Divided We Can Change the World

By , 23 November, 2015, No Comment

Recently, while in India, I met an economist named Deepti Sethi who told me about some research she’s doing into organizations advocating social change, like non-profits and activist campaigns. She and her team have divided them into three categories:

1. Organizations that aim at material change – new laws, money moved from point A to point B.

2. Organizations that aim at ideological change – persuading others that their ideas are wrong,  changing hearts and minds.

3. Organizations that aim at personal expression – large protests bearing witness to injustice or support groups validating the experiences of oppressed groups.

All social movements need all of these modes of activism. But, Sethi argued, the organizations that make up these movements (usually) only succeed if they pick one to focus on.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in recent weeks, as squabbles over feminism and anti-racism have erupted on my social feeds.

The students featured in the Yale fracas, like those UK activists who have taken to no-platforming offensive visiting speakers, clearly believe that social change is achieved by the creation of safe spaces. That is Mode 3. Most of their ‘free speech’ advocate critics believe social change happens through debate and persuasion. That’s Mode 2. They are speaking past each other.

Similarly, I once attended a feminist conference organized by people I like at a university I respect. In their desire to be inclusive of the breadth of the feminist movement, all three kinds of activists were there. It was a mess.

See, in a Mode 1 session on workplace discrimination, you might show a chart with some aggregate statistics, recount some academic studies, and have a discussion about causes and possible policy remedies. A person who shared a personal anecdote about their creepy boss would be derailing that discussion rather than helping it advance. By contrast, in a Mode 3 session on the *same* topic, it’s the speaker with the chart who would be derailing the catharsis sought by everyone else in the room sharing personal experience. What happens in either case is the derailer gets called out for being a traitor to the overall movement (in this case feminism, but substitute your cause of choice), instead of recognized as practicing a different mode of activism.

I don’t think any amount of mutual respect can bridge these gaps between norms of discourse,or make them work together in some grand progressive kumbaya. They set out to achieve different forms of change, and three people walking in different directions with their arms linked will move precisely nowhere. The desire to include all of the people all of the time just means we get nothing done, no matter which form of ‘getting things done’ you prefer.

Instead, I found myself at this mixed conference sitting through frustrating sessions on gender and economics wishing the conference had been more narrowly focused, or divided into three days, so activists of each bent could have found their kind, and all gotten something out of it. People who like multiple modes could have gone all three days (personally, I work well in Modes 1 and 2, not so much 3) but maybe it’s better not to try them all at the same time.

As an example of how this can work better, take Black Lives Matter. On the one hand is a large protest movement on the street, bearing witness to injustice and being witnessed, having that injustice acknowledged in a community of peers and supporters. This seems pretty obviously Mode 3 and it is powerful. On the other hand, there are a small group of BLM activists meeting with 2016 presidential candidates to go over their platforms and suggest improvements on criminal justice. It is also extremely powerful, and appears to be impacting candidates’ policies. This is Mode 1.

What is great about it, though, is that I don’t see anyone in the street protests saying DeRay Mckesson isn’t a ‘real’ BLM leader because he talked to Hillary Clinton, or confined his discussion to a small set of defined policy points within the wider brief of issues BLM has raised. I don’t see him saying protesters who wouldn’t go near her with a 10-foot pole aren’t real activists either. The pressure of public protests undoubtedly helped get the small group access to presidential candidates, but I also don’t see the candidates holding the small group answerable for the actions or views of every protester. This is what an alliance should look like.

So while many left-leaning commentators are bemoaning the divisions tearing apart social justice activism, I find myself saying, let’s institutionalize them. Create spaces in your movement, at your campus, that say ‘Here we do catharsis’ and others that say ‘here we do debate’ and still others that say ‘here we do wonkery.’ When you’re organizing an activist group or meeting space, be very clear about which mode you want it to run in. Don’t accuse anyone of being on the ‘wrong’ side because they prefer one kind of activism over the others, because they went to the support group pizza party instead of your debating society ice cream social. When it’s useful, make strategic alliances to work together on individual campaigns without imagining you must agree on everything to do so.

United we aren’t, but divided we can change the world.

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