Transforming Beliefs and Empathy: An Observation on Political Tactics and Communication

There are two types of people with political opinions, whether they be left, right or center.

The first type wants to be angry. They want to yell. Perhaps they are sincere about their anger, perhaps it is just an adolescent diversion or an excuse, but they do not believe in what they are doing enough to be positive.

The other wants positive change. They believe in what they are doing and will do anything possible to exert change. They will meet people halfway, they will engage with those on the other side of the aisle, they will speak until they are hoarse. The issue is the motive, not their anger.

Leftists in particular have to be the second kind of people. Patriarchy, racism, classism… these issues are absolutely reasons to get angry. But that anger has to always be secondary to the belief in something better: Gender equality and love, multicultural or polycultural harmony, freedom from inequality, a better life based on solidarity, a world free from hunger and pain.

The difference between these perspectives was made clear to me recently in an interaction I had on social media.

A friend of mine posted on his Facebook wall, commenting on the experience of a third party. His female friend had said something to the effect of, “I’m not a feminist, but these guys are hitting on me and they’re being skeezy”.

The reaction that many activists decided to bring and express to this person’s public statement? Not consciousness-raising, not discussion, but angry people yelling about patriarchy and misogyny.

It is understandable to yell at the out-and-out racist or sexist. It’s even understandable to take to task the person who with no malice said something that showed a lack of consciousness. That’s tactics, and we will sometimes get the choices of those tactics wrong in any given situation. Sometimes, we will be too nice and not make the appropriate impact; sometimes, we will be too confrontational. We may make an assumption about someone’s politics that ends up not being warranted, or we may fail to make a deduction about their motives that would allow us to accomplish an objective.

But this is a clearcut situation. This woman was 90% of the way there. She was already starting to see why someone else might have the worldview that they do. She was agreeing with us, and many of us couldn’t listen. The activists replying to her could only accept dogmatic and total acceptance of the party line.

What might I have said in this situation?

I might have said, “Yes, exactly. As a man, this is exactly why I am a feminist. I see that too many women get ogled, harassed, and even groped. There’s a lot of explanations for that behavior, but whenever a man does it, it shows a lack of awareness of and concern for the humanity of the woman that she’s doing it to. I think that it’s important that we call out that kind of behavior each time we see it. And I think it’s emblematic of a deeper social problem wherein women find their basic humanity and rights trampled upon far more often than can be tolerated, or can be explained without considering sexism as a social institution”.

I of course could have been far more radical in my rhetoric than that. I could have mentioned the wage gap, or the second shift. I could have mentioned that women who seek to be assertive in their interactions with others and stand up to behavior like this are, according to very good sociology, likely to be misunderstood, misperceived and socially punished for it. Indeed, had the conversation continued, I might have mentioned all of that. I could also have been less radical. There would be many ways of taking this approach, with numerous complicated tactical tradeoffs.

But the point is that that comment, as written, did not make reference to any jargon. It didn’t use words that would cause people’s hackles to raise. It opened a conversation instead of closing it.

I suspect that this would have helped raise the consciousness of the woman who made the original post. I suspect that she may have seen that a group of people she may have dismissed as irrational actually had a very astute point to make about society.

Instead, the reaction that the activists in this case chose to express caused my friend to ultimately dismiss feminists in specific and possibly even left and progressive activists in general as being irrationally angry. A whole social network had seen a bad example of ideologically narrow people, instead of a good example of people with a compelling vision that can be expressed in words and concepts human beings can relate to. “Patriarchy” and “misogyny” had become buzz-words to be ignored and empty slogans rather than things to be opposed.

The reaction chosen by these Facebook activists was not fair to the original poster nor constructive, and I responded in that vein, trying to repair the damage by returning to the original issue of sexism.

What a wasted opportunity for consciousness building. What a wasted recruitment chance.

I have seen this trajectory play out over and over again. I have seen anarchists dismiss Tim Wise because Tim has been skeptical of 9/11 conspiracy theories. I have seen anti-racists respond to people on Facebook in ways that led them to disengage and turn off, rather than opening a dialog. I have seen atheists aggressively reply to people who simply express prayers and condolences to someone else who is sick. It isn’t a problem unique to feminists, or anarchists, or Marxists, or humanists, or progressives of any ilk. It’s a broader tactical problem, and it is a problem of our underlying psychology. It’s even a failure of movement leadership.

It is deeply privileged to think that someone else should simply see the light because we yell at them for two minutes on a Facebook post, or fifteen minutes at a march.

We have to have enough respect for other human beings, our neighbors and the members of our community, to realize that they have an entire lifetime of experiences that predispose them to an ideological background. If we want to raise their consciousness, we have to do it a step at a time.

As a heterosexual American white male of an immigrant and middle-class background, I of course recognize that I am likely to be more accommodating than others who may quite understandably get more angry due to having had to experience daily dehumanization and micro-aggressions. Yet I have found myself as an anarchist, pareconist, feminist, polyculturalist, LGBTQ ally because I have empathy for those people who do experience that dehumanization.

I have come to realize that the way of getting others excited about these causes is empathy and hope, not anger.

When a woman is groped, it is not just her who is harmed. We are all reduced. Every man who remains silent as that happens becomes less by doing so.

When a gay man or a lesbian woman or a male-to-female transsexual is afraid of being able to express his or her love and way of living in public because of fear of reprisals from homophobic employers, we are all trapped by shame. Even those of us who are straight find ourselves cut back in terms of our options for self-expression.

When someone who is poor is unable to achieve a dream because of the limitations of budget and resources they suffer under, we are all denied something.

A woman who is not a feminist has a host of reasons she may not be a feminist. Someone who may have accepted that capitalism is the only viable economic system that can be achieved may very well not be an idiot or a callous monster. Someone who has yet to perceive the depth of white privilege may simply not have been patiently sociologically informed and educated. The idea that all of these reasons that people feel this way must be self-evidently stupid or wrong is disrespectful in the utmost and simply false. This concept is ideology, not belief.

In Noam Chomsky’s Understanding Power, there is an incredible question that someone poses to Noam, followed by a very wise answer. An interlocutor asks, “…[D]on’t we need to do something to reverse the trend of revolutions falling short throughout history – don’t we have to change the psychology of human beings…?”

This is a fair point. Human beings have a host of cognitive and behavioral predispositions that can impede compassionate, solidaritous action.

Noam replies extensively about the successes people have achieved, but he also says, “[T]hat’s a matter for revolution, that’s not just going to happen”.

Elsewhere, Noam, Michael Albert, Tim Wise, Barbara Ehrenreich, and other great leftist thinkers have pointed out that the psychological and spiritual improvement of humanity is part and parcel of political and social improvement. We need advancement in both. The political and social process of improvement opens up more options for people to be better on a psychological and spiritual level, and people improving their empathy and their psychology tunes them into the need for political change.

What I have taken from this wisdom over and over again is a simple lesson:

Leftism is about teaching a better way.

We don’t just identify that capitalism is flawed, we don’t just identify that inequality is wrong or insulting or unjust or unfair, we don’t just say that people shouldn’t be starving.

We show people why these things are wrong. We engage with them and help them think there’s something that can be done. We give them the hope to begin experimenting, step by step.

In Robert Maurer’s Spirit of Kaizen, about the Japanese management philosophy of perpetual improvement, Maurer argues that “Business culture loves the idea of revolutionary, immediate change. But turnaround efforts often fail because radical change sets off our brain’s fear response and shuts down our powers to think clearly and creatively”. Of course, it’s not just business culture that wants “revolutionary” and “immediate” change. Leftists want that too, for utterly understandable reasons. But Maurer’s wisdom is just as accurate. No matter how massive the journey, it begins with one step. “Reformism” versus revolution aside, anything must begin where we are. Even if our goal was to pick up guns and challenge “the system” directly (whatever that would actually mean), it would still begin with recruitment, tactics and growing effort.

Psychologically, we lower the barriers of compassion fatigue, burnout and vicarious trauma, which are just as real threats to activists as they are to therapists and journalists, by creating an engaging vision of a better tomorrow. We create an idea of perpetual improvement, we identify metrics, and we never accept that we are done improving.

Indeed, this is perhaps in my mind the most exciting part of the parecon vision. It may not be perfect (though I remain an advocate for it), and details are likely to vary, but it’s at least a starting point. It’s coherent, it’s hopeful, and it seems doable. It’s based off of real experience. Once I discuss parecon with someone else, it becomes much more difficult for them to simply say I am naïve or destructive. They may not always agree with me; they may even continue to advocate for capitalism. But I am no longer a destroyer, a negative person who only has criticism to offer and no better alternative. Suddenly, I am someone who can point with passion to an alternative that could be explored.

In Terminator 2, one of the pieces of cinema that has resonated with me deeply, there is a scene that indicates a skillful and intelligent way of building that vision. Sarah Connor begins to accuse Miles Dyson of being too cavalier with the power of creation. She says that he doesn’t know what it’s like to have a life inside of him. James Cameron intended this to be a criticism of feminism, but Sarah Connor is such a powerful and likeable character that I have not once encountered someone who had this reaction. Rather, they understand Sarah’s point entirely. Dyson doesn’t know what it’s like to create. Dyson is a good and decent man but his perspective is limited by being a scientist, by being middle-class, by being American, by being sucked into the military-industrial complex, by being a man.

But Sarah’s son, John, an idealist and a leader who wants so badly for people to stop hurting and killing each other, simply tells his mother, “Mom! We need to be a little more constructive her, OK?”

He doesn’t say she’s wrong. He doesn’t undermine her feeling. He simply says that they need to orient themselves at finding the solution. The belief in the cause pushes through.

We can even see the same thing in the new Days of Future Past. Without going too much into spoiler territory for a wonderful movie, Xavier in that film is forced repeatedly to reach out to people whose hate and anger have blinded them to a better way of teaching and thinking. Magneto’s rhetoric of anger and war echoes the worst of nationalistic ideology and the most aggressive of LGBTQ activists alike.

It is unfortunate that we all must learn to direct our anger towards something great. It is unfortunate that we must learn to believe in something with all of our hearts and often bite our tongues in order to promote that belief. It is unfortunate that to be skillful activists we must often calm ourselves down.

But almost every success I have ever had in engaging with others and raising consciousness began when I dropped the rhetoric, dropped the anger, dropped the lectures, and believed enough in my vision to reach out to the other person and have faith in them.

I believe we should model ourselves after Dr. King. No one could deny that man’s anger at racism, poverty and militarism. But Dr. King had a greater belief, a cause beyond simply picking up the mess that hate and apathy had left behind. He had a vision of harmony and love that was fundamentally and deeply human.

And the most amazing thing about the civil rights movement was how whites in the South would years later thank this man, and those who fought alongside him. They would thank him for saving them from hatred. Not every white person, of course, would have this opportunity and this level of renewed and enhanced enlightenment and consciousness. But enough did.

I of course do not mean to trivialize the contributions of everyone else in the civil rights movement, many of whom were animated by a similar belief, virtually all of whom should be characterized as heroes. But he is a person we can see, one we are all aware of, a role model to guide us.

Any left activist who embraces a belief system that emphasizes hope and positive change will find that their desire to see that change come about pushes out the anger, the hatred, the sadness, the helplessness. An anti-racist and multiculturalist, an anarchist, a pareconist, and a feminist alike will find themselves in this situation.

With social media, we have been given an immense opportunity to reach out to people beyond our traditional politicized networks. We’re able to solve the megaphone problem that Michael Albert has discussed so extensively. But being successful in those interactions is going to require people to have the patience to carefully consider what they are saying and what they are representing about their cause with every tweet, every reply on a forum or discussion board, every Facebook post.

If we don’t believe in something enough that it pushes everything but the hope and love out of the way, how can we possibly expect others to change their consciousness such that they will be able to fight?

If we don’t have the faith in humanity to believe that we can change both people and institutions, convince them of a better path, then what in the final analysis is the point of our activism?


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