My union is in the middle of bargaining right now, which at the moment looks more like being handed a shit deal by the employer, who thinks they’re in a good position to strongarm us (which in all fairness is probably true). So what that means for the workers is a lot more time than usual spent sitting in bars arguing about which option is shittier, accepting a bad deal or taking the risk of getting locked out (I voted for the bad deal — the devil I know — but I might be in the minority on that). I’m feeling frustrated with where that conversation is at right now, so I thought it might help to write about it a little to figure out where I want it to end up.
I’m not finding it frustrating that we all disagree on what’s best (that’s how democracy works), but I am finding myself increasingly frustrated in conversations about who’s to blame. We do this a lot on the left — in feminism and sex workers’ rights as much as in the union — and when I think about why I dislike it so much, I’ve taken to calling it “Worst-Person Politics.” That’s because it goes like this: “So-and-so says this, but I know otherwise. So-and-so is the WORST PERSON.” Cue the vitriolic, hateful bitching.
It’s not like I’ve never been guilty of this myself–a contact gently pointed out to me a few weeks ago that an angry comment I made on Facebook about a nasty comment someone else made on my blog was on the verge of provoking some still-nastier cyberbullying. (And it’s not as if no one else has remarked on how shitty it is–as critiques of the meanness of “call out culture” make clear.) But it’s not something I want to do for two reasons: first, it’s mean. And second, it’s bad politics.
This is not a complaint that, say, anti-racist analysis hurts white people’s feelings. Sometimes politics hurts. It can be difficult and challenging to see that people around you are being emotionally hurt or materially oppressed by what you’re doing, to abandon old ways of thinking and behaving and to learn new ways of thinking and behaving that don’t cause so much harm. I’ve been guilty of resisting that learning sometimes, too, and sometimes of being just plain oblivious to it. That difficulty is necessary.
Instead, this is a complaint about a mindset we get into, where we look at our comrades and assume the worst possible motivation for their behaviours. Concretely, this looks like those times when someone says they think nobody in their right mind would want to be a prostitute, or that they don’t see why women can’t just take self defence classes if they’re worried about rape… and we all on the right side of things freak the fuck out. Anger is a reasonable enough reaction to these kinds of statements — they’re objectively shitty, making their targets feel bad and causing very real harms — but there are a lot of times when anger turns into a position that doesn’t forgive, never forgets and ends up foreclosing on the kind of coalition-building the left desperately needs to undertake. (It was a different transgression on the table today, but I’m assuming my blog readers care more about examples related to contemporary feminist issues than about the particulars of my trade union’s arguments.) That’s where the meanness comes in: it’s not just that they’re wrong. They’re wrong because they are the WORST PERSON.
My problem with the meanness is simple: I am not sitting here in my underpants at 2am plotting the revolution because I want to spend my life feeling picked on, or making other people feel that way. In the other argument I feel like I am constantly having lately — the one about whether the Humanities has any value in the university — I keep making the point that we are struggling so we can live well. Don’t get me wrong: we wouldn’t be living well if we ignored systemic oppression. But we’re not living well when we’re at each other’s throats, either. This actually segues directly into my next problem, that it’s bad politics.
In the case of the union, we’re asking the employer to treat us with basic dignity. If we really think that’s a realistic demand (and it might not be, since we all work for a university), then shouldn’t we be willing to treat ourselves and each other that way? We are doing the employer’s work for them when we dehumanize and degrade each other.
I think that’s what it takes to see a WORST PERSON in a comrade–first, we need to forget that this person is a person. Someone who has feelings that can in fact be hurt. Someone who, like any of us, does things that are conflicting, contradictory, ignorant, ill-informed, mistaken, or sometimes just fucked up. I mean, how do you even make it to adulthood in this world without being at least a little bit fucked up? Dehumanizing each other over that can only help the institutions and individuals who want us to be dehumanized–in this case the employer.
Back to the argument. I put my point like this: remember for awhile in the 90s, when in place of “solidarity,” some folks would say “love and rage”? Love comes first.
It’s not a matter of not getting angry, or of pretending there is nothing to be angry about. I just want to live in a leftist culture where we treat each other lovingly first. (Of course, as a feminist I know that we often don’t treat the people we love very well at all. But that seems all the more reason to insist that loving should mean behaving lovingly.) I’m not even suggesting that we all kiss and hold hands — though if I had my way we would all kiss and hold hands because kissing and holding hands are wonderful — I just want us to refuse to look at each other and not see a person.
Coming back to the excellent article linked above about the success of a New York coalition for police reform, Aviva Stahl writes:
What the passage of CSA [the legislation fighting police brutality] taught me, albeit unexpectedly, is that a divide-and-conquer strategy may be pervasive, from our communities to the austere chambers of City Hall, but it’s not inevitable. The challenge faced by those of us who believe in a politic of solidarity is resisting the forces that seem set on driving us apart.
Whether or not to accept an underwhelming collective agreement is a smaller-stakes issue than fighting back against police brutality, but I think the same principle applies. In my version of the revolution, anyway, being decent to each other is the first step toward resistance.