Let the Debates Begin!

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 debate.

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 righteousness.

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 activism.

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 real?

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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