See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

There Are Many Parts to the Work

Conor Friedersdorf, has an excellent piece out on the Atlantic rounding up some good advice for the political left in the age of Trump. The whole thing has a lot going for it and is worth your time whether you want the left in particular to succeed or not. But the tone isn’t quite right. Friederdorf invokes a speech Abraham Lincoln gave to the temperance society, urging “kindly persuasion” and cautioning them against denouncing even the worst drunkard lest they harden their resistance:

To expect otherwise, “to have expected them not to meet denunciation with denunciation … and anathema with anathema, was to expect a reversal of human nature,” Lincoln explained. “If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great highroad to his reason, and when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause.”

This is obviously true. I know, because I have been frequently guilty of denouncing the excesses of left in public and in private (as I expect Friedersdorf is) without the necessary “kindly persuasion”. More to the point, it is lacking in Friedersdorf’s article. So in the spirit of Lincoln’s advice, let me preface begin with a positive note on the left. The left has been instrumental in creating a psychological space where people can unburden themselves of the indignities, large and small of being a weirdo, a minority, or any sort of victim. This is no small thing. It is something I have taken for granted because of my schooling and early adoption of the internet and that gives me a false perspective on its (lack of) utility. I was wrong to do so and I am sorry.

Unfortunately, creating this space, valuable as it is, isn’t enough. Friedersdorf quotes DeRay Mckesson:

“We have started to police people’s authenticity by their proximity to trauma, not their proximity to the work,” he said. “Both my parents were drug addicts. My father raised us. My mother left. I know what it’s like to sleep on the floor when they shoot too close to the house. That doesn’t make me a better organizer. It could actually just make me more traumatized. How do we stop thinking about proximity to trauma as the thing that makes you the best organizer?”

I think we are all at least somewhat aware that within the “work” (as Mckesson put it) there are many things we want that can be at cross-purposes. I alluded to this in a post a while back – there is a sort of advocacy for victims that focuses on the simple fact they are victims and nothing else.

from the victim’s perspective, whether predators emerged or were curated is pretty unimportant. The victimization happens either way, and whether implicitly or explicitly, social justice advocates are advocating on behalf of victims.

Advocating for victims in this way is agnostic to actually solving the problem. It is, rather, about solving the victim’s emotional and status needs – to have them be validated in their own eyes and those of the community. Reducing the threat to others does not help them, and the steps that are necessary to do so cut against the most obvious routes of validating a victim. And it takes a particular kind of hardy soul to expose themselves to the constant heartbreaking trauma of injustice – one can hardly expect those to escape without being a little traumatized themselves.

It takes a particular mindset – one might even say heartlessness – to respond to grief and anger with the tactical thinking required to do the other part of the work – the messy, on the ground methods of persuasion, of lobbying, of dealing with people who don’t agree with you on a whole host of the most important moral issues, and of the constant rejection by those people that seeks to validate every impulse you have to rain hellfire and vengeance upon them. And perhaps it is equally unreasonable to expect those engaged in the necessary diplomacy and logistics to always be on target

What we can expect of ourselves, however, is to be a little better at sorting ourselves into the two categories of work I outlined, and being supportive of each other, and the victims we intend to serve (or prevent) by respecting our mutual competencies. Even as children, we recognize that there are friends we go to for comfort, and there are friends we go to for help, and friends who can do both but we guide them to which we need (or let them guide us!). And when we are one of those friends the worst thing we can do is denigrate the other kind – especially if they are a friend of yours as well – just because they are doing a different part of the work than you are.

We should be sincere friends. But we need not be friends, we must be allies. The work is not about denouncing deliberate evil but ameliorating human failure, be it malicious or tragic, at every level of society. It is the work of lifetimes, and we need all the help we can get.

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2 responses to “There Are Many Parts to the Work

  1. christianhendriks 05/07/2017 at 21:54

    I read that article the other day and I’m still trying to figure out what I think is off about it, given that I think a lot of its impulses are right. Thanks for helping with that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • K. Chen 05/09/2017 at 12:08

      My general rubric is that when criticism comes, our instinct is to focus on the quibbles and nuances and when we are criticizing to focus on the overall thrust and impulses – this should be reversed. We should be diligent and precise in our criticism (and demanding of arguments that agree with us) and forgiving to our critics.

      Like

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