and resistance,
- Political Vagina