19 July 2015

This is really a beautiful essay by Freddie deBoer.   I only want to comment on one issue he brings up:

One campus group I was in decided to institute a consensus-based decision making policy; they felt democracy was bourgeois and that voting failed to respect minority voices. So they advocated for a system based on universal assent. No decision could be made without perfect unanimity. I argued that this was a mistake. I felt that consensus could never work in groups with true diversity and that this was a tactic for richie liberal arts colleges where everybody was pretty much the same, not a working class commuter campus like ours. But I found myself outvoted, which would have been fine. Unfortunately, they wanted to adopt a consensus decision making process only through consensus itself, which didn’t really make any sense. Since I thought it was a bad idea, I did not consent. After two meetings of a standstill, I was quietly informed I had to leave the group. A change designed explicitly to defend the rights of minority voices had resulted in my expulsion for refusing to conform. Things were like that back then.
I also would have argued (at my richie liberal arts college, if I had been at all active in campus social justice groups) against this sort of policy change.  It seems this group wanted to reject bourgeois democracy in favor of aristocratic Polish-Lithuanian anarchy

I recently returned from the Socialism 2015 conference in Chicago, and there I saw a little bit of this same governance problem on display.  (I don't intend to slight the conference organizers -- they did a splendid job managing, I think, over a hundred sessions in the space of four days, while also pulling off a rocking party on the third night, which I did not attend but which seems to have been a success.)  In the Q&A period after panel discussions, conference policy stated that anyone in the room was welcome to speak (not necessarily with a question) for an amount of time to be determined by a session leader (one of the panelists).  This was always somewhere in the range of 2 - 3 minutes, if my memory serves.

It is a well-known peculiarity of the human brain that time seems to pass at varying rates depending on what one is doing.  And I suppose that is the most charitable response I can give to what were, in some cases, flagrant abuses of everyone's time.  (I must admit that it was only men whom I saw do this, so maybe I should blame the male brain specifically.)  It is, of course, kind of hard to put your foot down as a session leader and cut someone off when he's exceeded 4 minutes and is deeply involved in a story about how Dennis Kucinich killed the Green Party in 2004.  Some leaders were better at this than others. 

So my reflection on this is as follows:  when it comes to the world of politics and activism, it's almost as if we lived in an age before writing, when the sum total of human communication had to be expressed in speaking or gesturing to each other (of course even in those times there was visual art that conveyed messages, but political rhetoric, such as it was, was all oral and gestural).  Has the net effect of all our blogs and social media been simply to elevate the spoken-word artist, the oral performer?  This would at least partially explain the rise of politicians like Scott Walker, whose words and signals one day bear no relation to his words and signals of the previous day, but whom thousands rally behind because he smiles a lot, is comfortingly white, and uses the right tone of voice for every occasion.

And I guess I want to raise something else up for "problematizing" (urggh) in deBoer's essay.  He alludes to Audre Lorde's well-known saying "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house."  It's easy to treat this very literally and assume that Lorde was opposed to using any kind of political tactic or organizing principle that oppressors used.  However, I strongly doubt that was the case.  Audre Lorde was really big on confronting internal demons and she emphasized the point that for activists to succeed in coalition-building they must first confront the fear of difference inside themselves, and that this process will look different for everyone.  Vide plenum"I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.”





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