Start with Experience, Not Ideology

Main point: Many people filter their experiences into representations of their (oftentimes political) ideology. Don’t do that. That’s bad. Instead, follow your experiences and integrate that into who you are.


This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who knows me. When I was a teenager, I spent about four to six hours a day debating philosophy, theory, and politics on an online debate forum. I made 1000s of posts on there. (You know these long rant-like pieces I do here on my blog? I can read many of my first manifestos — which had way, way worse writing, and were way less nuanced — by logging in there and reading my post history.)

I joined that online debate website, like I said, as a teenager. I didn’t have any social skills whatsoever at that time, and so the users I debated with on there became — in many weird, strange ways — my closest friends. Yes, we fought over the correct ways to define “the state,” and yes, we debated stuff like the nuances of Marx’s theory of alienation, but I also divulged my darkest secrets to them; the regulars on there divulged their darkest secrets to me too. Online we were our funniest, most authentic selves, even as none of us had never met each other in real life. Having real, albeit online, friendship felt so great.

I stayed reading and posting on that website for many years — many more years than most of the other regulars on there.

The regulars were why I stayed. What I mean by that is, I learned a lot about political theory my first year or two on there. But after a while — especially with the large user turnover on that forum (most new users would post on there for a few weeks and then leave and find better uses of their time, never to be seen again) — all the new users started to blur together, they were so similar. If I knew just a few things about a new user’s political positions, I could very easily predict what other positions they believed, what arguments they would make, and the manner in which they would go about making those arguments. Which is to say, after the first year or two, when I had already heard it all, their political arguments got boring. It was like I was talking to representations of ideologies, not actual people with deep values informed by narrative and experience — just easily predictable and not authentic could-be-swapped-with-literally-a-thousand-other-people-that-came-before-you’s.

The kicker to all this too is that no one virtually ever changed their mind through these online debates. We were all just talking at one another.

But I stayed on the website for the deep, personal conversations with the other regulars. I let them know when I had my first kiss, and we dissected it over feminist (and manosphere-type) theory. I applauded my online friend when he got accepted into his dream college, and we talked about how knowledge produced by academia was really just a reflection of the university’s power relations (i.e., Foucault’s theory of knowledge). It was the integration of the specifics of deep values, narrative, and personal experience, and the unique and exciting conclusions we came to, that made the site worth it — the real, albeit online, human connections that could not be replaced by any of the literally 1000s other users that had logged onto the website before.

As the years went on, though, those I was closest with on the website eventually moved on. And so, soon after I turned 18, I left the website too.

2. College

When I started college at UC Davis — and after getting traumatized during the pepper-spray incident — I helped create a student club called the Davis Democratic Socialists. Soon, other people joined, and we became a force to be reckoned with on campus. We turned out 100’s of students to AFSCME 3299 and UAW 2865’s strike lines. We made the front page of our campus’ newspaper several times for our provocative protests. Et cetera, et cetera.

The greatest thing for me personally, though, was finally being able to have real life friends whom I could talk with and form deep in-real-life connections with. Many of these friendships I made during college remain some of my closest friends today.

But a similar thing happened a year or two into college: the ideological conversations got super boring to me. If I knew the answers to three simple questions —

* How do you feel about the state?
* How should our economy be organized?
* Can you tell me a few things about your feelings on identity politics?

— I could pretty much understand the vast majority of their other political positions, and even predict them with some level of accuracy. In other words, the Leftists in these conversations could have been easily replaced by other Leftists. After a while, it simply wasn’t interesting to me. Why have the conversation when I already knew what was going to be said? And indeed, when I look back at the three years I was at UC Davis, I don’t remember the vast majority of the political discussions I had. What I remember are the romantic entanglements that happened within and around our student club. I remember the stresses of campus life. I remember the events and protests we pulled off. I remember all the “life” that happened.

I also began to feel that, a lot of the time, when we did have political discussions, it was coming from a collective place of hurt and insecurity: either fulfilling a sick desire to argue for the sake of it, or an attempt to fill a hole of alienation and a need to bond over something that we all knew we agreed on anyway, like fishing for guaranteed affirmation.

I started to want to change the world. Not just talk theory. Actually leave college and take massive action.

3. Union organizing as a career

By helping tout students to AFSCME 3299’s picket lines, I found myself as an intern for the union. Then I helped start a minimum wage campaign in the City of Davis. That eventually led me to drop out of college and take a full-time organizing gig with UFCW organizing Walmart workers. That eventually led me to SEIU, where I’ve been working for almost 4 years now (if you include my time with the Fight for $15).

For me, one of the best things about union organizing is getting to listen to dozens, hundreds, thousands of people’s life stories. And really, what are we but what we’ve done, what we’ve been through, and our values, our beliefs, and our feelings about all of life’s Stuff. Being a union organizer is getting to be — way more than full time — an explorer of humanity, and your job is to find some way to connect as deeply as possible with as many people as possible.

But it didn’t start that way for me. When I first started union organizing I was incredibly alienating; after all, I had just come from UC Davis’ radical Left scene. I would shout Leftist ideology at people, and it would never work. It’s only when I started to concentrate on being both authentic (focusing on my own experiences) and relatable (focusing on others’ stories and the values deeply embedded within them) that I was able to effectively organize others to take political action.

That’s powerful, so let me repeat that.

When I first started union organizing, people didn’t see me as someone they could connect with. They saw me as a representation of an ideology I had been taught, and I might as well have been one of a thousand other college-educated Leftists; I may as well not even have been there, I wasn’t nice to be around, and I may as well not even have been human. Yet as soon as I started to tell stories, and learn how to bring out and connect with others’ stories, I could start to move turf and eventually empower workers to win union organizing drives.

I remember the first organizing drive I helped win. I cried tears. I wrote that I would “never forget the ecstasy of them winning their union. I can’t even begin to describe the energy pulsating off walls and euphoric hope sprung high into the night air.”

It was the first successful organizing drive of many, and I’m still going.

4. Conclusion

Don’t start with ideology. Start with your experience.

Nowadays, starting with my experience is something I do without thought; it’s something that I’ve become.

That doesn’t mean I’m not a Leftist. Indeed, my experiences — and importantly my integration of my experiences with my values — lead me to agree and align with most Leftist thought. But I don’t start with my thoughts first.

In other words, I don’t start with trying to figure out how my experiences can be filtered and represented through my ideology. Rather, I experience my experiences fully. And then I can say that I am a Leftist because of my experiences — although I will also say that the vast majority of my experience do not lead me to be a Leftist. Which is a subtle difference, but sometimes the subtleties make all the difference.

I’m also way more than a Leftist. When I do speak about my abstract philosophies on life — as I’m sure you can tell from my most recent rants — I talk a lot about values that are, let’s face it, generally seen as values more aligned with conservative ideology: I talk all the time about abstract things like personal responsibility, discipline, self-growth, self-reliance, and hustle, etc. (I’d argue that embodying these values is totally, absolutely necessary to turning Leftist desires into reality, but that’s another post.) Since that if I’m speaking from myself I’m speaking from my authentic experiences, not everything I say will follow a coherent ideology. I break from the “line” they’d expect sometimes, since my Leftist experience — not my Leftist ideology — is just a small portion of my totality.

In the hearts of workers (at least when I’m being an organizer properly), my practice of starting from experience actually (hopefully) makes me authentic and relatable. Makes me human. Makes me unique, oftentimes surprising, and something real to connect with. And being totally real and relatable is the only way I’ve found to make anything resembling real, large-scale change as an organizer in the real world.

I like to think I’ve come a long way since my depressed, alienated teenage years spending most of my free time on an online forum chatting with other nerds about political philosophy, no one ever really accomplishing much or changing each other’s minds. I like to think I’ve grown.

I used to desperately need connection. Now I am abundant with love. How lucky am I.

The key was starting from experience.

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