Assumptions about theoretical jargon in anarchist discourse, while such language is obviously absolutely necessary, serve to dilute and divide anarchism and anarchists because these assumptions allow the relatively more privileged members to formalize and codify the language of resistance from a largely outside perspective (as regards oppression), replacing the actual language and models developed by oppressed people who don’t have ready access to the internet, copiers and books. The privileged radicals assume the rest of us need to be educated in theory, but in truth a functionally identical framework comes to fruition organically in the minds of much of these oppressed, only with different language and modes of expression. This interaction between “seasoned” and “new” radicals is often a game of social capital.
It may be that our total theoretical impotence as a group is inferred, improperly, from our lack of ability to be heard in radical circles due to our basic needs being unmet and time scarce. Just because we don’t have the same language, time or funding to engage with radical ideas in the say way doesn’t mean we don’t understand radical inquiry or even have important ideas about it. I cannot recall the number of quite radical conversations I have had with members of my family and friends who have no background in accepted anarchist theory (if you say there isn’t accepted theory, you’re being disingenuous because there is definitely a fuzzy collection of works accepted as essential in the community, whether it has an official stamp of approval or not, it’s de facto official, it’s accepted). Poor people often just sit around and talk about the causes of their oppression, they don’t need ‘official theory’ to introduce them to experiences foreign to them like middle class activists do (that’s not to say we don’t need theory to clarify nuances and bring new ideas and momentum because obviously, that is what I’m all about).
But of course, we aren’t going to be using terminology like “privilege” and “vigilance” and “intersectionality” on the streets, at least until we sit down and talk on equal footing, and further you won’t be able to benefit from the terms we invent. Since I’ve been actively and publicly engaged with anarchism since I was 15, I have over the years learned to translate between these sorts of views, as a necessity, to increase my own access. Based on the models I develop here, which came from my own independent volition starting at a young age and seem to agree well with other anarchists and scientists, I have had the experience of independently arriving at conclusions that I then found in anarchist discourse as well various sciences. Analyzing others in light of that experience, it seems like a majority of us anarchists who are considered fringe to the relatively privileged and well-read constituency have pretty good basic models of the sources and mechanisms of the power used to oppress us– even if we never read Das Kapital. After all, the form of a whip is easy to discern by the marks it leaves on the people it subjugates. My sex-worker friends don’t need much lesson in patriarchy or male dominance behaviors, they just need a guide to translate their language into yours. It’s absurd to hand them bell hooks. Really? Half of them are basically de facto psychologists for the products of male socialization and understand how to do this so well that they make money at it. If you want illuminating data for new models about patriarchy, that is where you should be looking, not just in books and infoshops.
What’s more, if those of us on the fringe do not engage with anarchism in the same way as anarchists who are not dealing with poverty or serious daily oppression, we are often shunned by the community. If we spent too much time hustling to pay rent, and not enough time learning how to affect a self-flagellating and guilt-ridden tone concocted to show that you have paid your dues to be allowed to care about oppressed peoples’ issues, then we are shunned from the community (sure, you can say those people aren’t really anarchists but my god are they everywhere I seem to look in anarchist internet forums, and the entire movement I helped build back home went that way as well). It’s a stance that fundamentally undervalues human dignity and presupposes everyone has dignity and self esteem to spare for the purposes of increasing social capital.
Never mind that really, we never needed any lesson on privilege because some of us have had the lack of it thrown in our faces our entire lives. It’s not difficult to extrapolate into others’ lives and see their oppression with a sometimes fuzzy but naggingly sure grasp. This, however, is an unacceptable thing to say, and I often get responses indicating that I must be either cis, straight, white, male, or wealthy, which are all inaccurate, except that I’m a second-generation Hungarian immigrant which is usually glossed over as white. Interesting enough, I have heard from colleagues who researched in Europe that ‘caucasian’ is a strictly US concept. Let’s not forget that race was invented by humans. Invariably, leftists tend to dismiss these facts as well as other facts such as the universality of various things, as stories from secret male instigators and colonialists hell-bent on disrupting the movement, but I’ve gained the voice to speak out about these out of control biases after years of being silenced, even despite that reactionary threat. Anarchism, for instance, in universal, and no amount of shame from postmodernism is worth giving up that ground. It’s important not to stop making the assertion that systemic racism exists and race is a human invention, even if some people are going to be so reactionary that they bail before the end of your sentence. Radical change can only happen from a full set of truths, not from just the set of convenient truths.
I recently read accounts in “Taking Sides” (Milstein) of the reactionary silencing of people of color with assertions of whiteness, etcetera, happening to many other people (p. 53, “Dangerous Allies”), and it no longer was possible to keep up the charade that my own experience of this phenomenon must have been some kind of lie, which frankly was the last remaining conclusion I had been entertaining, because the conclusion that anarchists were doing something wrong and fucked up and it was hurting people like me whose interests they claim to have in mind… was so thoroughly denied by everyone I had spoken to on the west coast that I began to wonder about my own sanity. I’m not claiming this denial that radicals silence even the disagreements of the oppressed by asserting the whiteness/maleness/cisgenderedness of the dissenter on the part of anarchists is intentional, but it does seem to be a correct description of how we are being silenced.
And obviously I’m recognizing that anarchists have in mind the interests of the oppressed not in the way liberals do as allies, but because we desire to live of our own volition in a way that counters oppression in all forms for everyone. And if we are walking into conversations with fucked up assumptions about someone because they said an unusual opinion, look homeless or said “bitch” or “good” or something, we really should think again because maybe they have a fantastic critique of the use of language which justifies their use of “bitch” and which you could learn something interesting from and understand perfectly well that good is defined relationally… but the hierarchies of the society around you have been imprinted on you and instead you imprint back the effects of classism, assuming your superiority rather than giving a modicum of good faith, and instantaneously poisoning relationships with people even slightly different than you in a way that may even go undetected to you! Such is the nature of bias. Yuck.
We should not endeavor to change this behavior out of some mere collectivist sympathies, but because we all believe as scientists and radicals that reality and truth are accessible to everyone and we should do our best not to snub out the proof that we are correct in that assumption when it presents itself (as well as the growth of anarchism itself), just because it comes in a different-looking package and we reacted with shitty assumptions. Applying the right cipher can reveal potent action in the spirit of anarchism masquerading by another name. I believe the ecological system is changing in a way that requires the emergence of anarchism. I am open to seeing that pattern as it crops up in my surroundings in different forms.
The answer is not to become less technical or complex, of course, but instead to simply practice diligence in removing condescending attitudes and assumptions that punish other people for understanding things in a different way. Just because someone has never read Kropotkin doesn’t mean they don’t have some awesome insight into anarchism. My favorite female physicist anarchist companion never read Kropotkin but she alone stopped a dude who was dragging a prostitute down the street from outside the passenger door of his car because she’s sick and tired of violence against her as a female. I can tell you right now who I want next to me in the revolution, given a choice between her and the typical Kropotkin-initiated. We can love the “accepted” ideas some of us have the resources and interest to engage with without closing the door on new, different, or maybe even better ways of looking at things.
It would be absurd and naive not to recognize that middle class activists impose upon our experience their theory and language of our experience, while our own models are not given voice in meetings and organizations if we are not privileged enough to have both the social capital for admittance and the time and skill to spend engaging the cohort in the right way, even if everyone could clearly benefit from what we have to offer. It is interesting to note that it takes a certain level of this requisite skill to engage any sort of politically oriented social milieu. There is a saying among homeless people that I wonder if people who have lived their whole lives housed are aware of. Often when homeless people gain the ability to sleep indoors, they will warn that they are not “housebroken.” What we mean by this is that we don’t have the conditioning necessary to successfully live in a house and be a part of society. It isn’t a statement that we aren’t smart enough to learn or don’t have a basic understanding of obvious facts. Homeless people’s intellectual distribution is probably exactly like that of any other group as jives with my experience. No, this statement is actually a profound statement that people completely overlook: it takes knowledge of a certain kind to operate in society, a certain type of social capital, and it is not readily available to everyone, making capable of being hierarchical in oppressive ways. I spent a large fraction of my childhood in an all-encompassing brainwashing situation where I was kept completely sequestered from anyone outside the house and every moment and action was controlled with brutal punishment and merciless forms of around-the-clock surveillance. I feel I have personally experienced many different ways in which a lack of social capital, or a lack of social knowledge that others take for granted, is used to oppress people. After I emerged from that situation, I had absolutely no idea how to interact with other people.
Can you imagine moving to the city for the first time and trying to take the bus? Not knowing how to do it, where to find stops, how to pay, maybe not understanding how to let the driver know you are waiting and waving awkwardly, or trying to open the doors manually as it rolls to a stop, eliciting a laugh from riders– the entire situation would be a display of a lack of being housebroken or having social capital, in this case the knowledge it takes to interact successfully with people in an urban society with rather strict or complex norms. It’s the same exact situation when a poor person from the ghetto tries to walk into an infoshop, and I’ve personally seen this with the experiment of the Black Cherry Infoshop, or been the subject of this as a homeless person in a Safeway, and further watched the dynamic play out at Occupy camps where there is clearly a homeless segment and a housed activist segment, and in fact a lot of animosity broke out toward the homeless people. Having these sorts of strict norms brought on by bad assumptions is inherently admitting vertical power structures into behavior.
I’m not saying drug addicts and poor people should be categorically embraced in everything that they do as that is absurd and just an oppressive new way to envision another form of the master-slave dialectic, but I am saying that each person needs to be judged on their individual merits in a way that actively resists our own cognitive biases. I have drug addict friends whom I would trust more with money than clean college students. Situations need to be engaged with a spirit of skepticism toward our assumptions. The first is the assumption of otherness. There are more complex ways of interacting with people than “same as me” or “other.” While it may not be presently possible to completely alleviate the problem of implicit assumptions about other people for the sake of protecting one’s self, it can be assuaged in the future with technological enhancements and partially relieved in the present by conscientiousness. It’s a result of our biological system, and the fact that our senses are slow and imperfect, even if our intentions are good, and our bodies frail and in need of protection. It takes time to gather the relevant information about a person when meeting them, and our biology makes us prone to threat-assessing, and our ugly society reinforces and requires threat-assessing.
While we cannot yet have much direct physical influence in our biological responses to others, we can use reason to process our sense inputs into a more realistic representation of reality than our crude senses on first impression would otherwise give us. We cannot fix our biology yet, but poor people have their own models of the things that oppress them, and some effort should be made in circumstances like this to at least try to translate between the two models presented by two social groups that have some substantial degrees of social separation but similar analyses and goals. It’s important that this be done without condescension, because a lot of times people are turned off from anarchist ideas by the condescension of relatively privileged radicals who target their disgust at people that do not have the social capital to compete with their use of theoretical jargon and the like. It’s simply a morphed and less-recognizable version of classism, etc, within the movement.
As someone who has been on the fringe of anarchism and mostly engaged in appealing to non-anarchists and almost-anarchists, I can say that I have heard this story many, many times where someone new to the ideas felt they were not allowed to ask questions because posturing via something like the application of obscure labels to oneself without any interest in whether the conversation partner even understands the terms you’re using. Just one more extension of the whole “happy to be a unicorn” thing– who cares if talking to another person ACTUALLY affects them and affects change.