Comment on "Question: How Activists Operate"

The fifteen responses to “How should political activists improve how they operate?” were rich and diverse. As one correspondent commented:

Wow!  My first learning from reading all of your responses is this:  How very _different_ all our concerns /seem/ to be! :open_mouth:  Are we even "on the same page"?

I agree the responses cover a wide range. Thus far, however, it seems to me they’re largely compatible, though they may reflect a serious divergence in terms of priorities.

The response that had the strongest impact on me was Shariff’s. In the piece I’m writing now, a scenario that presents a narrative for how we might move toward systemic transformation, I was beginning with a focus on narrow short-term goals and concluding with an affirmation of fundamental long-term goals. His call to be clearer about ultimate goals led me to be more upfront at the outset about the ultimate goals being proposed there. Carolyn’s call for long-range goals moves in that direction, but Shariff seems to be talking about something more fundamental.

The Four-Fold Practice suggested by Jeff has merit. Though I disagree with the (anti-political) statements about “judgment” (we can make judgments without being judgmental), I like the essay’s four simple suggestions and the brief elaborations presented in italics. But the paragraphs on each point that follow often lose me. They seem too complicated and raise too many red flags. And the essay seems to be part of a much more complicated training process that includes elements like “the seven helpers.” As such, it feels like “disabling professionalism.” I believe we need simpler methods that empower more easily.

Jeff’s “The Four Roles of Change” fruitfully identifies different roles activists can play, affirms the value of each, and argues they ideally complement each other. But I’m uncomfortable with the notion that rebels “force” power holders to make a change and the suggestion that if a campaign “settles for less,” it has necessarily been “co-opted.” The reluctance to seek reconciliation through negotiation and compromise and instead try to impose one’s will by force strikes me as problematic. As Camus analyzed so incisively, it’s easy for rebels to let their anger lead them to internalizing the values of the oppressor against whom they originally rebelled. It seems this essay crosses that line. Steve’s recommendation to avoid demonizing and seek compromise is more convincing.

I like Yahya’s proposal to “listen as much as they speak” (if not more!), Deetje imploring activists to sing, Ronnie and Michael’s call for more nonviolent action, and Justice’s reminder that “peaceful ends require peaceful means.” Mike’s reference to Smucker’s book seems worth investigation. I think Bob’s complaint about abstract ideology is well taken. I hope Nancy has success with her appeal to scholars to be activists as well. And I like Thomas and Lenin’s point about sharing the lives of those being organized, but the emphasis on “explaining” seems too Leninist.

My main reservation about others’ responses, however, is that they all seem to focus on thinking and behavior, and do not address feelings. They neglect the need for deep personal change, constant self-improvement, and mutual support for that effort, which can change how activists operate.

In “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” in 1962 James Baldwin wrote:

Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become. It is this individual uncertainty on the part of white American men and women, this inability to renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives, that makes the discussion, let alone elucidation, of any conundrum—that is, any reality—so supremely difficult. The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality—for this touchstone can be only oneself. Such a person interposes between himself and reality nothing less than a labyrinth of attitudes. And these attitudes, furthermore, though the person is usually unaware of it (is unaware of so much!), are historical and public attitudes. They do not relate to the present any more than they relate to the person. Therefore, whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.

Baldwin also said:

The day will come when you will trust you more than you do now, and you will trust me more than you do now.  And we can trust each other. I do believe, I really do believe in the New Jerusalem, I really do believe that we can all become better than we are.  I know we can. But the price is enormous, and people are not yet willing to pay it.

That’s why my response to the focus question was: “Cultivate more humility and engage in more honest self-evaluation to nurture more self-improvement.”