[sixties-l] Let the Debates Begin! (fwd)

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Date: Mon Jan 21 2002 - 17:55:27 EST

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    Date: Fri, 18 Jan 2002 00:28:45 -0800
    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    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
    visiting speakers.

    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
    it's needless.

    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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