Building power through joining and differentiating

Diagram of zygotic meiosis. (Wikimedia Commons/Maksim)

Diagram of zygotic meiosis. (Wikimedia Commons/Maksim)

My lover and I were fighting, and getting nowhere. I tried active listening, and he tried metaphors, but we couldn’t find a path to agreement. He was sitting on the sofa and I was in a chair opposite him, and out of sheer restlessness I moved over and sat beside him on the sofa. We kept arguing, but something changed. He saw a bit of light, and then I did. The wheel of the kaleidoscope turned, and we found a solution.

Upon reflection I realized I’d unconsciously done one of the most elemental things that a human being can do: I joined. My physical shift was symbolic, putting us suddenly on the same side. We could then see differently; a breakthrough was possible. I didn’t immediately see the implications of this kind of simple gesture, however, for strengthening a movement.

In April 1994, South Africans held the historic election that shifted power to Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress. A few months earlier I had been in Johannesburg with the ANC doing peacekeeper training to reduce the chance that the elections would be spoiled by violence. My teammates and I were briefed by trainers who told us about the local Taxi Wars, a dreadful period in which rival gangs of taxi drivers were hurting and killing each other in order to gain a monopoly in the business. When mediators were called into the fight, they brought their flip charts and crayons, and were almost laughed out of the room. But, made of stern stuff, the mediators did their thing and taxi drivers started making agreements they could keep. Some drivers volunteered to maintain the peace and asked for mediator training. Sure, the mediators said — but you’ll have to use flipcharts and crayons. The mediators got mocking laughter in return.

By the time we arrived, the mediators told us, we shouldn’t be surprised if we take a taxi and find in the trunk, along with our bags, a flipchart and a kit of markers! Why? When you get enemies staring at a flipchart together, they said — physically, “on the same side” — you have a head start on resolving the conflict. Given the stakes, the taxi-driver volunteers decided they wanted that extra edge.

How joining and differentiating builds a group

Those stories point to a basic principle of human communication; whether there’s a conflict going on in your group at the moment or not, awareness of it will strengthen you. When we interact with one other, we usually do one of two things: join or differentiate.

The stories from the taxi drivers and my lover and me were physical examples of “joining,” but the usual way most of us join is simply to agree with each other, or build on a comment by adding another that extends it.

Both joining and differentiating are valuable, even essential, to living out our full humanity. If our personality were such that we could only join, we’d be conformist, superficial, a drag on an activist group; if, on the other hand, we could only differentiate, we’d be negative, predictable, a drag on an activist group.

Fortunately, most people express both of these motions in some balance, like breathing in and out. What’s healthy — for groups as well as individuals — is to be able to join and differentiate as appropriate.

Distortion, however, happens. Some individuals come into a group with a big imbalance that they’ve adopted to survive a tough life. Maybe their family insisted on passivity as the price of acceptance, so they responded by compulsively joining. Or maybe they reacted by locking into differentiation.

One strength of activism is that it supports us in parting ways with the usual expectations — for instance, to differentiate from the policies of the 1 percent. That might incline activists to fall into a habit of not only differentiating from the 1 percent, but also of distancing from each other. Imbalance makes trouble; if there’s not enough joining, the group falls apart. Then the group loses the benefit of the learning curve it developed while pursuing its campaign, and there’s a risk of disillusioned members leaving activism altogether.

I’m not making a plea for harmony. Groups need to fight out their internal conflicts, directly and honestly. Here I’m talking about some groups’ tendency to support knee-jerk differentiation, a habit that is fundamentally different from a good group fight that can empower us.

Chronic differentiation

By the time most people are young adults they have found a balance, or not. In my experience professional, middle class, highly-schooled people are the most vulnerable to compulsive differentiation because of the function of their class and the nature of their schooling.

The economic function of the middle class is to manage and teach the working class on behalf of the owning class. Young people in the middle class are therefore brought up to see through the eyes of a manager or teacher — different from those of a worker. Workers might be satisfied with a project when completed, but their supervisor’s (or teacher’s) job is to review the project and see what needs improving, not to happily agree that the project is a success (even if it is). The capacity for critical distance is helpful for most middle class jobs.

Institutionalized schooling reinforces this skill. In literature courses, criticism is revered, and institutions often brag about their devotion to critical thought. Students in college and grad school are pushed to find the flaws in what they read, and to differentiate their own views from those of their classmates. Thousands of hours go into learning to differentiate. Typically, not much effort goes into learning collaboratively with their peers, which would reinforce the skills of joining.

Professional, middle class training has a predictable result I’ve seen hundreds of times: Even easy decisions take enormous amounts of differentiating discussion. Another predictable result: working class people find such groups a turn-off.

A vision for balance

The anarchist dream is to create structures of cooperation through which people can get stuff done without compulsion, especially coercion by the state. That dream, though usually without going by the name of anarchy, resonates widely in our society. Many people long for structures of cooperation that reliably and rigorously address their needs.

Capitalist propaganda, of course, says that anarchists can’t cohere sufficiently to be counted on to handle the functions of an economy — only corporations can. But this moment in history, when capitalist institutions are failing in so many ways, including in meeting the challenge of climate change, is a golden moment for demonstrating that a better world is possible. This is also an awkward moment for the many anarchists or other activists who have somehow become caught in a rigid habit of differentiation that prevents coherence, high productivity and reliability in the groups that they join.

We encountered that challenge in the Movement for a New Society, which I co-founded in 1971 and which cohered for about 17 years. Andrew Cornell recently published a book describing some of our practices that might be useful for today: Oppose and Propose: Lessons from the Movement for a New Society.

One reason that MNS lasted so long, even though it attracted some activists locked into a habit of differentiation, is that most of us lived and worked collectively and had high standards for productivity. Our training programs gave people permission to challenge themselves and each other to get over compulsive differentiation and learn to join when appropriate. At the same time, we designed a boss-less structure supporting freedom and difference, so members could find a balance that empowered them as human beings and activists.

Joining and differentiating in practice

Activists can unlearn either the habit of joining or the habit of differentiating. We can all come home to our authentic selves, empowering our groups to make change. One method is to talk honestly with a couple of comrades you trust and ask them to support you in this practice. With their assistance you can set a realistic goal. (“I’ll distinguish my view from others no more than three times in each meeting, and I’ll show my agreement with at least three people.”) Meet with your buddies periodically to report your progress, share your feelings and experience their supportive feedback.

If you happen to be fairly free of imbalance on this issue, pay attention to the dynamic in your group and be sure to affirm — usually one-on-one — everyone you see acting outside their habit, whether it’s a joiner taking the risk of differentiating, or the other way around.

Pay attention to the group’s gossip life and ask yourself whether it reinforces the habit of differentiation. If so, non-cooperate.

Even a few people doing this over time can change the culture of a group and free the members to operate on a new level. You’ll benefit from a group that kicks out a lot of activist work with high standards, reliability and high morale. This is what democracy looks like.

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