Monday, October 19, 2015

Review: Languages of the Unheard

[Stephen D'Arcy. Languages of the Unheard: Why Militant Protest is Good for Democracy. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2013.]

I strongly dislike when there is some sort of intense polarization within and between social movements on an issue. Partly I dislike it because I have a deep distaste for interpersonal conflict. But partly I dislike it because it tends to result in very smart, very committed, very respect-worthy people on both sides of whatever issue saying unhelpful, often stupid, and sometimes hurtful things. And it tends to create an environment in which it is tricky for anyone not willing to fall into line with one side or the other of the polarization, and/or not keen to endure the invective or even abuse from supposed comrades and would-be allies, to say anything at all. That's not to say that I never lean more towards one side than the other when such polarization arises, nor is it to deny that there can often be a real basis for the polarization that means we have no choice but to go through it rather than try to avoid it, and in fact it doesn't necessarily mean that I never intervene in such conversations in some way. Nonetheless, I don't like it, I don't usually find the conversations that result to be very productive, and I don't think we generally deal with it very well in movements and communities-in-struggle.

As someone who came of political age just before and during the peak of the global justice movement in the late '90s, my initial encounter with this sort of dynamic was around questions of tactics and militancy. Even at the time, it was an old and tired debate, and in my experience of being on the periphery of more recent mobilizations, it hasn't changed much since then. We still have a polarization between those who advocate explicit nonviolence (occasionally enacted in a way that's quite militant in its own right, but more often that's fairly passive and a screen for liberal politics) and those who push (using a term that emerged during the global justice movement era and still predominates) 'diversity of tactics,' which boils down to an uneasy agreement to tolerate (often without discussion, or at least without public discussion) and work in broad alignment with folks who do things you don't agree with (often in a way that undermines accountability to each other and to broader movements and communities). Though there are stronger and weaker versions of both of those positions, and I know and respect people who are ardent partisans of both, I think both have significant weaknesses...but, for the reasons summarized above, I've mostly tried to avoid discussing the issue in the last 15 years.

This book is an attempt to get past that polarization and to introduce a new kind of standard for evaluating the soundness of militant action that does not depend on these pre-existing terms. The author is a political philosopher and is himself a long-time activist, and he describes the framework that the book advances as a "democratic standard of sound militancy."

The book draws from the writings of Martin Luther King to develop its ideas about militancy, though the standard it settles on is not the same as King's. It starts by considering some examples of militancy in recent history, from the Battle of Seattle, to the Arab Spring, to Occupy, and beyond, in order to have some raw materials to put together a typology of four basic kinds of militancy: defiance of the authorities, disruption of dominant systems, destruction of property, and armed force. The book then identifies two broad kinds of objections to militancy. One it calls the "conservative objection," which amounts to rejecting militancy as a result of valuing order above everything else. The book doesn't spend much time on this objection, and cites King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" to rebut it. Of greater concern is what it describes as the "liberal objection" to militancy, which comes in different flavours that more or less boil down to a concern that militancy is anti-democratic because it turns politics from a debate where you win people over with sound argument into a contest of force. The book talks about three of the most common ways in which militants reply to the liberal objection, and demonstrates how none are quite adequate to the task. (I actually found this to be a surprisingly weak section in what is mostly a very well argued book -- I agreed completely with the book's dimissal of one reply, I agreed with the conclusion of the dismissal of another but didn't think the argument was complete, and I'm still unconvinced by the dismissal of the other.)

The book then goes on to advance its own reply to the liberal objection and its own standard, the democratic standard, for evaluating whether a given instance of militancy is sound or not. The liberal objection assumes that politics already meets the liberal ideal of reasoned discussion in the public square, when in fact there are plenty of instances of intransigent elites and institutions continuing down a particular path regardless of any argument or reason. In that instance, when elites and institutions are already acting in undemocratic ways, sound militancy is action which expands the reach and scope of democracy. From the example of the Mohawk land defence at KanehsatĂ :ke during the so-called Oka Crisis -- an example of militancy that is regarded highly by a very broad political cross-section -- the book derives four principles for sound militancy: it must "create new opportunities to resolve substantive and pressing grievances" (65) in the face of elite and institutional refusal to respond to other approaches; it must encourage "the most directly affected people to take the lead" (68); it must "enhance the power of people to govern themselves through inclusive, reason-guided public discussion" (69); and it must "limit itself to acts that can be defended publicly, plausibly, and in good faith as duly sensitive to the democratic values of common decency and the common good" (70). And the rest of the book involves examining different instances of various kinds of militant action using this framework -- civil disobedience, disruptive direct action, sabotage, various manifestations of the Black Bloc, rioting, and armed struggle.

There is a great deal to like in this book. I really like how clear and straightforward the writing is -- not even a whif of the the academic obscuritanism that mars so much writing by lefty scholars. With one or two passing moments of exception, the reasoning is very clear and very complete. Even if you don't agree (and I'm not saying I necessarily always do), the clarity and completeness makes it easy to identify where and how you part ways with the book's arguments. I particularly like how generous and thorough the book is as it evaluates different kinds and instances of militancy. The tendency for polarization within and between movements to destroy space for exactly this kind of generosity and thoroughness is one of the key things that I dislike about trying to have meaningful conversation about an issue that has been thus polarized, so I find the enactment of these characteristics in the context of this issue to be even more appealing than I might otherwise.

I also feel quite favourably disposed to the book's framework for evaluating militancy. I'd need to see it taken up in the context of live debates, and see it confronted by folks on the left who reject it, before I make up my mind in a final sort of way, but the framework seems basically sound and like a positive provisional addition to any discussion of this issue. Even aside from the details, what it says and how it says it have the potential to create some space for more productive conversation about the issues. And I have to say that his application of the framework in a wide range of instances manages to capture my gut feelings towards the instances more effectively than either half of the existing polarization, and more effectively than I expected going in -- not perfectly, but pretty darn well. Which on the one hand nudges me towards a greater willingness to integrate the framework into how I think about tactical choices, but on the other hand makes me a little wary, too, about what I might be missing and how my comfort with its conclusions might be pushing me to overlook limitations in the ways it reaches them.

While the book makes some important contributions in terms of ideas for evaluating militancy, it's important to recognize that it doesn't get into the practices through which we might collectively do so. That's not a failing or a deficiency, it's just not the book's project. But I think for those of us who are interested in taking its ideas out into the world, it's something we really need to think about. The idealized public square with its capacity for the free and equal exchange of ideas leading to a collective resolution is no more a reality within and between movements than it is in society as a whole. So I think part of taking seriously the principles of autonomy and democracy and accountability underlying the framework for evaluating militancy in this book must involve committing to building the practices and relationships and social forms that will allow us to realize those principles in our movements and communities. I can't help but think that the current predominance of "diversity of tactics" in rad circles in North America is connected with the dominance of neoliberalism in the broader society. And I don't mean that in the way that sometimes rad folks use "neoliberal" as a perjorative against other rad folks who are navigating a tough environment in ways they disapprove of, but rather as a recognition that maybe the kind of fragmentation within movements that diversity of tactics attempts to respond to is not a sign of some sort of political-slash-moral failing but just a predictable consequence of an increasingly fragmented and atomized society -- sometimes, putting up with each other despite some major differences and allowing our fragmented splinters to focus on the common enemy rather than devouring each other probably is the best we can do. But in the longer term, wouldn't it be great if we could build across differences in perspective and differences in social power to something beyond that? The tools in this book are an important contribution to evaluating militancy as our movements and communities-in-struggle make decisions. But it is new practices, relations, and social forms for working together that will enable us to actually make those decisions in meaningful ways in the course of struggle.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

1 comment:

Cadieux et Langevin said...

Languages of the Unheard illuminates a fundamental truth far too many of those who flatter themselves to believe they inhabit democratic societies wish at all costs to avoid: those who refuse by all necessary means to be silenced are the essential ingredient of democracy, while those who seek to repress them comprise its very antithesis.