Revisiting Rhode Island: Reflections on Movement Building (“Are You From Boston, or Something?”)

From day one of moving to New York City (NYC), there has been one constant–my only bastion of regularity in my hectic life.  Inevitably, someone is going to make fun of, point out, comment on, etc. my accent.  Usually, it starts with the question, "Are you from Boston, or something?" Or, they just mockingly imitate me right off the bat.  I, actually, do not mind it that much. It serves as a daily reminder of where my roots are: contrary to popular belief, Providence, Rhode Island, not Boston (For those of you that don’t know the difference, I’d be happy to demonstrate it for you!). And, most times, people mention my accent because they like it, so that is a plus.  Like I said, either if they like it or not, it doesn’t really bother me at all. Not everyone talks like me in Rhode Island.

There are different variations of the accent, depending on what region of the state you are from, as well as your ethnic background.  However, there is a section of Providence  where  you will be hard pressed to find the classic dropping of the letter "r" in the middle and end of each word, along with many other features of the Little Rhody accent (There are other sections also, but this one I am most familiar with).  Not only is the accent pretty much nonexistent, but grammar is usually by the book, as well.  I am talking about the East Side of Providence–home of Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design, elite private schools, and the more well off to the extremely rich.  The entirety of the East Side cannot be characterized this way–but those I am talking about largely populate this area. The East SIde also sits atop a huge hill (College Hill) overlooking Downtown. It’s a great view but it’s telling of what I will be discussing.

OK, so what’s my point? Well, I live in Manhattan, an island that is becoming more and more a playground for the rich, "young professionals," and college students.  My particular area, the East Village, went through a process of gentrification long before I arrived; however it continues being overrun by New York University (NYU) development and luxury condos. Luckily, and not without struggle, there are still pockets of working class people and families, largely due to remaining rent stabilized and rent control buildings (I have a policy of trying my hardest to not contribute to gentrification, so as long as I can afford to, I will try and remain in already gentrified areas; however, I already pay more than half my income to rent, so I do not know how long this can go on). Anyways, back to my point. My point is that basically, among this group of coordinators and students, with the ever rare capitalist, everyone sounds the same! This even includes the thousands of  "transplants" like myself. Their homogeneity of speech, however, is not limited to the island of Manhattan. They sound just like a lot of the folks on the East Side of Providence! I believe this is called non-regional diction.  Moreover, many of those involved in the activist circles I am now apart also have non-regional diction. And within these circles, it has evolved to include an escalating tone at the end of each sentence, making everything sound like a question. Some of you might know what I am talking about.  Here is where the movement building part comes into play, and I will discuss important aspects of this phenomena, and its implications.

Still don’t see what I am getting at? Here it goes.

Every time I hear non-regional diction, I make an association with my friends and acquaintances from the East Side. Most, if not all, are the sons and daughters of college professors, doctors, philanthropists, other "professionals, and even in one case, the owner of a chain of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC).  Some of these people were great friends, and still are, but most of the time it brings to mind bad memories of snobbishness, entitlement, and countless acts of classism (Just for the record, my father is an electrician on the railroad, and my mother has worked for the City, mostly dividing her work between crossing-guard for a number of years and working in women and juvenile detention).  Therefore, what I am suggesting is that the prevalence of non-regional diction among many organizers and activists is a symptom of a greater class problem in anti-authoritarian organizations.  They tend to be dominated by those raised and occupying positions in the coordinator class–a class between workers and capitalists. In another post I will go deeper into cultural issues that arise from this dominance. However, here I strictly want to address the speech/language issue. To be clear, I am not saying that all working class people have to have a regional accent, although I would contend that most do. And many that currently do not, consciously worked on losing theirs because studies do show you are less likely to get higher level jobs with regional diction. What I am saying is that non-regional diction can actually be a detriment to organizing working class people–students and workers alike.

One of the larger problems surrounding the speech/language problem is that there has been, as I mentioned above, an evolution of a specific non-regional diction within activist circles, especially the "anti-authoritarian" Left of which I proudly claim membership. This evolution, I feel, actually makes it that less conducive to working people. I had always noticed it since becoming active in the NYC Left. Because of this, I always felt comfort returning to the social circles I am part of in Rhode Island where most people sounded like me.  However, I never identified it as an organizing problem until I started attending Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) Regional and National Conventions, and then returning back home after them.  I noticed that even though I was at a gathering of youth and students from all over the nation, and in the case of Regional conventions, the Northeast, there was still the dominating evolved non-regional diction.

How is this evolved version worse? Well, like I said, it makes everything sound like a question spoken in, what I have coined, a "vaguely neutral" tone. By vaguely neutral, I mean that you can’t distinguish emotional inclinations in the speaker’s voice. You can’t verbally identify disagreement, agreement, frustration, etc. And if there is an identifiable emotional tone, it is a superficial sounding bubbliness.  Yes, there is just something inessentially weird about that, but the real problem is that it can be demeaning to working class people. Even in disagreement, the speaker sounds like they actually might be agreeing with you or sound like they otherwise have no opinion.  For example, I have heard one time too many the phrase, "That is a really great point, but..(insert completely opposite view point here)." Obviously, the person doesn’t believe it is a great point if they whole-heartedly disagree!

How is this demeaning? All of their lives, working class people are reprimanded and controlled under the auspices of what those above them think is better for them, and in many cases, it is done with a smile.  There are countless mechanisms of class dominance that have to maintain a righteous image to justify their existence. I believe that most workers realize this bullshit and are not going to want to sit through it while they are supposed to be attempting to challenge these power structures. For example, I have worked for the same corporate steakhouse for seven years. Management refers to the workers as "team members," a "team" they claim to be members of also. This would be a nice term if it conveyed equal decision-making and conditions among all of the "team members." However, like any other capitalist workplace, there is a hierarchal division of labor that relegates about 80 percent of the workforce to onerous and disempowering work with little to nil decision-making over the affairs of the restaurant, and the other 20 percent enjoy better working conditions, empowering work, and almost absolute decision-making. When anyone I work with hears management call them a team member, it is immediately taken as a farce. 

If workers can recognize this at work, organizers and activists should not expect their brains to stop working when they interact with them

SDS is not unique in this. My experiences at conventions has merely confirmed what I have observed at many an activist gathering. In my experience with SDS, the problem has been greater at conventions. I think this is a by-product of the fact that those with more time and money to spare can afford to make it to them, which then begs the question of funding, dues, and other factors that are often underlooked in their importance. That is another topic for another time.

Non-regional diction can be a problem unto itself; however, if its evolved form continues to proliferate in anti-authoritarian left organizations, such organizations can forget about trying to contribute to working class liberation. Instead, they will most likely remain irrelevant.  There was a point where I thought this assertion might be over the top. But every time I revisit Rhode Island, returning back to many (but not all) of my activist circles becomes that much unbearable. I can only imagine how many times a working person was turned off by talking to a well-meaning activist, and in turn, drew, in some way or another, the conclusions I have drawn–leading them to discount the entire Left. And, increasingly in past years, how many have been attracted to the "anti-elitist Left" rhetoric of the right-wing.

(For a great article about the Left, altruism, and working class people joining the army, check out David Graeber’s, Army of Altruists )


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