Why it’s sometimes a good idea to use a negative tone against people who agree with your political opinions

meanThe other day (or was it today?) my twitter peep T.S. Christian was writing about how she doesn't understand the tone argument (i.e. the argument frequently made about activist postings--that the tone is too controversial or strident): after all, the tone doesn't invalidate the content.

And I was thinking, you know, this is a common feeling in the activist community. And there's a really good reason for that. It's because a person's perception of tone is often driven by an unconscious racism on the part of the hearer. There's really nothing a black woman can say that's not going to sound aggressive to a white man. So if activists put too much stock in the tonal perceptions of people they disagree with, they'd go crazy, because some people are just never going to "hear" them right, no matter what tone they use.

So let's take that as a given.

However, I think most activists will agree that--regardless of how their tone is perceived--they do vary their tone in a purposeful way. Sometimes you make an observation in a highly derogatory way and sometimes you say it in a conciliatory, understanding way. I'd say that neither of these is inherently superior to the other, since both are rhetorical tactics. Political speech--even more than most speech--has to walk a delicate line between emotion and reason.

Because, ostensibly, politics--and particularly public policy--is mostly about reason. In a liberal democracy, we start from basically the same principles--we all hate suffering and oppression--and then try to argue, in an evidence-based way, for policies that will reduce suffering and oppression. And once there is enough agreement, then a policy will come closer to fruition.

However, in practice, everything is about emotion. Because change is not about agreement, it's about action. And the point of political discussion is not to get people to agree with you; it's to get them to act.

In this world, there's plenty of agreement without action. For instance, I believe in all the right things, but I literally never do anything about them. I don't even use my tiny amount of social capital to advance the causes that I believe in, because that might mean upsetting some people. It's just not worth it to me. My agreement is worthless.

However, if I was angrier about the state of the world, then I might be more inclined to act.

I recently had tea with a friend of mine who spent most of our two hour discussion talking about how powerless and angry he felt over the state of the world. And it was clear, to me, that he simply felt the distress of the suffering much more keenly than I do.

I think that, to a large degree, the purpose of much political speech is not to make some Republican into a person like me; it's to make people like me into people like him.

I think you can see this most clearly in some classic activist texts. For instance, Martin Luther King's Why We Can't Wait is an intensely angry jeremaiad against moderate whites for the way that they keep telling black people to wait for their time and not rock the boat and not engage in radical action.

What is the purpose of that?

To me, it feels like its purpose is to strike people in their sense of complacency. It's to tell people that you cannot reap the rewards of agreement any longer; unless you act, you are the enemy. It drives some people away, but that's okay. Their agreement wasn't worth much. However, it drives some people closer...and those are the ones who really matter.

I think that this is why the wars within various liberal movements are so powerful and so vicious (I'm thinking, for instance, of the ever-simmering war between progressive white women and radical women of color; or the war between affluent gay males and the rest of the queer community). It's because that's where movements are won or lost. If the gay marriage movement has taught us anything, it is that the opinions of the majority do not matter, precisely because most people in the majority will alter their opinions as soon as they perceive a shift in the general climate. The issue in any progressive cause is not with going from having 10% of the population in agreement with you to having 50% in agreement with you--it's in going from having 100,000 people who are willing to act to 500,000 people who are willing to act.

Predictably Good Books (that I read in 2012), Part One

I feel like there’s no way to say “Pride and Prejudice was really good” without somehow indicating that you know it’s supposed to be good and that you’re not surprised it’s good. And that’s why this entry is titled “Predictably good books.”

_PnPPride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – I love Jane Austen. Before reading P&P, I’d read literally every other Jane Austen novel. But I had a mental block about the big P because it was the very first assigned-reading class (I was supposed to read it way back in 10th grade) that I just gave up on reading (beginning a long association with Cliff Notes). I really can’t say why I found this to be soooo boring when I was 16. But at age 26, I can tell you that this book is the bomb. It’s the only novel of hers, other than Emma, that’s reliably funny. Aside from the main triangle (Elizabeth Bennett, George Wickham, and Mr. Darcy) everyone in this book is hilarious, from the Liz’s overserious suitor Mr. Collins to her silly and clueless parents. And the book is well-plotted, too. The structure is interesting and interesting things happen. I don’t think there is anything about this novel that is not perfect. Well, except for Liz Bennett’s priggishness. Seriously, Jane Austen, I don’t understand why you hate dancing and joking around and having fun so much. Not since Mansfield Park (where the main character throws a huge fit because her cousins are putting on a play in their living room) have I been so mystified about what an Austen character’s problem is. Seriously, why is she down on her parents and her sisters? I guess that’s the curse of creating delightful comic characters—no one will believe you when you try to tell people that they are actually terrible and immoral people.

_SSSilent Spring by Rachel Carson – Yet another book I was supposed to read for class (during my junior year of college I took an English course called Visions of Ecology where we were assigned a ton of SF novels…the course probably would’ve been better if I’d actually done the reading…) But anyway, this is a really masterful document. Of course, you probably all know that this is a long tract about how pesticide spraying is killing tons of animals and probably causing cancer and stuff too. But, aside from the wonderfully ominous language, the interesting thing is how it’s structured. It doesn’t start off at the beginning, like most nonfiction books, by telling you, “This is the case I’m going to make.” And it doesn’t go from specific to general and then back to specific again. Instead, it’s this free-flowing impressionist mass of detail—die-offs and sprayings and extinctions are listed by the dozens—that are grouped in chapters according to some very intuitive progression. It’s a page-turner.

_MMMiddlemarch by George Eliot – This is a tome. I read it in Madrid and it took me a solid week. But it wasn’t difficult to get through. Each page is delightful. It doesn’t have the super-tedious stretches or the absurd plot elements that I’ve come to expect from Victorian novels, just page after page of good solid observation (and slightly outsized characters). Structurally, this novel kind of resembles Anna Karenina in that it’s about three pairs of lovers and contains one love triangle. The main love story, where Dorothea suffers through a marriage to the tedious priest Mr. Causubon was (while still interesting!) not the most fun part of the book. The other two plots, where Doctor Lydgate slowly has to sacrifice his intellectual ambitions in order to please his wife and where the feckless ne’er-do-well Fred Vincy has to shape up so he can marry his childhood sweetheart Mary Garth were, for me, the heart of the story. But there’s just so much stuff in here! It’s kind of amazing. For instance, it’s treatment of politics (all the characters have some interest in politics, and the capstone of one of its books is a very rough Parliamentary campaign) is one of the best I’ve seen (although it helps to do some Wikipedia reading so you know what bills and such they’re talking about). It’s kind of unbelievable how good this book is. I kind of want to reread it now.

_wwcwWhy We Can’t Wait by Martin Luther King, Jr – This is King’s account of the Birmingham Bus Boycott. It’s a wonderful document—a whole book written in that morally powerful voice that Kind perfected. The centerpiece of the book is King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and a fairly large portion of the book is dedicated to taking down the black and white moderates who are urging him to wait and to proceed slowly in his crusade for justice. Personally, I love this kind of squabbling, especially when it’s set as such a historical remove that I can imagine myself on the right side.

_TBSThe Blind Side by Michael Lewis – I feel like I’ve mentioned this one a few times in the last few weeks. It’s Michael Lewis book about Michael Oher, an NFL tackle who came from a very rough background and was adopted by a white family whose mother was later portrayed by Sandra Bullock in the Oscar-winning film of the same name, etc. etc. This was the most purely enjoyable reading experiences that I had this year. There was nothing difficult about this book. It was the perfect mix of narrative and analysis. It’s like Malcolm Gladwell meets Tobias Wolff. The story of the movie The Blind Side actually forms maybe only about one third to one half of the book (and it’s much more fleshed out in the book, too, of course, especially since it contains much more of Michael Oher’s own voice and own story). The rest of the book is about the changes in the game of football that made someone like Michael Oher into such a valuable property. Now, I don’t know anything about football and I don’t really care about football at all, and I still loved this book. Sports are driven by numbers and economics in a way that’s different from almost every other field of human endeavor. And I love reading about that.

Why We Can’t Wait, by Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King's account of the 1963 Birmingham nonviolent direct action campaign against segregated businesses is not really a historical or even a narrative work. Its purpose isn't to describe what happened. It is not addressed to people like me, sitting at a remove of fifty years from those events.

No, this book was published in 1963. It came right just a few months after the March on Washington--the point that marks the end of our conventional narratives of the civil rights struggle. In this book, King is clearly speaking to a contemporary and mostly white audience. And the bulk of the book is devoted to answering the titular question. Time and again he steps out of the narrative to rebut various criticisms from contemporaries who said that his movement was too militant, too extreme, too impractical, too disorganized, too out-of-touch with ordinary people, too disengaged from the political process.

Reading this book, it's kind of a shock to be transported into a time before the historicization of the Civil Rights Movement. Every American of my generation (and most Americans of all the other generations) believe that Martin Luther King is a demigod and that the nonviolent campaigns undertaken as part of the Civil Rights Movement comprise some of the most beautiful and courageous events in American history.

But back in the day, people weren't so sure. And they were right to be skeptical. America had seen a hundred years of failure on the civil rights front. Men had grown up dreaming of equal rights, they had devoted their whole lives to trying to achieve that goal, and they had died without even approaching it. Even then, America's political system was very good at taming, co-opting, and eventually destroying mass movements.

So yeah, I don't blame them for nay-saying. If I'd been around back then (and if I'd been a white person), then I'm sure that I'd have been one of the nay-sayers. As King describes it, there's a certain class of white moderate that believes strongly in order, even at the expense of justice. Intellectually, they believe in equality, but they're viscerally terrified by disorder. They're the ones who see television footage of people being assaulted by dogs and firehoses and decide that it's the protesters who must be at fault.

Reading a book like this is a strange experience. While I was taught to venerate the Civil Rights movement, I was also basically taught that all that shit was over. I distinctly remember thinking, sometime in the late 90s, "Wow, it's kind of a shame that there's really no rights left to fight for."

Of course I knew that this country had problems, but I didn't think that any of those problems were so severe that they invalidated the moral authority of our government. America's problems were problems of disagreement. Some people believed in one way of doing things and some other people believed in another way of doing things and the right and proper way to sort it all out was through the political process.

But I don't believe that anymore. When America can unilaterally decide to murder people in other countries, that is an injustice which should not be left up to political debate. The people that we kill have no say in our decision-making process. It is simply horrific that I have a vote in whether a child in Yemen or Somalia or Pakistan gets to live or die.

It is the kind of situation that calls out for direct action. And for a significant fraction of the last year, there've been people around six blocks away from me, in Oakland, who've been trying to utilize direct action in order to end these, and other, injustices. I was definitely present at the right time and place to put King's principles into action. I had the time, money, energy, and sympathy that could have motivated me to become more involved. And I did often consider becoming more involved. But I decided not to. My non-involvement was primarily based upon self-interest. I preferred to do spend my time on things that would directly benefit me. And I also don't really want to be arrested.

But I noticed that many of my fellow upper-class liberals justify their non-involvement differently. They often make the same sort of critiques of the Occupy Campaign that their forebears about against King's campaign. I have no doubt that these critiques are sincere, but I wonder about the extent to which they're also a psychological defense mechanism.

They, like me, have been taught to view the Civil Rights Movement as the apotheosis of political action in this country. But we were never taught about the costs of participation. We were never taught about the kinds of risks people took. Or rather, we were taught about those risks, but we were taught about them in such a way as to make the risks seem laughably minor. Of course if you balance a short jail sentence or losing your job or catching a beating against achieving freedom and dignity for an entire people, then the risks seem wholly justified.

But in real life, that is never the calculation. In real life, you often lose your job or waste your time or get tear-gassed or acquire a criminal record...and have nothing at all to show for it. In real life, mass movements usually fail. And in some cases, that's because of structural weakness, but, often, it's just because the time wasn't right.

It's likely that the Occupy Movement will fail. It is likely that it--as is already happening to the Tea Party--will someday be seen as some strange historical curiosity. If that happens, then we will remember our criticisms and think with relief about how we were right.

But if it grows in power and moral authority, and someday succeeds, well...we're going to be in the same position as those white moderates whose cowardice and hypocrisy was relentlessly decried by Dr. King.