Thursday, October 22, 2015

Election Losses, the Filter Bubble, and Left Marginality

A lot of what has been written so far about the results of Monday's election, even by folks on the left, has been about and directed towards political parties – the NDP collapsed because of X or Y and needs to make change A or B; the Liberals will be a modest improvement or a continuation of awful; we need to pressure them on this issue or that, right away or after allowing a brief period for them to prove themselves. This shouldn't be surprising, of course, given that elections are overwhelmingly (though not always exclusively) party-political-based spectacles.

Given this, I was pleased last night to encounter some very useful commentary from James Hutt on the site of the Halifax Media Co-op (currently, I think, the best locally focused grassroots media outlet in the country). He derives lessons not for or about parties, but for "progressives, radicals, the Left, whatever you call the people who believe in and strive for deep social change" that applies regardless of our individual choices about whether and how to engage with the NDP in particular and electoral politics in general. I want to both add a bit of a '+1' to what Hutt has to say, but also to build on his insights and point towards some potential sources of inspiration and action.

Hutt begins from the shock experienced by most of the community-based left in Halifax at the defeat – not even a squeaker but a resounding one – of local NDP MP Megan Leslie. She was not at all a party hack but rather had emerged from and remained very connected with grassroots folks and movements, was wildly popular in the community, and was highly respected for her hard work as an MP. The greatest praise I have heard for her in the last few days was that her presence in Parliament strengthened grassroots organizing rather than weakening it. The items in that list related to grassroots substance are all too rare in today's NDP, and I have to admit that though I am halfway across the country and am no particular enthusiast for the party, even for me her loss was notable and a bit sad.

The lessons in the piece begin not from the loss per se, but from the shock at the loss. Hutt argues that everyone was so surprised by Leslie losing by 7600 votes because too many of us are deluded by the way that social media and the filter bubble lead most of us on the left, most of the time, to encounter a dramatic overrepresentation of views that are similar to our own, and unlikely to encounter an even vaguely representative sample of what our neighbours, co-workers, and extended family actually think.

He argues,

We live in a bubble, and a small one at that.

What amounts for debate in our feeds and in our communities is at best a discussion of tactics, and at worst a display of activist fashion trends.

We have grown comfortable with our own, coddled with cushy reinforcement of our beliefs from all sides. These soft supports serve us best as a padded cell. They do nothing for social change.

And because of this, "The Left is fragmented and weak. We are disconnected from the majority of working people. Yet, we remain content to squabble with each other over dogma and revolutionary purity. "

Moreover, far too much of our political work is either online work of a sort that mostly reaches people who already agree, or is offline spectacle that does not involve direct engagement and relationship-building with people who aren't us.

The Left is fragmented and weak. We are disconnected from the majority of working people. ... We must now do the hard, unglamorous work of talking to and living with people different from us. We have been content in our own company for too long, and we see the result of it. We have become divorced from reality. ... We need to live with difference, to organize among it, and to build the bases for our movements upon it.

These are, I think, wise words.

I want to suggest a few points that I think add a bit of texture and nuance, though.

The first is to add some words of caution against framing too much of the problem in terms of the online/offline distinction. Some of that caution is already captured in the piece, which is clearly not against online engagement in an absolute sense (as I've seen some repondants on social media read it). Rather, it is pointing to one of the limits of such engagement -- the filter bubble is a real thing that we need to take much more seriously. And it is not a blanket endorsement of offline engagement: The piece clearly talks about the kind of offline work that is needed, beyond the sort of small, spectacle-focused offline action that is most often all that grassroots left networks are able to pull off.

But I think in the same vein, an added caution is warranted for folks who live in the biggest cities. One of my learnings from living for over a decade in Sudbury – a small city, but one with a relatively vibrant (if sometimes politically frustrating) activist scene – is that those of us who are active in those circumstances have no choice but to engage with people with very different views from our own even if all we want to do is get a reasonable turnout for a teach-in. If we count on appealing only to people whose politics meet a rigid purity test, there will be far too few bums in chairs to make it feel worthwhile even by the most immediate and shallow of metrics. That's not to say I never witnessed any foolish sectarianism in my time there – that existed all along in some contexts, and my impression was that there was even more of it in the last year or so before I moved away, which was depressing – but there was nonetheless a hard limit on how much you could indulge that sectarianism and prioritize purity over relationships and collaboration before ensuring a very perceptible form of irrelevance. This is in contrast with Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and perhaps a couple of other places, where you can be as sectarian and puritanical as you like and still fill a room for a talk or get a not-embarrassing number of people to hold some signs on a street corner. It's not that the irrelevance is any less, but it's easier to pretend it isn't the case. So I think folks in the rad scenes in more metropolitan centres need to be even more careful as they (and, now that I have moved to southern Ontario, we) take up the suggestions in the piece, to make sure we really are engaging beyond ourselves rather than just with ourselves in an offline way.

The second point I want to make is a caution not to overemphasize the political homogeneity of the broad and vague collection of people whom Hutt is addressing. While there is some truth to the assertion that "what amounts for debate in our feeds and in our communities is at best a discussion of tactics, and at worst a display of activist fashion trends," I think it's easy to take that too far. There really are polarized issues of substance within our communities. The fact that some of those are tactical, like the role of militancy and the best way to relate to electoral politics, doesn't make them less politically substantive. And some that are most highly polarized are not about tactics at all, but about how some in our communites don a mantle of justice and then work against collectively self-identified pathways towards justice and liberation for trans folk and for sex workers. These polarized issues are largely dealt with in our broader networks by lip service support for marginalized folk and then by ignoring them. And that, actually, is most similar to the much larger spectrum of issues where there is not visible polarization, but where sharp divergences of analysis and practice are mostly ignored and papered over. Take, for instance, political practice around white supremacy and patriarchy – by and large, our communities divide politically in ways that often (but don't always) align with being targeted or with passively benefiting from these things, with folks in the latter category most often adding them to the laundry list of social evils they oppose while doing only surface-level work to transform their own analysis and practice based on insights from the diverse political approaches adopted by folks in the former category. So I would argue that the problem is not just a certain kind of political homogeneity within our networks, though that exists, but a pretence at homogeneity that amounts to a refusal to engage with substantive political difference within our networks, and a refusal to take on certain kinds of hard work related to doing so in a politically responsible way that is not the same as but is analagous to the refusal to engage with political difference beyond our networks that Hutt quite rightly decries.

The final caution I want to make is against reading the problems that the piece identifies too absolutely. Not that it's wrong – the grassroots left is, indeed, weak, fragmented, disconnected, and marginal. But I think part of building a response to this marginality is recognizing that there are people – too few, not always effectively, but some – who are already doing things that are pushing against this tendency to be self-isolating. And I'm fully willing to admit that perhaps these folks are overrepresented in my own personal bubble, because a key practical challenge in doing my radio show week in and week out is regularly seeking out people who are engaged in social change work of various kinds across the country, not all of which necessarily meets the requirement of working against the limits of disconnection that Hutt identifies, but some of which does. Just looking at this week's episode, there is no way that the Cree, Dene, Metis, and settler folk in the Committee for Future Generations would have built community sentiment against hosting a nuclear waste facility in northern Saskatchewan that was strong enough to defeat the possibility, without engaging with neighbours and community members of many different opinions on the issue, including those for whom, in this very poor region, the pull of jobs is quite reasonably a powerful one. Then there was the national meeting of anti-austerity and anti-capitalist groups back in July, some of which – like Solidarity Halifax, We Are Oshawa, and Solidarity Against Austerity -- are a new sort of formation that is very much premised on the importance of augmenting social media work with deliberate practices of engaging with a broad range of people offline on a range of issues. You can add to that the more narrowly focused campaigners at Londoners for Door to Door and their hard work to save home delivery in London, Ontario, and across the country in the face of Canada Post's efforts to cut it...and also the more recent efforts to support similar campaigns in communities across the country. Or you can look to these grassroots feminist moms in Toronto challenging the child welfare system by engaging with both other moms trying to navigate the system and with frontline workers. Or to anti-authoritarian worker-organizers who recently gathered to talk about engaging fellow workers in service-related workplaces.

I could go on. That's just a fairly recent and random sample of people I've talked to whose work involves, in one way or another, pushing beyond engagement with those they already agree with.

And the point I want to make is that these things are happening – definitely not enough, and probably not always as effectively as they might, but they are happening. So as we digest the insight that we too often just speak to each other, that we are disconnected from our neighbours and co-workers and therefore marginal, we don't have to feel like we're starting from absolute zero. Yes, changing those dynamics is a big thing that will require a lot of people doing a lot of soul-searching and then a lot of work. But there are people already doing that work, so we don't necessarily have to invent practices and politics and approaches from nothing. We can seek out those who are already doing the work, and maybe we can join with them, or maybe we can just listen to them as we figure out what we want to do next to escape the filter bubble and challenge the depressing marginality of "people who believe in and strive for deep social change."

1 comment:

Fiona said...

I've just read James Hutt's excellent article, and I also like much of what you say here. I quite agree that the situation is quite different outside of major urban centres. Having spent my adult life in Montreal and then Toronto, I moved thirty years ago to Welland in the Niagara peninsula. It's been the most valuable educational experience of my life (aside from parenting an autistic daughter, that is). Had I remained in Toronto, I suspect I would have continued to exist in the same lefty, artsy, "progressive" bubble, spending my time with people who think the same way as I do. Instead, I have learned a great deal about the enormous diversity of life experience and opinion of people who've spent most of their lives outside of big cities. I still count myself a "progressive" (although I confess I'm beginning to get very tired of the term!), but my opinions are much more nuanced. Many of the people I like best and respect most have very different views on a variety of subjects. I try to consider all sides of a question before I make up my mind -- and I'm prepared to change my views based on new evidence. You make an excellent point about the many initiatives for change in Canada. As a nine-year activist with the Council of Canadians, I am continually reminded of the remarkable work of progressive groups across the country. The problem as I see it is that the size and the demographic make-up of Canada makes it particularly difficult to draw such groups together to work for change at the political level. I wonder if you have any ideas.