---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Fri, 18 Jan 2002 00:28:45 -0800
From: radtimes <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Let the Debates Begin!
A ZNet Commentary
Let the Debates Begin!
January 17, 2002
By George Lakey
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 country!"
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 to argue.
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
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 -- rarely!
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 resolution.
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
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
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 stronger bond.
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
Isolation is a high price for movements to pay -- and
How can activists break out of the ghetto of
conflict-avoiding communication styles?
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.
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