On rhetoric and strategy in social justice and leftist spaces.

I happened upon a piece of rhetorical analysis by Stephen D’Arcy written in January that examined the differences between social justice activists in what people call the New Left era (1960s through the early 1970s) and today. The gist of the article is that the language used by contemporary leftists departs from that used in the New Left era in three ways: the shift from the systemic to the interpersonal; the shift from the collective/community to the specific; and the shift from the quest for an ultimate victory over oppressive ideologies and behaviors to the challenge of mitigating everyday impacts, or microaggressions in today’s parlance, of those ideologies. It is an amazing piece of writing and I suggest that folks check it out for themselves and draw their own conclusions.

D’Arcy invites the reader to do just that, and in that spirit, I have some relatively brief observations (a brief blog post from me; shocking, I know!):

  • Leftist identity politics is not working in 2014. I italicized where I did for a reason, and that is because identity is crucial to the human experience. Too many critiques of identitarianism always land where Mark Fisher did in examining the “vampire’s castle”: harsh and unfeeling condemnations of identity playing any role in movement or strategic considerations. It goes without saying that I, a Black man who grew up in the South, experience this world differently from my wife, a white woman from the Northeast, even if we both grew up working class. To not give these experiential differences some thought within leftist activism is to unnecessarily take tools out of our toolbox when it comes to strategy, regardless of whether we are discussing policies or movement-building. As D’Arcy points out, the way that New Left-era activists tended to flatten identity wholesale manifested itself in problematic ways both internally and externally. But spend 15 minutes on any social networking site and you will find that leftism is now faced with the opposite problem: an increasingly Balkanized landscape where identity and representation becomes an end in and of itself, rather than a means to ensure that the spoils of an ultimate working class victory are not distributed along the same (insert -ist and -ism here) lines as before. I mean, how else can you explain an entire blog post in Ebony dedicated to a random white woman appearing on a natural hair website on the same day that thousands of women care workers of color potentially lose access to union representation in America’s fifth-most populous state, which, of course, goes without any mention? Perspective is important, but that becomes clouded when the focus is always on claiming space rather than building communities. Erecting the perfect clubhouse rather than building broad-based movements rooted in solidarity and respect. The former might be easy and satisfying, but the latter will actually ensure that my children grow up in a different world than I have.
  • It is time to check privilege checking. D’Arcy discusses the concept of privilege throughout his piece and how the shift towards examining interpersonal communications and relationships has enhanced the visibility of checking people on their acquired privileges. This has its place without a doubt; people have to realize that humanity is more of an ongoing dialectic rather than particular blocks of time existing in one vacuum or the other, and the particular qualities about one’s life is in many ways dependent on how that dialectic has shaken out for their community of origin. So yes, people should be made aware of how their privilege manifests in its various forms. But how do we do that? An article originally written for The Daily Mississippian that was reprinted for TIME’s Ideas section seems to suggest one way that is growing in popularity: simply tell a person “check your privilege” and then wipe your hands of the situation. After all, it is now their problem, right? And you do not have time to educate anyone, because what do you look like? Google? That approach is cathartic, self-satisfying, and it even gets you pub in an international news outlet! But does it really do anything more than that? Do you remember the last time someone so harshly dismissed you? Did it make you any more likely to listen to anything that person had to say? Yeah, me neither. As D’Arcy puts it, “There is a certain optimism in the idea of ‘consciousness-raising,’ or the concept of ‘the people,’ that seems naive and unconvincing to many of today’s activists. The shift from ‘consciousness-raising’ to ‘calling out,’ for instance, reflects (and encourages) a loss of confidence in the capacity of people to learn about, understand and oppose forms of inequality that do not adversely impact them as individuals.” Ngoc Loan Tran suggested a different format of corrective suggestion that they termed as “calling in”, where we approach those who transgress with the kind of humanity that we feel they lacked in their actions. While recognizing that calling out can still be of importance, Tran also recognizes the consequences of implementing that particular strategy in every situation. Tran, however, limits this practice to those we care about and share community with, since a rupture there can obviously have a profound effect on our efficacy as organizers (and if Tran did not make that clear, Mia McKenzie erases all doubt about the intended audience in a postscript). I love the concept, but disagree with the narrowness of scope: this should really be standard operating procedure amongst leftists. We have to recognize the difference between a mistake, a difference of opinion, and an action undertaken with harmful intent, and broadening the concept of “calling in” outside of our particular circles begins the process of doing that.
  • What is “winning” anymore? The most poignant portion of the piece was when D’Arcy laid out something that I have felt more strongly with each passing day: “The older vocabulary looked at capitalism, racism, and sexism (for example) as social systems or institutions that could and probably would be defeated, once and for all, in the foreseeable future. Accordingly, activists of that era defined and described their movements as struggles for ‘socialism,’ ‘black liberation,’ or ‘women’s liberation.’ By contrast, the new vocabulary tends to suspend judgment on (without denying) the prospects for ultimate victory, and to focus its attention on challenging everyday impacts of capitalism, racialization and gender, in the here and now. This prioritization of resistance to everyday impacts infuses, not only the way activists today talk, but also how they choose what to do.” I would actually go even farther than D’Arcy does: I think that the current dialectic on the left does deny the prospect for ultimate victory over the systems that continue to oppress us in ways big and small. So we reach for whatever crumbs from the pie we have available. We treat the ardent defense of millionaire celebrities as a form of radicalism. We engage in endless repetition of grievances without engaging in a discussion of better practices. We treat every ancillary skirmish like the defining battle of a war that seemingly has no end game. We circle the wagons around our friends and come up with endless justifications as to why their actions were not as bad as this other thing that someone else did a month, year, decade, or generation ago. We form alliances based around cults of personality rather than a common goals for a different kind of world. Or as Dr. Adolph Reed, Jr. put it, “The left careens from this oppressed group or crisis moment to that one, from one magical or morally pristine constituency or source of political agency….to another. It lacks focus and stability; its métier is bearing witness, demonstrating solidarity, and the event or the gesture. Its reflex is to ‘send messages’ to those in power, to make statements, and to stand with or for the oppressed.” At what point do we decide that we have sent enough messages and start building power? Actual power, not the power that comes from perfecting a clubhouse or meeting structure, but rather from the articulation of a vision and a plan to execute said vision? When do we start looking at the moving parts, looking out 5-10-20 years, and start piecing together a strategy to fight the forces of reaction, revanchism, and repression? It is no longer enough to simply act as a town crier, monotonously signposting every problem and grievance facing our world; we must actually engage in praxis.

I often ask myself what Movement activists like my grandmother would think of the axes on which we have constructed our conversations about matters of justice and equality. Then I stop myself, because most of the time I do not want to know the answer to that question.