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Is Your Activism Patriarchy in Disguise?

"Patriarchy is a social system in which males hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property."[i]

di·rect ac·tion


  1. the use of strikes, demonstrations, or other public forms of protest rather than negotiation to achieve one's demands.[ii]


I’ve come to see that a lot of violent direct action is, in fact, patriarchy.

I am basing this observation on experience and in particular on what I have learned from Carol J. Adams, as well as the fantastic book Sister Species: Women, Animals, and Social Justice edited by Lisa Kemmerer. Additionally, many texts on nonviolence, racism, classism, environmentalism, psychology, sociology, and economics have played a role in this understanding.

Essentially I made an intersectional list, but there is a reason for that. Narrow perspectives can lead to limited perspective and this can hurt a cause. We need only be motivated by one thing to change our behavior and there is nothing wrong with being singular in focus. If we go to the table saying we want change, as the early feminists did, but only for one demographic of women (again, as they narrowly did) the movement has already lost the majority of potential participants. Therefore it will take longer to rally everyone as one advances his or her thinking.

A narrow perspective is not the same as a focused perspective. I am not saying that specific movements shouldn’t stay specific; rather, that we recognize that said movements would benefit by taking into consideration that no topic is isolated.

There are many forms of direct action. Here I am speaking critically about the ones that practice physical destruction of property and/or psychological attacks on an individual, group, or society. These behaviors are often an iteration of patriarchy. I will not be listing examples of what has been done. There is value in doing so but I am here to speak to the individual, as I will explain below.

This is not a black and white topic. I hope I don’t paint it that way. I’m confident that the majority of violent acts can be handled differently but even that is not my main point. In this text, I am mostly concerned with the individual and their relationship/understanding of their actions. Who are you? What do you believe in? Are you embodying the value(s) you claim?

If you aspire to end suffering (human or non-human), restore nature, make people equal, or in particular to this text, remove patriarchy, then it is presumable that you see a peaceful end, even if you don’t know how to get there.

My logic is that if humans are the perpetrators of harm to the planet and each other, aren’t they then the ones needed to end such tragedies? Barring the nihilists that wish for the end to come, the majority of us want happiness and balance. Look at the word “humanity” to remember this: human + unity. Okay, I might have made that up but perhaps it’s true and it can be if that’s what we want.

So when working for change I ask:

  • Do I see my actions as progressive and sustainable?

  • Are the strategies used different than the systems or oppressor's I am resisting/wanting to change?

  • Will these actions motivate the acted upon to willingly participate in change or will it result in resistance and resentment?

These aren’t just parameters for nonviolence, they are the core of what most of us want when being enticed to change.

It is difficult to know what to do or to understand which actions will yield the results we need to improve the many challenges we face. Multifaceted approaches are required. This is often used as justification for violent action. If you have not read or experienced the successes of non-violence then it is near impossible to know that they provide long-term change. The majority of the world sees Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela as heroes and role models. We all reap the benefits of their mindful actions and strategies. Yet many believe we can’t do what they did, not knowing that it has been repeated, again and again. We just aren’t taught it.

Violent actions result in multiple immediate responses. They can achieve a goal and simultaneously instigate countermeasures. The problem is two steps forward, one step back are not efficient. And I would contend that if violent actions contributed to laws that criminalize the right to speak or protest then we have gone two steps forward and three steps back. Nonviolent movements also suffer setbacks but because they unify the masses, they are harder to stop and simultaneously elevate humanity beyond it’s dominant, patriarchal past.

I recently listened to this podcast that helps illustrate this: It speaks about how social change takes time and that incrementalism is the reality. I also recommend The Politics of Volunteering by Nina Eliasoph. This is a political sociology book looking at the power of civic associations and volunteering; topics that directly overlap into the content of this blog.

The People Involved

Currently,, there is still a higher risk for women or people of color to lead a cause than there is for a white man (at least in the global west). Classism, sexism, and racism i.e. the tools of patriarchy, all contribute to this. In the last century, and more so in this one, we are beginning to see this change though we are far from fair representation, safety, or respect for any voice to be recognized as equal and legit. So we continue with men being the loudest voices[iii].

To date, men have led most social movements. This is understandable within the context of our patriarchal history and cultures. Therefore they have and continue to be the ones encouraging the use of violence to get what they want. So often we have a male, many times openly aggressive, acting as judge, jury, and prosecutor and leaving in his wake damage and destruction. To read about or speak to many of these men is to learn that they are fundamentalists with little regard for differing opinion and all too often total disregard for human life.[iv] Who are these men? They can be the head of a company deforesting an ancient forest and they can be the men resisting them; it depends on how they behave. One uses the boot to trample and the other uses the fist. Both use violence to achieve what they feel is their right to impose their will. Women participate but that does not negate the patriarchy.

Even when done in the pretext of saving something that cannot defend itself, we must ask ourselves if this will contribute to the change needed to prevent this crime from happening again?

It would probably be best that I include more thoughts on what to do in place of this. I think reading some of the people and topics I mentioned should contribute. Asking the questions about your motivation and the longterm results are important. I’m able to suggest and repeat ancient wisdom that all say to do unto others… and admit that it is easier said than done. Wisdom rests on the shoulders of knowledge and you control your ability to be wiser.[v] I don’t, this blog doesn’t, only you do.

To fix a problem caused by humans, their willing assistance is required to do so. Otherwise, we continue the cycle that the most powerful dominates and the rest are victims of their will. Direct action, when done with violence and destruction in mind, and in particular when it is aimed at the well being of targeted humans, is typically not different. You are the change that makes tomorrow better than today. Better means balanced, holistic living, where peace prevails. See you tomorrow!

[iii] Acknowledged, I too am a man.

[iv] Let’s stay on point here. I am not saying all male social activist are fundamentalists or dangerous. I am talking about perpetrators of violent direct action.

[v] I think it is safe to assume at least one reader will be thinking that it is my privilege as a white man that allows me to say some of this, that I can’t understand certain perspectives or motivations. This is 100% true. I can understand statistics, human psychology, and history though. I’m not telling anyone how to feel or supposing I know exactly what they feel. I am attempting to yield sustainable change by using the facts as we have them.

This blog was edited by Pete Thoreau, a vegan activist, and podcaster based in South Africa. His podcast is called Let's Rage Together and to his credit, he partially disagrees with my point of views written here but still helps me. Thanks, Pete.

*If you like this blog or wish to support my work, please click here. As part of my commitment to non-violence, I abstain from taking a salary for my labors. Thank you for reading.

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