A fresh look at ‘the mainstream’

Map of the 2004 United States presidential election with the spatial distortion reflecting the population sizes of different counties and the relative contribution of electoral college votes. (Flickr/M.E.J. Newman)

Map of the 2004 United States presidential election with the spatial distortion reflecting the population sizes of different counties and the relative contribution of electoral college votes. (Flickr/M.E.J. Newman)

As an activist I’ve usually been proud of not being part of the U.S. political mainstream. When most people supported the invasion of Afghanistan, I was happy to point out what a mistake I thought it was. When George W. Bush got away with making tax cuts for the wealthy a priority for responding to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I cynically pointed out how much like sheep the mainstream seemed to be. I’m an activist. I take the path less traveled. That’s my identity.

Then I encountered the activist and psychologist Arnold Mindell and took a fresh look that increased my freedom to act. I was pained to realize how rigidly I was attached to my identity as someone on the margins — in my case reinforced by being gay and having been brought up working class in a small town. That rigidity was actually limiting my power as an activist, and I later saw that a similar rigidity prevents action groups from growing to their full potential.

For many years Martin Luther King, Jr., was hemmed in by the force of U.S. mainstream/margin dynamics. From 1955 to 1967 he was defined as a leader of black people across the country. While many white people, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, found King’s effectiveness extremely annoying, he was at least “in his place”: on the margins with the rest of his people.

When in 1967 Dr. King stepped out to oppose the war in Vietnam — against the advice of key advisors — he in effect was claiming to be more than a leader of the marginalized blacks; he became a leader in mainstream America as well. As anti-war sentiment grew he consolidated that claim by organizing a Poor People’s Campaign that explicitly included whites, Chicanos, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans and other groups, adding class analysis to his opposition to racial bigotry and war.

Those who were running the U.S. empire at the time found it increasingly tough to maintain the loyalty of ordinary Americans. The influential preacher increasingly threatened their domination because he was now operating so freely within the uneasy American mainstream.

King’s flexibility in navigating the boundaries of margin and mainstream illustrates the creativity of Arnold Mindell and his colleagues at the Process Work Institute. (Don’t miss Mindell’s books Sitting in the Fire and The Leader as Martial Artist.) Mindell sees margins and mainstreams everywhere he looks, and he teaches us how to use those dynamics to strengthen our activism. I’ve hugely benefitted from the work of the Process Workers, both as a trainer and as an organizer.

Defining the dynamics

Every group — however large or small — has a “mainstream” and at least one “margin.” No matter how homogeneous the group believes itself to be, a careful look shows that some characteristics are marginalized. A group known for vigorous and noisy debates has some quiet members. A solemn and highly disciplined group includes a few who, when out of sight, love to be rowdy.

The mainstream sets the tone, the communication style, and gets to have its own preferences more or less accepted by the margin. That’s how we recognize mainstreams. I have observed hundreds of groups of activists — including anarchists — and have seen in each one the group’s mainstream at work. All groups have that in-group or core, with other members on the periphery.

There’s wide variation, however, on what the dynamics are like between the mainstream and its margins.

I can describe one dynamic through a typical kind of scenario. A few veteran activists get together to start an action group and, as others join, the founders become the group’s mainstream. Some of the newcomers not only behave within the norms set by the mainstream but go on to join the mainstream themselves. They tend to be older in age. A few young adults join the group and become restless with the “old school” cultural style; they form the first margin in the group.

The young people begin to agitate for changes and rally around a specific campaign proposal advanced by one of their number. Conflict emerges as the mainstream resists. The margin then begins to win allies within the mainstream — more often from among the mainstreamers who joined more recently rather than the founding members.

An elder among the founders wakes up to what is happening and persuades the others in the mainstream that they should accommodate to “the young people,” even though by this time it isn’t only the young people who want the new campaign. The new campaign is adopted, and as the demonstrations take off more young people enter the group. Now the founders are far outnumbered and are trying to keep up with the exciting new campaign; they find themselves sharing leadership responsibilities with the younger members. In a year the group has twice the number of members.

What happened? The previously marginalized young adults joined the mainstream and took shared responsibility for its leadership. To use the technical term, the mainstream re-negotiated its relationship with the margin. The group also discovered one path to growth: to re-negotiate the relationship between the mainstream and the margin.

Alternative outcomes

Mindell’s theory — also called “Worldwork” — doesn’t say that one outcome of the re-negotiation is automatically better than the other. A mainstream’s absorbing of a margin might or might not be best for the life of the total group. When lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Quakers began to gather together and recognized ourselves as a margin within the Religious Society of Friends, we had little wish to be absorbed by the hetero-normative mainstream.

First, we had a lot of creative work to do to grow our own culture and build our self-confidence about our differences. Then we had to figure out how to confront and change Quaker attitudes and practice. That took many years of work as a caucus. In the meantime there was a re-negotiation of the relationship between the mainstream of some Quaker organizations and our margin. A new recognition, respect and even valuing of the margin emerged. It became okay that many of us lived separately at Quaker conferences and did our thing while engaging the mainstream in ways that pushed organizational change.

Looking back, it’s easy to see what a loss it would have been to the Society of Friends if we had gone from the closet directly to a negotiated “absorption” into mainstream Quakerism. Some margins need their own space.

The Norwegian Labor Party, which in the 1920s accepted only working class members, became adventurous and accepted as members a group of young, mostly middle-class intellectuals based at the University of Oslo — Mot Dag. For years the intellectuals were a recognized margin that did their own thing, including communitarian lifestyle experimentation with an anarchist edge. The mainstream found the group very useful to the whole; for example, the university students ran excellent worker-education classes. The group even helped the Labor Party extract itself from the Communist International run by Russian Bolsheviks.

By the early 1930s, though, Mot Dag became more contentious. It was perceived in the party as so demanding and entitled that the mainstream wanted to be free of the distraction and expelled the group. That’s another kind of re-negotiation of the relationship, and as far as I can tell the expulsion in this case helped the labor movement to grow and be able to stand up to the power of the 1 percent. A number of the chastened members of Mot Dag later became valued civil servants and advisors as the Labor Party governed a transforming Norway.

Mainstreams and margins in your group

If a group you are a part of needs to grow, either in numbers or in some other way (like creativity, or community), Mindell’s theory suggests that you should check out your mainstream/margin dynamics. Who are the people who came once or twice to meetings but haven’t come back? How about those who sit in the back of the room and have little to say? Or those who have a lot to say, but who most people find annoying? Or those who are demographically different because of their age, race, gender, etc.?

The route to your group’s growth might be to observe its margins and ask yourself whether a re-negotiated relationship with one or more of them might have a useful outcome for the whole group, even if it unsettles the mainstream’s wish to have it all their own way.

The cause you’re fighting for might be worth forcing the mainstream in your group to wake up.

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