Breaking down the walls around each other: interview with Kian Cham

Kian Cham was one of the first people interviewed by carla and Nick for the Joyful Militancy project, back in early 2014. This interview is included as an appendix in the book.

carla and Nick (c&N): One of the things we’re trying to think through with the notion of sad militancy is the way that Empire gets smuggled into radical movements in spaces through mistrust, fear, rigidity, shame, competition, and so on … but we want to think this through without blaming individuals. It’s not about individual feelings or behaviors; it’s about ways of relating that are coming out of this system.

Kian (K): Yeah, we’re recreating it.

c&N: Yeah, and we’re interested in talking to people that seem to be able to tap into something different, and I think you do that.

K: (laughs) I’m glad you think so.

c&N: I guess the first question is: does this resonate, does this description of sad militancy make sense to you?

K: Yeah, it’s funny because I don’t use those terms, but I find myself in situations where we’re having conversations about the exact same things, but with many different folks who are politically aware and trying to create change. It is really hard to not fall into sad militancy; I catch myself being overly critical of either myself or other people in their efforts to organize and create something better and new, or something that’s never been done before. It’s frustrating, and I find myself asking “why is this happening, this constant critique?” It’s totally internalized capitalist patriarchal shit.

I think it’s connected to perfectionism and the desire to do things “the right way” that becomes a part of us—it’s hard to not recreate that when that’s how you grew up and have learned that this is what’s true.

c&N: So what do you think made you get to a place where you’re able to catch yourself and do something else?

K: That’s a really good question … well, all those things are super isolating. Most people in this culture have experienced that pretty in-depth in their personal lives. I have, and when I’m critical of myself or other people, I try to strive for something that doesn’t exist, I’m always unhappy and I get frustrated, I get angry, I can get violent … those are things that aren’t productive.

I don’t know, I don’t know if there’s one specific thing; I don’t even know if I’m very good at being joyfully militant or whatever. I think my background in karate has helped, though … And basically recognizing that we’re all in this together and we all have a common goal, and making efforts to love each other—not just tolerate each other—but actually see how we can feel love for everyone to some degree. I think we’re capable—maybe that’s naïve or whatever—but I think we’re capable of doing that … that’s probably arguable too.

c&N: Do you think there are things that make rigidity or sad militancy spread?

K: Yeah for sure, I think people get sucked into stuff, right? I found myself going back to what’s comfortable. If I’m part of a group and people start hating on a certain thing in a way, I think it’s easy for me to get caught up in that. It’s something that I try to catch myself doing and recognize that’s not how I feel at all … it’s old patterns coming up again, and when you’re in new situations it’s easy for those patterns to come out.

c&N: Have you seen spaces, conversations, or practices shift from joyful militancy to sad militancy, or vice versa?

K: Yes, I would say so. I think I’ve seen spaces where everything has ups and downs, and people have ups and downs—going from sad to joyful to sad again—it’s exciting and then a key person leaves, or a project falls through, or maybe people are not happy with the way that everyone is contributing … sometimes that energy falls or maybe people lose interest.

But sometimes I can shift the energy of an entire crew of people … I find that usually, when people are able to recognize that we’re all in this together and it’s not a battle against each other. I think that’s usually what it is: having that foundation of common vision or goals or whatever. And usually there’s someone who is able to be joyful … in the same way that sad militancy is contagious, joy is also contagious; people get excited by new energy.

c&N: What do you think encourages and sustains joyful militancy?

K: I dunno … I’m pretty new to this whole way of being I guess, but I think humility is a huge part of it, and also community credit—“we did that together”—and celebrating tiny accomplishments can be really awesome; celebrating each other’s accomplishments, and respecting that stuff. I think part of the sad militancy—just to go back to how it catches on—is because I think in our society we learn to be overly critical and perfectionist … it’s so easy to criticize people’s work and what they’re doing without recognizing what they’re trying to do and what they’re actually accomplishing. At the same time, criticism can be a gift for everyone involved when it’s about learning and figuring things out together.

c&N: So it’s not even that criticism equals sad militancy; is there a way to do criticism that can be joyful?

K: Oh, totally. I was just talking about this with a friend the other day. I think it’s important to talk to people about how they receive criticism and how they would want to, or if they even can safely, I guess. But for me I think it’s really, really, really awesome when people give me feedback and constructive criticism in a respectful way; even if it’s in a non-respectful way, I’ll take it, I might be angry about it, it might make me irritable or hate on something, but I’ll absorb it as well. All criticisms are gifts because they’re perspectives that I probably didn’t have before and I can work with. And I acknowledge that I can’t make everyone happy and that’s not what I’m trying to do. I want to be as inclusive as possible with the work that I’m doing, but there’s no way that every single person is gonna be super stoked about it. And to receive criticism I also need to have a positive feedback system, where it’s like: if I receive 10 things I’m doing so-called “wrong,” it will make me feel like I’m not doing anything right, and I don’t know what to keep and what to change. It’s like if you’re playing cards and you think I’m just gonna fold and leave every time. But probably there are some things I should keep, so positive feedback is also really important.

c&N: We want to talk about the importance of trust, and the radical potential of trust, without turning trust into some commandment. Does this resonate? Can you talk about the potential of trusting folks up front, and how you saw it play out at the Thistle?

K: Yeah totally, I think that’s awesome. Actually I think you [carla] were one of the first people to actually trust me without even knowing me. And I was like what the hell? Why? Why? How do you know I’m not gonna just fuck everything up and run away and steal a bunch of money and go? How do you know that? But in trusting me, I was like, holy shit: I trust this situation and this collective twenty times more and I want to give back to it because I’ve been given this opportunity to do something that I’ve never been able to do before, which is awesome.

But I have been thinking about trust and how with trauma we build all these walls and we start to mistrust everything. I have a pretty hard time trusting people. There’s a point where I’m like, this is too personal and too intimate and now my walls are going to go up. I was sitting and thinking about how it’s probably one of the best ways to break down the walls of the system is to break down the walls around each other first, and I think that requires trust.

Joyful militancy and trust, and compassion, and humility are all tied together, I think: in other cultures, traditional cultures—I don’t know a lot about this—but from what I know, older Indigenous cultures have these ideas of respect, humility, compassion, and I think in karate I’ve seen it and it’s interesting because karate is a martial art, a fighting tool, and one of the things that we learn is that we have to love everyone including our opponents. And that’s the toughest thing to say in this community. People are like “what the fuck, how can you say that, you can’t just love your abuser.” And it’s true, I can’t just let go of everything. It’s not that; it’s being compassionate, I think, to situations.


linocut by Sylvia McFadden

c&N: What makes it hard to nurture trust? What’s been your experience with trust in your everyday? And in radical spaces?

K: I feel like trauma is the biggest hurdle for me. From what I see happening around me and my own self, a lot of people—not everyone—but a lot of people who are politically involved and radical are there because they’re the short stick: they’ve been oppressed and traumatized. That’s often what leads people to these ideas and values, maybe? Well, for me that’s true … but I think when we lose trust in anything—either family, or relationships, or the system that we’re part of—we build walls to protect ourselves. And it takes a lot of work to break down those walls, and we need to trust, and when you’re trying to defend yourself all the time, and you don’t trust anything, it’s like a sad circle—a catch-22—and that’s what I’ve seen go on. It’s not just about organizing in the community, it’s not just about unlearning belief systems; it’s also unlearning ways of being in ourselves and that takes a lot of work and a lot of that shit nobody wants to look at or bring up again. And I know a lot of people are like, “this thing keeps coming up and I’m blocking it because it’s too scary.” And I think that that’s keeping us isolated and rigid.

c&N: So there’s like a comfort and safety in remaining rigid, skeptical, untrusting?

K: There is! This whole world is based on fucking misery and to be joyful is scary because it’s kind of unknown. In capitalist systems, we’re not meant to feel joy; I think it’s about domination and power and gaining respect by taking part, but it has nothing to do with joy. Even now, I feel like people judge me for being too positive and too happy; people think I’m way younger than I am often because of my attitude; they’re like “why aren’t you bitter yet?” It’s really interesting because it’s scary to feel new things and not know where they’re going to take you.

c&N: Can we have the expectation of trust up front? Do you think there’s an alternative to the idea that trust always needs to be earned?

K: It’s so hard in our society: you gotta earn everything; you earn money, you build trust, and respect. You gotta prove to me that I should trust you, or respect you. And that’s an interesting point; I have a tough time with that, trusting people. But I think it’s a feedback system: probably the more you allow yourself to trust people initially, probably the more well-reciprocated that will be. I felt it: you trust me and I didn’t understand it. That’s how fucked up our system is. Even though I didn’t do anything wrong, or to harm you, I didn’t understand how someone could trust me without knowing me first.

c&N: There’s this perception that all this stuff—trust, curiosity, uncertainty, joy—is naïve: if you’re joyful or trusting you probably just don’t understand what’s going on, or how bad things are. And with that, there’s a perception that only people who are super privileged have the capacity to be joyful. How do you think about joyful militancy and trust in relation to privilege and oppression?

K: I think some of the most joyful people I’ve met are not coming from privileged backgrounds. I don’t think it’s true that only privileged people can be joyful. It’s a blanket statement and it’s also kind of really oppressive and ignorant to say, I think. I think that’s harsh for me to say, but I think that there’s a lot of people and friends that are coming from privileged backgrounds are some of the most rigid people and the most isolated. They don’t feel at ease and they’re not comfortable, they’re guilty. A lot of privilege makes it difficult to learn how to work cooperatively. But I’ve seen the effectiveness and power—I don’t mean power like people who dominate—I mean power like the energy that comes from compassion and love and real collective work and humility. Humility’s such a huge one.

It’s part of our society to discount that all that as naïve. Naïve is inexperience—what is inexperience? It comes from an ageist perspective: you’re young, you only think like this because you’re young; you haven’t experienced enough. Actually some of the youngest people—kids—are often the most connected and able to absorb and create. It is ageist to associate joyfulness with naïveté. Maybe that’s super harsh to say but I think it comes from our society’s idea of what it means to be an adult, a youth, a child. Those systems are in place to keep us fuckin’ stagnant, and to keep kids stagnant and devalued and powerless.

c&N: Yeah that’s a useful way for us to think about it because it’s easy to make all this into another set of norms: “just be this way.” It’s hard to talk about this in other ways, maybe because part of rigid militancy and activist-speak is constantly prescribing behaviors, and it’s easy to hear joyful militancy as another prescription.

K: Maybe it’s not a prescription, it is a practice … I’m excited because I’ve been having these conversations with friends. I think it’s really awesome that you’re really intentionally introducing this. Because I think probably the amount of work it must have taken you (carla) to just start off trusting people is a fuck-load, probably … and I’m realizing how important it is to share that … once we have something, we can share it with younger folks so that they don’t have to go through the same struggles to get to these points. I feel like what I’m learning is probably at a way earlier stage in my life than when you probably learned it. And I’ll be able to pass that on to the kids in my life when they’re way younger, like four or five, starting to introduce these ideas, and they won’t have to face the same struggles again, and we can go deeper, and it’s exciting.

Kian Cham is a community organizer and settler of Chinese and Irish descent, and a former collective member of the Purple Thistle who worked with carla as a youth at the Purple Thistle. Being involved with projects like the Thistle has brought them depth and insight into trying to understand what the hell is going on in the world. Kelsey is focused on organizing experiential learning projects with youth and adults in gardening, mycology, fermentation, and “ki” (chi) based karate.