Monday, May 30, 2016

What shapes what we care about and do politically?

How do we come to care about the things we care about, do the things we do?

Sometimes, about some things, it's a slap in the face, a punch in the gut, that makes us care. We care because the world makes us care, or at least makes the work of not-caring active and hard. Of course, within this caring, when the world seeks our blood or demands our sweat and we hate it, hate it, hate it, there isn't just one way to respond, so even then it's a question of how we decide what it makes sense to do. But we have to do something.

Sometimes, though, it doesn't hit us at all. For some of us, it's going on over there somewhere, and it doesn't seem to have anything to do with us, or at least not anything we can see. What makes us care about that? Especially, what makes us care enough to do something, to be open to seeing we're connected (and not in a good way), to re-think who we are and how we want to move through the world?

Over the years, I've had the chance to ask hundreds of people about how they started turning the impulse most of us have to push back in little, individual ways against unfairness in our own lives into more shared and deliberate efforts to change things. I've heard a lot of different answers, too, from people starting from a lot of different places. I was particularly struck by the answer I heard from Jackie McVicar in our recent interview about the work of the Atlantic Regional Solidarity Network -- not because it's an unusual answer, but because she articulated it so clearly, and because she started from a place very like the place I started: white, not-poor, and living in small-town Ontario.

She said, "Growing up in a rural community, I cared about people and I saw injustice ... but I didn't have the language or the understanding of how or why it was happening. I could see my own community's poverty, and so I might volunteer to, you know, help people, but it was hard for me, until I got to university, to understand how structural injustice impacts people, depending on class and race and gender and many other reasons." She did a degree in international development studies, with a minor in environmental studies, and she had "professors who helped [her] grow and learn a lot, in terms of that analysis."

Perhaps even more important were the experiences she had after she graduated, once she began work in the international NGO sector. That work involves spending regular time in Central America, working and building relationships with people in struggle, often against resource extraction projects being pushed ahead by companies based in Canada. It was, she said, "an opportunity for me to connect with people and see how injustice was happening in their lives ... [and] how people in their own communities are struggling for justice every day." These experiences and relationships were "a big part of my political formation" and a big part of "deepening that learning and deepening that understanding" to see how struggles in the north and south are "interrelated" and how decisions and institutions created in the north have "extreme impacts sometimes for people living in the Global South."

At the beginning, "There was still this image of, 'We're Canadian! We're the good people!' -- I definitely grew up thinking that. I think that was part of who I was." But time in Guetamala had alreay pushed her to start learning and thinking critically about such things, and then she returned to the country for a more extended stay. She was taking a bus from northern Guatemala, and all traffic on the road stopped because of a major protest blocking mining equipment from reaching a mine that communities were vigorously resisting. This mine was (as so many in the Global South are) owned by a Canadian company. The traffic was stopped for a long time, and eventually military and police attacked the demonstrators and initiated a riot in order to get the equipment through to its destination and allow this quest for profit by a Canadian company to push forward over the local community's clear understanding of its own interests.

"We ended up running into the cornfield. There was tear gas everywhere. People were hurt. There was a man killed that day." She went into a store to use the only public phone in the area, and someone asked where she was from. "I remember looking quickly up on the wall and there was this hand made poster that said, 'Canadians go home!' and I said, 'Oh, I'm from Canada.' I was trying to say it low and keep a low profile. He said, 'Ooohhhh, you must be the boss of this mining operation.' And he started to laugh. I was, like, twenty-three so obviously he was joking, but he said, 'No, but seriously...if anybody asks you, you should just tell them that you're American.'"

She continued, "I remember I looked down. I had this little change purse and I had one of those lapel pins that had 'Canada' and it was stuck on my change purse. I remember taking it off and putting it inside. And I feel like that has still been really symbolic to me about how I feel about my identity now as a Canadian. This goes much deeper, now, as I understand better so many things also that have happened in Canada -- genocide of Indigenous people here [and so on]. As I have grown and learned, I definitely have never taken that pin out of my change purse. I don't even know where that pin would be, but that idea of that national pride is not something I even really think about any more. It was transformative for me to think about who I am in this world."

One way to summarize this journey might be that she began her life in an environment that taught her values that included paying attention to and caring about the wellbeing of people around her. Then she had opportunities to develop tools for thinking about the world and about power as being social, and socially organized. Then she had opportunities to hear about the experiences and struggles of people very differently situated from herself, and not just in a way that involved learning information but in the context of building relationships and coallborating and that leading to qualitatively different kinds of experiences, all of which led in turn to a situation where not only did she 'know' new things in an intellectual way but that listening, and those relationships, transformed her sense of how the social world works and her sense of herself. The symbollic removal of the flag pin might have happened in a one-time encounter with a stranger, but it seems clear that the basis for the shift in consciousness and self-undertanding that it represented was laid in the longer-term bonds of affection and solidarity she was building on an ongoing basis with people in struggle in Guatemala.

I like the way that scholar Aimee Carillo Rowe writes about these things, in a book called Power Lines: On the Subject of Feminist Alliances (Duke University Press, 2008). She interviewed a bunch of women's and gender studies academics in universities in the United States, and used those interviews as a basis for thinking about things like the institutionalization of women's studies and about how power works in universities. In particular, she was interested in how women in those contexts do or do not enact alliances across the divide between those who experience racial oppression and those who don't. The details of that are a bit beyond what matters here, but what's important is her insight into how important our relationships and our affective investment in the "we's" we belong to are in shaping the things we care about and the things we do.

A neat way of framing part of this that I ran across recently -- it was in the context of an interview I happened to see pre-publication, so I can't link to it, but the interviewee attributed it to a scholar at University of Toronto called Alissa Trotz -- made the point that all of us have a root and a route. That is, we start out somewhere, but we also shift and change and become something else, someone else, along the way.

Partly, that route is about our sequence of experiences -- who we are changes as we experience different things. Those experiences aren't random, though. They have patterns, and those patterns are woven through with power. So, for instance, for me some part of my experiences -- likely reactions from police to my presence, say, or how much attention I'll have to pay on an everyday basis to risks of being targeted with sexual violence -- will always be connected to moving through the world as a white guy, and that will always shape my sense of myself and of the world. But some things will shift depending on where choices and circumstances take me, and those different experiences will sediment into a shifting sense of the world, shifting analyses, and a self that's not quite what it was before.

What I really value in how Carillo Rowe talks about this is her emphasis on the emotional part of that, on "belonging" -- both in the sense of where do I feel my place to be, but also where and what and who am I drawn to, where and with whom does love bind me. The spaces we'll end up in, our paths, the experiences we'll have, and therefore our selves are formed in these relationships; the active uptake and reflection that leads to our analyses, our sense of what matters in the world, come to be in the intense emotional field of who matters to us, of the relationships that shape our experiences, of who we are drawn to be near and to be.

Carillo Rowe writes, "Whom we love is political. The sites of our belonging constitute how we see the world, what we value, who we are (becoming)" (25). As well, "Politics, experience, consciousness, and subjectivity emerge as mutually constitutive moments" and it is important to "theorize experience and agency as collective processes" (10, emphasis in original). "The range of options available to the subject -- for experience, interpretation, and agency -- arise out of the collectivities into which we insert ourselves or are insreted" (ibid). This means (to use Trotz's language) that while we can't change our root, it is possible to intervene in our route, and (according to Carillo Rowe) to "cultivate a consciousness, a set of experiences and modes of agency that run counter to the social forces consititutive of [our social] location" (11). A big part of this for her is about the relationships and collective belongings we cultivate. She goes on to argue that the reified, simplistic, individualized way we have come to understand things like 'social location' and 'identity' erase "the relational conditions productive of that location" and she wants to "render these conditions visible" (28) and "reveal the daily practices and affective ties through which such categories emerge" (46).

In other words, how we come to care about the things we care about and do the things we do has a great deal to do with this path that is shaped by our relationships and our sense of belonging. McVicar's account of her journey illustrates some of this, I think, and it is easy to imaginatively fill in the finer-grained steps -- the dynamic interplay of "mutually constitutive moments" of emerging "politics, experience, consciousness, and subjectivity" along the way, and the "relational conditions" (and shifting senses of collective belonging) productive of each.

Often on the left, our default ways of talking about it imply that politicization is a trait or even a sort of possession of an individual, and a sign of personal enlightenment or virtue. But I think it makes much more sense to recognize that our caring and our acting in the world is not purely a product of individualized intellectual effort, nor purely an individualized yet mechanistic product of identity categories (understood simplistically and in reified ways), but an emerging property of the relationships and practices and collectives through which we come to understand ourselves and the world. Neither voluntaristic nor crudely determined, it emerges through our path of engaging with and taking up collective experience. Encouragingly, it is therefore something that we can (partially, sometimes) intervene in.

No comments: