In May of 2016 I officially resigned as an administrator for United Opt Out a group I help create in 2011 along with Peggy Robertson, Tim Slekar, Ceresta Smith, Shaun Johnson, and Laurie Murphy. Since then, Shaun and Laurie rolled off, and we added new admins like Michael Pena, Rosemarie Jensen, Ruth Rodruigez and Denisha Jones. Very recently, other admins rolled off as well. There’s been a lot of myth-making and rumor-milling about the roll off of admins and the UOO event taking place this fall in Houston.
People keep asking me “What happened?” To quote a scene from a Northern Exposure episode entitled Burning Down the House in which one character -a famous golfer- attempts to explain how or why it was he “blew the Masters” because of a simple putt, he says, “You want to know what happened? …. I don’t know what happened.” In other words, perhaps some things cannot be reduced to simple answers even though such oversimplification might suit the self- serving motives of others. If you want to know why anyone one admin decided to retire from UOO, the best course of action is to ask them directly, because there are five different people and five different sets of personal and/or political reasons anyone might have for stepping down. There is no “one” reason. Yet the responses within the movement to the changes in UOO has created a dangerous space (within our movement) which French philosopher Jaques Daignault refers to as being “between murder and suicide”. And that is what this post attempt to respond to. Why? Let me explain. According toPinar et al (1995):
Daignault argues that to know is to kill (1992a, p. 199), that running after rigorous demonstrations and after confirmations is a hunt: literally (1992a, p. 100) … To know is to put to death….To know is to kill, to rely on death….The reason of the strongest is reason by itself. Western man is a wolf of science (1992a, p. 198). Knowledge — understood poststructurally as the reduction of difference to identity, the many to the one, heterogeneity to homogeneity — is violence. This violence results from competition between ideologies or doctrines, and from the radical transformation of what exists in conformity with what we believe it ought to be (quoted in Hwu, 1993, p. 132). For Daignault, as for Serres, to know is to commit murder, to terrorize. Nihilism refers to the abandonment of any attempt to know. It is the attitude which says anything goes or things are what they are. It is to give up, to turn ones ideals into empty fictions or memories, to have no hope. Daignault (1983) calls for us to live in the middle, in spaces that are neither terroristic or nihilistic, neither exclusively political nor exclusively technological.
We are experiencing the contested terrain of the in-between where we need to consider that taking a stand does require taking “a side”— nor does taking sides mean you are taking a stand.
I am choosing to take a stand by not taking sides.
Again Daignault suggests:
The only way to avoid this fate is to allow thought to think itself, to go beyond or to disrupt dualism, and to think the difference between them. It is to introduce paradox. It is not to stop defining, but to multiply the definitions. It is to invite a plural spelling, to experiment, to problematize.
Call me milquetoast if you must –but I believe in Guevara’s idea that the “true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love” (not self righteousness, not anger, not fear, not ego….love). This love requires empathy and forgiveness- and a capacity to see things from perspectives we might not fully understand ourselves but are willing to concede are real and matter to others.
Sometimes the “truth” of any course of events is simply too complex…because it just is. It is possible in deep and genuine relationships between spouses, friends, and colleagues to have wildly different understandings of a shared event. These are opportunities to learn more than we think we already know about ourselves and each other.
I am not declaring kumbaya and asking for group hugs.
I have all the sentimental qualities of a rock.
I thought The Notebook was stupid.
But I am a pragmatist. I want this movement to succeed. We face global annihilation of democracy at the hands of corporate privatization otherwise. We are up against something awful and enormous. I want to do what’s right for others more than doing what’s right “for me.” Because that is what we stand for.
In difficult moments I try to ask myself, when engaging in an argument or “calling someone out”: does this serve the greater good for the movement? What will change for the better as a result of my engaging in this disagreement? How much of this is my own fear? My own ego? My own desire to create a certain appearance to others? Or a fear of what others might think of me? How much of these negative interactions are a waste of our time?
In this movement we do experiences differences and disagreements that are very real and necessary. For example I adamantly and publicly opposed support of ESSA, while many other in the resistance did not. UOO many years ago was one of the first groups willing to launch vigorous critique of the national unions and demand they take a real stand against reform (and at the time we were roundly criticized for doing so.) There are necessary spaces and times for disagreement within the movement. However, social media character attacks and cannibalism that I witness at times would do the reformers proud. I’m not sure this behavior is what Guevara had in mind.
It’s easy for any of us to proclaim what we believe others “ought” to do, or not to do…it’s easy to reframe one another’s identities (or motives) according to our own interpretation and pronounce the failings we see in others as true. How many of us are willing to turn the mirror on ourselves?
Maybe we’d be better off spending more time looking at our own roles in the problems this movement is facing and less on the roles of others. That’s what I am trying to do at least. Because if we are looking for “blame” as to how and why things happen (for good or for ill) there’s always a heaping scoop of blame to go in everyone’s bowl.
There have been, and continue to be, incidents of hijacking and co-opting of our movement by various forces, especially more notably now with the authorization of ESSA.
We have become a wary, weary, and angry group of people.
However, because of our heightened emotions, sometimes we lose the grey line between courageous critique and a Salem Witch trial. Do the leaders of national unions warrant our critique and mistrust? Hell, yeah. But we also have members of unions who are vigilant leaders who earn nothing but our trust and respect such as Karen Lewis, Michelle Gunderson, Gus Morales, and Barbara Madaloni. So…where is the truth about unions? Somewhere on the in-between. Between murder and suicide.
How do we move forward in times of profound disagreement? What is the way out? We must avoid murder on the one hand and suicide on the other. Are we willing to move forward and remain in a complex in-between space that necessitates discomfort because it asks of us generosity, empathy and humility while also maintaining critical vigilance to our refusal to negotiate or compromise or sell ourselves out? I think we can.
I conclude with Daignault:
Do not expect me to know what I am talking about here; I am trying to think. That is my best contribution to the composers creativity (p. 4).