Talk about a timely email! Last Thursday afternoon I was working on this column. I was just getting into it when, wham, the “blackout of 2003” turns off my computer, my fan, my light and everything else in our house. And the beginnings of this column, last Thursday’s version, was lost to cyberspace.
Then this morning I found in my email a submission to an email list I moderate which had an introductory paragraph referring to what the writer of the email called, referring directly to me, my “open capitulation to the Democratic Party for the 2004 Presidential race, thus making a sham of [my] loudly touted pretense to favor ‘independent politics.’” This was in reference to recent Future Hope columns I have been writing.
The “internal struggle.” From my experience, this is one of the hardest, most trying aspects of living a life within the pro-justice movement.
The “internal struggle”—when those who you thought were your political sisters and brothers, on the same side, willing, like you, to sacrifice for the common good, attack you, undercut you, accuse you of selling out.
Or not necessarily such harshness. It can be serious differences that are extremely hard to get past, strong feelings on both, or many, sides of a particular issue, differences that strain what were once very close, very comradely personal ties.
How many potential life-long revolutionaries have been lost to the struggle because, at some point or another in their involvement within it, they have been seriously turned off and alienated by the way in which differences and disagreements have been handled? A lot, believe me, a lot. In the words of one of the songs from Aquarius, “How can people be so heartless, how can people be so cruel. . . especially people who care about people, who care about evil and social injustice. . .Do you only care about the bleeding crowd, how about a needing friend?”
Indeed, based upon my years of experience in the progressive movement, I am convinced that the single most important reason why the forces of evil have the strength that they do has to do with this failing on the part of too many of us.
Those of us who genuinely want to see a truly new and different society, one based upon justice, equality, love and respect for the natural environment, have got to learn a new way of dealing with differences and disagreements. We need to learn to do so in a way which is upfront and honest but which is also constructive and sensitive to the fact that the way we put forward our opinions can have a profound effect upon others. HOW we put forward our points of view is often as or even more important than WHAT we articulate. If we want to develop a sense of community and unity in our organizations, we need to consider people’s feelings, not just their ideas.
Here are some things I have learned to help me when I am in the midst of such an internal struggle, whether it be relatively benign or deeply disturbing:
-Be honest and clear about what you believe, but be open to changing your mind. If you are open-minded and genuine, willing to speak up when you have an opinion but also a good listener who takes others’ views seriously, you will have an impact upon others, be a role model that others can learn from. Ultimately it is only when our movement is made up of many such people that we can have a chance of truly bringing about fundamental change.
-Don’t take things personally. If I am making a constant—hopefully daily—effort to be in touch with the best within me and to do what is best for both myself and for others, then I can realize that even if others attack me in a destructive way, it’s not because of me, it’s because of them. It’s their political or human underdevelopment that is at play. By refusing to stoop to their level of “discourse,” by modeling an example of how to take difference and raise it to a higher level of interaction, we can be about living now the way we want others to live both now and in the future.
-Stand up strongly for principles and essentials; be flexible when it comes to tactics and the not-so-critical. Right now, for example, I’m involved in an “internal struggle” within one organization I’m part of over a particular tactic. There is an action that I and others believe could be very important to advance our cause, but a couple of key people have raised serious questions. When that reality first surfaced on a conference call recently I was upset for a while, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that the disagreement was over a tactic, not basic principles, and that I should chill out and function accordingly.
-Finally, keep historical perspective. Understand that an issue that may seem so very important today may not be so important within the sweep of history. Don’t be so caught up in winning a debate that one loses friendships and relationships that are both personally and politically important.
This is not to discourage passionate debate over issues that are deeply felt. It’s not to encourage a laissez faire, do your own thing attitude. Without question there are particular times, particular debates, that are very important, whether to oneself, to the organization in question, or to a much wider circle.
A good example is the debate referred to in the second paragraph above. I am in support of running a Green Party Presidential candidate who would use a “safe states” campaign strategy to minimize the risk of such a candidacy helping Bush get re-elected, as well as to increase the number of votes nationally that Green candidate will get. I expect that I will continue to advance and defend that position for many months to come, ‘til the fall of 2004 if necessary. But, so far, I’ve maintained good personal and political relationships with most of the Greens who don’t agree, even disagree strongly, with my (and others’) position.
Whatever ends up happening on this one front of the struggle, it is to be hoped that come Wednesday, November 5th, 2004, this big internal struggle over the “Presidential politics question” within the overall peace and justice movement will not have derailed the on-going efforts to forge a broadly-based unity. We’ll need it, whoever wins. Let’s deal with our disagreements in a way which makes it clear that we’ve internalized that understanding, with the maturity that will make possible truly revolutionary change down the road here in the belly of the beast.