Monstrous Settlers: Zombies, Demons, and Angels

From Settler Agrarian:

I am a monster (but I’m working on it).

With the birth and growth of Idle No More, now more than ever, lots of settlers are understanding colonialism as a problem, and trying to think through our relationships and obligations to Indigenous peoples, the history of colonization, and what all that means for us as settlers.  This shifts colonialism from an “Indian problem” to a “Settler problem.”  In spite of the mainstream media, many Canadian settlers are learning that they are implicated in an ongoing colonial relationship.  For me that’s encouraging, because I didn’t grow up in a context where colonialism is actually something discussed and debated, where settlers see colonialism as a problem that involves us.  I move through some spaces like this now, and they continue to challenge me.  This is about how settlers respond to these challenges.

I’m a white, male, educated, cis-gendered, able-bodied, hetero-sexual, middle-class settler, so I basically benefit from every major axis of oppression.  What follows is a reflection of my own experience with the politics of colonialism, decolonization, and settler solidarity efforts with Indigenous peoples, over the past few years.  I’m drawing on some feminist, queer, trans, and anti-racist writers and activists here too.  Even though dynamics are always different and complex, I think there are also some similarities in terms of the way privileged folks (like me) conduct ourselves across these struggles, especially when we’re trying to to prove that we’re good, in spite of our privilege.  When I use “we” and “us” I’m talking about other white settlers who benefit from ongoing white supremacy and settler colonialism in Canada.  I am glossing over lots of complexities and nuances of colonialism and decolonization.  I’m experimenting with monster metaphors in hopes of getting at some of these issues in a different way, but I recognize that this is serious shit.  And I want your feedback, critical or otherwise.

Upsettlers, Monarchists, and Manarchists are monsters that plague settlers in Canada, making it difficult for us to grapple with our colonial privilege, engage with other settlers, and effectively support Indigenous struggles.  I started out as a Monarchist, had stints as an Upsettler, became a Manarchist, and now I’m trying to avoid relapsing into all three monsters.

settlermonsters

Upsettler Zombies, Monarchist Demons, and Manarchist Angels

“Upsettler” is a recently coined term to designate settler attacks, disavowals, and denials provoked by Idle No More and Indigenous resurgence.  For example, from the Twitterverse:

#Upsettler walks into a bar. Literally acts like they own the place. Upset when informed they are not the original owners.

Most settler Canadians don’t like to be reminded of the legacy of genocide, theft, and enclosure upon which “Canada” was founded and settled.  And we especially don’t like to be reminded that this legacy never ended, and that Canada is an ongoing occupation of indigenous lands, working to assimilate indigenous peoples and destroy their communities, for the benefit of settler society.  These truths provoke the Upsettler zombies to rise up and shriek their fantasies: the Indians are lazy!  The Indians can’t manage their money!  The Indians are criminals!  Colonialism is in the past!  We’re all equals!  This issue has nothing to do with me!  Canada is a benevolent nation founded on peace and love and hockey and maple syrup!

Upsettlers have a strong immunity to understanding settler colonialism, and they subsist on a varied diet of rage, guilt, anxiety, denial, and racism.  Upsettler zombification is infectious, and corporate news media is a major vector for the spread of the Upsettler epidemic.  Upsettlers have denounced blockades as a form of “blackmail” that will “sabotage the national economy.”  Upsettler media pundits are calling for Idle No More protesters and blockaders to be arrested, demanding a return to settler colonial normalcy.  Others have lumped together Idle No More, the Arab Spring, and Occupy Wall Street as Lefty bullshit: “a great mass of conflicting emotions united only in their determination to have someone listen to them, dammit.”  When Canadian politicians become Upsettlers, police repression often follows.  Other Upsettlers subsist more on guilt and nationalist fantasies, and they are prone to deny their colonial privilege, insisting that “we’re all Canadian” or that “we’re not responsible for our ancestors.”

Not all settlers are Upsettled.  But those who haven’t caught the Upsettler zombie virus are usually possessed by demons.  Demons are a different kind of monster.  More “civilized” than zombies, they try to be measured, expressing benevolence and sympathy towards Idle No More and Indigenous peoples.  Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan insists that he had “been very much wanting to have a conversation with Chief Theresa Spence,” that he’d offered multiple times, and that he’s concerned about her health.  Before she chose to end it herself, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair called on Chief Spence to end her hunger strike: because “the government seems to be moving,” he thinks “the best thing would be to step back from that now.”  Father knows best.

This is the Monarchist response to colonialism: benevolence, paternalism, and sympathy.  Civilized political correctness.  Don’t call them Indians anymore; call them First Nations, aboriginals, or Indigenous peoples.  Feel sorry for Indigenous people, and maybe feel angry at Harper.  Police are often the ultimate Monarchists, framing themselves as impartial arbiters of peace, dispersing Indigenous people and Upsettlers alike, and restoring colonial public order.  Let’s all settle down.

Monarchists are settlers who want to “solve” the “Indian problem” so we can get back to our (settler colonial) lives.  They may advocate reform, as long as it preserves the colonial structure of Canada, and doesn’t actually affect settler privilege and occupation.  Monarchists and Upsettlers actually work together even when they seem to opposed each other: Upsettlers get upset and call for repression and reprisal; Monarchists call for reason and tolerance.  Mainstream news also helps disseminate Monarchist demons, and debates ensue about how much “we” should “tolerate” from Idle No More and Indigenous resistance.  Monarchist cops play the Upsettler zombies off against Indigenous peoples, so that the Monarchists can swoop in like impartial peacemakers when the time is right.

In radical circles, Monarchism is often rejected in favour of bright, shining, righteousness: proper anti-colonialism.  Denounce colonialism, express solidarity, and make sure everyone sees you doing it.  Condescend and correct people who aren’t aware.  This is the Manarchist response to colonialism: carve out a space of moral purity, command others to enter, bash those who don’t, instruct and condescend those who do.  The Manarchist loudly proclaims that he is against colonialism, he is an ally of Indigenous peoples, and he aggressively attacks Monarchists and Upsettlers, usually in an attempt to show Indigenous people that he’s a good guy.  Note: not all settlers expressing solidarity with Indigenous peoples are Manarchists.  Manarchists are the ones that have ascended to heaven through their self-righteousness, looking down on the rest.

The Upsettler, the Monarchist, and Manarchist aren’t people.  They’re positions that people take up, often unconsciously.  We become infected by colonial zombies, possessed by colonial demons and consumed by anti-colonial angels.  The Upsettler attacks Indigenous people head-on and denies colonialism, the Monarchist helps us brush past or “resolve” colonialism in a civilized way, and the Manarchist helps turn anti-colonialism into a badge of honour that raises us above ordinary settlers who don’t recognize the Truth.

As settlers, we all have some Upsettler and Monarchist in us, and the Manarchist is always waiting to take over and proclaim a revelation.  White, European-descended settlers are most prone to all these monsters.  The Manarchist possesses men more often than women.  I find myself possessed by each monster more times than I’d like to admit.

The Monarchist is the official demon of Canada, helping to ensure that we’re all respectful and civilized.  “Back then” we were uncivilized Upsettlers; we killed Indigenous people and put their children in residential schools… but now our Monarchist leader has apologized and we’re a multicultural nation; we just need to iron out a few kinks, the Monarchist assures us.

In contrast, the Manarchist proclaims that he’s been cured and exorcized: now he sees things clearly and he will force-feed you some Truth.  But if you’ve seen a Manarchist in action, you know he’s just as predictable as Monarchists and Upsettlers: a pious angel come to reveal our sins and show us The Way.  Usually a white man, always sure of himself.

These metaphors of angels, demons and zombies are a way of naming three, interconnected ways of relating to colonialism among settlers.  They seem opposed or antagonistic, but they actually reinforce each other.  They’ve become deeply ingrained habits, and they make it difficult to have meaningful and transformative conversations about colonialism, let alone take meaningful action.

Call-outs, Sledgehammers, and Toolkits

Monarchists and Upsettlers are pretty immune to Manarchists: they become ever-more convinced that colonialism is inevitable and people resisting it are ridiculous.  If the Upsettler thrives on the call for repression, and Monarchist thrives on the call for peace, then the Manarchist thrives on the “call-out.”  The call-out is: “a method for either revealing privileged, bigoted or problematic behaviors to others publicly or to attempt to reveal to an individual their own mistakes and hopefully trigger some accountability.”  It has roots in mass-movement-based, anti-racist, anti-oppressive contexts as a tactic to challenge Upsettlers and Monarchists who are being oppressive.  I am not saying that calling someone out makes you a Manarchist.  I’ve been called out, and it has been scary, unsettling, transformative, and effective.  But as Kinsey Hope explains:

Now, and let’s not forget this, calling out is a tool. Like any tool it can be abused. It can be overused. And it can become broken. And as the culture of activism becomes more and more dependent upon the call out, the anatomy of [the call out] has begun to evolve.

Manarchists don’t have a toolkit for engaging with Upsettlers and Monarchists: they only have the call-out, and the call-out is a sledgehammer.  Sometimes it can be effective, but if it’s the only tool in the arsenal, pretty soon people will get tired of being bashed, and they’ll probably get Upsettled.  It’s like throwing rocks at zombies: it may feel good, but it just riles them up, and remember: the Upsettler zombie disease is extremely contagious.

I’m doing my best to ward off the Manarchism as I write this, so I don’t have any solutions to this problem.  But I’ve been inspired by a few folks I’ve met who seem to have found different ways of relating to colonialism, who seem to have escaped the monsters, expanded their anti-colonial toolkit, and I think there are some common traits:

Vulnerability and accountability: these folks have cultivated a way of having conversations about colonialism where they don’t set themselves up as the ones with the Truth.  It doesn’t mean that they don’t challenge colonial attitudes; it means they try to do it in a way that opens conversation and questions, rather than shutting them down.  They make it clear that they’re questioning, they’re doing their own learning, and they haven’t figured it out.  They’re also open to being challenged, by Indigenous people and settlers, and they learn more because folks feel like it’s safe to challenge them.  This also makes them more effective allies of Indigenous peoples.  Anti-racist activist Michelle O’Brien encapsulates this pretty brilliantly:

People have to change in a much deeper way — change in the soul, in the, unconscious, in the Real, there are many names for this piece, this piece that is just outside of whatever we say about it. We have to find ways of being genuinely respectful, open, and loving to people, to actually let go of the bullshit that keeps us from doing that…

Actually figuring out how people really change — not just model that change, not just talk about it or properly perform it — is really hard. In some ways, it calls on the simplest things in the world – just listening to people, being open to what people actually have to say, looking honestly at whatever is going on, acting from a space of compassion and respect. But how do you get there, if talking about it (or writing about it in an essay) isn’t enough?

I don’t know.

Individual and collective education: they’ve dedicated time to learning about colonialism by themselves and with others.  They’ve tried to understand the history of colonialism, how it works, and what that means for us today.  But they don’t hold this knowledge over other people, and they’ve found ways of sharing it that are humble and unsettling, making colonialism into a massive open-ended problem rather than an issue of guilt and sledgehammers.

Patience and courage: they actively seek out conversations about colonialism in unlikely places, with their families, friends, workplaces, and other spaces where those conversations don’t normally happen.  And they approach new conversations with compassion, even if they’ve heard the same colonial responses  (“we can’t go back” – “it’s not my fault” – “it’s human nature”) a hundred times before.  The burden of engaging with Upsettlers and Monarchists shouldn’t fall to Indigenous peoples.  This means it’s up to us as settlers to educate ourselves and engage with others wherever we are.  If people are unreceptive or dismissive, the most effective settlers tend not to reject them as colonizers, at least not at the outset; they see the intervention as part of a longer process, and try to leave space for future conversations.

Those aren’t instructions or answers; just behaviours in others that have inspired me because they confront colonialism while avoiding Manarchist tendencies.  Manarchists are not more “radical” than settlers who try to meet people where they’re at, rather than shove truth down their throats.  The Manarchist often drowns out other voices, because settler Righteousness and Truth are a lot louder than uncertainty and vulnerability.  I think that’s a major reason why many people fall back into Upsettlement and Monarchism: when they engage with other settlers trying to work on colonialism, they encounter the manarchist, and they don’t want to be his disciple or get hit with a sledgehammer over and over.

Manarchism is simpler than vulnerability.  Manarchists can often become their own little cliques, in their own pious corner.  It’s easier to have a radical anti-colonial circle-jerk than to engage with Monarchists and Upsettlers who might be angry or dismissive.  Demons and zombies can be scary, and angels often like hanging out with each other (and hitting each other with hammers).

Colonialism relies on these monsters to perpetuate itself.  Willing settlers are required to work, to keep consuming, to own property, and to keep Canada’s colonial-capitalist engine chugging.  But settlers can get in the way of colonial propaganda and repression, in solidarity with Idle No More and Indigenous resurgence.  We can play a role in unsettling the Upsettler and the Monarchist (and ourselves), but we’ll be unlikely to succeed as Manarchist angels.  I’m not urging oppressed people to be nice to folks like me.  Indigenous peoples have every right to be pissed off at us, and that’s not what I mean by Manarchism.  This is about the way settlers treat settlers when we talk about colonialism.  Take the words of Fleetwood/Majestic Luxery-Legay:

this world kicks the shit out of our hearts every day. when we turn around and do that to each other we are fucking each other over just as our respective states would like us to. one of the most revolutionary things we can do is cultivate new ways to connect, to be gentle and tender with one another in a world that is trying constantly to divide and conquer us. we can’t be tough without also being tender.

The Manarchist possesses us, and we attack others to show that we’re good, that we know.  We bash people with sledgehammers without considering plyers, or a flash light, or a nail file.  Upsettlers and Monarchists shriek in horror, and we mistake this noise for transformation.  But upsettlement is not unsettlement.

I’m not saying that all anti-colonial settlers need to be engaged with Upsettlers and Manarchists, all of the time, in an oh-so-compassionate way.  Certain projects and alliances require keeping these monsters at a distance.  It takes a lot of emotional energy to engage with them, and sometimes a good bashing is entirely necessary and effective.  This is not a call to shower colonizers with peace and love, rather than speaking hard truths or radical ideas.  When I have become a Manarchist angel, it means I can’t be challenged or reproached: I’m holy.  Now I’m trying to be more real with people, which includes anger, but hopefully not the holy kind.

Avoiding Manarchism can be compatible with radical visions of indigenous-settler relations and decolonized futures.  Vancouver-based activist Harsha Walia writes:

Decolonization is as much a process as a goal. It requires a profound re-centring of Indigenous worldviews in our movements for political liberation, social transformation, renewed cultural kinships, and the development of an economic system that serves rather than threatens our collective life on this planet. As stated by Toronto-based activist Syed HussanDecolonization is a dramatic re-imagining of relationships with land, people and the state. Much of this requires study, it requires conversation, it is a practice, it is an unlearning.”

Unsettlement and unlearning colonialism requires a diverse toolkit (including a sledgehammer), and it depends upon our capacity to deal with the monsters within us and others.  Clear opposition and intense conflict are always part of struggles against colonialism.  Unsettling colonialism and decolonization also entails vulnerability and conversation.  No one can tell what this “dramatic re-imagining of relationships with land, people, and the state” will actually look like; we’ll have to figure it out together, in a struggle against zombies, demons, and angels.

An older version of this piece was originally published in No Fun City! and on Many Politics, before the Idle No More movement began.  This version has been expanded, changed and updated.  It was also published through the Dominion Media Co-op here.

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