What Activism Really Looks Like

For about one third of my thirteenth year, I got up each morning and looked in the mirror while I applied my lipstick before going to school or out to the mall. My parents didn't let me wear makeup, but I didn't hide this lipstick application from them. I wasn't putting it on my lips, see; I put it on my face. During the entirety of Canada's involvment in the first Gulf War, I wore  a peace sign on my right cheek. In November of 1990 when the States and UN called on Canada to involve itself in the war, I declared that if we did I would protest it until it ended.

For the most part it was a quiet protest. I didn't believe we belonged "over there" and felt that the entire war was a sham for the Americans to gain oil grounds and establish an operative foothold in the middle east. I didn't agree with Hussein, but I didn't agree with the war either.

When people asked me about my facepaint (and, yes, even at 13 I understood the irony of wearing war paint to protest a war) I explained my reasons to them. The reactions I received were varied, from the president of the local Plowshares group telling me I was the coolest kid he ever met, to raised eyebrows and invitations to debate from my teachers, to accusations of not supporting our soldiers from relatives of those serving.

I explained it wasn't about the soldiers but about the war. I thought I was showing the best sign of support ever - that they could come home.

And yet, one day, shortly before the end of the war, I received a voilent reaction unlike any other. As I stood in the school hallway talking to a friend, an older and much bigger girl approached me. She demanded I wipe my face. I explained that I wore the sign as personal protest. She punched me in the stomach and laid me out on the floor. I lay on the floor at the top of a staircase, certain to tumble if I was touched again. As she reached for me declaring "my brother's a soldier and you want him to die!" I shouted back "I'm not fighting you!"

She spat on me and began to walk away. I tried to explain - I support your brother; I don't support the war. She called me names and walked on. For the rest of the year she followed me and taunted me, even after I washed the peace sign from my face at the end of the war.

I remembered that girl this week (though damned if I can remember her name) as I watched other's being attacked. But in these cases they weren't being attacked for their activism, they were being attacked by activists.

Last week I blogged about the breastfeeding message and why I think it's neccessary to promote breastfeeding. I was impressed by the mature response of most comments. Until someone decided to use my blog as a platform to lauch an attack on formula-feeding mothers. Very Bored in Catalunya? I am sorry that happened and I admire you for standing your ground.

Let me make it clear. I don't believe formula feeding moms should be attacked. I don't believe they should be accused of poisoning their child or of being too selfish to do what is best for their child. I won't give every one of them a "get out of jail free" card for their choices (by saying formula is just as good as breastmilk), but I respect their choices and their personal stories. I understand that often the choice is made under duress. The thing about my support of breastfeeding is that it's part and parcel of my support of mothers the world round who want to do best by their babies. I don't think attacking any mother for choicing or being forced to use formula will in any way further the cause of breastfeeding.

Who do I attack? I attack the formula companies. I do think there are harmful ingredients in formula (though I wouldn't go so far as to call it poison). So I ask the companies to change; I lobby against those ingredients. I attack marketing campaigns and the institutions that support them. I attack ignorance and old-wives tales (though they're new old-wives indeed).

The other day as I sat nursing my toddler at the doctor's office, a heavily pregnant women asked me why I was still nursing. Turns out she planned to go straight to formula. We discussed my reasons for nursing. We discussed her reasons for her choice. At the end she agreed that she might try breastfeeding. I didn't badger her; I didn't use scare tactics; I just gave her my honest beliefs and encouraged her to do what a niggling part of her must have wanted to. I cleared up some misconceptions she had (you can't drink ever; you're stuck to the baby; they nurse all night; my breasts will get saggy; my mother says it's not normal and she'll give the baby bottles).

At no point did she ask me to "back off" or seek to end the discussion. If she had, I would have. Because activism is not meant to be individual attacks.

What good would have come of attacking this woman? Even if she sat there feeding her six month old from a bottle, what good would judgment and unkind words do? The choice was already made. The best way to change her choice in the future is through support, encouragement, and sharing information.

To me, that is the sign of a true activist. One who encourages; who peacefully stands their ground; who attacks ignorance and corporate agendas and not people and individual choices. For how does attacking an individual further a greater cause? One must attack the institutions that are against one's cause, not the individuals that are merely going about their lives.

Earlier this week another form of activist with which I identify attacked an individual. On her blog, Jill Haskins revealed the death of her infant son from HLHS - a congenital heart defect. His death happened to occur shortly after he underwent a circumcision operation.

I'm not just a lactivist, I'm an intactivist too. In other words, I believe that a baby boy's foreskin should not be cut off for cosmetic purposes. I give heed to religious reasons but not so much social ones (so he can look like his Daddy). My belief in this is simple: first, do no harm.

Despite my personal beliefs I would never have dreamed of attacking a grieving mother for her choices. Yes, sure, if she had beaten her child to death I'd attack her. But she did not. She made a choice based on the information and knowledge she had. And I don't neccessarily believe that had anything to do with his death.

She sat by her baby's bedside for 51 days straight. She expressed her breastmilk so it could be fed to him through his NG tube. She loved him with all the heart that was in her and prayed for the heart that was in him.

In the end this struggling mother said goodbye to her child.

For 51 days she fought with him. She had many moments when she had to make decisions and fight for her child. She made a single choice I don't agree with. She was encouraged in that choice by the doctors and the hospital. And as a mother of a sick child myself I completely understand the need for some normalcy in your child's life. For her family, the circumcision was part of the normalcy. I can understand that even if I don't agree with it.

The thing is, Jill was attacked. She wasn't even given a  full day to grieve before others had taken her story and made it their own for their own purposes. They subverted her voice, they stole images of her child and they personally attacked her on her blog. I read some of those comments. They were horrible. I've read the posts that attacked her or judged her. They disgusted me. I will not link to them because I don't want to give them credence. I think I've been an authentic blogger - you can trust me when I tell you what my impression was.

Today, I watched on Twitter as they continued to force their views and beliefs on her despite her asking that she be left alone. A grieving mother wants to grieve her child and they could not understand that.

As an intactivist I support educating pregnant women that circumcision is not neccessary. I support lobbying professional medical groups to speak out against it. I support spreading the message of intactivism through a display of my beliefs.

I do not, as with breastfeeding, support attacking any individual. I don't support judging indvidual choices. I don't believe in hatred and stubborn dissaproval of anyone who choices differently than me. I don't think the war is won soldier by soldier but battle by battle.

Mostly, though, I don't believe in hitting someone when they're down. That's not activism, that's just inhumane.

*Please note: I have never before moderated or deleted comments (well except that one time when I was asked to by the commentor and also, of course, spam), but if someone decides to use this post to propogate hatred or attacks on individuals I will delete your comments. Also, Jill has not seen this post before it was posted. I asked her if it would be okay to use her story to illustrate my point. However, if she indicates she rather not have it out there I will remove any mention of her from it.(edit: she has seen it and approves) If you don't agree with these sentiments than take your ball and go home; I have other friends to play with.


  1. My thoughts exactly! Thank you for articulating that so well. This is one of the first moments since the beginning of this whole thing that I can once again feel proud to be called an activist. Of anything.

    Jill - Again, and again, and again. My heart hurts for you and your family. My heart hurts for all the pain you have endured on top of the grief you have had to bear. You are in our family's thoughts and prayers. May God give you the gift of laughter again tomorrow... ()

  2. You offer wise thoughts on the issue of activism, and I read your comments as a plea for clear-headedness and decency. I'm reminded that being an activist -- even an extremely outspoken one -- doesn't mean having to part with either virtue.

  3. I guess I have a rather simple overview of all this (not sure overview is the right word, it implies a mastery that I certainly don't have). For me it is all about choice. Everyone should have the free choice to make decisions about how they bring up their children. Ideally those choices should be as well informed as possible and I applaud anyone who gets accurate information out there so people can make those choices for themselves. Nobody should be attacked for a choice they have made for their own good reasons. As to the war - we all have the right to protest. I don't think a single person here doesn't think our soldiers are brave or doesn't want them all home again. But war is bad. Simple. There is not good moral argument to justify death and destruction on any scale. I recognize that in the world we have made it is sometimes inevitable and the only way forward. That doesn't however make it agood thing that should be celebrated. A very thought provoking post. Superbly written. Much food for thought and I admire your even handedness and calm approach. Good on you.

  4. A fantastic piece of writing Dara.

    And I admire your strength - from afar - in more ways than one. I hope everyone who reads this can learn something from it and be a better person.

    I know I will.

    LCM x

  5. I'm not an activist of any description. I believe that people should be armed with all the correct information so that they can go and make an informed decision that is best for them and their families, and then left the hell alone. Be it breastfeeding, formula feeding, how and where you give birth, how you school your child etc. As illustrated I think, by my recent blog post.
    I was slightly confused by Jill's story, I did think at first that she'd had her son circumcised and had put his health at risk by doing so, however from reading her incredibly sad blog that isn't the case. Her son was desperately ill and was going to die. The circumcision was something that she and her family, being extremely religious, believed in and thought would be of benefit to their son in the next life:

    "And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant." Genesis 17:14

    I'm an atheist so obviously don't actually believe in this, HOWEVER Jill and her family do and if it has bought them some comfort in their grief then it was the correct decision for them. For people to jump on their grief and use it for their own gain is deplorable and sickening.

  6. Sorry, great post Dara. Again! You my lady are on fire!

  7. Fantastic post, Dara. I can't even tell you how much I admire you and your ability to speak honestly and passionately about what you believe in. Thank you for being an inspiration to me and to many others.

  8. I applaud you for standing up for what you believe, but also understanding when others don't agree. More can be done by having a compassionate and understanding conversation discussing views. How many of you have ignored your parents advice, because it felt more like nagging? Advice from friends are listened to more readily and more often heeded. The most important part is that it puts the question in the person's head. It makes them stop and think before making the final decision. That is what I feel activism is all about. I could not breast feed and would have loved to. I tried, but for the sake of my child I had to give it up. I listened to what everyone had been saying about the benefits, I educated myself on how to do it, and I even went to my lactation consultants for help. In the end, the decision was to take something to help my milk production that has drastic side effects of depression. Having suffered from depression all my life, I knew I could not take that chance. In the best interest of my child, I needed to be strong and fully complete to care for her, therefore I had to make the decision to switch. This decision is heart wrenching and difficult - NO ONE should be persecuted for it. I am more willing to listen to someone who understands my situation and might have helpful suggestions, but if you are going to attack me - NO WAY! Your message is lost. You attract more bees with honey - as my mom used to say! Thank you for putting this out there and expressing both sides of this issue with Fierce and Fiesty. The end result is that she did not need to be the center of this attack. The message was lost. No matter what decision was made about Joshua - he was loved and all decisions for him were made with love! The grief is real and should be respected.

  9. I believe strongly in my parenting decisions to breastfeed and to not circumcise my son. But compassion supersedes my choices.

    We all have stories and reasons for our decisions. Disagreement and attacking are very very different.

    When i go on the attack, it is nearly always because I do NOT feel confident in my own choices.

    It's sad that so many are insecure that they must hurt others to feel okay. But I feel compassion for them too. (kinda the worst part of all this "caring" stuff ;))

  10. Great post Dara!! I would choose not to circumcise if I had a boy but I have girls so I didn't have to make that decision!

  11. As a friend of Jills, I have grown dishearted through this all. It's all I can do to try to help her out. She linked up to this blog, so I know that your words have helped and I am glad. There's nothing more reassurring when being attacked than to look behind you and realize that the army that stands behind you is ten times larger than the ones rushing towards you. Thank you.

  12. I had never read your blog before today... but I'll be darned if I don't think this is one of the best-written blogs I've read! Love it! :)

    I am pro-breastfeeding. But some of the mommies I'm closest to, like my big sister, couldn't for one legitimate reason or another. No attacks here. We also circ'ed our son, because of the verse listed above. 8th day and everything to take advantage of the natural influx of vitamin K that occurs that day. But, some people don't, and I absolutely see that opinion as totally understandable.

    Anyways.. just had to tell you how great I thought this was. :)

  13. What a thoughtful post. I especially like your point that accepting someone else's parenting choices does not invalidate your own. To be honest, I didn't even know about this grieving mother or the attack on her. I wonder what prompted the co-opting of her tragedy. Why are people so afraid that tolerance of others will somehow diminish their own world? This sounds like an even more brutal representation of certain segments in American political culture that have thrown empathy out the window as they cower behind their own self-righteousness.

  14. This, 150%. I said yesterday that most activists are not assholes, but all it takes is the wrong kind of "encouragement" to make it look that way.

    Mothers attacking each other over personal choices in lieu of support and education to those who want it serves no one.

  15. Unfortunately this is yet another example of how cowards use the internet cloak of anonymity to attack people. I cannot pretend to understand the reasons for circumcision- I personally am against it unless for medical reasons- but no-one should be so heartless to attack a grieving mother like this. That's just wrong.

  16. I read this post after Jill tweeted it...and while I don't agree with everything you wrote, I admire the way in which you choose to take your stand. I read this tweet yesterday: I believe my beliefs & have no reason or desire to debate them or try to sway anyone into thinking like me. I'm secure with 'me'...fix you. This sums up my feelings very well.

    Taking my ball and going home now.

  17. wow, I missed all of this but like you Dara I am appalled that people would attack a grieving mother whatever their beliefs about circumcision. It sounds to me like a lot of people jumping on a bandwagon they know nothing about before they have bothered to check the facts. I am heartened to read in your comments that this has brought some help to Jill and hope that those attacking her grow the hell up and get some common decency and leave the poor woman alone.

    I love a good debate, hearing other peoples reasons behind things and will never for the life of me understand those that simply preach and can see only one side of a story.

    A great post Dara, really great. x

  18. How can someone attack a grieving mother in such a way

    so beautifully written and my heart goes out to Jill and her family x

  19. Dara, I just went over to Jill's blog and read the whole story. I am heartbroken. I cannot believe people would act that cruel. All my love and prayers go out to Jill and her entire family.

  20. Thank you for posting this thoughtful response. I have trouble referring to myself as an "intactivist" because of all the vitriol that has spewed forth from some very vocal self-appointed mouthpieces. Those of us who actually put people above the "cause" need to be the louder voice here. Blogs like this will help.

  21. I really like this post. It is good and is the way I go about things. My cousin is pregnant and is having a boy. I so badly want to tell her to not circumcise. But instead, I have told her that if she wants to know about natural birth, breastfeeding, circumcision, she can talk to me. And I offered to send her some books (and I even went through them and wrote notes by the circumcision stuff to correct it!). I can only hope that she, being a smart woman, will research this and make a smart decision.

    It is hard because while I agree with Steve that people should be able to make their own choices, I do draw the line at circumcision. Breastfeeding and natural birth/VBACK/homebirth, sleeping arrangements are one thing. For those, I agree that people should educate themselves and then do what works for their family. I have my own preferences and am more than willing to give people information, of course. But cutting off part of a baby's body is different. And yet I am uncomfortable pushing my views on others. And yet it's a voiceless, helpless baby. So I am torn about how much activism I should do.

    AND YET I would definitely NOT attack a grieving mother. Not in a million years. And I wouldn't even attack someone AFTER the fact, even if their son were fine and healthy. What's done is done and after the fact we can only educate to help in the future.

  22. @ Very Bored in Catalunya said...

    I just wanted to clear a common misunderstanding about the Christian religion. Circumcision is not a Christian mandate.


    If you wish to go into a further study on this issue google these words:

    "What the Bible Really Says About Routine Infant Circumcision"

    the article by Laura Jezek is one that opened my eyes the most.

    I also recommend reading about the history of circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America:


    It was an intactivist that led me back to Christ.

    Many of the most intelligent in the pro-intact community have seen pro-circ trolls disguise themselves as an intactivist trying to incite a backlash. They are quite happy with themselves right now.

    Attacking a mother while she is grieving is not intactivism.

  23. Great post, Dara. The news in France yesterday was about a father who set up a Facebook page to inform people about his son's terrible handicap. I don't remember what it was and it's not important. The news covered the shocking reaction this page attracted from some FB users.

    People commented that he should be allowed to die, they criticised the father, some made pedophile-type comments. In the end, he took the page down, but someone formed a new one using the same photo and the same information and the comments started all over again.

    The point I'm making is that there are some very unfortunate people out there who have blinkered attitudes and problems which they deal with by attacking perceived weakness in others. Despite the fact that no one's asked them for their opinion, they feel entitled to give it anyway and hide behind anonymity to be as rude as they like.

    These types will jump on any bandwagon and troll their way around the internet causing upset wherever they go, confident in their own righteousness and loud in their moral outrage.

    I'm sorry that Jill experienced this at its worst, in her darkest moment. I can't imagine what it felt like, and it infuriates me that she had to go through it, as did that poor father.

    It's one of the darker sides of the internet.

  24. Why is the world not made up of more level headed people who have common sense, like you? It would be a much happier place. *sigh*

  25. My view on all this was similar to yours. UNTIL I saw that them om LIVE blogged and tweeted her son's death. That she admitted that the circ killed him and she was to blame. She removed it all of course so maybe you didn't get to see it. Even now she's contacting ELLEN and fighting with intactivists rather than hole up with her family and grieve. I don't have any sympathy for her after finding out all of that info. Sorry, but that's how I feel.

    Tell me what you would be doing if you son was dying. I am sure you wouldn't be live blogging it!

    In general I'm pretty peaceful about my views on things like this but more and more I'm finding that I have a stronger voice on this topic than any other and I can't just sit by and not speak up about it. I post a lot about it on facebook and because of MY posts about it, friends have left their baby boys intact. I'm so proud of that!

    I want justice for this baby. I want his death to be written honestly on his death certificate. I want the drs who had a part in this held accountable. The mother made a bad choice but the drs carried it out and they should have said no, he's not well enough!

  26. Laura,
    That's simply not true.
    I had planned to just delete your comment because it is full of falsehoods, but I won't because I think those falsehoods need to be addressed.
    I am going by memory here because as you said she has deleted those posts. Not, as you insinuate, to escape some kind of responsibility, but because people were using them to attack her.
    In the evening, after the surgeon put the stitch in and the bleeding was stopped she posted a post about the guilt she felt about going ahead with that surgery. Because there were complications she of course blamed herself. As would all of us.
    We all feel this way, about everything our children undergo. Have you ever nicked your baby cutting her fingernails? Have you then broke down into a sobbing mess and called your friends to say "My God I've cut my child! She's bleeding everywhere. I can't believe I did this!"
    Is that admitting to abuse? No. It's venting your frustration and pain over hurting your child, over them having to through something because of a decision you made.
    She did not "live blog" her son's death. From my memory she posted that post and then one other, the next day, to update that they were working on him again.
    To me that is not live blogging.
    A day later, when along with the outpouring of sympathy she began to receive hateful and horrendous messages like "you deserved to lose your child" and then received a call from the newstation saying they'd received reports that her child had died due to circumcision and she began to feel like the walls of her life that had already collapsed around her were now being thrown at her in our digital equivalent of stoning, she sent one tweet. One tweet only to Ellen who had just featured bullying to say she was being bullied.
    Obviously she felt no one could stop the hurrican of horrendous messages and went on the attack.
    If you had ever read her blog you would not make the judgments against her you've made but you are obviously either too lazy or too caught up in your own vigilante activism to do anything about this.
    His death is written honestly on his death certificate. I am sure the hospital will review his case and perhaps change their poicy about circumcision for at risk children. But he died from heart failure. Nothing else. It's that simple.

  27. Great post love. Very passionate - women need to unite and support each other, even if we don't agree with each other - that is sisterhood. We are so far from it. Breast is best but formula is not fatal. I wouldn't circumcise my son unless there was a medical need but then I am not incarcerated by religious doctrines. I am on your team forever. xx


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