|20 Jan 2002 @ 13:06, by John Finn|
Two days after September 11 my grandaughter Crystal, a college student,
found her teacher's jingoism too much to swallow. "These attacks are the
chickens come home to roost!" she said to the class. "Now we get the chance
to know what it's like for those people in the world who get bombed by our
Crystal's challenge evoked an uproar which lasted the rest of the period.
Toward the end, though, some of the quieter students began to say, "Now wait
a minute. We need to listen to Crystal. She may have a point here. We have
to take her seriously."
Crystal came to see me after class. She was exhilarated, intensely alive as
she told me what happened. She'd stood up for herself under enormous
pressure, and done well.
Crystal isn't an argumentative person, but she has a tremendous advantage in
today's political climate: she's black and working class. She identifies
with a cultural tradition that believes that one way to search for truth is
In this essay I'll argue that, in the U.S., the largely white
anti-globalization direct actionists and their activist environmentalist and
anti-war friends urgently need to borrow from this cultural tradition.
Most working class African Americans share a communication style which
values passionate advocacy. (For description and analysis see ethnographer
Thomas Kochman's book Black and White Styles in Conflict, Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1981.)
In contrast to the prevailing assumption among white middle class people
that a tone of rational, polite discussion is correct, Crystal's assumption
is that passionate advocacy is not about ego but is actually the most
effective way of testing the merits and discovering the truth.
Higher decibels, sudden humor, dramatic body language, all unite in a style
that is stimulating and searching. Moreover, passionate advocacy enables
individuals both to stand up for themselves and assert connection with the
other -- it's an act of engagement with the other as well as the issue.
There is, in the midst of what detached white middle class people might
interpret as bluster, often a profound vulnerability.
If there were no other reason why the young anarchists, the white middle
class peace movement, the environmental movement, and the anti-globalization
movement need to break out of their color/class ghetto it would be this: the
prevailing communication style among white middle class people stifles
debate. Among middle class white people, conflict aversion rules.
Examples of how conflict aversion hurts activists are everywhere. In Eugene,
Oregon, I was brought in to address the extreme polarization between young
anarchists and older progressive activists: I quickly learned that they
refused to engage each other in debate.
Slogan-hurling and sniping from behind walls were OK, but actual
eyeball-to-eyeball argument where activists could be human with each other,
one-on-one or in small groups, and passionately argue something out --
In New England a social change group betrayed its own values of democracy
and respect by refusing for many months to put antagonists in a room where
they could engage each other over a major disagreement; instead, the group
ganged up on one side and violated every known principle of conflict
In my own city, Philadelphia, volatile issues like the role of property
destruction and street fighting in the anti-globalization struggle go
undebated, while opposing camps experience the feel-good sensations of
In many cities the slogan "diversity of tactics" is used to avoid the
dialogue and engagement which could create a learning curve for the
movement. People can't learn from each other if they won't engage. So the
cop-out is to declare for "diversity of tactics" and call it "unity" -- but
who is fooled by that version of unity? Surely not the police whose job is
to watch us.
On campuses in the U.S. where I speak I find that nearly everyone who comes
to my lectures already agree with me, and when I read the bulletin boards
with students they tell me that the same is true for other visiting
When I spent a year lecturing at universities in Britain I found a very
different political culture: at each lecture there would be anarchists,
Maoists, Trotskyists, Labor Party members, all using the question/answer
period to put their different positions forward in the spirit of debate. It
made for marvelous, spirited dialogue -- the most intellectually stimulating
year I've had in over forty years of activism.
But what about the history of splits and fragmentation in the U.S Left?
German sociologist Georg Simmel long ago pointed out that relationships in
which conflicts are engaged usually become stronger; conflict helps to
integrate groups. Surely every reader of this essay remembers a conflict
which, although perhaps painful to engage in at the time, resulted in a
At Training for Change we teach facilitators how to use this principle in
their workshops; see our website for a current example of catalyzing a fight
among young people from the Balkans and the positive result.
The splits and fragmentation come, in my experience, not from fair fights,
but from conflict avoidance and, sometimes, from dirty fights. The most
popular form of dirty fighting is to attack the person rather than her or
his point of view.
Since everyone has experienced dirty fighting at some point in our lives,
it's understandable that some people -- especially middle class and white
people -- decide to avoid fighting at all. That, however, keeps activists in
their ghetto, distanced from working class people and many people of color.
By avoiding conflict, middle class white people avoid being "real." And how
can someone be trusted as an ally who avoids being real?
Isolation is a high price for movements to pay -- and it's needless.
How can activists break out of the ghetto of conflict-avoiding communication
Just to tease Z readers, I'll take an example from the much-maligned mass
media. After the attacks of September 11 it was obvious that the drumbeat
for war would be heavy and pervasive, even hegemonic. In contrast, the
Philadelphia Inquirer ran, side by side, two articles on the editorial page:
one condemned pacifism, and one defended it. The result: weeks of letters to
the editor on all side of the issue, which gave visibility to a point of
view that was largely suppressed in other media.
If we could swallow our pride sufficiently, we could take a lesson from the
Inquirer: make the implicit debates explicit, invite other points of view to
surface. Activists can learn to fight, and to fight fair. Take somebody you
disagree with to coffee this week. Let the debates begin!
George Lakey is director of Training for Change, based in Philadelphia. One
of TfC's current projects is the Activist Dialogue Project, which works to
reduce the polarization between activist generations and between
campus-based and community-based young activists.