A bunch of lonesome and very quarrelsome heroes
Were smoking out along the open road;
The night was very dark and thick between them,
Each man beneath his ordinary load.
“I’d like to tell my story,”
Said one of them so young and bold,
“I’d like to tell my story,
Before I turn into gold.”
But no one really could hear him,
The night so dark and thick and green;
Well I guess that these heroes must always live there
Where you and I have only been.
Put out your cigarette, my love,
You’ve been alone too long;
And some of us are very hungry now
To hear what it is you’ve done that was so wrong.
I sing this for the crickets,
I sing this for the army,
I sing this for your children
And for all who do not need me.
“I’d like to tell my story,”
Said one of them so bold,
“Oh yes, I’d like to tell my story
‘Cause you know I feel I’m turning into gold.”
Man, sometimes I hate that word. It’s overused, it’s mocked. It conjures up this image of people who take themselves far too seriously. The kind you see on university campuses, with buttons and badges on their backpack declaring how they feel about everything in pithy slogans. Or the ones you see at community meetings loudly demanding that the workers of the world should unite when the rest of you are trying to figure out what to plant in the community garden.
You know. Tiresome people. People who aren’t a lot of fun at parties. People you’d call Social Justice Warriors, and definitely not mean it in a nice way.
Frankly, sometimes, people like me.
I’ve gotten more careful about how I use words lately. I don’t mean in the sense that I am careful not to use terms and phrases that offend marginalized people — or not just that, anyway. I’ve also been thinking about the words we use to describe social movements, social concepts, prejudices that are conscious or unconscious — words like feminism, triggering, privilege, cultural appropriation. Words that have come to mean so many things to so many people that they start to lose meaning. Words that, as a result of this, are often met with immediate resistance. Words like solidarity. These words are connected to concepts that are challenging, and should be challenging, but the names we have given them sometimes become so elastic as to become completely unhelpful in conversations. In my experience, people start reacting to the word more than the concept, and your ability to have a conversation about anything substantial gets subsumed into an argument about terms.
So I haven’t actually used the word solidarity in a long time — at least, not outside very specific contexts when I know that everyone agrees on what the word means. And even then, I’m not always happy about it. The idea of solidarity — of unity, of standing with people, of working toward common goals across difference — is one for which I have profound respect. The way we sometimes get to talking about solidarity in a cozy middle class Canadian context can be frustrating. What does saying you’re in solidarity with someone actually mean? How are you backing that claim up? Is saying it enough? Why aren’t you doing something, for God’s sake?
Recently something switched in me. My office mate and I, through a serendipitous series of events, were invited to take part in a workshop at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Minneapolis. It’s a terrible season for us to take time off work, and frankly, it was way above our pay grade, but it was too significant an opportunity to pass up. For two days we sat in a room with co-operative organizers from Honduras and Panama, coffee roasters from the United States and Germany, academics from Nicaragua, Colombia, and the United States. We learned about the practical issues that have arisen with the formal Fair Trade movement, the attempts of worker-owned co-operatives to foster positive peace in their respective countries, the challenges of living in post-peace accord societies where the tensions that led to war in the first place have not been meaningfully addressed. Frankly, I don’t know why anyone asked us to be there, but I’m grateful they did.
Toward the end of the second day one of the co-operative organizers from Honduras, Donaldo Zuñiga Enamorado, spoke. At first, he spoke about the successes of one of the co-operatives with whom he works — what they’re trying to do, and how they’re making positive changes in their community. But unfortunately, you can’t really talk about successes in Honduras without also speaking about the country’s violent context or the price of advocacy. Every 15 hours a woman dies in Honduras as a result of domestic or state violence. The country has one of the highest per capita death rates in the world, if not the highest. Since the coup in 2009, 123 human rights and ecological advocates have gone missing or been killed. Donaldo said that advocating for human rights in Honduras is like standing in front of a cannon. We need you to keep putting pressure on our government. We can’t stop ourselves from being killed.
But he also said this: we need your solidarity. We need to know you care, and that you know what is happening is wrong. We need to know that we’re not alone.
Of course, he said all of that in Spanish, so it sounded way better. But it reminded me of what solidarity is supposed to be. And it made me think, perhaps, that it’s a word I should be less afraid of using. Because the act of caring is not enough, but it is the beginning of something. The act of telling you this story is not enough, but it is a step toward something. And solidarity on its own is never enough. But it’s something.
Ward is a Saskatoon-based freelance writer who spends her days (and most nights) working at a small Catholic college. Her less eloquent thoughts can be found at www.twitter.com/newsetofstrings