In much of the grassroots radical Left, there is heavy focus on authenticity: telling your story, getting in touch with your emotions (complex and deep), and telling truth to power. The idea is that, sure, if you go to City Council and scream at them during public comment about how they are white supremacist settler-colonial supporters of the patriarchy, the members of City Council may not understand what you’re saying, but what you’re saying is True; it’s not that reform through the “proper channels” can get you the demands you want anyway, and so really what you’re doing is trying to create a counter-hegemonic theory whilst slowly building a cadre of folks, pure in ideology and praxis, that is truly revolutionary so that, one day, we may overthrow the power structure from its very root through a mass, revolutionary movement.
This was the tradition of revolutionary socialism that I grew up on in my teenage years, and I still believe that true, total liberation cannot come from reform.
And like I said, even further, I’ve always appreciated the authenticity of it all. In the grassroots radical Left, you speak your mind honestly and truthfully. You tell it like it is. You listen to, for example, lobbyists from the Democratic party publicly speak, and it feels to you, in a very deep way, totally, totally gross, “bureaucracy speak,” totally fake, and you are appalled and shocked that it’s *that type of totally fake speak* that those in power prefer to listen to.
So you can imagine my shock as I entered the labor movement formally as a union organizer three years ago, and I’m taught to “stop being so authentic.” I’m told that the way I’m choosing to talk with workers is totally not relatable to those workers, and that — in fact, if anything — I was alienating workers, hurting the cause of building worker power and winning labor unions.
And so for the last three years, I’ve gotten really, really, really good at mastering the techniques of union organizing and becoming — as one of my first union bosses loved to say — a “social chameleon.”
And yet coming from both worlds — the world of total authenticity in the grassroots radical Left, AND the hyper-skilled social calibration of the best of the best in the labor movement — I’ve always felt that neither was quite completely correct.
Authenticity is great. People can sense it on an emotional level, and that sense of authenticity can build trust. Authenticity is also pure in ideology, necessary for a revolutionary moment. Yet! At the same time, the vast overwhelming majority of people cannot relate to what the grassroots radical Left has to say.
Then: relatability is great. People understand the words and ideas you’re trying to convey. You have the potential to reach hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of people, with relatability. But relatability is necessarily not pure politics. Worse — and I can speak to this after years of painstaking practice with my own skills, and watching others who’ve been trying for decades longer — there is absolutely NO matching that deep sense of trust that someone who is 100% authentically congruent in their actions, words, beliefs, vocal tonality, body language, etc., can create; hip hop culture gets it, “Real recognize real.”
So what is the answer?
I’ve struggled with this question for a long time.
* In “The Subtle Ways Your Soul Makes a Profound Impact,” I suggested that part of the answer is to heal from your traumas that led you to organizing in the first place, find self-love, and that doing so would help with the paradox.
* In “Against Pure Authentic Organizing,” I explored on an emotional dimension how authenticity is not enough to save the world, and suggested that one had to approach technique not from a place of “desperation” but of “inspiration.”
* Finally, in “Union Organizing Toward a Meditative Energy,” I suggested that the answer to the paradox is to “become organizing” through working on being present to the moment and not use too much thinking. (And while this is a great bandage, it is not a full solution. I’ve found that I cannot become “totally present to the moment” for more than a few minutes at a time. Honestly, after a few months of trial and error, this emotional technique feels more like a video game-type temporary power-up boost to my organizing, if anything — although a very strong temporary power-up boost at that ha ha.)
Well, I believe I have come up with a model to understand this problem (see the attached image).
One should imagine 1. authenticity and 2. relatability as circles that come together in a Venn Diagram. (If we are to be precise in our language, I would say that the circles should say “your subjective emotional experience of authenticity” and “your perception of their subjective emotional experience of reality,” but for brevity’s sake, please bear with me.) From this, we see that there are some modes of expression that are totally authentic to oneself, but not relatable to the person you’re having an organizing conversation with. Also, there are modes of expression that would be relatable to the other person, but would require you to be not true to yourself (and therefore, fake, thus manipulative) in expressing those modes of expression.
In thinking of political conversation in this light during the last few weeks, what I’ve found works best is to — at the beginning of the conversation in “getting the story,” also known as, building rapport with someone, building comfort, “shooting the sh*t,” etc. — share some of your values in your own storytelling, and then have them express themselves, and then search for their deep, hidden values within their expression. In being able to compile a sense of the other person’s values in the beginning of the conversation, you as an organizer then have the opportunity to speak with an “educated guess” for what might be BOTH authentic and relatable.
What you should do, then, is to try to say something authentic with political content. Pay attention closely to their body language, facial expression, vocal tonality, etc., to see if your political content has been relatable. Importantly: you will not be able to tell too accurately based off *their words* if your political content in the manner in which you have expressed it has been relatable (and paradoxically, the higher their social/emotional intelligence/skill, the more this will be true); you must pay attention to all their sub-communication.
If you determine what you have authentically said is not relatable, you should try again with another educated guess of what might be relatable in a different mode of expression, and repeat until you are having a real conversation that is both authentic and relatable. (The stronger your social skills, the more this initial authenticity-relatability dart-throwing act will seem invisible.)
The cool thing I’ve found out about this model, too, is that the longer your conversation goes — as you are “building a relationship” with them — the more the two circles will converge upon each other, meaning that it becomes easier for what you authentically say to be relatable, and vice versa: for what is relatable to be authentic.
You see then, in the long-long term, how being both authentic and relatable has the potential to convert people into being full-on Leftist revolutionaries.
Yes, I believe I have solved this organizing paradox that allows for true Left organizing conversations to take place that are revolutionary and authentic, while also being able to scale it in a large way throughout my lifetime as a Left organizer.
But beyond that I’ve found a way to both be true to myself and also make real Leftist change.