concepts i'm rethinking bc of
December 18, 2014
Since #thistweetcalledmyback started about a week ago and the ensuing discussion, I’ve had a lot of cause to rethink how I’ve been understanding certain concepts. This post is really just me working through and articulating these reflections.1
The first thing that the HT has made me realize is that I didn’t, not even a little, understand what ‘grassroots’ means (or is supposed to mean). Previously, I thought that grassroots = small organizations focused on local community. Or something to that effect. They keyword here is ‘organization,’ of course, since this is part of what is being contested in the HT.
The way the collective of thinkers of the HT conceptualize ‘grassroots’ is community-focused work that is ‘unaffiliated’ with any organization (of any size). Essentially, individuals (working alone or together) outside of any formal structure.
In some of the responses to the HT/collective, I’m seeing that my former understanding of ‘grassroots’ is reasonably common.
So I guess, my questions are (at this point):
- What, exactly, does ‘grassroots’ means?
- How does it operate?
- What does it look like?
- Why has ‘grassroots’ become a site of such contention?
- What is gained by framing your self/organization as ‘grassroots’?
- What is lost by this framing?
2) ‘organizing’/’the work’
One of the key aspects to the HT/collective is the general devaluing of online community-centered…. (I want to say ‘work’ here, but it isn’t the right word, since ‘work’ implies compensation within a capitalist society and the labour of many online ppl is not compensated. I guess the more appropriate word might be ‘organizing’ but… I also hesistate with this one since this term is also a contested site…)
The sad thing is, is that a lot of the criticism (not all) of the HT/collective has only served to prove the point that online activities2 are generally devalued.
I’ve seen people say, almost word for word, that ‘communities’ essentially cannot exist online and, thus, any activity you do to support your ‘community’ that is online doesn’t count. Not really. Not in the important and meaningful ways (however defined). The key point is that doing stuff online is not as important or meaningful as doing stuff offline. End of story.
The fact that this is still an prevelant idea makes me want to scream. I mean… I think I’ve seen at least 1000 (give or take a few) posts/tweets/etc telling people that privileging offline activities over online is ableist. And it is.
And this is a distinct (sort of) issue than what the HT/collective is talking about and, apparently not something that their critics want to actually consider. So I’ll say it again:
Privileging offline activity over online activity is ableist
This is literally not up for debate. All you manage to say when you claim that offline interactions/activities matter more than online ones is that you happily (willingly) exclude disabled people from whatever offline shit you do. Which, cool, I guess this is good to know since I know right away that your claims to caring more/better for your community is just words. Words to make you look good.
Additionally, since I’ve also literally seen people assert that ‘the work is bigger than you or any single individual’ and it stuns me the level of… cognitive dissonance is must take to utter that sentence while claiming to care about your community. Or any community. Again, there is the conceptual problem of framing uncompensated labour as ‘work’ mentioned above, which really invokes a capitalist framework of the commodification of labour and human beings (esp when directed towards Black ppl).
But this notion that the more important the ~work~ is, the less we have to care about protecting/supporting individuals, so long as the ~work~ continues. More or less stating that individuals can and will be sacrificed to ensure that the ~work~ does not end. But then I have to wonder… how do we choose who gets sacrificed? Why is the sacrifice always demanded of others? Why are we valorizing an organizing principle that depends on burning people up and tossing them away?3
This is really really the big one for me. And it relates to the inherent values implied by the claim that ‘the work is more important than you’, since it usually is framed around a notion of community that requires that individuals are continuously subsumed (erased) into the community. A notion that community is more important that individual people.
This is a tricky thing to talk about without falling into an (from my perspective) orientalist binary of ‘invidualism vs collectivism.’
Yes. There are many problems with the way that white supremacist culture focuses on and elevates the individual as being the prime site of value (and agency). And it is equally true that white individualism has been (and continues to be) disruptive in the many iaopoc cultures that aren’t nearly so individualistic.
But, and this is (for once) me speaking from my educational background, insisting that there is a strong distinction between ‘collectivism’ vs ‘individualism’ along racial/cultural lines is actually a orientalist artifact. I’ve literally had to sit through cultural psychology lectures who continue the proud tradition of scientific racism by attempting to demonstrate that Asians are literally cognitively pre-disposed towards collectivism vs white people’s disposition towards individualism.
This orientalist construction of Asians as collectivist goes so deep that it is expressed within popular culture all the time. But also in academia. I’ve literally read whole books about how Chinese nouns are all mass/collective nouns, which has the effect of saying that there is only really one Chinese person with many different instances/containers. Which also feeds into a famous philosophy of mind thought experiment where if every Chinese person were to perform a single pre-determined action at the same time, a momentary singular consciousness could arise (ie, that if each Chinese person were to act as a synapse could they produce a momentary consciousness?). Which feeds into things like Cloud Atlas where the future parts of it has masses of identical Asian robotic women…. which is all based in the old notions of the Yellow Peril as a faceless wave of people that could threaten white individuality… which feeds into me living with a white supremacist roommate who would literally say that Asians almost had a kind of insect intelligence like bees or ants…
And it is so weird to me, seeing/experiencing this brand of Orientalism since my own experience as a person from a collectivist-oriented community is that there is more than enough room for individuality (and individuals). And not as a lesser priority or of lesser importance to the collective, it is just that individuals are situated and conceptualized in a different way.
It feels like, to me, that a lot of iaopoc ppl push a hard notion of collectivism because of the way that it so neatly contrasts us with white ppl and how they form and understand communities. But doing so prevents us from really exploring and articulating how our communities are so much more complex than this.4
And then we get into this current situation where people think that people saying “I matter as an individual human being” is buying into the white system of individualism. And all I can think is… I don’t want any part of any community that fundamentally wants to tell me that I, as individual human, do not matter. Or that I matter less than the community, such that if the situation arises where they/the community needs to pick between protecting the community or supporting me, that I’ll be sacrificed without a second thought and not a single twinge of remorse.
Note: what I’m not saying is that I think that the community ought to be sacrificed for my sake or that I as an individual matter more than the community. Not true…
But I don’t see how some people don’t get that what they say entails that individuals don’t matter (or matter enough) in the community.
And then this only gets me to thinking:
Okay… but then who is the first to be sacrificed in the name of the community? How does this framing of ~community~ necessarily leave people out of the community who’ve been told all their lives that there are part of the community? Why are people so concerned with not only gatekeeping the community itself but the notion of what gets to count as a community?
While dealing with complexity is harder and messier, this is the space we need to be in.
I’m done with ‘communities’ until I see more nuanced discussions about the role of individuals within collective communities. One thing that I’ve learned from the HT/collective and the ensuing discussion is that a lot of ppl’s conception of ‘community’ legitimately terrifies me.
At this point, I claim membership to zero communities and no communities are allowed to claim me.
The sad thing is, is that I know no one will miss my absence… bc I now realize that I was never included in the first place. I mean. According to some people, my disabilities make it impossible for me to be involved within any ~real~ community since a lot of what I do is online.
And life goes on.