Movement belonging, for the win
CW: general reference to homophobia
photo: Max Bender via Unsplash
People who once stood on the political sidelines can no longer deny that the U.S. is at a turning point. At a time like this, when lots more people suddenly realize that their own quality of life is in danger unless they organize, social movements will be flooded with new participants.
So are we ready for these people? When movements grow rapidly, it means welcoming in people who don't share a fully-thought-through political analysis; people who might have good ideas about some things and terrible ideas about others. What happens with these people, and their ideas, depends a lot on how much they feel like they see a place for themselves in our ranks. And our movements' chances to make big gains from this influx will depend on how well we can succeed in integrating these people and making a place for them.
Belonging is a reward that touches people deeply. It can motivate people to take risks, make hard growth seem worth it, and give people staying power they didn't know they had. To explain this a little more, I want to paint a picture for you of what it was like to join social justice movements before internet culture. Although I can only speak for myself / my place / my time (I was a white Jewish kid & then teenager, in an East Coast US city in the 1990s), I'm not the only person who had this experience.
Pre-internet, we expected movements to be places where people with lots of experience and people who were new and inexperienced mixed. We expected people to make lots of mistakes as they learned. You could be a bumbling mess for a while, and as long as you weren't trying to be hurtful, someone in your circle would be good-humored enough to help you get it right.
I came from a family of radicals - the opposite of "normal." So there was something I loved about meeting people who saw themselves as totally normal, who would never have pictured themselves taking this kind of action, until something happened that shook their picture of the world. I loved seeing how quickly they grew into leadership. It showed me just how close our everyday reality is to flipping into something totally different and right.
Helping inexperienced people join the movement was seen as something to celebrate. I was a kid from the city, but I have so many memories of meeting people who were taking their first steps out of their mostly white & class privileged suburbs and introducing them to our city's thriving activist scene. It was great to see these people's excitement as they tried new things, learned so much by jumping in, and were welcomed by others. I met people decades older than me who walked out of well-paying corporate jobs that were all they had ever known, and totally upturned their lives because they suddenly felt like they saw something worth living for. I met people who left strict, Christian Right upbringings and experienced their own first taste of freedom, while fighting for freedom for other people and building a new community for themselves.
All of these people needed time to absorb the full range of new ideas they were being exposed to. In the meantime, they needed to make mistakes. They also needed room to debate, disagree and figure out what they thought. It worked, because the movements we were in had a culture of patience with people; there was room to groan, or laugh, without giving up on people as they made mistakes and evolved.
In these movements, it was a victory to bring someone in who had an incomplete understanding. One of the best feelings you could have was knowing that you had welcomed in someone for whom this stuff was all new, because it meant the movement was growing, and you also got to see their process of transformation. It was really cool to watch. It created a lot of hope.
Imperfection was okay. People were understood as generally quirky and problematic, and it was understood that the positive experience of being in a movement, interacting with other kinds of people, learning from people who had deeper understanding, and learning by doing would help them change, grow and get where they needed to be. I think that for people today who have opportunities to do in-person organizing and coalition work, there are still spaces like this. But based on how much people nod their heads when I talk about this, something is different about belonging in today's Left.
In my 1990s activist circles, it was understood that people would change. They could start out with good ideas about something and really bad ideas about another thing. That didn't count them out of playing a positive role. Maybe more importantly, it didn't permanently mark them. Nor did it mark you, if you built a relationship with them. The fact that someone had had some questionable or terrible politics in the past didn't make them taboo to hang out with; it reinforced the fact that people had the power to change, and that their ideas could get better in a remarkably short amount of time.
One of my favorite people today, and someone whose politics I have incredibly deep respect for, went to my high school and fiercely opposed my politics. They were an in-your-face patriotic person, and I was someone with, you might say, limited respect for nations. We were almost as far apart politically as two people could get. But within a few years of graduation, when we met again, they had done a political 180, and I got to know all these sides of them I really appreciated, and still do.
Another person, someone who has become one of my lifelong closest friends, had a weird mix of politics when we met in college -- some of which I could laugh off, but some which weren't funny. Specifically, they were vocally homophobic. I couldn't overlook it, or fully relax as their friend. I liked them enough to fight them over it, rather than drop them. And we fought continually, until the day came when my friend's politics on queer and trans liberation underwent a complete overhaul - not due to my pushing, but due to their readiness to leave behind their past stances and plant themselves in politics that aligned more truly with their values.
A third person, a kid who went to my high school and thought then that my stance for reproductive freedom was immoral, pulled me aside at our high school reunion with a really touching comment about how they never forgot the way we clashed on those issues, that it stayed with them as they grew, and how their perspective on abortion rights had changed in the years since.
The movements of my youth were not about perfection. Although writings on restorative and transformative justice were just beginning to circulate (I vividly remember being transfixed by the first book I saw published on it, as I tried to combine my activism on police brutality, prisoners' rights and US political imprisonment with my high school writing assignments), abolitionist values were naturally a part of the way people treated each other, even without us having that name for it at the time. The prison system and the white supremacist culture we were fighting against treated people as disposable. Police and courts kidnapped many people from their communities who were not factually "guilty" by anyone's standards, but we weren't just fighting for "innocent" people; we were fighting against the overall cultures of domination that founded and fueled US prisons. We were opposed not only to the racist legacy of US prisons as a means of racial control, but to the white supremacist idea that there were pure and impure people, people worthy and unworthy of social belonging; the idea that a mistake could mark someone as unworthy of participation in society, that an error justified banishing them from communal life.
In our daily operations, the movements I got to take part in didn't treat people as disposable. I don't say this to romanticize them. There were plenty of problems, and the good parts weren't because we had designed some utopia. It was partly because we worked together almost exclusively in person. This brought out people’s appreciation for each other as whole, quirky people. It was also, I think, because the working-class culture that has given birth to so many social justice movements shaped our movement culture, and working-class culture is not about perfection. Not every working-class community looks like the one I grew up in, but I can say that the working-class cultures I've experienced have a solid grasp on how to pull together and pull each other forward despite our individual flaws.
I got to grow up in a movement culture that was about figuring out very practically how to work together to meet basic needs. There were instances of ostracization, both fair and unfair, but that wasn't the norm; it stood out when it happened. There was not a huge emphasis (at least, relative to today) on having to vigilantly shape one's image and performance in order to secure one's belonging. People did want belonging, and they were able to achieve it: not by being perfect, but by showing up, showing they cared, and doing the work, with all their imperfections.
So blah, blah, blah, everything was great - you may be thinking. What about the people in oppressed groups, who had to put up with all these amateur moves (at best) or entitled people pleading ignorance as a cover for their bad behavior (at worst)? Good question. I can't speak for other people, but my memory is that a lot of times it sucked. For example, the racism that showed up throughout Left movements, just as it did in mainstream culture, was exhausting, disheartening, and at times acutely dangerous for Black, indigenous and other racialized activists. This was part of why many of them sought out autonomous organizations and caucus space, just as activists a generation earlier had done, in the 1960s and 1970s.
It's a little hard to generalize about what internet-era Left culture is, or does, because internet discussion of Left issues doesn't take place in private Left space. There are always trolls, and people with varying degrees of commitment to Left issues wandering in and out of Leftists' Twitter feeds, etc. That said, I think internet-era Left culture doesn't offer automatic belonging. I think activists proceed with caution now, worried that there won't be second chances if they say something inadvertently wrong, and aware that their belonging is conditional and can be rapidly revoked.
On one hand, it's a good thing for many reasons that people think twice before saying something which could be oppressive. On the Left and in mainstream society, it is way past time for this culture change. On the other hand, having a movement where people are afraid to make mistakes is not advantageous to growth. And we are poised for - and need - massive growth.
As exciting as the movements of the 1990s were, we knew that we were in a political lull - not a peak, like the 1960s, when ideas spread quickly and people were hungry to join in. Building our numbers, getting our message out to large numbers of people, took strenuous work. It took going physically door to door, fundraising for costly printing of newspapers, lugging heavy buckets of paste at night through city streets while scanning for cops, in order to post flyers that would be visible to strangers who might be inspired to come to protests, and spending hours handing out flyers to one stranger after another, attempting to start conversation about why they should join a cause.
Everything changed with the internet. All of that effort and struggle to get our message out started to dissipate, as we got access to huge audiences of people, who would have never stumbled on one of our demonstrations or found our flyers drifting down the street. Somewhere along the way, as Left space became increasingly virtual, our culture of belonging also started to change.
The internet put us all on display. It made us have to earn our keep, rather than be granted the assumption that we belonged. Those of us who weren't directly targeted by a certain oppression watched how hard it hit people who were targeted, how hard they had to fight back to stand up for themselves, and thought that to prove ourselves equally committed, we had to copy what we saw - even if the outrage wasn't ours to have; even if we had uncles, aunts, siblings, cousins, who would have spoken the same oppressive words they were reacting to; even if we ourselves had a mess to clean up back home. Those of us who felt that our place in the movement was tenuous, and could be revoked, grew increasingly motivated by the need to secure our belonging, rather than the need to create wider change. Wider change necessarily requires that we offer compassionate points of entry for our very flawed fellow citizens, and it's hard to be kind and welcoming to people with all their flaws while also vigilantly ensuring everyone can see our outrage at them.
I don't think the online Left's ideas about belonging changed because suddenly oppressed & targeted peoples got the upper hand in commanding societal norms, although that is the story that Right-wing culture warriors like to tell. On the contrary, I think (though this is just my first guess) that the tie between Left culture and internet culture was a two-way relationship. The emerging technology of social media let us get our message out, but the same values that drive our white supremacist, carceral society - the values that say that people are disposable, that people can lose their place in society, and that we should cut ourselves off from people who might make us impure - easily reproduced themselves throughout social media, and impacted our ways of relating to each other as activists in the process.
It was as if there was this molten, precious metal that people had carefully mined themselves for decades; our liberatory ideals, values, experiences of how peoples free themselves from an inhuman system. And then one day we came upon a mold that would help us harden that material into something we could put into use much more easily. The mold - the internet - let us communicate our ideas to massive numbers of people, without the millions of dollars we would have needed to advertise in the mainstream media, and with the ability and independence to spontaneously spread our ideas. We could get our message out to so many people, so fast; movements could emerge in the blink of an eye. It was a huge advantage. But what was less obvious, or at least what we didn't prepare for at the time, was that this mold was being shaped by other forces. That mold - the tool of internet communication - was built in a society shaped by centuries of oppression. Profit-making forces continue to hammer on that mold, tinkering with it to make it best serve their needs. Left culture, this treasure that freedom movements have honed through struggle, courage and insight, started to form into a shape that is difficult to wield for the purposes we need.
So here we are, at a time when many people's survival depends on our movements growing quickly. It's tempting to feel like we don't have time to be "nice;" like being nice is just superficial liberalism. But connecting with people is the foundation of organizing, and avoiding it doesn't save us time; it delays our progress.
As we enter into this period of growth, we're in a moment where I think many activists' discipline - to stay consistent with our values, to avoiding deviating from them by accident - comes not just from care for these values but from fear of making a mistake and losing our belonging. As people with a strong political commitment, we carefully keep ourselves in line, because this movement, and the community we have built here, matters so much to us. But that kind of discipline has way less power over participants who are newer; who have not yet planted themselves here. If you join a movement NOT because you have a solid grasp yet of Left ideas, but because you see a pressing need to fight and win something, and then you feel like the people around you don't like you, or that there's no room for you to make a mistake, you are more likely to return to the sidelines (at best), than to stick around. It is ironic that at the moment when we finally have the technology to reach vast numbers of people, we are losing our grasp of some of our most powerful tools to absorb those people. Movement welcome and belonging is at the heart of movement growth.
I don't believe that oppressed groups asserting their strength and dignity has caused this challenge. And I don't think the answer is for people within those groups to change their tone or silence their anger. It's not up to me how people in targeted identities that aren't mine express themselves anyway.
I do feel comfortable speaking here from my identity as someone with privilege to those of you who can relate to that (my main privilege is white privilege, but perhaps this applies to other categories as well): If you feel the weight of your privilege as a debt to be repaid, I think the best way to repay it isn't to be the first to find fault in the errors of others and the loudest and fiercest in condemning them. It's to gird yourself with patience, put on the most welcoming face you can, and do whatever it takes to help a massive new wave of people find their place, and make their commitment to a lifetime of social change. You can and should share others' outrage as you witness the brutality of this system, but you have a different place in the division of labor.
I would be lying if I said I'm not nostalgic for what was valuable about the Left I grew up in. That Left had vital ingredients that we can reclaim and use well. But there is no mythical past for me to dream of returning to; just a movement, like many in history, that replicated all kinds of oppressions as it tried to oppose them. That's the challenge every social change movement faces; to build a world we haven't seen yet, when all we have are the methods we've been shown and the imagination we can muster.
Audre Lorde's words, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house," have lost none of their relevance in the 40+ years since she wrote them, as she reflected on an experience with white feminist scholars. Most tools that come easily to us - the tools and technologies that fall into our laps in this society - are going to be the master's tools. It's not always in our interest to use those tools. But when we do use them, we have to intentionally reshape them, or they will reshape us.
*You can see more of my thoughts on class cultures of domination and resistance, organizing wisdom and performativity in my essay, "To the New Jewish Left" (audio here, text here).