In Defense of Diversity

A White Boy Talks Back


For some time I have wished to join the vibrant political conversation I discover going on within the pages of POINT each month. Becci Robbins' thought-provoking essay in the July issue, "A White Girl Waxes," gave me the impetus to finally do so.

As you may remember, Robbins (the white girl in question) artfully recounted an argument she had had with an African-American political activist (and friend) over issues of race, gender and sexual orientation in progressive politics.

I found it highly interesting because it calls attention to important questions concerning the nature and quality of communication strategies within the progressive movement.

I am a teacher and researcher in the field of speech communication a rhetorician so it should not be surprising that I would be drawn to the communicative implications of Robbins' editorial. I would like to share some of my thoughts on the matter because I believe the success of progressive political movements in both the short and long terms is closely connected to the ethical quality and political effectiveness of our communication practices.

Robbins begins by recounting the twists and turns of an argument with her friend Kevin (not me) over a Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action. In so doing, she partially uses a classical rhetorical form: the philosophical dialogue. Like a modern-day Plato, Becci addresses abstract philosophical questions through the concrete and intimate voices of characters engaged in debate.

But there is an instructive difference between the Platonic dialogue and Robbins' communicative strategy. Although Socrates the main character in Plato's dialogues almost always wins, there is constant reference to a communicative norm of openness and mutual understanding that should condition the search for the truth. Socrates chooses questions over assertions, assumptions over conclusions, and conversation over monologue.

One thing which concerns me about Becci's dialogue is the accompanying editorial voice that closes off the possibility that Kevin's position might hold some merit and her own character's thinking might contain flaws.

Of even more concern is what seems to be the reason for her unwillingness to consider the validity of Kevin's beliefs: her confidence that there is only one issue exploitation and, consequently, that such arguments and disputes between progressive groups are unproductive.

As a political matter, I think it is highly dangerous for citizens committed to social progress to act under the assumption that there is a clear and singularly identifiable "system" of "exploitation" against which various constituencies can reach consensus and thereby coordinate their effort.

While there is no question that issues of race, gender, class and culture are connected in many ways, and while there is no question that there are many productive opportunities for people concerned with progress in one area to join with people from another against common enemies, it simply isn't the case that exploitation stems from a single source or is experienced in the same way.

For example, Robbins brings the first bit of dialogue to a close by expressing her frustration over the fact that Kevin supports reparations for African-Americans as an alternative to existing affirmative action policies but does not seem to believe women are deserving of the same recompense.

Becci concludes that Kevin is "sorry" (in the pejorative sense of the term) because his "narrow black activist butt" fails to see that "exploitation is exploitation."

Is it really that simple? Even if the oppression of blacks and women in America are equally deserving of moral critique and political remedy, there was and is a great differences in how that oppression is experienced and the institutions and agencies which maintain it.

If the conversation had been allowed to continue, Kevin might have reported that based on his experience and belief, while the largely white, middle-class group of women who gave rise to the modern feminist movement suffered great personal and economic disempowerment as a result of patriarchal social relations, there have been many informal and counter-institutional channels of power to which white women had access and black slaves and former slaves of either gender did not.

And Kevin might have maintained that while white women have surely experienced inequity, it is not deserving of the same remedy as that necessitated by the abject of martial constraints and total cultural negation of the slave holding system.

Ultimately I, like Becci, believe affirmation action for women, African-Americans, the poor and other under-represented groups is a more workable public policy option than reparations for anyone, and I also think it would be hard to implement a policy of reparations limited to African-Americans. But I can understand that an African-American who has no prejudice or ill will toward any other progressive group or the issues which define that group which, in fact, actively supports a variety of progressive causes, can hold an alternative view based on an authentic expression of a different experience and based on different goals and interests.

That's the crux of my disagreement with Becci. I believe progressive groups and movements do and must have different goals and interests. If they are what they should be, progressive social movements reflect the grassroots life experience of constituencies that come together and participate in the political system on the basis of their common concerns.

There is no way to reduce those concerns to one economic, cultural or political vocabulary the "system" not withstanding and conflicts within, between and among those groups is absolutely unavoidable.

Now, lest I fall prey to the same monologism with which I tag Robbins, let me say that her own voice within the dialogue (and throughout the essay) could be heard in a different way. She might not be saying that there is really an easily defined "system" against which progressive movements could resolve their differences.

Her point could be that "the movement" ought to do more to communicate about areas of common concern, to develop a mutual understanding of common sources of oppression, and to forge strategic and communal alliances against them. Such goals would seem utterly consistent with the mission and reality of POINT. But this more charitable reading of Robbins' essay is somewhat mitigated by the ironic attitude she displays towards debate and disagreement within the progressive movement.

To me, the kind of war room debate she has with Kevin is what being in a social movement is all about. It reflects the politicization of life; the activation of perception, understanding and action which stems from participating with a particular group.

One of the most important functions of new social movements is their capacity to create a cultural space in which previously disempowered and disaffected individuals can come together and converse, debate and develop a political identity.

That's why I find it odd that Robbins treats the exchange with her friend as some horrid psychic battle; with Kevin seeming most at fault for his failure to understand. I think she greatly underestimates the value of such opportunities for debate and dialogue; the communicative productivity of agreeing to disagree.

In my mind, the greatest threat to progressive social change in the United States is not an economic or political monolith which our differences prevent us from addressing in a unified manner, but a vast web of institutional mechanisms by which citizens relinquish control of public life to specialized, non-democratic technical systems.

Corporate and bureaucratic systems of control function in complex and particularized ways. It will require a variety of interest groups, movements and ad hoc coalitions using a variety of strategies and tactics to wage the unending war to democratize as many areas of life as possible in the post-modern world.

Consequently, what ought to unite us is not a sharing of all values or an absence of all prejudices, but a common commitment to democratic political participation especially a progressive communicative ethic.

Such an ethic would focus on a duty of citizens to actively involve themselves in the life of their community, a requirement that one seek out the voices of those suffering unjust and irrational social conditions, listen carefully to gain an understanding of how others believe things have gone wrong, and then attempt to reach an agreement about what can and should be done to make things better.

Whether we are talking about the communication within progressive social movements or between them, we should foster communicative practices that respect and even embrace a diversity of opinion and forge local and relatively finite agreements to act in common for the betterment of the community.

Progressives of every stripe have long fought against those prejudices which marginalize and disadvantage one's fellow (wo)man. But we would do well to recognize that no final victory over prejudice and ill will is possible, if for no other reason than the fact that humankind seems perfectly to able to create new fears and hatreds when the old ones wear out their usefulness.

Perhaps the best thing we can do as progressive citizens is to foster opportunities for democratic communication about our individual and collective moral failures. But such a dialogue will not go far if there is much finger pointing and name calling; if we each grow frustrated because the other cannot accept the validity of our certain moral and strategic conclusions.

Exploitation isn't exploitation. We mean different things by the word and have different experiences. Even if we reach an agreement that allows us to act in concert to improve each other's lives, there are but only so many of us who will see things in that way and for but a certain length of time. And still we can move ahead.

In regard to the direction of social change, I have no doubt where Becci Robbins' sentiments lay, nor her friend Kevin's. They are both committed to improving the world they live in and they have both done much to see that it comes about.

And I wholeheartedly endorse the central proposition of her essay: "If the water isn't muddy, we must be standing still." But the water will always be muddy and I don't think that there is any reason to despair that much communication and dialogue between "femiNazis" and "angry black men" remains to be undertaken. That's what POINT is here for.

Kevin Sargent teaches in the Communication Studies Department at Furman University.

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Last modified 8/8/95