Someone tweeted David Graeber‘s piece on bullying from last year and, on the chance that there is someone out there who has not read it, I’m going to put it up here with my most heartfelt recommendation.
It’s not that as a species we’re particularly aggressive. It’s that we tend to respond to aggression very poorly. Our first instinct when we observe unprovoked aggression is either to pretend it isn’t happening or, if that becomes impossible, to equate attacker and victim, placing both under a kind of contagion, which, it is hoped, can be prevented from spreading to everybody else.
There are many times that I wish I would not have given people the benefit of the doubt, behavior that I ignored only to have it escalate and bite us all in the ass later. I’m great at removing bullies, abusers, and sociopaths from my personal life. But I’m terrible at dealing with them in groups outside of my personal life. That is something I need to get much better at.
I’m seeing quite a few people in my Facebook and Twitter feeds who have just now realized that the political system is not the path to what they are looking for. They are feeling angry, cynical, and lost.
I get it. I’ve been there.
I was crushed when Bill Clinton gave us welfare “reform,” NAFTA, and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. I was one of those people everyone blames for the 2000 election because they voted for Nader. And, even though I had long before become cynical, I really hoped that Obama at least kinda meant all that stuff he said about civil liberties. Other people maybe picked Howard Dean or Ron Paul, but many of us have had at least one moment of political hope followed by inevitable disappointment.
Of course we have. We have been trained our entire lives to focus our attention on the shiny circus of Big P Politics, especially presidential elections. We are taught it was LBJ and FDR that made things better. It is as if all the people who went door to door, marched, organized strikes, wrote, exposed corruption, and took direct action did not even exist.
The good news is that now you are free. There are millions of things you can do and millions of people who also think things suck. Now that you have safely eliminated presidential politics from your arsenal of tactics that work, you can put your energies towards better things.
I’ve spent a lot of the last decade reading about social movements – from the kids involved in the civil rights movement to the anarchists in Barcelona. And I’ve spent a bit of time, though not nearly enough, participating in them. I don’t have a magic formula for you, but I do have a basic path that has started to form in my head. It goes something like this.
- Imagine how you want your life to be and what is standing in your way. Figure out what you want your world to look like. It doesn’t have to be precise or perfect, but you do need something to reach for.
- Find other people who want the same things that you do. Build communities of trust and support. (That trust and support part is crucial.)
- Plan direct actions. Ideally they should provide for immediate needs and disrupt the systems of oppression.
- Identify the obstacles that you will face and prepare for them, figure out how you will defend yourselves.
- Review the action. Figure out what went well and what didn’t. Reassess. Adjust. Make sure all your people are taken care of.
- Rinse and repeat.
That doesn’t mean that voting can never, ever be a part of what you are doing.
“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” – Emma Goldman
All due respect to Emma (and I love her), her statement is kind of a case for voting. After all, it has been and still is prohibited for a whole lot of people (former felons, for instance). And it is not true that voting never matters at all. Voting for someone who is less likely to mow you down in the street is a totally reasonable defense strategy. Voting a terrible prosecutor out of office is a legitimate tactic. If two dudes are running for town sheriff and one is a sociopath, we might consider voting for the other guy.
But then we should go right back to working on ending the position of sheriff or prosecutor entirely. We should learn how to build community for ourselves rather than constituencies for people with their own agenda. We should learn how to resolve conflict ourselves, not empower violent authorities to run systems of oppression and retribution.
It is a lot harder to do those things than to stump for a candidate and vote every couple years. But we can only get out from under these people if we take responsibility and represent ourselves. I screw up every damn day in every way imaginable. But that is why it is called a struggle. And it is so much better to be struggling – to be a better person, to build alternate systems, against oppressive structures, with my community – than to be looking for some kind of savior to come along and make it better.
Now that you are free of the constraints of electoral politics, what are you going to do?
For about five years now, I have been volunteering with an adult literacy program in DC. That is a couple hundred Monday nights that I spent reading (mostly) black history with my “learner.” (The program refers to him as a “learner”.)
I hope I’ve helped him. I know he helped me. There have been times in the last five years when there was not much in my life outside of work. Since my work life is in the nonprofit industrial complex, that means way too much time around valedictorians with hero complexes. But even when I didn’t have time for friends or anything else extra-curricular, I always had that time on Monday night.
Aside from the relief of being with someone who knows that a job is a way to put food on the table and not the whole of your identity, I learned a lot. I know more about Frederick Douglas, Fanny Lou Hamer, and even the history of black wrestlers. (Turns out wrestling is fascinating. Who knew?)
But I’m almost certain that I am going to stop tutoring. The reason is that my “learner” has a goal of passing the GED. So we stopped reading black history and started doing GED prep work. Meaning we stopped reading black history and started reading a bunch of Europeans.
I’m supposed to teach him Emily Bronte and Plato. I’m supposed to help him decipher blog posts by obnoxious, white yuppies. I’m supposed to help him take paragraph-long Dickensian sentences and make them sensical.
And the whole time I am doing it I just keep asking why. Why the hell does a person have to know that crap in order to be worthy to have a job?
I end up trying to teach him test-taking tricks and explaining that, while his answer makes a lot of sense, it isn’t what they want him to say. I end up trying to teach him enough of the white supremacist code to maybe pass a test, to maybe get a piece of paper that tells the world…..what? That he has been socialized sufficiently into European education and won’t shake things up too much?
I’ve been thinking about quitting for a while, but I keep hesitating. I hesitate for the same reason I end up doing a lot of things that I am not 100% in favor of. I don’t think my discomfort should stand in the way of what someone else says they need. So I find myself in this dilemma.
Not helping someone to jump through the hoops that may give them some material advantages doesn’t seem right. But neither does participating in the indoctrination process when I want to be participating in the exact opposite.
So what do we do when faced with choices like these? How do we find ways to help people get by in the here and now without becoming part of an indoctrination process that moves in the opposite direction of what we know needs to happen?
In 2012, Prison Culture posted a little story.* The author’s friend wrote:
I saw a toddler running down Ashland barefooted and wearing very little clothing. No one was in sight. A month ago, I know that I would have immediately called the police. In light of recent events, I got out of the car and did my own detective work. I was nervous. The child was pre-verbal and I’m not good with small children, plus I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I was painfully conscious, however, that calling the police might bring irreversibly negative consequences for someone — a family, the baby, me.
The good news is that I found another passerby. We wrapped the baby in my sweater and together we went door-to-door until we found the mom, who by that point was hysterical because she realized that her child was missing. Between the neighbors confirming the child’s identity and the woman’s expression when we walked up with the baby, we were pretty confident the child was hers.
Now contrast that story with two others from recent history.
You may have heard about Danielle and Alexander Meitiv. They have been fighting protective services for letting their kids go to a playground by themselves. Like a lot of incidents, it all started when someone decided to call the cops. Luckily for the Meitivs, they are suburban, white professionals with the resources for an attorney and a lot of public sympathy. They won’t be losing their kids.
Contrast that with Debra Harrell. Harrell let her child play in a park while she worked her job at McDonalds – a job that doesn’t pay enough to afford day care. When someone in the park discovered that the child was not there with a parent, they called the cops. Harrell was arrested. She lost her job. The state took her kids. She was lucky that her case received national attention. She got her job back and received the resources to fight. Many poor women and children of color are not so lucky. The “child welfare” system disproportionately chews up poor children of color.
Most white children who enter the system are permitted to stay with their families, avoiding the emotional damage and physical risks of foster care placement, while most black children are taken away from theirs. And once removed from their homes, black children remain in foster care longer, are moved more often, receive fewer services, and are less likely to be either returned home or adopted than any other children.
Note the stats in that graphic. But a post about the terrifying foster care system is something for another day.
Most of us do not yet have alternate means of dealing with some types of violence. We need to work on that. For now, I certainly wouldn’t judge anyone for dialing 911 about a murder or a rape. But perhaps we can all agree that calling the cops shouldn’t be the first resort for everything that seems a little off?
Conservatives are supposed to be about personal responsibility. Liberals are supposed to be about social justice. Radicals are supposed to be about creating a better system. So what would be your excuse to call the police instead of taking responsibility, finding out what is going on, and trying to do the right thing? I suspect even some cops must get tired of being called for every bullshit thing. There have to be a few who would rather investigate murders than lock up mothers.
Surely this is one tiny (and yet not so tiny) thing that most people can agree with.
*Do read that whole Prison Culture post. It is good stuff.
How is it that so many people are stuck in The Highlander method of getting things done?
Let’s just strike the word leader from our vocabulary. No more Oprah comments about leaderlessness in social movements. No more hand-wringing about the lack of replacements for non-profit leaders. And no more confusing leaderlessness with structurelessness.
Groups need vision, inspiration, decision-making, facilitation, public representation, resource procurement, planning, expertise, conflict management, and accountability mechanisms.
But it does not have to be that, the minute a group gets together, the biggest narcissist takes over. It is possible to find more equitable and long-lasting means of providing those things than picking a “decider.” Lots of people have successfully managed commons, navigated consensus decision-making, and still found ways to mitigate power imbalances. Not easy, but certainly not impossible.
Sadly, my experiences have been that – even in supposedly left nonprofits that explicitly support things like worker cooperatives – there is an automatic default to The Highlander Model. And in the non-professional groups that I have been involved with, people don’t take the time to carefully think through all the various responsibilities usually taken by the “leader” in order to make sure that we don’t end up with either a mess or an informal/hidden power structure.
So lets just get rid of the word leader and focus on what needs to get done and how.
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