Effervescence and Susurration in Solidarity: A Miniature Tangential Con Report

This past weekend I attended Socialism 2014 for the first time. It was a lot of fun, and quite tiring. I went to some panels and I’ll be turning some notes and thoughts from each one into blog posts over the next few weeks.

First, there’s something else I want to talk about. At both plenaries (and almost certainly the final rally, which I had to miss for a prior obligation), before the thing proper started there were chants led by audience members. Some samples, as I remember them:

Foreign wars of occupation/will never lead to liberation/that’s bullshit/get off it/this war is for profit {this one was great fun to chant; it has a delightful rhythm and, of course, swearing}
They say get back/we say fight back {apparently this one’s from Occupy}
LGBT/we demand equality
They say death row/we say hell no//death row/hell no
Our land/our water/deep beneath our feet {this one could use some scansion work}
Long live Palestine/free free Palestine/long live the Intifada/Intifada Intifada
Back up, back up/we want freedom, freedom/fuck those dirty racist cops/we don’t need ’em, need ’em {This one might have been in a different order and/or had another component. also quite fun to chant; it has a sort of melody or tune reminiscent of trucks beeping while backing up}

The keen-eyed may notice some assumptions embedded in these chants. The only one here I wasn’t quite sure about was the Palestine one; I understand why the ISO stands in solidarity with Palestine and I don’t object, but I’m also not comfortable having my own opinion about the issue. At any rate, massed chanting falls into the category of phenomena that produce what Émile Durkheim dubbed “collective effervescence,” which is that feeling you may get when you can lose yourself in a crowd, in the action, in a feeling being collectively expressed (examples: religious group singing, sports events, riots). It can be dangerous, especially if the collective is effervescing around something you aren’t quite sure of or that’s ultimately problematic (see: a lot of people’s feelings about religion).

I largely actually didn’t experience the chanting as upsweeping and overwhelming, though; I could consciously choose to play along, or I could sit back and watch. It helped that around me were many people not chanting; both groups were big enough to join, but small enough to not join.

More insidious was the hissing. Socialists, apparently, often hiss to express disapproval (for example, when Sherry Wolf mentioned Secretary of State Thurston Howell III, I mean John Kerry {this is apparently a cultural reference I don’t get}) without interrupting the speaker. Several times, I found myself unthinkingly adding my voice to the susurrus (“whispering, murmuring, or rustling”), even when I didn’t have that reflexive disapproval the others were expressing, but rather wariness or even neutrality.

Because hissing is a visually subtle action, I couldn’t tell who or how many people around me were hissing at any given trigger. Which is as good a theory as any for why it was so easy to reflexively join in. At any rate, it made me uncomfortable to notice (and I did stop). I described it to a friend as “seems very infectious and deeply hazardous;” he reminded me that “not every political opinion deserves a respectful hearing.” Yes, but I’d rather not make that determination reflexively.

It seems to me that the collective expression and effervescence is a big contributing factor to effectiveness of radical rhetoric and organization, and there’s nothing wrong with that per se… but it may be that individual caution is warranted. 

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Manners, Community, and Justice pt 2

As with Part 1, there’s a certain amount of background knowledge necessary here. I’ll be summarizing Graeber’s description (all uncredited quotes are from “Manners, Deference, and Private Property“). [I am perhaps doing his essay a disservice by not engaging with its actual argument. Unfortunately I haven’t been quite able to grok it, and although I would be able to say many interesting things if I did, instead I am saying other interesting things.]

In the Middle Ages, in England at least, adolescents and young adults did wage labor, for a master, as servants or apprentices, until they had accumulated enough resources to settle down and start a family, after which they might have servants or apprentices of their own. Young men “were by nature riotous,” in manners easily compared to the joking aggression discussed previously, while full adults “were rational and self-contained,” giving a fairly clear age-based relation to “the logic of joking and avoidance.” Young men were expected to have joking interactions with their peers, but to be deferent and moderately avoidant in respect to their well-mannered masters.

Gradually, wage labor became more permanent, no longer the domain only of young people, but because it changed gradually, it remained associated with “rambunctious adolescents who needed to be disciplined and reformed through carefully supervised labor.”

Around this time, too, the English Calvinists were becoming more of a thing, and gaining political and religious power across England. “[T]he Puritans did not see any distinction between projects of social reform directed at the lower classes, and the process of educating the youth.” So the youth and the working poor alike needed, in their opinion, discipline, supervision, and moral and religious instruction.

This program was not universally popular.

There was, in fact, consistently present and semi-organized opposition, formed around a combination of “joking aggression and idealistic utopias.” There arose a narrative of the past as a time of equality and plenty.

Why is this important? Why do I care?

Without making any moral judgments or implications, I see a kind of resonance between this populist resistance to the imposition of middle-class Calvinist manners and morality, and resistance to, pardon the scare quotes, “political correctness.”

At the very least, each set of behavioral constraints includes some rules that seem fairly sensible and well-grounded: “don’t smear gross germy smelly things on stuff,” say, or “don’t call people racial slurs;” and also includes some rules that seem to serve mainly as in-group/out-group markers: “use the silverware from outside in,” or the argument over whether to used AFAB, FAAB, or CAFAB to mean “at birth, declared female.” I’ve seen people declared awful, ignorant, and malicious, in social justice discussions, for violating either type of rule.

Part of the resistance to external imposition of manners is the sense that one is being told simultaneously that one can only be considered part of the in-group if one follows the arbitrary rules, and that one must be part of the in-group to be taken seriously or accepted as worthwhile. It’s that second part, then, that sparks resistance: what if I don’t want to be part of your in-group? So what? I’m still a person, and I don’t need you to live a good life; matter of fact, life was a hell of a lot better before you came along with your fancy manners! And thus you get idealistic utopias tinted with joking aggression and carnival.

So I want to simply note that I see a resonance between that resistance, and resistance to “political correctness;” I don’t want to suggest that the latter is justified, but neither do I want to say it’s groundless. I want to explore ways it might arise, reasons it might exist. What I mean by saying “resonance” is this: if someone doesn’t understand the pain that words like slurs cause to the people they’re applied to, if most of the people they know, respect, and care about cheerfully and casually use those words, telling them it’s not okay without giving them context might feel to them like you’re saying “you need to use my weird, complicated, and ever-changing vocabulary to be in my group, and you need to be in my group if you want anyone to listen to.”

Remember that in Part 1 I argued: many American men relate to their friends in a physical, joking, aggressive, egalitarian way; if they extend this to their female friends, those women may feel unsafe because of the pre-existing imbalance of social power, and ask the men to be hands-off; because these men fail to see that imbalance, they may falsely feel that the women are trying to set up a hierarchy of avoidance, and get angry because there’s no reason for them to be on the bottom of that hierarchy.

Similarly, people who use racial slurs and other hurtful words out of ignorance don’t see the social power imbalance that makes those words powerful. When they’re told “oh, you can’t use those words any more; use these instead,” or maybe just “you can’t use those words any more,” and then years or months later, are told “you can’t use these words any more” about the words they were given last time, and sometimes get someone else entirely telling them “no, go back to the first words,” and yes, it can be even more whiplashy in some corners of the internet, with the rapidity of discourse… Well, they might start to feel as though it’s all in the service of conformity to some set of standards they never agreed to be held to, imposed by some group that thinks it has the right to dictate how people speak, when goshdarnit, it’s a free country and I can say what I damn well please, and who are you to be telling me what words I can or cannot use with my own friends and family? And then you get “political correctness” turned very nearly into a slur by itself.

If one source of resistance to “political correctness” is this feeling that all the rules are just arbitrarily imposed by people who presume to dictate your language… well, I don’t know what would be a good way to address that, but I know what’s not a good way: telling people that they’re awful for using the wrong language, without ever addressing why they’re using the wrong language.

Code-switching briefly to full-on Social Justice mode, I don’t believe it’s okay to tell someone that it’s their responsibility to educate. I do believe that if we as a group want people to end up educated, the group as a whole has a responsibility to find ways to make that happen, preferably while alienating as few allies and potential allies as possible. In the interest of backing up my words with actions, that’s part of why I’m writing these posts: I want to explore ways people can be accidentally alienated so I can figure out how to be a better educator.

Stay tuned for next week when I get my brain back, when I question the assumption that middle-class manners are the epitome of embodied morality and thereby potentially alienate half the social justice community (and internet advice blogger community) from me. 😀

UU Homework: Is the world friendly? What is ‘God’?

At the end of his sermon today, Rev Mark Evens gave the congregants some homework. First, to livestream events from the UU General Assembly in Providence, RI later this week, which I may or may not be doing. Second and third, to answer these questions: Is the world a friendly place? And, what does the word ‘God’ mean to me?

Let’s take those in the other order.

The letters G-o-d in a row signify, first of all, the divine entity worshipped by the Abrahamic faiths. This is their primary signification in my home culture. This meaning isn’t particularly important to me, personally; I don’t believe in that divinity or follow any of those scriptures.

The letters g-o-d, now, denote any named or felt or otherwise identified divine entity, in any religion. I assume an agentive entity, that is, one that can affect the course of events in the world in some way (including influencing people simply by bringing its presence or some information to their attention; if a friend is comforted by the presence of a god, and as a result has the internal strength to accomplish some task, I would say that god has affected the course of events in the world). This meaning also isn’t very important to me personally; I’ve never felt the presence of any divine entity or anything close to that kind of experience, although I’m not going to tell someone their subjective experiences are false or try to explain it away.

For many people, g-o-d constitutes a symbol of that which caused the world to be, whether that’s an active agent, the laws of nature, or something else. ‘God’ may be a pointer to the life energy that suffuses the world, if you believe in that sort of thing. For many people, it evokes an abstract, present sense of the divine.

These people are also likely to say that the world is a friendly place. After all, if God is love, and God is in everything, then love is accessible from wherever you stand, even if it may not seem that way at first glance. Myself, I like Mark’s answer to “Is the world a friendly place?” He said, “the world is a friendly place around me, but it isn’t everywhere.”

The world is indeed a friendly place around me; I have family and friends who care for me deeply, a roof over my head, food in my belly, a computer on my lap, words in my head becoming words on the screen. I have teachers and fellow students and a safety net. I have a remarkable amount of freedom to pursue the things I desire most.

But the world as a whole is not friendly. As Neil deGrasse Tyson said when I saw him speak a couple months ago, Earth is trying to kill us. All the time. Moreover, the universe is trying to kill us. All the time. From supernovas to prions, at nearly any size there’s something that’s deadly to humans. Nature is not friendly. It isn’t malicious, either; it just is; it just happens. We have no control over how friendly nature is. All we can do, for that, is defend ourselves from the harsh parts and try to appreciate the beautiful, cute, and fuzzy parts.

Nature is not our biggest problem, though. We are. Why is the world a friendly place around me? Because the people around me have worked to make it that way. If the world is not a friendly place for, say, a fast-food worker in Florida or a farmer in Ecuador or a beggar in Serbia, it is such largely because of the people who encircle that person’s life, because several someones in several somewheres don’t care to make sure that their employees earn enough to support themselves and their children, or don’t care to make sure they pay their suppliers enough, or don’t care to create programs to feed, clothe, and house the poor.

The world is not a friendly place by default, but we can make it friendly, or at least safe, for those around us, especially if we work together with that as our goal. (Cheesy, but sincere!)

Manners, Community, and Justice pt 1

This is the first in a series of posts inspired by and in response to David Graeber’s essay “Manners, Deference, and Private Property: or, Elements for a General Theory of Hierarchy,” which can be found in his book Possibilities. For some reason this essay really grabbed me, and I wanted to take the ideas and run in a very different direction.

“The comments on any article about feminism justify feminism,” said journalist Helen Lewis, and indeed this is the case. But not everybody who pushes back against various aspects and iterations of feminism is acting out of malice or misogyny.

Graeber begins, as will I, “by picking up two hoary ethnographic categories called ‘joking relations’ and ‘relations of avoidance.'” To save time, I will use his explanations.

“Joking partners” are people who are expected to make fun of one another, tease, harass, even (often) make play of attacking each other. They are relations of extreme, even one might say, compulsory disrespect and informality. Relations of avoidance, on the other hand, are marked by such extreme respect and formality that one party is enjoined never to speak to or even gaze upon the other.

He explains that these two modes can be set up as extreme ends of “a broad continuum of types of interaction” and “where joking relations tend to be mutual, an equal exchange of abuse emphasizing an equality of status, avoidance is generally hierarchical, with one party clearly inferior and obliged to pay respect.” Additionally, avoidance relations often require the inferior to “steer clear of any sort of reference to or display of such bodily functions as eating, excretion, sex, or physical aggression,” while joking relations are often aggressively physical.

We see, then, a one-dimensional spectrum ranging from physical/egalitarian to nonphysical/hierarchical. Ah, but each of these ends has two variables specifying them! Couldn’t one also have nonphysical/egalitarian ways of relating to people, or physical/hierarchical ways? Yes, indeed, one could. A physical/hierarchical mode of relation might be one in which the superior has the right to do as they like to the body of the inferior. This crops up in physically abusive relationships, for instance, and would describe the way American society arguably behaves as though women’s bodies are public property. A nonphysical/egalitarian mode of relating might characterize a kind of libertarian individualism: you keep your hands off me and I’ll keep my hands off you. There: I’ve drawn you a Cartesian plane with a physicality axis and a hierarchy axis.

Back to joking and avoidance. I immediately noticed, when I read Graeber’s essay, that this kind of “joking” characterizes a lot of interactions between young American men who are friends. I can all the time see young men insulting each other, shoving each other, making crude sexual remarks, engaging in rough homoerotic play with cries of “no homo.” In other words, they have friendships characterized by playful aggression between equals.

It sometimes happens that young men who conduct their friendships in this manner, who have been raised in an America with, in many places, surprisingly progressive (though nowhere near fully egalitarian) gender relations, might also perceive their female friends as equals, and include them in the circle of people who get the playful aggression mode of friendship.

And suddenly women react: wait! Hold up, back off, get your hands and your sexual remarks off of me! I don’t feel safe!

And the men react: wtf? You know I was only joking! I can’t be myself in my own dorm with my own friends? I don’t feel safe!

Where did this come from? Remember the physicality/hierarchy plane. Many women, particularly those familiar with current feminist or social justice discourse, see the world in terms of a nonphysical/egalitarian-physical/hierarchical spectrum: men as a class have power over women as a class, and individual men might therefore feel entitled to take what they want from women sexually; the way for men to express respect and equality for women, therefore, is to refrain from presuming upon women’s bodies. This is the male privilege/rape culture narrative, and it’s important to fight back against cultural scenarios where men do feel like they are entitled to women sexually. So that’s where the women in our example are coming from: they associate the physicality and aggression of male friendship with the physicality and aggression of rapey frat parties and construction workers catcalling. Understandably, it makes them afraid.

But remember. The men in our example are seeing a completely different spectrum of behavior, the physical/egalitarian-nonphysical/hierarchical one. They are often completely unaware of the other spectrum, because their ascribed superior status in that hierarchy means that they don’t have to be aware of it, particularly if they don’t take advantage of it. Because they may not realize that women are seeing an opposed spectrum, being asked to be hands-off may feel an awful lot like they’re being asked to move from an egalitarian mode of relating to a hierarchical one – with them on the bottom of the hierarchy, since the women are setting the rules. Under which circumstances I think their anger and discomfort makes perfect sense.

I’m not defending backlash against feminist pleas for behavior that makes women feel safe. I’m also not precisely condemning it. To be clear: I think it’s possible for this kind of backlash to be completely without malice. I’m thinking specifically of an incident within a co-ed fraternal organization after which one woman was told by one of the men involved, “I would never hurt you; you’re my brother.” To me, this sums up the conflict. She only saw the parallels with the behavior of men who didn’t have any fraternal ties to her; he only saw the fraternal ties.

To change someone’s behavior, we need to understand why they behave that way. I don’t think it’s helpful to ascribe all problematic behavior to malice or to underlying problematic beliefs, because not all of it arises from those things. If the root cause is a different fundamental perception of the social world, as it clearly is in some cases, we need to understand what those differences in perception are.

Coming up next week: a more abstract and less certain exploration of a broader topic that this is part of.

Complaining and Optimism (A Tiny Manifesto)

First, go read Sarah Kendzior’s article In Defence of Complaining.

Overall this is fantastic. Some select quotes:

The absence of complaining should be taken as a sign that something is rotting in a society. Complaining is beautiful. Complaining should be encouraged. Complaining means you have a chance.

[F]or marginalised and stigmatised groups – racial and religious minorities, women, the poor, people who lack civic rights – complaining is the first step in removing the shame from a lifetime of being told one’s problems are unimportant, non-existent, or even a cause for gratitude. Complaining alerts the world that the problem is a problem.

It could always be worse, they say. They don’t like to say that it could always be better, because that would require redress.

People hate complaining because they do not like to listen. When you listen to someone complaining, you are forced to acknowledge them as a human being instead of a category.

There is one thing I feel compelled to respond to:

Complainers suffer the cruel imperatives of optimism: lighten up, suck it up, chin up, buck up. In other words: shut up.

Yesterday I devoured Rebecca Solnit’s book Hope in the Dark. It’s about making a place for hope in activism, and recognizing victories even when they aren’t the end of the struggle, or aren’t the victory you hoped for. The future is dark, but only because we cannot see it, and hope is (or should be) a spur to action.

I call myself an optimist. I cannot honestly do otherwise. To my mind, the “cruel imperatives” Kendzior lists, if they go by the name optimism, are passing under false pretenses. This is not my optimism. It is a blind belief that things will get better if nobody does anything, if nobody rocks the boat. It is cruel, yes, and chained to the status quo. It is afraid of confrontation, it is afraid that if we dare to change things then they will get worse. This is not my optimism.

My optimism trusts in the bravery and ingenuity of individuals and groups. It believes that we can make the world better. It furiously insists that another world is possible, and if you do not see this it is only because your imagination has been blinkered. It thinks that the best way forward is to unblinker our collective imaginations, to see with clear eyes the problems all around and also the first steps on the paths out.

My optimism believes that if we dare to change things, they may very well get better; in fact they almost always have.

So complain, and thereby strip away the rose-colored glasses. Force us to confront the rocky straits so that we may see the way through and perhaps emerge in a new and better world.

Holography as Bad Metaphor

You know how holograms work? Well, not how they *work* but how they end up. You can cut them up, shatter them into tiny pieces, and you’ll still be able to see the image they record. Holograms can be badly made and broken in such a way that you can only see part of the image, and they only work right if you look at them using the right kind of light.

Douglas Hofstadter says, though using different words, that we all carry imperfect holographs of each other in our heads. We all live in each other’s minds as incomplete fragments viewed with light not entirely of the correct wavelength. After we die, these fuzzy and fragmented images are all that’s left of us.

You can’t put a physical hologram back together to restore the image if it wasn’t recorded correctly in the first place. But we can show each other our holograms of each other, and re-record, de-fuzz, and expand our fragmented, degraded images. After someone dies, that’s all we can do. It isn’t a perfect process; but neither is it nothing.