Thursday, November 12, 2015

10 things grassroots writing and media can do (even given the power of the filter bubble)

In the aftermath of the recent federal election, I wrote a post (building on a piece by someone else) that, among other points, argued that the community-based left in Canada is fragmented and weak in part because we focus too much on particular kinds of online activities and on small-scale offline specatcles, while not putting enough energy into the slower and more laborious kinds of mostly-offline work that would allow us to build relationships and engage in dialogue with people who don't already think like us. I think there are a bunch of reasons why this happens, but certainly one contributing factor is the way that major online technologies like social networks and search engines function -- without really realizing it, when we are online we tend to disproportionately encounter material and people we agree with, and when we opine or otherwise share substantive content, it is sympathetic eyes that are most likely to end up seeing it. This sometimes gets called the "filter bubble".

That line of thinking has implications beyond just how movements and their sympathizers conceptualize effective political action -- implications that hit rather close to home for me. Grassroots media, community-based intellectual work, online writing, and various other sorts of extra-institutional production, articulation, and circulation of knowledge intended to be of relevance (at least in a broad sense) to struggles for social change all depend to a very large extent these days on the internet to connect with potential audiences. Given the filter bubble, though, are these kinds of grassroots knowledge work politically useful investments of time and energy?

I sure hope so.

Actually, I'm pretty certain so.

Before I get to why I think that, though, I want to emphasize that for all that I devote significant amounts of energy to writing, intellectual work, media-making, knowledge production, and what have you, and I do see it as worthwhile, I do not see this work as in any sense the most useful work. I am cautious about any claims that X is inherently more valuable than Y in building movements, particularly outside of very concrete circumstances, because I think we generally need the whole alphabet, and often such determinations smuggle hierarchies of power and privilege back into our movements in how they differentially value the kinds of contributions that tend to be made by differently situated people. Still, I feel reasonably comortable in suggesting that one kind of activity that is currently lacking in a major way in building movements for radical social transformation in North America, and certainly is more urgently needed than the sort of media/writing/knowledge work that I spend lots of my time doing, remains all of those activities that can be labelled "organizing" -- a term I use more broadly than some, perhaps, because I'm not sure its more top-down manifestations are necessarily all that useful, and because I think it actually has to take on a much broader range of forms than is usually credited if we want to end up with the movements we need. With that in mind, by "organizing" I mean the many practices that deliberately work to catalyze the coming together of my moments of resistance with your moments of resistance with her moments of resistance over there to allow for their collective and confrontational expression in the service of social transformation. Over the years, I've certainly done some of that, and will do more in the future, though I don't claim to be particularly good at it. But even so, I do far more of the media/writing/knowledge sort of work. I do this because not everyone's contributions to social change need to look the same, and in fact I would argue that we need to do a better job of accommodating a wider range of capacities, skills, and passions in our movements. I do this because I do have some skills that are at least a bit more developed when it comes to certain media- and writing-related activities -- I perhaps remain a mediocre white guy, but one at least who has practiced enough to have something to offer -- and it feels like making use of those skills and the pleasure I take in deploying them should be part of how I contribute to movements.

That, at least, is how I have rationalized this choice to myself. But what, exactly, can media/writing/knowledge work do, given the difficult and limiting reality of the filter bubble?

This list is far from comprehensive, but it suggests a few possibilities -- ten, in fact:

  1. Preaching to the choir. In my last few years of living in Sudbury, Ontario (which ended in August) my central involvement in the community was doing editorial and organizing work (and the odd bit of grassroots journalism) with the Sudbury working-group of The Media Co-op. The Media Co-op is a cross-country network of collectives devoted to producing, circulating, and promoting grassroots journalism and other forms of independent media. At some point early in the life of our working-group, we had an organizer from the Toronto Media Co-op come up and do an event with us, and I remember being particularly struck by his emphasis on the fact that, as much as people of many different political stripes use "preaching to the choir" in a derogatory sense, sometimes it's a worthwhile thing to do. If I'm not mistaken, he was using the example of the TMC's reporting on the G20 in 2010, and how, even if nothing they produced during those days was read by anyone who wasn't already aware and active -- and if there was a time when that wasn't true, it was then, because their stuff circulated far and wide during those few days -- it was still important to have media produced from the standpoint of folks in the streets as a way of strengthening and reproducing existing community-based left networks. So even if what we produce and share doesn't make it outside the filter bubble, it is serving that function, and it's a necessary one because political networks, however ephemeral and marginal, don't reproduce on their own. It takes labour. And, in fact, neither do political identifications and commitments -- in some ways, this labour that happens within the confines of the filter bubble smacks of Benedict Andersen's insight into nations as imagined communities, which he argued was originally produced by certain sets of shared practices, including (print newspaper-based) media consumption habits. We'll never change the world if we don't go beyond this, but that doesn't mean we don't need to do some of it.

  2. Mediating difference within the choir. The fact is, our left-of-NDP-type networks, both in how they manifest offline and in their somewhat different expressions on social media, are not actually homogeneous. Yes, I argued in the earlier post that we spend too much time talking to each other and not enough talking to people who think in completely different ways, but that doesn't mean we don't need to talk to each other at all. We have profound differences in our experiences of the social world and in our analyses, in all sorts of ways. Social media may be a singularly terrible place to try and resolve any of that with any finality, given how attempts at political dialogue in such settings are so rarely productive, but it is still a context in which we can encounter that difference along with pointers to background information (i.e. links), which can allow us to learn from it, and to be better able to engage in such encounters when they happen in the (somewhat, sometimes, hopefully) more productive environment that is face-to-face meatspace.

  3. Circulating struggle. Struggle-related knowledge and practices move. Something works in one city, so folks in another city take it up. A particular action helps forge a victory in one struggle, so folks involved in something quite different look at it closely, make some changes, and apply it to their own situation. Activists in one organization come up with a new approach to decision-making that displaces broadly accepted convention in a way that really works for them, and others decide to try it out. Organizers in one place find a frame for a given issue that really resonates with people who hadn't thought about that issue before, so organizers in a dozen other places are inspired to change how they communicate about that issue. This kind of circulation of knowledge and practices can be crucial to catalyzing new movement upsurges, to adapting to changed circumstances, and to benefiting from local innovation. In all of these cases, even if the writing or media that carries this knowledge doesn't leave broadly leftish circles, it can still do that valuable work of circulation, and contribute to the processes of discussion and debate and adaptation that inevitably accompany it. (This is one of the things that I hope that Talking Radical Radio does in some small way, given that it makes it possible to hear directly from a wide range of activists and organizers involved in a wide range of struggles about what they're doing, how they're doing it, and why they're doing it.)

  4. Amplifying voices. Even within our movements, even within the horizon of the lefty filter bubble, there are voices and analyses and experiences that get marginalized. This is unjust in and of itself. It is also harmful to movements, because it means that ideas and approaches that could strengthen our work, deepen our understanding, take us more truly to-the-root, never get heard. So do things that make use of the space and skills that you have to amplify those voices and analyses and experiences (while of course being very clear not to appropriate, distort, or talk over). (I also hope Talking Radical Radio does some of this.)

  5. Constituting a new choir. I think there are limits to the kind of analysis that uses this language, but there's some value too to the understanding that a publication summons a public into existence. Now, this way of thinking about it has its roots in a somewhat idealized understanding of the liberal public sphere in the days of penny newspapers and salons and journals, and I think even the more critical stuff I've seen that uses this language sometimes feels like it's leaving out important aspects of how power shapes knowledge and discourse and action. Nonetheless, the idea that a publication summons into existence a sort of fragile, fleeting social formation that does indeed have a certain reality and relevance and that can do certain kinds of work is, I think, a useful one. One of the features of community life in Sudbury, particularly in my earlier years in the city, was that different sectors that were, in broad terms, progressive mostly didn't know much about each other. And Sudbury is not at all a large city. It was more complicated than this, but speaking quickly and crudely, environmentalists, labour activists, and community-based, movement-focused radicals (who at various points focused more on anti-poverty issues or more on anti-war/anti-imperialism/Indigenous solidarity issues) were largely disconnected from each other; Indigenous folks largely did their own things, with occasional overlap with one or another constituency within the anglo-settler left; and francophone-based political work was pretty much entirely separate from the anglophone community left. So one of the useful things about my work with The Media Co-op in Sudbury, however partially realized, was that we were trying to create a grassroots venue where people from a range of different sectors would come to see local, original content that was directly relevant to them, and in so doing would encounter things from other sectors that they previously had little to do with. It was a chance to build up somewhat broadened habits of awareness and attention, and then perhaps knowledge, and then perhaps networks. And combining this online content and its associated practices with offline events that were specifically designed to appeal to people with different (but still broadly left or progressive) political priorities was, at least we hoped, a way to gently nudge people towards certain kinds of conversation and learning and, ultimately, broadening and strengthening networks within the community and therefore strengthening the ability of the community to tackle a range of political problems. For various reasons, it wasn't as successful as I'd hoped (at least by the point of my departure -- the work continues!) but I don't think that's because it's a bad idea.

  6. Permeating the filter bubble. The filter bubble is a big thing, and it matters, and we need to do mostly-offline, long-term work that is not captured by it. But it isn't impermeable. Even on that most bubbled of platforms, Facebook, you will occasionally see a post from that right-wing guy whom you kind of knew in high school who for some reason added you, or from that nice-seeming Christian lady you met in the context of your community garden who has the most godawful racist and settler colonial opinions about the freedom struggle of the Palestinian people, or from that extended family member who is mostly apolitical but who, when they do share a meme, can be relied upon to share one that is both reactionary and based entirely on fabrications. And they will occasionally see a post from you. Again, dialogue is unlikely to be productive (though sometimes you just have to say something), but even minimal seepage means the possibility for some awareness of difference. I actually like to think of it as similar to postering for events in downtown Sudbury -- in some places, urban postering is a good way to get people out to your events, but that rarely proved true in Sudbury. Nonetheless, I still thought it was important, not just because even a couple of unfamiliar faces attracted that way made it worth it, but because the debris of past posters on lamp posts was an intervention into urban space that let even the people who resolutely refused to be interested in the content of the posters know that there was something going on, something they didn't control, something they probably wouldn't like. And of course not all social media works like Facebook. I'm not an active poster there, but I occasionally lurk on Tumblr, where the mechanics of the site mean that there is often quite significant crossover of content across political lines. Again, I'm uncertain about how productive some of those exchanges actually are, but I know from things I've seen on the site that there are folks on Tumblr who are aware at all of the existence of people concerned with social justice and anti-racism and such -- "social justice warriors," in the lingo of the platform -- because they ran into them on the site, and otherwise would never have encountered them. (A few, it seems, even think that concern for social justice became a thing because of Tumblr, which amuses me.)

  7. Sneaking into mainstream spaces. It's rarely fair, satisfying, or even remotely adequate, but material produced outside of mainstream contexts, in response to logics to which such contexts are hostile, can still sometimes find its way into such contexts, or can influence material that does. Not that mainstream influence can or should be the guiding principle for our work, but it can be one way that grassroots work can sometimes have one kind of impact. Sometimes this happens because it is being produced by someone who already has a certain amount of celebrity, like Naomi Klein or Laurie Penny. Sometimes, it is because mainstream venues take up stories that were broken by a grassroots venue -- I forget the details, but I know there were a number of instances of stories broken by Toronto Media Co-op journalists that found their way, in one way or another, into daily newspapers in Toronto. And sometimes, mostly in the context of fiction, it happens through what I would call "impurity," where ideas and images with origins in writing/intellectual work/media produced in oppositional contexts are mixed (often in troubling ways) with other sorts of ideas as part of making a complex but compelling narrative that makes it to a screen or page near you.

  8. Sneaking offline. Today, online circulation is important to grassroots writing, intellectual work, media production, and knowledge production in a way that would have been inconceivable when I started dabbling in this sort of thing in the mid 1990s. But as important as the internet is, life beyond the internet continues, and it's a way to connect with people in a way not limited by the filter bubble. My first regular paid writing gig, many years ago, was doing magazine-style grassroots journalism for a local print weekly. I haven't done that in a long time myself, but it still happens. And, sure, how that knowledge circulates is still socially organized and limited in particular ways. But it's different than what search engines and social media would produce. Or take broadcast radio – right now Talking Radical Radio broadcasts every week on 8 or 9 stations in different parts of Canada, and on an occasional basis on a few more, and I know that reaches numbers and kinds of ears far beyond those who are likely to encounter the podcast version. Or take 'zines – lots of work, generally pretty small circulation, but often a way to reach eyes that would never see the same content in a blog post.

  9. Building an organization. There's a quote from Lenin that I'm too lazy to dig up that says something to the effect that if you want to start a political organization, begin by starting a publication. While some organizations that claim his mantle seem to interpret this as having something to do with preparing militants for revolution by having them flog newspapers on street corners, a more sophisticated understanding is that through co-producing a publication, political cohesion will be built, which can be turned into action. I have been part of one project where a subset of the original core participants had this hope, or so I've heard. I myself was a fairly peripheral participant, I would not have shared this hope anyway, and it did not end up playing out that way. But I think it's as reasonable a model of building an organization as any. And I do know of another organization that did not begin this way, but that has in the last couple of years turned towards the collaborative development of an organizational publication as a way to build shared political knowledge and political cohesion, and from the outside at least it seems to be working.

  10. Supporting a specific organization or struggle or movement. This can take a variety of forms, but it involves developing some sort of sustained relationship with a particular organization or cluster of organizations involved in a very specific, concrete struggle. It might involve actually joining and being very clear about putting your labour and specialized skills at the disposal of that group. Or it might mean staying a bit apart but using some other space that you have access to in a way that supports them. This can look like consistently covering the actions of a local direct action anti-poverty group for your local grassroots media site, thereby helping them build a public profile and making sure they consistently have accounts of their actions grounded in the standpoint from which their organizing springs that they can make use of in their own outreach, promotion, and organizing. Or it can look like using your space and skills, perhaps in a university but not necessarily, to produce knowledge that the group will find directly useful, such as facilitating their efforts to map institutions and relationships and power that they face in the community.
I'm sure I've missed a great deal. I haven't even touched on the ways in which writing and media work can nourish our creative, imaginative, spiritual sides, in the way that Montreal-based organizer and musician Stefan Christoff talks about music in this week's episode of the show. And I'm sure there are lots of other things I've missed because they have never really applied to my own work, but are totally central to what other people do. But I feel good enough about the partial list that I've assembled here to feel pretty confident that, yes, even given the ways in which the online circulation of lefty content is limited, doing grassroots writing, media, knowledge, and intellectual work can still be politically useful.

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