Help me understand and deal with my cynical comrades
August 3, 2017 10:12 PM   Subscribe

I love my leftist allies, but their attitudes can sometimes turn me off, and I am looking for resources to help me process this. Deets inside!

I find my culture (US American, particularly educated urban coastal leftists) to be rather judgmental, cynical, "black-and-white" thinking, and confrontational. "Divisive" if you will. I do not think this attitude is conducive to me educating myself and staying engaged with issues of importance to me (which are issues common to intersectional leftist queer feminists). I don't think this attitude is unique to lefties; but it is a problem for me when it comes from lefties because when people are judgmental, cynical, and confrontational, I tend to shut down and disengage. I don't want to disengage with people with whom I am doing important organizing work!

I am looking for resources (particularly forums/message boards, groups, books, podcasts, audiobooks, journals, and essays) that take a nuanced, nonjudgmental, or empathetic approach to social justice issues. I am also looking for resources (possibly regarding the anthropology or history of social justice organizing?) that might help me clarify how to work through this, or that clarify why our culture is this way.

I am NOT looking for you to convince me that I am wrong about people having this particular attitude; you are allowed to have a different opinion about that. I don't think that every person is like this; but there are enough that I am here asking this question. I am NOT looking for you to tell me to "suck it up"; believe me, I already do that as much as I can.

posted by shalom to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
You might want to look into professional mediation classes or courses. There are usually free ones for non-profit or advocacy staff.

On a more personal side I think that people who believe they are entirely in the right tend to think that the normal rules of society don't apply to them. This goes double for people who believe they are not really part of society, be they young leftists or preppers or fundamentalist religious home schoolers or really smart academics or anyone who has convinced themselves they are special. It's important to have rules of conduct and enforce them uniformly and be smart about meeting on your turf so you can impose those rules without compunction or justification. Never explain away bad behavior by saying someone is passionate, and have the same rules for everyone.

It's also important to remember that you don't have to work with everyone that has similar beliefs or is in your field. Some people are incompetent or assholes: cut them loose.
posted by fshgrl at 11:10 PM on August 3, 2017 [7 favorites]

The French anthropologist / cognitive scientist Dan Sperber has written a number of things relevant to the second part of your question, most notably this paper previously linked on Metafilter: "Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions ... Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative ... Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. When the same problems are placed in a proper argumentative setting, people turn out to be skilled arguers. Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views." Here's a more informal article.

Personally, I've found the prologue to Jonsen and Toulmin's The Abuse of Casuistry extremely helpful in recognizing and avoiding pre-judged and confrontational discussions. Their essential point is that talking about reasons, principles, theoretical distinctions, and hypotheticals very much gets in the way of coming to an agreement about practical matters. If you can get people to talk through some case at hand from a holistic but concrete and factual POV, having only some practical outcome in mind, then it's typically a more rewarding discussion. Otherwise, you can mostly skip it--I wouldn't call that disengaging but rather putting your time where it counts more.
posted by Wobbuffet at 11:16 PM on August 3, 2017 [11 favorites]

Megan Phelps-Roper, formerly of the Westboro Baptist Church and now reformed into a more thoughtful human being, recently gave a TED talk on how to engage with discussions with people you have some fundamental disagreements with. She talks about this in the context of having her eyes, heart, and mind opened by some patient people she met through Twitter, and discusses some guidelines for engaging in difficult conversations about divisive, emotional topics in a productive, non-destructive way. (CW: pictures of her holding homophobic/racist/anti-Semitic signs for WBC protests) I found her advice to be quite practical and thoughtful.

(That is NOT me drawing an equivalence between lefties and the WBC, btw. At all. But there are some parallels when talking about the clash of deeply held worldviews and fundamental beliefs.)
posted by xyzzy at 11:29 PM on August 3, 2017 [5 favorites]

Daniel Denvir's The Dig podcast (Jacobin) is not confrontational, divisive, or sophomoric at all. It's very serious and measured, and his guests are given tons of space to be the experts they are--and they're great. It's an explicitly leftist/socialist podcast, but it has no shortage of focus on social justice issues.

Here's my FPP about the podcast with a few of my favorite episodes (at the time, at least).
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:06 AM on August 4, 2017

Get offline; people are a lot less doctrinaire in person.

Shift your time to causes and organizations that are inherently more pragmatic or intellectually diverse. A political campaign that needs to be well-oiled, and needs the support of rich donors at garden parties and African American church ladies and old white male union bosses -- lots of shades of gray. Half the people you'll work with at special needs kids adoption charity will be Republican Evangelicals. Etc.
posted by MattD at 4:15 AM on August 4, 2017 [11 favorites]

Yes, seconding the suggestion to get offline (mostly Twitter.) People are horrible online.
posted by Automocar at 6:16 AM on August 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

- Work on yourself. I don't know why this works, but it does.

Cultivate a practice (cycling through nature dense areas, hiking, yoga, meditation, chanting, sailing, flying - you get the drift!) and see how you interact with these issues after 6 months of dedicated practice at something. Invariably you will have changed, so your perspective will be different. This works!

- Lead by example. Actively look for new information and demonstrably evolve/change your views once in a while. Practice telling others you are always willing to change your opinion as better data becomes available, then do that. Always be willing to accept there is more to know, your current opinion on X may be incomplete or outright wrong! Talk about that process to others, cite personal examples! We're all always "in process," make this perspective a trend in your circle.

- I never shut up about how others we disagree with are similar to me/us. Always look for the common ground and talk about it like a broken record.

- Take professional courses or read books about consensus building.

- Similarly, adopt a Win-Win ethos and try to live by it as much as possible. Cultivate "clean transactions" in all your dealings, if all parties don't benefit free of negative impact, don't participate. Stop selling yourself or others short. There's always a Win-Win solution, make it your goal to find and implement that Win-Win solution everywhere. A quote I really like related to this is: Equality is that everybody gets the same, Equity is that eveybody gets what they deserve (need.) It takes a while to shift the majority of transactions in your life into being more fair and equitable to all, start today. This is a worthy life long pursuit.

This is a great question. I'll add more if I think of anything.
posted by jbenben at 6:23 AM on August 4, 2017 [8 favorites]


To conclude, I have found where others are at in their process is a lot more tolerable when you personally are in a "good" place as far as being open minded, you are maintaining fair respectful exchanges of all stripes, and you have some kind of practice to fall back on when you are having a bad day. I guess I'm preaching that old chestnut, "Be The Change You Want To See," + some concrete tips on how to do this.
posted by jbenben at 6:31 AM on August 4, 2017 [4 favorites]

There is a lot to learn from South Africa's antiapartheid movement. Books like Nelson Mandela's 'Long Walk to Freedom' and Desmond Tutu's 'No Future Without Forgiveness' are wonderful resources for anyone who wants to study a form of social justice that doesn't rely on demeaning others. Both men were able to fight for what they believed in while also respecting the humanity (if not the ideas) of those who opposed them. Really, social justice should mean respecting everybody, even those who don't respect social justice.
posted by matthew.alexander at 6:49 AM on August 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

Certainly there are groups that are judgmental and cynical, but I think most Americans are not so confrontational. Some are, of course.

Be that as it may, as one who has been out of step with his peer group on many occasions, you want to be genuine and self-confident. It doesn't take long before people just take it for granted. "Year, that's SemiSalt, he's like that."

You want to work up some things to say that indicate how your thinking differs from the pack without saying the pack is wrong. "I think you are hypothesizing ahead of the facts." "I think 's take is pretty convincing."
posted by SemiSalt at 6:49 AM on August 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

I would also recommend going offline. I'm often surprised when I go to real-life meetings of progressive or feminist or socialist groups and find that people aren't actually always screaming at and fighting and assuming the worst of each other, because that's often how it feels online. It's easy to turn people into types without any complexity when they're words on a screen. In real life, people are generally civil to each other and it's much easier to appreciate that we're all on the same side. Even when there are disagreements, there is a lot less vitriol.
posted by armadillo1224 at 7:04 AM on August 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

This may vary by locality, but my UU Society has various activist groups which, while holding strong opinions on issues of social justice (among other topics) also have members who strive to embrace a culture of inclusion. You don't need to go to a service on Sunday to participate, in case that's not your thing. I'm sure if you do have a local group doing this they would welcome the additional energy.
posted by meinvt at 7:40 AM on August 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

Echoing the above suggestion of dipping in to social justice religious communities according to your comfort levels... attending a Quaker meeting the last couple years has taught me a lot about how to hold radically left opinions and also recognize the dignity of every person. It hasn't resulted in me being less angry at the world, but I do feel like I channel my anger somewhat more effectively.
posted by mostly vowels at 9:00 PM on August 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

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