by Liz Moore, reprinted from our May-June 2011 newsletter, the Handful of Salt

Lately I’ve noticed a pattern: I have repeatedly been told my words should be more positive, that campaigns we’re involved in should shout louder what they are for and less about what they are against.

Yes, we should say what we’re for: we’re for peace, we’re for economic justice, we’re for human rights. We need to articulate a vision of resource-sharing to meet everyone’s basic needs, information-sharing and relationship-building so that fear can’t be used to manipulate and divide us, and power-sharing so that those impacted by decisions can exercise their right to democratic, collective self-determination.

And we also have to name what we are opposing: we are opposing war, economic exploitation, racism, homophobia, sexism. We are opposing military spending which now sucks more than half of our entire federal budget, de-funding education, healthcare, and basic lifeline programs for struggling families at the federal and state levels. We are opposing US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, where we are in our eighth and tenth years, respectively. Our occupation of Afghanistan has displaced 234 million people and caused thousands of civilian deaths, and it’s the longest war in US history. Of course we must say no, loudly and repeatedly!

We seem to have strong cultural, gendered norms that saying no is bad. When a woman articulates a strong distinction about what is acceptable and what is not, she may not seem appropriately ladylike. When a woman lists what is not acceptable and puts forward a positive alternative vision, the “no” part may stand out more strongly because it’s not been historically acceptable for women to assert a “no” message. In some cases I’ve gotten the message that saying no is being negative and bad for spiritual growth. But saying no is not the same as being negative. Saying no is making a clear distinction about what is acceptable and what is not. It is setting a limit, just like parents need to do with children. In our economic, social, and political systems, there are powerful forces that don’t like to be told they have limits (maybe like children who haven’t heard it consistently enough?). It is in the interest of those forces to discourage and write off those who want to establish limits on their power, because they want to be able to impact others without consequence when those others (us) have less voice and less power. Given that imbalance of power, it’s not surprising that cultural messages against “no” are fairly potent.

In my perspective, there is something feminist and absolutely essential about saying no and embracing that hard-earned right. How awful to be consigned to a “Stepford activist” existence of only saying hopeful, visionary things. I used to have nightmares where I couldn’t scream. Losing my metaphorical voice, my ability to raise the alarm, is a horrifying concept to me. As Nancy Haque from Western States Center pointed out in a racial justice campaign workshop recently, “By calling out and naming racism for what it is, we’re engaging in a fundamental and critical form of resistance, reclaiming truth and reality.” If it’s taken as negative when we name reality and declare that business as usual can’t continue, that again is probably more about what’s at stake for those benefiting from business as usual and how well they’ve trained us to act on their behalf.

Sometimes saying no is the most practical move. For the No New Jail coalition—of which PJALS was an early endorser—it was and is imperative to say no to building a new jail while also putting forward alternatives to just continuing to lock up members of our community without funding for programming that helps stop the cycle of recidivism. No New Jail does this by consistently articulating what it calls “Smart Justice” examples: mental health programs, drug treatment programs, work release, electronic home monitoring, day reporting, and driver re-licensing programs. But it’s imperative to educate voters who may still face a vote on a bond measure. We want them to vote no, so we have to say, “We don’t need it, we can’t afford it, and we can do better. Pledge now to vote no.” That’s fairly basic, good voter education.

This brings me back to Barbara Deming’s “two hands of nonviolence.” We hold up one palm to say no, and we extend the other hand, open, to offer another path. Stopping unacceptable behavior, changing structures and policies of oppression, and challenging oppressive and violent ideology is critical. So is engaging and putting forward a positive vision of an alternative future. Both are essential and neither can be neglected.

It’s not easy to balance these two essential components. One great example was the “No” campaign in the plebiscite vote in Chile in 1980. Urging people to vote against dictator Pinochet continuing his presidency, the “no” campaign’s refrain was, “Porque creo en el futuro, voy a decir que ¡No!” –”Because I believe in the future, I’m going to say No!” The campaign’s TV commercials accompanied this cheerful tune with beautiful dancing children in their pastel 80’s clothes, babies snuggling with their mamas, and rainbows. The combined message was very moving and inspirational. We say no because we are standing up for what we love. Love and righteous indignation together are very powerful forces, and we need both.

How do you describe what you’re for and what you’re against? How do you balance and include both pieces of the message? Join the conversation with a comment below!