Thursday, October 29, 2015

Reluctance to write about social movements

I'm feeling an odd reluctance to do a certain kind of writing about social movements.

It's odd because, in many respects, I'm pretty well placed to do this writing. For one thing, it's very much in the spirit of the sort of writing that I already do – in a significant subset of eleven years of blog posts, in grassroots journalism, in book reviews, and in books, I have written about social movements and communities-in-struggle, as well as about those things which they struggle for and against. As well, one of my main current projects is Talking Radical Radio, which gives me a unique vantage and pool of material through the chance to do 52 in-depth interviews every year with people involved in a broad range of social change work from a broad range of social and geographical locations within Canada. In fact, it's that work that I want to figure out how to write from – not necessarily about, but from. This is particularly the case because I'm slowly working away at a more theoretical-yet-hopefully-practical Next Big Project (which may or may not become a book) that is thinking about how we know the world and what we can say about this thing called "Canada", in part through engagement with these interviews, and I can see a number of reasons why it would be both interesting and useful to me to be doing more immediate, smaller-scale writing of various sorts drawing on the interviews and talking about movements, their context, and what they face.

And yet I hesitate.

I hesitate in large part because I'm not quite sure how I want to do it based on what I have. That is, I have a scattered pool of in-depth interviews. I get to hear quite a bit about person X and about struggle Y that they're a part of, but that is really all I get to learn about X and about Y. And then the next week, I hear about something else entirely. In thinking about what to write and how to write it, I've come up with several possibilities, but I am satisfied with none of them.

I could, for instance, do it in the form of grassroots journalism. I've done a fair bit of that before, after all. And I do think that, for all the limits of the journalistic form (even its grassroots variant), good quality original journalism about movements and flowing from their standpoints is far too rare and we need a lot more of it. So I could maybe do that, and produce written journalistic work that was somehow catalyzed by or flowing from my radio interviews. But I'm not really sure that I want to do that, and I'm not sure I'm well placed to do it – the vast majority of interviews and shows that I do focus on struggles happening nowhere close to me, and it would be a challenge to write the kinds of articles I understand to be "grassroots journalism" starting from a position of never having been in the local contexts I'm writing about. It wouldn't be impossible, but it would be difficult, and I think other people would be better placed than me to do it. (Though if someone wanted to pay me to do this, I'd consider it. :) )

Another option would be something along the lines of the sort of opinion and analysis writing that shows up...well, everywhere, really. If there's something that we don't lack on the left, it's white dudes sharing our opinions about things – it's usually less work than journalism, and it's something we are socialized to feel entitled to do. And of the many examples of this that I run across each day, from the micro-blogging of Twitter and Facebook status updates on up to the voluminous polemic or essay, I do certainly encounter examples that I like and that I find useful (along with many that I do not). And of course I do it too – I make use of social media for opining purposes, plus I have a blog, I write things on it, and I want people to read them, and some of those things are about movements. And that is, at heart, fine.

As you can probably tell, however, I have some reservations about this genre of work as well, particularly when it comes to the purposes informing this post. Certainly some of that is concern about voice and about taking up space, and a recognition that at the very least I want to be cautious and deliberate about doing so. Of course, contrary to the shallow misreading of that sort of concern by some people who reject it, while the point might be to get those of us who already take up a lot of space to quiet down and pull back in specific contexts, I don't think it's meant to be broadly silencing. I really see it more as being about responsibility and accountability, as well as about judicious silence and generous and strategic use of whatever space you have to lift up other voices as well.

But the more fundamental problem for me is the epistemology that such opinion and analysis writing often contains, particularly when it is done in a mode that is not feminist and/or anti-racist. I mean, it's a pretty broad and varied lot of stuff, so I recognize that I'm about to enter into some moderately unfair generalizations, but they are generalizations that express something real. One part of it is that often these kinds of pieces are very univocal – I think it is impossible to know much of anything about the world, or to write anything of any consequence, without drawing from, building on, and in some sense being in dialogue with other people and with social collectives, but so much of how we are taught to write and to think about writing subsumes all of that underneath the single pen, the single name. Yes, I do it too. And I'd argue that there are limits to what an individual writer on their own can do to counter this – it's much bigger than any one of us. Nonetheless, it is definitely possible to push against it in how we write, but the kind of opinion and analysis writing I'm talking about rarely does so and instead tends to embrace a very monological approach.

As well, these kinds of pieces are often written from a pretence of hovering above the social world and making pronouncements. It's not exactly "objectivity" in the sense that word is usually used, because such writing is quite open about containing an element of judgement or "subjectivity," but it pretends to be from the same sort of not-of-the-world place that we are taught "objectivity" defines and inhabits. (And in fact this is a clue as to what one important characteristic of this space is really about, and what kind of "subjectivity" gets to masquerade as "objectivity.") Again, in saying this I'm not trying to excessively narrow the ways of knowing and writing the world that are legitimate – it's more a call for a certain kind of epistemological accountability, in terms of being open and honest about how we know and where we know from.

Overcoming Reluctance

The ways that I have been talking about the sources of my reluctance already contain the seeds of overcoming it, or at least of figuring out how to work with it.

For instance, while it doesn't feel like I'm in a great position to go from a specific interview to locally-focused journalistic depth about that group, person, or struggle, I do have the advantage of the great breadth and range of the pool of interviews as a whole. So there may be some possibility for saying some things about non-local phenomena based on careful listening to and reflection on the voices in multiple interviews from multiple contexts. Perhaps I might be able to identify broader trends, broader issues, broader questions in this way. I'm cautious about this, because it feels like it would be easy to start off with this intent but fall into exactly the kinds of inappropriate writing choices I talk about earlier in the post, but it's a possibility.

What feels more promising, whether it flows from a single interview or from many, is a focus on accountability and guidance. One thing that has become clear to me, as I've done various kinds of (unpublished) writing in the last year to figure out how we know the world through encounters (informed by, among other things, related writing by feminist philosopher Sara Ahmed), is that even the most fleeting of interactions, when read actively and closely, contains volumes. And this is the case because of many hooks into the broader social world – into larger discourses, larger chains of relations and practices – which then in a sense pull all of that information and meaning into that moment. Some of those hooks are not necessarily very conscious or deliberately conveyed, but rather are unearthed through close reading, while others are very explicit pointers to ideas, to other bodies of knowledge, to theory. (And in fact, I hadn't been giving enough emphasis to the latter, but I'm in the middle of reading a new book called Learning Activism: The Intellectual Life of Contemporary Social Movements by Aziz Choudry, which I hope to review in the next few weeks, and it has been a good reminder to pay close attention to the ideas that activists produce themselves and what they explicitly point to as useful in their work of understanding and changing the world.)

The idea, then, would be to relate to these interviews, in both their implicit and explicit content, and to write from them, as sources not of data about an object but of generously shared guidance and insight to shape further investigation of the world. I'm not really very clear yet on what that could look like in practice. And of course the distinction is not always so clear cut, and there may be moments when something that looks more like the former is entirely appropriate. It is also quite possible that all of this adds up to just another flavour of online white lefty dude opining not so very different from any other, rather than something that's as distinctive as I'd like. Which, given everything, may be fine, so long as it is adequately accountable for how it relates to other people and their stories -- none of what I'm saying is meant to paint such opining as bad, given that I do plenty of it myself, just as not quite what I want to be doing here. However that question gets resolved, though, it feels like this is a substantive enough response to my concerns for me to move forward, reflect some more, and experiment. And of course a key component of this experimentation will be to do the writing in ways that draws out the dialogical and social character of how we know things, and that focuses on raising up work and ideas and voices from other people, particularly work and ideas and voices that often don't get much space.

So we shall see how it goes.

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