Friday, June 01, 2018

Review: Turning to One Another

[Margaret J. Wheatley. Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2009.]

This is a peculiar book with a powerful idea at its core but presumptions about how the social world works that take it in directions that I think are misguided.

The core idea of the book is that we live increasingly fragmented and isolated lives, in an increasingly complex and traumatizing world, and that a key step that all of us can take to improve both our own individual experience of life and to improve the world is to put effort into having genuine connected conversation with the people around us. The first section lays out, in a very accessible way, why the author believes this. There is a brief second section meant to provide some opportunity for the reader to reflect. And then the third section is a series of questions that the book encourages you to gather people together and discuss – mostly deep meaning-of-life kinds of questions. Each is accompanied by some thoughts from the author about these questions. Throughout the book, there is lots of use of blank space on many pages, a scattering of hand-drawn images, plenty of quotes and aphorisms, and pieces of poetry.

There are definitely things in here that I like. She never uses the word "neoliberalism," but I think some of what she is diagnosing in terms of the problems of isolation and social fragmentation are exactly the neoliberal shifts in the social that we have seen in recent decades. That's not all she's saying – there is a kind of weird "those were simpler times" nostalgia mixed in there that I find pretty troubling, and the diagnosis of things getting worse to a certain extent confuses actual changes with shifts in perception caused by the fact that it's now harder for more privileged North Americans to ignore certain things. Still, the fragmentation and isolation she identifies are real and important, and even if it isn't all necessarily as novel as she implies, the world is no doubt a violent and traumatic place.

I also agree that the act of connected, honest conversation can be a powerful one. It can be personally fulfilling in a profound way and it is an essential element in building relationships, whether that is romantic parternships, friendships, political alliances, or the kind of trust necessary to come together across deep conflict. Even granting my own bias related to my personal investment in a certain kind of conversation – that sort of connection is something I crave, but something my experiences of shame and social anxiety can make more difficult to realize than I might like – I think it is fair to say that a hunger for interpersonal connection is fairly widespread in this anxious and isolating neoliberal era. It's unlikely that I'll do anything along the lines of hosting groups to discuss the questions she proposes, but I can see the value in doing so.

And conversation can, as she alludes, be the first building block in massive, collective waves of change. There are certainly aspects of how she discusses this that I like. She is clear about the importance of understanding change as starting where we are and building from our connections with the people around us. She regularly refers to the work of Paulo Friere, the radical Brazilian popular educator. Indeed, there are moments in the book where she talks about the importance of real talk among ordinary people in a way that reminds me a lot of how people I know who are very committed to an organizing approach to social change (in contrast with more activist or mobilizing kinds of approaches) talk about what they do.

Unfortunately, where the book goes from its central point is pretty disappointing in some ways. There is inadequate recognition of how power shapes the landscape and possibilities for conversation and for what conversation can do. There is similarly inadequate recognition of what it means for what comes after conversation that our world is socially organized in complex material and fundamentally social ways rather than the more formless liberal-democratic presumptions that implicitly underpin the book.

So, for instance, while there is a paragraph at some point in the book that recognizes that one element of oppression is the dehumanization of the oppressed, that is not taken into account in the book's broad prescription of conversation as a cure for society's ills. Maybe there are moments where oppressed people might want to engage in this kind of conversation with those who dehumanize them, those who are cheerfully content with a world that does them violence, but we need to recognize that a decision of that sort occurs in a much different landscape than when the parties involved are separated by, say, divergent passionate commitments to whether trade tarrifs are good or bad. So advocating conversation, including with those with whom you differ, as the fundamental step in creating a better world comes across as very different advice in those two kinds of cases, and offering it in a blanket way without at least discussing what it means to have such conversations with someone who disregards your humanity, seems like a problem to me. And I should add that towards the end of the book there is a recognition that this kind of conversation must happen between people who regard each other as equals, but that reads as an add-on – the book does not grapple with the broad extent to which that simply isn't true in many relevant practical instances, and it doesn't grapple with what that means for when and how such conversations can happen.

As well, some of the more general talk about social change is a bit weird. Like, the way that the book cites Paulo Friere often has this weird self-helpy boot-strappy vibe to it that is not at all where Friere was coming from. I found that quite offputting. There's also a section that speaks vehemently against the active embrace of identity. I'm not against having a nuanced discussion about the different ways that identity gets taken up and put to work, and about what those various approaches mean in terms of how we understand ourselves and how we can act in the world, but nothing in that section acknowledges how crucial an active and affirming embrace of identity has been and continues to be for certain kinds of collective struggles by oppressed people. And in the few instances where the book moves from general language about broader change being catalyzed by conversation to more specific examples, it picks movements that are distant from and politically safe for privileged North Americans – the Polish movement Solidarity gets mentioned a couple of times, the "orange revolution" in the Ukraine, and so on. Movements closer to home are never named, which makes it possible to avoid dealing with the complex political realities that such collective effort inevitably entail.

It's that invokation of larger collective change but refusal to engage with what it might entail that I find most disappointing. The recognition that genuine conversation can be a crucial step in broader change is carefully presented in a way that speaks about what might come after that initial conversation in only the vaguest of terms. I mean, I suppose I get not wanting to scare people off or to foreclose whatever might emerge from the moment of encounter itself. I do think it's important to enter into encounters with other people with openness, and I agree that will to make change, new knowledge about the world, and transformation of self are all things that can emerge precisely from these kinds of encounters. Certainly in some instances a new openness to hearing certain kinds of unhappy facts about the world may be something that these kinds of encounters can catalyze.

I'm afraid, though, that putting that moment of encounter in one category, a speakable category, while the material details of the world beyond that encounter and what might happen after that encounter in another category, a category that we won't speak about (or at least not now), serves to affirm ways of understanding the world that help keep those of us who benefit from the status quo stuck in that place. Conversation is framed as a clear moral good that precedes and perhaps transcends politics. But the book avoids the reality that what comes next when conversations lead to large scale change is inevitably polarizing, messy, complicated, and political in all the senses you could name. The implication, intended or not, is that deep conversation with your neighbour is what the world needs, but when that turns into action that doesn't share the same kind of easily recognized apolitical goodness, it has become something else, and maybe it's okay for you to just not pay attention to that and go and have another conversation with your neighbour. If we want to think about conversation as a key element of large-scale social change, we can't separate the two – we can't leave power out of how we think about conversation, and we can't pretend that the messy polarizing reality of grassroots movement politics can be treated as separate from the conversations that we hope might lead to change.

I think, yes, we need to explore the power of conversation, including honest conversation across differences that might normally keep us apart. But we have to recognize how power factors in to if, when, and how those conversations occur. And if we want connected conversation to have an impact on the world that goes beyond reducing our own individual sense of isolation, we can't detach talking about those moments of connected conversation from talking about what it actually takes in practical terms to turn moments of grounded connection between people into broad social change.

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