Controversies have been a part of the anarchist scene for a long time now. I recall being a brand-new, freshly-minted, teenage anarchist in the ‘90’s, looking around to see what anarchist projects existed out there. I came across the Love & Rage Anarchist Federation, I was intrigued by what I saw in a newspaper that they produced so I looked into what they were up to currently. What I came across was a huge passionate controversy going on full-force, people publicly flipping out, angry accusations being traded around, the whole works. “Well, I didn’t really want to join them anyway”, I thought to myself, and I didn’t look into them again.
Anarchists have a history with this kind of thing, going right back to the beginning. One could say that the very thing that first differentiated anarchism from Marxism, ideologies aside, was a big dramatic public controversy. Two charismatic alpha-males, named Mikhail Bakunin and Karl Marx, had it in for each-other, people took sides, and eventually Bakunin and his people got kicked out of the group. “Fine, we’ll create our own damn organization!”, Bakunin and his people said, and the rest is history.
As the years have gone by I have seen many countless different controversies come and go within the anarchist scene. I have actively participated in some, I have silently observed others, and I have seen friends of mine get burned-out by them and then leave the scene altogether as a result. I myself once took a couple years break from the anarchist scene after one such controversy - the whole experience was just so very disheartening and emotionally draining for me that I wanted nothing to do with anarchists anymore. Time and again I have heard people say things along the lines of “with comrades like this, who needs government agents?”
What has kept me with the anarchist scene all these years was not the people, but the idea and ideals behind it all. If I was to be into anarchism because of anarchists, I would have left the whole thing long ago. Say what you will about anarchists in general, it’s the whole big controversy thing that comes up again and again from time to time that is something that I believe really self-sabotages the whole “movement”. It is almost as if there exists within anarchists some kind of inherent genetic programming that periodically gets activated, to help to thin the ranks, to keep the whole scene from getting too big or too vibrant.
Right now a big controversy is taking place in Minneapolis, among the anarchist scene, and it looks like the San Francisco Bay Area recently had one as well. I am not really all that concerned by any of these controversies – they come and they go, and people come and go, and projects come and go as well, I understand all of that. What concerns me is that the whole thing is so damn repetitive, all the recurring patterns and predictable behaviors, it’s redundant. And worst of all the social atmosphere within the anarchist scene in general does not seem to demonstrate that people have learned anything from all of these countless controversies. All this blood, sweat and tears, to no avail.
One of the things that I believe is underlying this whole phenomena is that anarchists in general are a very ideal-based, principle-minded people. Such-and-such a position is defended, on principle, and that very same stance is also attacked by others who see it as violating some other principle. Compromise can be seen as violating principles and so can talking to “other side” or having them be a part of one’s group. The underlying assumption seems to be that by taking a firm, consistent, unyielding and principled stance, step by step, step by step, every step of the way, eventually the beautiful new world that one is yearning for will come to be. Given that the very nature of an anarchist vision is so very radical, fundamentally different from and at odds with the world that we all inhabit today, I can see why one would take this kind of strong principled approach.
At the same time, the people behind and surrounding the principles are not seen. In other words, real-life human beings both cause and are affected by these principles, and this results in real feelings and real lives being impacted. Principles are important, I would say vital, in that they can serve as guiding forces in an often-times savage and confusing world. And I want to ask – how are these principle-based actions affecting the real-life people in front of you?
What I am proposing here is not the abandonment of one’s principles, but the addition of new principles to one’s repertoire. In particular, there is empathy. By seeing the world through the other person’s eyes, by walking in their shoes, a whole world opens up. In the heat of the moment, flared tempers, passionate calls to action, the world narrows down, and people are not seen. Empathy, then, is intentionally taking the time to see things from the other perspective.
Another principle is that of assuming good intentions. I am struck by how people, again and again, go from seeing someone as being a comrade, someone with shared values who’ve they’ve known for x amount of time to then seeing that same person as… being a total scoundrel, with nothing but a desire to cause harm, and that they have never been up to any good. Remembering someone’s basic humanity means keeping in mind that we are not surrounded by demonic beings, but real-life human beings with values and needs similar to our own.
A final principle here is that of talking with each-other. This ought to be a no-brainer, but I see it pop up again and again that in a controversy people actually talking with each-other, face to face talking that is, quickly goes out the window. In place of face to face conversations are face to face shouting matches and face to face hand gestures. But more likely than that, even, is not being in the same room at all, but instead talking only with people whom one already agrees with, or communicating over the internet, which in itself usually has a very distancing kind of effect. Just getting together, in person, and talking – no special kind of talking, no fancy mediation set-up of some sort – just talking. This in itself often has a very positive effect, and it is also one of the first things to go when things get rough. This does not have to be the case.
But as far as talking goes, there is a kind of talking that I generally find to be very unhelpful, and that is arguing and debating. I remember once being at the (in)famous anarchist study group of Berkeley, California, and somebody posed a question to the group: “Has anybody here ever been convinced of something through an argument or a debate?” Everybody responded “no”. That incident really struck me, because with all of the time and energy that goes into arguing and debating, it all really does not change people – except to make them either want to start throwing punches or to walk out the door. This is not the kind of “talking” that I would like to see more of.
The kind of talking that I find to be really helpful is where people are being really real with each-other, where they are being open and they do not have their defenses up, and where people are really listening to what everybody has to say. When one speaks one does so to really express where one is at personally and where one is coming from, not speaking to try to prove to others how “right” one is. And when one listens one does so with the intent of really trying to understand the other person, what it all means to them, not “listening” so that one can find fault with something they said so that one can then trash them for it later. This is a whole different quality of dialogue that I am talking about here.
There is a lot that I can say about this kind of conversation, I can go into a whole rant about Nonviolent Communication and shit, but now is not the time for that. The point that I am wanting to make is that different kinds of approaches to big controversies can be taken. There are alternatives out there and they can be implemented. It is simply a matter of making a conscious decision to want to respond to these things in a different way and then making the effort to follow through with that. It is not necessarily easy, but it can be done. And it is worth the effort too, for the sake of more solidarity, more community, and all that good stuff.
I would like to conclude this by offering my services to anarchists anywhere who would like some more support in implementing the kind of things that I am talking about here. I am not saying that I am a bad-ass mediator that can solve everyone’s problems, or that I can say a few magic words and everyone will start loving each other again. But I can offer empathic listening and some coaching that can be supportive in difficult situations. And when times are tough, everyone can use some more empathy and support.