Failing with rigour

Can failure be generative? In the context of accountability processes and decolonial work, how do we balance necessary empathy for ourselves and each other when we do fail, with discipline and rigour?

Can failure be generative? In the context of accountability processes and decolonial work, how do we balance necessary empathy for ourselves and each other when we do fail, with discipline and rigour? In other words, how do we make room for failure while staying focused on and committed to the difficult work that lies ahead of us, towards liberation? How do we embrace failure while building our individual and collective stamina? How do we recognise that failure is an inevitable step, without romanticising it?

Failure, and—specifically—the inability to face it generatively, is an ongoing problem in our movement cultures. It is a reason why people fear entering spaces to engage and why people give up. As artists and chefs Hannah Black and Carla Perez-Gallardo said to The Creative Independent: “The word “failure” feels final.” “[It] is often read as an ending or the arrival, or something is failing and then you start over.”

But when you’re driving and you hit a dead end, you don’t get out of the car and call it quits: you reverse and try to find another way. Similarly, Black and Perez-Gallardo said: “failure is fluid. I feel like failure for us is more about moving through something, and not the endpoint.”

In our movement cultures, failure can often feel final. Understandably, many of us feel forced to get out of the metaphorical car and call it quits. And it’s understandable, because our spaces are not cultivated in such a way that failure is generative. Instead, what we have, and especially so in leftist politics, is people ready to jump at each other’s throats the moment anyone makes (or is perceived to be making) a mistake. Allyship becomes moralistic, about whether or not you’re a “good” person, about whether or not you’re doing the “right” things. Then it becomes performative: how are you perceived? What are you seen to be doing, or not doing?

Poet, teacher and public intellectual Dr. Bayo Akomolafe puts it this way: “white allyship comes with a righteousness model on morality, an ethical code. If you’re not a good white ally, then there’s something wrong with you. To be a good white ally, you need to do your work—and all of that is important. At the same time, you’re trapped in an ethical code that doesn’t allow you to spill; it doesn’t allow your body to move; it doesn’t allow us to notice the intergenerational dance of bodies that we sometimes glibly call failure or success.” This framework of failure incarcerates, it traps us in boxes. No wonder so many of us call it quits.

Dr. Akomolafe proposes a reframe like this: “This idea of brokenness is missing in our conversations because we’re looking for wholeness, and righteousness—we want to get it right, and we want to stick by the script. In doing so we’re becoming brittle bodies: you can’t even have a conversation about mistakes anymore. I’m leaning into failure, I’m wondering about the promises of monsters, I’m wondering about how brokenness can redeem us from the incarceration of wholeness.”

We should be able to have conversations about mistakes. And more than that, as Dr. Akomolafe is saying, we should probably throw the entire existing framework of failure we’re working with away—or compost it—and sit with the idea of brokenness, instead of wholeness. The idea of imperfection and not getting it right as a starting point, and ridding ourselves of an arbitrary endpoint with markers of success. And then as the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures Collective says, “it is important not to suffocate the process with expectations and projections.”

Against white allyship and its righteousness model on morality stands the reality of what we are faced with: complexity. There are no correct answers, no formulae; and there is not a single perfect person doing this work. “It is like learning to walk and breathe in a foggy road together,” says the Collective.

But in embracing fluidity in failure and being open to mistakes, there is a very real possibility of romanticising the process of making mistakes. In the context of accountability processes and decolonial work, failure and making mistakes are not beautiful. There is a serious danger in leaning into failure so far that one tips the scales and forgets that unarguably real harm arises from it, embedded and complicit as we are in structures and systems of oppression. As someone who is doing the work in the real world, there are real consequences from failing. And yet, still, we have to make space for it, and we have to know that we will correct the mistakes only to keep making them again.

So we return to the question: how do we recognise that failure is an inevitable step, without romanticising it? In embracing failure, how do we balance empathy with discipline? This is the work of the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures Collective, who are working on tools to do the work better: tools to practice learning to face our social and ecological reality without falling into idealisation or existential dread, and preparing ourselves to hold and move with the complexity of our times without throwing tantrums or running away. This is the work, and doing it in this time guarantees that it’s a path towards liberation that is rife with mistakes.

A lens which the Collective has developed, with which we can look through, is radical tenderness. A multi-faceted lens, it—among other things—“is being receptive to the teachings of our shadows”, “is fermenting ourselves, mourning illusions, composting our shit”, “looking in the mirror and confronting what is not beautiful without turning the gaze”, “is being courageously vulnerable”, “is looking at painful and difficult things with the love of really wanting to see”. This aspect of radical tenderness as a lens that can help us with this reframing of failure builds from Dr. Akomolafe’s teachings: it establishes “not getting it right”, as a starting point.

But it’s not just that we assume we’re not going to get it right. It’s also about paying attention to how we’re not getting it right, and what happens when we don’t get it right. It is opening our eyes to the lack of beauty in failure, courageously staring at the harm we are complicit in, but from a humble, loving, radically tender place, grounded in a desire to keep working at it, knowing that there is no right answer, no end of the metaphorical tunnel. In fact, it is not a tunnel, it is a bridge, with no destination. The Collective says: “We encourage people to strive to fail with humility, hyper-self-reflexivity, and with a sense that we have to accept responsibility for how our failure might have negatively impacted others, as well as accept responsibility for learning from the failure itself.

In other words, if we are going to fail, let’s fail with both intellectual and relational rigour.” Failing with rigour, with humility, and hyper-self-reflexivity, is an ongoing (lifelong and lifewide, is how the Collective terms it) process towards collective liberation: but liberation not as an endpoint, but as a necessarily shifting goalpost. This is a process that involves really looking, a commitment, with “a level of honesty with ourselves”, “a level of trust in others”, and a community with whom we are doing this work, so that “someone [can hold] up a mirror for us, reminding us to have discernment and to revisit the commitment that we have made to stay with this work, especially when it gets difficult.”

This is how we fail generatively, without romanticising the gift of failure. In advaya’s upcoming course with the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures Collective, Sensing Harm by Design, we are bringing together a cohort of students who are interested in and committed to applying the lens of radical tenderness to their lives, among other tools.

You will not learn what to think: you will learn how to expand your capacity to respond to the complexity of our times and do the work, with greater discernment, sobriety, maturity and accountability. You will begin to embrace failure, without romanticising the un/learning process. “This is an invitation to cultivate the capacity to layer reality and embrace the discomfort of navigating paradoxes”—failure being one of them. In a world where the modern-colonial system is collapsing and we are attempting to navigate reality together, let us learn to fail, with empathy and with discipline—with rigour, together.


Tammy Gan

Tammy (she/her) leads on content and storytelling at advaya.

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Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures

GTDF are a trans-disciplinary collective of researchers, artists, educators, students & Indigenous knowledge keepers.

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