Anatomy of a Bad-Faith Argument.

In the previous post on this blog, I included the following statement:

“For now, though, this is in support of someone who has dedicated their life to the liberation of communities of color here and abroad. And it is support of one simple concept: if we do not have good-faith debate and discussion, then we do not have successful movements. And without those, we have no change.

I really should not have been surprised that people on social media would completely skip over that part of the discussion. However, intentional misreadings are as much a part of the handwaving and brand-building that goes on there as favorites, retweets, likes, and shares. Since much of the offline world is probably baffled when they hear me talk about this stuff, I figure that I would give an example of such an intentional misreading.

The star of this show is writer Max Ajl, who left the comment under scrutiny under the previous post here at The South Lawn.

“Hi Doug

There have been extremely nasty comments made about Rania, and no woman, or person, deserves to be subject to the vicious and personalized attacks made about her, full stop.”

Had Ajl stopped there, things would have been a-ok. After all, the point of the previous post was not to say that you cannot disagree with people, but rather than building change requires that a) honesty in how you conduct your affairs and b) that disagreements should occur in a way that builds solidarity instead of breaking it down. But alas, he did not stop there.

“I am worried however about some of what you say. Some of the folks you name, like Dawud Walid, are involved in community work and have big followings based on years and years of work trying to bring together poor Arab and Black communities. Others like @el_furatiyeh are grassroots activists who spend all their time doing mostly invisible labor in the Palestinian community in the US as well as linking it to other struggles. The social media erases those years of work and gives people a voice solely in proportion to their Twitter followers. This is destructive. It takes nothing away from Rania’s work to point out that Walid or el_furatiyeh are the one’s with the actual grounded legitimacy rooted in work and accountability to oppressed communities, to disagree with Rania as they wish.

Bluntly? This is irrelevant. We have gotten to a point of almost fetishizing people who work as community organizers. Like, great. You have done community work. You should be commended for that. However, doing that work does not mean that you are beyond reproach when you maliciously attack people for seeking to begin a discussion on strategies and vision. A popular phrase in organizing is that “steel sharpens steel”, meaning that constant challenging of set worldviews makes us better in communities and better advocates for the issues of importance to those communities. The ways that contemporary discussions seek to shut this down are destructive and disturbing, and it does a disservice to those organizations that they are representing.

Ajl continues:

“There’s something extremely odd about the fact that Rania has been elevated to such a position to speak on behalf of Palestinian and Palestinian solidarity organizing in the US when she just doesn’t have a track record as an organizer. I don’t blame her for this – the platform which she has, EI, is the one to give her the space to be perceived as an authoritative voice on behalf of the Palestine and Palestine solidarity movements, and there should be (but trust me, there won’t be…) accountability for that. With all respect to Rania, why was she speaking at the ISO conference on Black-Palestinian solidarity? Does she have any grounding in that work in the US context, or does she have a lot of social media clout? Why do we elevate social media personalities to speak on behalf of our movements?”

This is a refrain that has been used against Rania time and time again throughout this maelstrom: that she is a “social media personality”.

No. Rania Khalek is a journalist. She interviews people. She makes connections between oppressions here and oppressions abroad in a way that is concrete and easy for the working class to understand. Because of that, she is invited to give talks on the issues that she covers (clearly people from the community see value in what she does; do those voices matter?). I’d add that Ajl misrepresents the nature of her talk at Socialism 2015. Rania was not speaking for the Palestinian or Black communities in this talk, she was discussing the way the techniques of social control the US government uses are frequently field-tested in the Occupied Territories against Palestinians. Whether this misrepresentation is deliberate or not can only be answered by Ajl.

As for whether she has grounding in the context of the United States, you can read her body of work here on these issues and decide for yourself. You can also find her podcast on her personal website here.

While one is certainly allowed to disagree with the framing of any post that anyone writes, the charge that she is ignorant is nothing less than a smear.

“I do think there’s not a “simple crime” of disagreement though. That was an irresponsible word choice. The response has been vicious, but that does not mitigate the original poor decision. There’s also a background context that these SJW people pick up on. I agree with you that they don’t orient it in a productive or progressive direction. But there a certain undercurrent that there is a ‘presumption’ that Black folks will be in solidarity with Palestine. Sanyika Bryant of the MXGM spoke on this at the National SJP conference two years ago. So it is not coming from nowhere.”

As you can see, the goal posts are now moving. Initially, the response was that Rania did not have a right to say anything on this topic because she was not Black (with regards to the Black Lives Matter series of protests) and because she is not white (with regards to the SURJ piece calling for white people not to organize in Black communities). In so doing, Rania was allegedly being anti-Black, whatever that means in this context. Now we are seeing people argue that it is the word choice that is the problem: “Well, Rania said that it was segregated organizing, and that is why we are so mad about this.”

(I could discuss how Rania’s being completely erased as a woman of color, but that is another post for another time.)

Even if that critique were actually true (it is not), here’s the thing: social movements are coalitions of imperfect people coming together to create a more perfect world. The hope is that, as we go along, we will be able to grow our ranks and become a majority coalition that is able to enact the sort of fundamental change necessary to transform society. As new people come in, they will not know the right word or phrase to say in every single occasion. If people who are interested in change see that this kind of overwhelming hostility is the result of a mistake, what do you think the reaction from these people will be? Will it make them more likely to work for change or less likely? Will movements experience more fragmentation or less?

For all of the handwaving that Ajl does towards discussing the deleterious effects of social media, he seems all too willing to accept Rania as a sacrifice to those who are being bilious and nasty in that space. And if the painfully basic notion that two oppressed peoples should be in solidarity with one another is seriously a concept that we have to question, then we were screwed before we ever suited up for the game.

“In any case, I think we agree more than we disagree on the social media dynamics which allow these attacks to occur in the first place. The social media is feckless and unaccountable, no doubt, and can be vicious and horrible. That’s why I and I understand you aren’t on it too much these days. But there is a prior question about who gets to speak for the movement, and why, and although such questions predate the social media age they’re now posed in very sharp ways where grassroots organizing links can be damaged by people making missteps on social media. And I assume that the tone you pick up on above, is a frustrated reaction to this dynamic where social media people can damage the invisible years-in-the-making movement work.

He is right: I deleted my Facebook account a week ago and my Twitter account a month ago. The dynamic that I have described in the last couple of days is precisely why I left. There is more than enough offline to keep me busy nowadays.

I highlighted the above passage for a reason, as this has also become a common argument from those who are attacking Rania: that she has done irreparable damage to coalition-building efforts between various communities of color.

I want you to really think about this for a second, because it is key that we examine the logic behind such a statement. Ajl himself points out that these coalitions are years in the making, yet this begs the question: how strong are those bonds if they can be ripped apart over two tweets? After all, he and others have painted Rania as being nothing more than a “social media activist”, so by their own framing she should not have such power. Yet both of these arguments continue to be made.

Additionally, what does that say about the people at the table forming these bonds between communities that their efforts can be so easily dismantled? Is the community what’s important, or is it followers on social media and the spotlight? Has Rania attempted to speak for a particular community by just giving her opinion with two tweets from her personal account? If that’s the case, then when does anyone ever get to have a publicly-expressed opinion on anything? Do we grant that by organizational status and title? How is that not reinforcing capitalist notions of class within movements fighting against those very things?

Throughout this piece, Ajl attempts to have things both ways. He makes sure to condemn the piling-on and viciousness leveled at Rania for nothing more than an opinion, all while validating most of the garbage that was being said.

At the end of the day, I could not care less about people’s personal beefs and proclivities; those are not worth discussing. What I do care about is the fact that stating an opinion can end up with days upon days of filth and untruths directed towards you, and the chilling effect that can have on building social movements. No one deserves that, and either you agree with these tactics or you do not. It is that simple.

If you think that this is okay behavior, then be honest about it and the effect that this stuff has on building solidarity. Maybe the grueling work of building solidarity is not of interest to Max Ajl, but it is of interest to me.