Monday, December 11, 2006

Conversation, Difference, and Neoliberal Frames

The current shape of my life does not allow me much opportunity to talk to people in situations which do not assume that either there will be significant similarities between our worldviews or that "serious" talk is verboten so potential areas of dissimilarity should be studiously avoided.

For example, I have some involvement in anti-poverty organizing in the city, which provides a welcome opportunity to talk radical left politics with other folk who are similarly engaged. Though it can be puzzling to people who are not themselves involved in such things, those of us on the broadly defined progressive/radical/lefty spectrum can disagree among ourselves with just as much vim and vigour as we can disagree with anyone else, perhaps more so. In some ways, squabbling among ourselves is easier because our political vocabularies and internal libraries of ideas and symbols are at least partially overlapping so communication takes less work. At the same time, being part of a reasonably stable group means (or should mean) that you develop informal understandings about how such conversations are to occur and they generally happen in an environment of greater safety than one might usually experience in other places because, after all, you are pusuing a common goal, and there is at least some level of sustained interpersonal engagement to serve as context.

I also get a chance to be with other people in spaces where the core identity is "mom". As I have written before, I tend to feel the exoskeleton of normative expectations pressing around me with extra constriction in such circumstances, and tend to be very, very tentative about talking about the world at all. I probably take that reflexive disengagement farther than I need to, but it is not as if I hear such conversations going on around me and refuse to participate -- they are just absent, even when things that would be very topical to the space, like socialized daycare, are hot items in the news.

And finally, this semester, I audited an undergraduate class in political sociology. The content was great, but one of the things I had hoped for was a chance to have regular engagement on political topics with people who were not already activists, and unfortunately, for various reasons beyond anyone's control, the class did not feature such discussions with any regularity.

So I'm out of practice at conscious, productive engagement across difference and disagreement. Which is too bad, because I think it is a tremendously important political skill -- presenting what you think with clarity and respect, and creating a climate where those with whom you are talking can do likewise, and listening to what they say, is one of the core moments in both the informal and formal spheres of trying to lead a politically engaged life.

Though I don't get as much chance to do as I'd like, it is something I have been thinking of over the last couple of days just because of some recent experiences. One was making a bunch of phone calls to people I didn't know to let them know about this event. The purpose was not substantive engagement on the issues at hand and the phone list was largely people who had already expressed interest back in the summer so it was hardly a hostile audience, but there was still the potential for this kind of discussion. And the other was a social event attended primarily by colleagues of my partner, which involved plenty of opportunity for conversation with people I had never met before or that I only know very casually.

Particularly in the latter event, I was really struck by the ways in which casual conversation is structured to exclude engagement with whatever the topic at hand might be in ways that are at all social or political, i.e. that recognize substantive difference of experience or opinion and seek to understand the nature of this difference with reference to concepts that go beyond atomized, individualized experience. Our basic conversational frame is neoliberal, privatized. Often content that is implicitly social or political is included as background -- not as something offered up for discussion and debate, but as a piece of setting the stage for the content that is central, which usually is about the individual's experience related as testimonial. Because this is how the delivery of the content is automatically structured (with the focus on privatized individual experience and any material that directly or indirectly comments on the social relegated to background) it is quite easy for any attempt to shift the focus onto the background material and problematize underlying assumptions, however gently, to come across as rude. While there is an extent to which it is possible to see this as hypersensitivity to avoiding conflict that is part of middle-class propriety, and I think even more so for Canadian middle-class propriety, it also flows quite naturally from the way the conversation is structured because very often such an effort to refocus the discussion really would involve an implicit disregard for another person's experiences. It involves a forcible shifting of frame -- a frame that is initially constructed in privatized, neoliberal terms so that any attempt to introduce the social might be felt as a disregard, a disrespect for the person whose privatized, neoliberal experiences start out at the centre but are no longer the all and the only once the shift has taken place.

It is not just about the privatized nature of the intial frame, though, but about the ways in which many of us have learned to engage in discussion about the social, the political. It is about how we are trained to intervene. As someone socialized into white middle-class masculinity, I have been trained to fall very easily into a sort of universal, faux-objective subject position: "This is how it is" rather than "These are my grounded experiences and feelings, what are yours?" This is something I've been aware of for a long time so I do work at trying to do the latter instead of the former as much as I can, but it adds additional complexity to shifting the focus of conversation in the particular ways mentioned above. If you fall into the trap of producing discourse that erases who/what/where you are, not only is such a shift a disruption of a neoliberal, privatized frame for discourse -- an intervention to tell someone that you don't want the conversation to be all about taking turns producing discourse organized around "all about me" -- but it becomes about changing the focus from "him/her" (meaning the other speaker) to "this/that". This may make the approach to discourse less privatized, less focused on an isolated individual, but it also tends to erase people -- the speaker, the listener, people generally -- and human experience completely. This is not necessarily much of an improvement, and an instinctive reaction against such an attempt to switch focus is kind of understandable. Perhaps an improvement over a transition from "him/her" to "this/that" is an engagement of "him/her" with "me" to make the frame "you and I". "You and I" is a very basic unit of the social and it can be a window that is much less alienating for introducing broader thoughts and feelings and experiences relating to the social, and at the same time inviting your interlocutor to do the same. People remain visible and respected, but the social is introduced. Without necessarily theorizing it quite this explicitly while doing it, I have had some success doing this over the years, and have noticed with appreciation when other people have done similar things, either to/with me or with others. Of course, there are limits -- no matter how good you are at doing it, it is not always possible. The act of refusing a neoliberal conversational frame, no matter how skill or how much sensitivity to keeping people from being erased by reified concepts and faux-universalized subject positions are displayed, it still often violates those unspoken rules of middle-class conversation. I'm sure someone more knowledgeable than I could, in fact, convincingly connect this neoliberal frame for casual conversation to the ways in which middle-class life in North America is socially organized and to traditions of classical political liberalism that are associated with capitalist social relations.

Of course an engaged, people focused approach is not always the best way. Sometimes it can be risky. I am thinking particularly of an instance in the class that I took, in which a series of really politically offensive things were said. Because I felt that there was no way in the moment that I felt I could respond without coming across as a big meanie, I was silent. And not just a big meanie, but one who was able to respond that way because of privilege based on age and gender. Sometimes, about some things, I would have spoken up anyway, but in this instance I did not think I could do so productively. So I held my tongue, and later on the matter was firmly but tactfully addressed by another person present in the classroom in a way that avoided concrete grounding in specific people as a way of avoiding targeting the individuals involved while still refusing to leave the politically offensive statements uncoutered.

I find that a practical issue in all of this is surprise. I'm not sure why it is so often surprising to encounter areas of difference and disagreement. I mean, they happen all the time and with everybody, even the closest of friends and intimate partners. On a certain level, life would be boring without them. Yet it is still easy to get caught in a moment of "Oh my goodness, how can they think that" and thereby lose an opportunity to engage on the issue in a way that feels natural and organic and therefore is less likely to come across as disrupting the flow of conversation and polarizing the atmosphere. I can think of one conversation in particular at the social event I was at in which the little data I had about this person before we began to converse should have been enough to tell me that certain assumptions about class would probably be displayed as we talked and that I should be prepared for that. But I was still surprised, and I ultimately ended up responding by disengaging. Which is understandable at times, of course, but it isn't always the most useful thing. I think perhaps the most useful approach to dealing with this is to just make it universal: to always assume that the person to whom you are talking will say something with which you disagree, that merits further discussion to flesh out areas of difference or disagreement, and to always be present in ways that make doing so possible. And I know people who are very good at this, so I know it is possible.

The downside of this is that it can be quite hard work. I have always tended to be introverted, so to a certain extent I always experience conversation, even fairly intimate conversation, as performance and therefore as work. Sometimes quite enjoyable work, and work that I actively seek out, but work nonetheless. Consciously working to disrupt the assumed neoliberal frame that contains most conversation and to avoid the trap of discussion of the social that erases self -- a common trap for activist boys no less than anyone else socialized into dominant forms of masculinity -- is hard work. But I think it is important work, and work that can be one part of the process of forming human connections that struggle to be deeper, more intersubjective, more interesting, more equitable, more fulfilling, than passive acceptance of lives and discourse that are organized in ways that reflect and constitute neoliberalism and various social relations of power.


Todd said...


You're _such_ a _nice_ person.


Scott said...

Hmmmmmm....not sure that's exactly the kind of reaction I was expecting from this piece...or if it is necessarily always a good thing to be so labelled...but I suppose I should say thanks! ;)