Sunday, July 16, 2006

Comments, Politics, and Learning

The moment of beginning is this: a blog post on a political topic to which I or someone else responds in a critically supportive way indicating how it erases, denies, or simply fails to consider (adequately or at all) experience and/or anti-oppression analysis along an axis in which the original poster and myself both share privilege. The owner of the blog responds with complete agreement, often quite emphatic. Yet subsequent blog-based practice by the owner (occasionally explicitly predicted by the owner in their response comment, though usually left unnamed) shows no obvious integration of that with which they stated their complete agreement.

The question: What does that mean?

I need to start off by emphasizing that though my role in the type of incident which started my thinking about this could be used by me to perform innocence, this is not my intent. The rather, ahem, modest traffic on this site means that in two years I have been on the receiving end of relatively few challenges of this sort. In responding to those I have received, I don't know if I've quite done exactly what is in the example above, but I know that there have been times when I have let defensiveness leak through and/or given in to urges to compensate in response to accurate challenges, for example. Innocent, I ain't. In my own experience, I suspect responding to critical engagement with agreement in the moment but lack of any appreciable change in action or analysis over the short term after that has been something I have done more in real life, as I suspect have most people. So my position in the opening example helped me see it, but I'm not claiming I've never been on the other side of it.

But I repeat: What does it mean?

An important way of understanding this is to attribute it to the distressingly resilient blindness and amnesia that tag along with privilege. Truly seeing and truly internalizing such things can be a serious challenge to our conceptions of who we are, and even deliberate effort does not overcome the not-seeing and not-remembering each and every time. But effort applied over time can gradually make a difference, and the application of that effort is a central part of being an ally. However, I think leaving the explanation at this, while helpful in reinforcing the need for people with privilege to deal with their own internalized stuff on a long-term basis, also can prevent us from seeing in more detail what else is going on.

I think another element in creating such incidents is the way in which we usually understand the contents of the container "my (or her or your) politics." Ideas do matter in that context, but too often people with privilege understand it only in terms of ideas and therefore treat the "me" (or "her" or "you") attached to that container as significant only as a disembodied collection of thoughts, rather than as an integrated whole that involves thoughts, feelings, actions, a social location, and other material aspects. It is, I suppose, a kind of adherence to philosophical idealism and rejection of philosophical materialism, or a prioritization of the liberal atomized individual over a more sophisticated understanding of the social.

I think once or twice before on this site I've raised the example of two graduate students down the pub who are having a passionate disagreement about some abstract-for-them issue -- say they identify as "conservative" and "socialist", for example, and are having one of the debates that can so easily spring from those labels -- but they enjoy similar race and class and gender privilege, earn the same amount, live in the same part of the same city, spend their time doing largely similar things. If asked, they would likely emphasize the differences in their political ideas, and perhaps the differences in some of their consumption choices. However, if identifying one's politics were just naturally expected to include the aspects related to one's experiences and material practices, then their extensive similarities -- which are politically important, I think -- would also come out. If identity and actions were expected content when relating one's politics, it would also be much harder for those of us with privilege to respond to critical engagement with an "I agree" that was, in effect, disembodied.

This is not only related to how we talk about what our politics are but also how our politics change, how we learn. Political learning also often gets treated simplistically. Particularly when learning does not begin from personal experience but rather with the intake of experiences not our own or analyses from somoene else, that first step -- from book to brain, or blog to brain, or conversation to brain -- often gets treated like it is the whole process, but it really just is the first step. (Focusing on this sort of first step makes this section more relevant to people with privilege in the area in question, though I guess not exclusively so...gotta write what I know.) It might be nice if it could all happen at once as a matter of course, but with a few very rare exceptions, most of the time and for most people it does not. The trip from brain to gut can be a huge step and a huge barrier, and the relationship between gut and actual practice is often complicated and evolves over time. For example, I know that there are some issues on which I have changed in the last six or eight months -- more stuff in the brain, yes, but more importantly, a critical mass of stuff in the brain such that the transfer to gut is now significantly greater, though still in progress, and the practice...well, shifting in some ways but with much shifting left to do. But my two sentence summary of what I thought politically in that area probably would not have changed. There are also issues where I know my practice and/or my gut are not where my head wants them to be, where I know I would be completely capable of responding to a critical challenge with "I agree" while even in the one realm of action which is the production of ideas and text I have not really integrated that agreement into what I do.

As above, one way of dealing with this complexity in what political learning actually involves should be how we talk about what we know. It should be just normal to recognize in our speech that learning something is not just the book-to-brain step, but everything else too, so it is quite possible for your head to contain knowledge about a particular topic but, for example, not yet to write blog posts that show it has permeated to the centre of our way of thinking about the world, or to engage in behaviours at our workplace that contradict the politics we would claim to hold.

This is just the way things happen, and being honest about it is important, but it can be quite troubling as well. Being introspective and self-critical and receptive to challenge are vital, but it is also quite easy to seem to be engaging in these self-as-work-in-progress processes while in fact using them as a way of insulating one's self against challenge. It is easy to use them to deceive ourselves and others, to avoid responsibility. One specific example of the phenomenon with which I started this post did, in fact, take some ownership for where the poster was at and was quite open that despite their agreement with the challenge, no substantial shift would be taking place any time soon in the core analyses represented in their blog (let alone in other facets of political practice) to reflect that agreement. Which I started out by thinking was pretty cool because it was owning what was going on -- but then I realized it amounted to, "Yeah, I'm a white North American and I really enjoy the privilege that brings me, so even though I agree with that point you made, my politics don't deal with it all and they're not going to any time soon. Sorry 'bout that." Which is a very honest and progressive-sounding way of thumbing your nose at people to whom you are in a relationship of structural domination.

So I think we do need to take ownership of where we are in learning processes in ways that recognize how learning actually happens, and we need to have some sympathy for the processes of others. (And the "we" in that sentence is particularly addressed to allies, I think -- I wouldn't presume to demand patience from a working-class Latino transman or a Cree woman, say, towards some middle-class hetero white guy who says something really hurtful and stupid and then tries to write it off as him "still learning" when confronted.) At the same time, we have to be wary of ourselves and others using the notion of being works-in-progress as excuses for just not doing the work or refusing to be accountable for privilege.

The final thing that I think we can learn from the examlpe with which I started this post, taking into account what I've said about "X's politics" and about learning, is a slightly different take on what we should intend by our interventions. When we are the ones who notice something that deserve critical engagement and we do it, too often we think of that moment as being about the other person going through the whole process of learning in that one moment -- we see immediate change in them as being what matters. While change as a result of speaking up is always nice to see, we need to keep in mind that, given how learning actually happens, it is really the speaking up itself that matters most. And when we are the ones being challenged, we need to resist the urge to pronounce on the challenge with finality in the moment, to say, "I agree completely" or "I think you're wrong because." Too often that is a way to get past as quickly as possible the moment of discomfort that is inevitably part of being challenged without really being in the discomfort, thereby reducing the chances that the discomfort will spur us on to actual learning at some point down the road.

I feel I need to end with a disclaimer: These things I've said feel like they make sense to me, but I could well be full of it -- I may be inappropriately extrapolating my process to other people and pretending to wisdom I have no right to claim. I think through writing it I have developed a better understanding of the class of incident that I started with, though, and I guess I can't ask for much more than that.

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