Using Our Words

By essay

trying to get clarity in conversations about ethics and power

I often try to get my thoughts down about movements and work and future visions for a better society. I feel like critiquing directions I see as misguided, celebrate those pushing discourse forward and perhaps adding some context or nuance to difficult and complex topics on practice. As clear as it feels, it’s tough to put words around. There’s the context collapse in social media, along with its forced brevity and optimization for conflict. Plus, words start falling short, manipulated by others’ political agendas and our own self deception based in who we want to be or think we should be rather than who we currently are. Between the writer, the subject, and potential readers, we can all be coming from such fundamentally different places and constantly in flux that I’m not sure what words to use or where to focus. Yet similar patterns of disconnect keep arising. So it seems worthwhile to explore the source of difference to avoid talking past each other. 

Ranting about people with different (or murky) theories of change can feel satisfying with the right audience. But to those genuinely interested in figuring things out but on the outside of the latest discourse or unfamiliar with theoretical language, it can feel like angry noise. And while it feels more justifiable as critique when targeting high-profile people who should know better or warrant more accountability, constantly burnishing a critical posture isn’t great for creating solidarity in our everyday lives and connecting with the people around us. And getting too strident sets us up badly for when others have to deal with our blind spots. Still, it helps to have a framework to contextualize where we all stand.

Words and Political Identity

A person’s socio-political orientation is often a combination of inner drives, socialization and experience. Sometimes it’s more psychology or sociology than ideology. As a Buddhist you might say, it’s their karma. Not karma in the popular understanding of “payback”. It’s not good or bad. It simply *is* – a logical result of a bunch of internal and external forces that started before they were born.

In terms of socio-political orientation, there are 5 basic ones I see a lot…

  1. the system worked, but it’s in decline and we need to get it back to its former glory
  2. the system works sometimes or in theory, it just needs to get progressively better and truer to its intent
  3. the system fundamentally doesn’t work, it has a flawed or fraudulent premise and we need something else
  4. the system only really has to work for me, however I can make that happen
  5. I’m too busy or focused on other things to think about “the system”

and then there are values people have regarding a person’s orientation to society…

  • people should be free to do what they want to do
  • there are certain people who are more fit to make decisions or positions of leadership that should be respected and everyone else should follow
  • people should figure out what to do together as needs arise

The system I’m speaking about is the US. So these orientations may change with different systems or when getting to the scale of a smaller group or organization. But within that context you can sort of map the beliefs above to popular ideologies…

  1. conservative
  2. liberal
  3. radical
  4. individualist, opportunist
  5. apolitical, disengaged
  • libertarian
  • authoritarian or elitist
  • democratic, collectivist

People are complex with many more dimensions than are captured here. And many move between these positions on different issues. But when I think of mainstream political or ethical design discourse, these distinctions are often where misalignments happen.

In terms of social change spaces, the people I see most are liberals, radicals and opportunists with strains of libertarianism, elitism and collectivism. I have seen (and personally experienced) a lot of confusion differentiating liberals and leftist radicals and a general lack of conscious awareness around elitism vs. collectivism. That’s what this writing is essentially about. Because I think how well people can discern between those strains makes a huge difference in evaluating or communicating ideas around social change. I see this play out in misunderstandings in activist or social impact spaces, schisms in the Democratic party, and approaches to everything from anti-racism to sustainability to professional ethics.

Having lived experience of these perspectives, I often find leftists clearer about their ideological differences with liberals, but not so much vice versa. As a liberal, I thought radicals were just more extreme or unrealistic liberals. Both orientations seem to want more social programs, value diversity, generally try to serve the people, and aim to be “good”. They are both different from conservatives who are more overtly focused on wealth, power and security and tend towards authoritarianism. Sometimes radicals seemed smart (academic) or culturally edgy (relevant to art and design) but sometimes they seemed out of touch, unrealistic or too angry and single-minded. Either way, I didn’t have a clear picture of how they were fundamentally different or what was driving their demands.  Again to be clear, I’m talking about political identities and alignments I see today and in my lifetime as someone on the left. This is not about the histories of philosophical traditions or what these words mean to or about conservatives.

This confusion is infact weaponized by conservative opportunists when they call middle of the road liberals “radical leftists”, Marxists, or socialists. They want to connote *more bad* or “extreme” as opposed to *different* — especially since radicals might actually find commonalities with disillusioned, anti-elite conservatives. You might say there does exist a kind of extreme liberal who’s very committed to positions of compromise, especially with increasing polarization between mainstream Democrats and Republicans. But that’s different than a radical.

The fundamental differences between liberals and radicals are in what they perceive society’s problems to be and how to solve them. I find that especially true in these 3 general areas…

  • The System
    • Liberal/Elite: think our core systems (political, legal, economic) and institutions (workplaces, schools, nonprofits, cultural institutions, banks, government offices) basically work, especially with the right leadership, but need some regulation, diversification, improvements, or investment. As such, they generally respect the authority of leadership and the rule of law and their path to change is to either ascend the ranks to be among leadership or serve a leader they believe in.
    • Radical/Collectivist: think our seemingly neutral or “good” systems and popular institutions only serve to legitimize fundamentally corrupt underlying power structures (corporate oligarchy, racial capitalism, settler colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy) that serve minority ruling class interests. As such, they want to radically rethink how we meet our basic needs and build new structures (cf. “structural change”). They do not take authority as legitimate at face value but look at the context and outcomes of that authority. They often have first-hand experience of the system not working, especially if they are among marginalized classes the system treats as expendable. They look elsewhere for guidance whether it’s their own cultural or social traditions, those of people outside the ruling classes or critical theory on the dominant culture.
    • Alignment: Things need to get better, especially in regard in inequality. Since we can’t immediately change everything, there will inevitably be transitional practices or policies. Radicals may decide to align with liberals to bring about some improvements even if they deem them insufficient. Liberals tend to get more radical, or at least adopt their language, as conditions (individually or as a society) worsen or as popular pressure mounts.
    • Tension: Liberal moderates may opt for change only so far as existing institutions stay much the same and those currently in power remain so. They focus on making current systems more humane instead of fundamentally changing who can access power or who it serves. Radicals may reject these kinds of liberal proposals if they see it as co-option or curtailment meant to stave off substantive change. Those with a fuzzy understanding of goals, uncomfortable with change, holding personal tension between what they believe and what they deem socially acceptable, or with isolated (as opposed to holistic/systemic) interests may bounce between the two perspectives.
  • Economics & Culture
    • Liberal/Elite: look to current individual and market leaders to embrace positive cultural expression, awareness, acceptance, diversity and visibility within their existing institutions or arenas as the path to greater equality. Past interventions like taxes along with business regulation and enforcement are possibilities, but have been de-prioritized with the growing reliance on big donors in private sector leadership and nonprofit philanthropists for political and social change.
    • Radical/Collectivist: find capitalism, or the private ownership of production for the primary purpose of growing profit, unequivocally incompatible with the interests of the majority of humanity and the natural world. They are critical of the values and outcomes of neoliberalism (market supremacy, globalization, individualism, competition) that was popularized under Reagan and since adopted by Clinton, Obama and Democratic party leaders. They believe how much change existing institutions can create is severely limited and focused on appearances given their current the fundamental financial and power interests of their leadership. They see wealth accumulation and society’s focus on private property, consumerism and the transactional nature of human relationships that result as a driving factor in social inequality. As such, they see economics as a fundamental aspect of social change. They look to centralized state solutions to meet basic needs and/or local, democratic, community-based mutualist organizations and enterprises. They also find cultural expression and practices invaluable, but only when its creators have ultimate control over it.
    • Alignment: Non-dominant (racialized non-white, women and nonbinary, etc.) groups are inordinately affected by economic inequality and need support. Diversity in expression, awareness, acceptance and visibility is important. Interventions like taxes along with business regulation and enforcement can help shift power away from corporations and the wealthy and towards the people.
    • Tension: Radicals are frustrated with how readily liberals accept traditionally conservative economic and neoliberal values. This is especially common of the upper middle class and wealthy since this blindness happens to align with their material interests. Liberals are often unclear about this tension due to the ubiquity of concentrated private sector power – it’s like water to a fish. Neoliberalism gets wielded like an epithet to draw awareness to the fundamental similarities between moderate liberals and conservatives even if red/blue culture war discourse often leads to them perceiving themselves as diametrically opposed. In turn, liberals generally write off radical alternative approaches as obscure or unrealistic. “Identity politics” ends up being somewhat up for grabs. A race-reductionist liberalism reinforces identity-based differences as essentialist and arbitrary while downplaying cultural, ethical and economic differences. This leads to pushing for stats-based integration within existing systems. Meanwhile, leftists grapple with how to weave in class and economic narratives and reconnect identity construction to their origins in serving economic and power interests.
  • Power Strategy & Elites
    • Liberal/Elite: As pragmatic believers in the system, they seek to work within and look to those currently in power to bring about change. This is largely through electoral process or meritocratically positioned industry and institutional leaders who have a record of success in the form of wealth, renown, or high positions/achievements in prominent institutions. They are generally more concerned with the “what”, looking for solutions that resonate with their values of what feels right or fair than the “how”.
    • Radical/Collectivist: They understand the “what” based purely on self-interest in regards to self-created and perpetuated establishment values and thus focus on a “how” rooted in direct (as opposed to representative or republican) democracy in all organizations (including workplaces, businesses and institutions) and bottom-up organizing to create leverage. They look to create structures that deliver power to the people in common practice regardless of the benevolence of the well-positioned. They believe the capacity for good infact decreases as wealth and power increase.
    • Alignment: Rhetorically both believe in democracy and the power of the people.
    • Tension: Liberals share the Founding Father’s fear of commoners as a mob and seek to balance anarchic democracy with the insight of proven experts. They get exasperated when the overly idealistic don’t get with the program and listen to the grown-ups in the room. Liberals in accordance with current systems, take the status quo as a natural order of things and their strategy is largely around trying to curb its worst excesses. Radicals find liberals calls to be “realistic” as total lack of awareness as to the perspective of those on the bottom and holds a complicity that caters to and rewards those inflicting the most damage. The left believe elites only have that privilege through violence, manipulation and hoarding. They find the liberal model of social good is rooted in “noblesse oblige”, bestowed by benevolent superior or privileged classes in the form of charity, advocacy or rarefied intelligence or insight. This defines the bounds of “social good” in a way that doesn’t get in the way of their financial and power interests which allows them to paint themselves as humble and virtuous (in contrast to the straightforward brutality of conservatives) while being just as self-serving or obliviously condescending.

Words with People

Though I have tried to give consideration of both sides, as is probably apparent, I see a radical approach as the path to create the kind of change we need. I have come to see the simplified political spectrum as…

  • right – I can see how money and power works in the current system and I’m gonna to side with the winners to try to make it work for me
  • left – I can see how money and power works in the current system and I want to work towards a different system that works for all
  • moderate center – I sorta see how money and power works and I kinda want the system to work for me while not having it be so bad for others

That said, I believe many of us end up being muddled moderates. We’ve all got confusion and hypocrisy within us as humans socialized and living under broken systems. We’ve got different priorities and interests and situations we’re dealing with and compromises we have to make to get by. I didn’t explore these definitions to judge and leave it at that. I did it to create a framework to help our own explorations and engage in compassionate good faith conversations. The bigger questions are…

  • Which of these do you aspire to be?
  • Given a specific issue, where do you sit right now?
  • Do you currently have the capacity to change in that area?

Perhaps for the lack of power or financial capital, we have starting attaching enormous social capital to political identity and have become inordinately focused on measuring each other up. I think this is actually harmful for our collective quality of life, potential for solidarity and political engagement, and fostering actual, authentic change. The focus should be – where are we and where do want to be? Where can we situation this idea or position and can it meet our needs? How do we see each other and support each other and move together? These differences can be built out, articulated, and contrasted in any number of contexts (anti-racism, design futures, labor movements, etc.)

Radicalism means “at the root or origin”. As such, I believe it becomes a clear, high leverage origin point for change. It is often more honest and logical, though sometimes alarmingly so. It can feel extreme if you are rooted elsewhere or between perspectives. And there are definitely different kinds of radicals. There are fascist far-right radicals appealing to conservatives. You can say they’re more honest and logical about what they are trying to achieve too (foregoing the dog whistles) even if I believe their system is dangerously misguided with deadly costs for out-groups.

I write not only because I think radical leftist approaches serve both personal and collective good in the long run, but because I think there are likely more people who resonate with these people-centered ideas if they were presented more plainly. The embrace of radical language (if not practices) suggest this is true among some liberals. But I reckon the opposite is true among the conservative or unengaged – the language is alienating and weaponized when the practice might actually be more intuitive. I believe there is potential in radicalism to accommodate anyone from wherever they’re at ideologically, positionally or materially. We just have to cut through the rhetorical mess we’re in and find authentic ways of communicating.

perennial inspiration: Are you an anarchist? The answer may surprise you. by David Graeber

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