In my last Facebook essay-rant, I observed that in order to become a Leftist, one has to have the ability to “abstract out” a ton of intuitive information that is not the easiest to abstract out. I said, “It takes many levels of abstraction to take political action: 1. my life’s experience is connected with oppression, 2. that oppression is connected to large societal structures, 3. the way societal structures change is if thousands of people come together in an organization and take action, and 4. as an individual of many collectives I should take action and talk with other individuals to form larger collectives to challenge those structures.” And my point was that these levels of abstraction are not obvious, and so Leftists who want to change the world have to contend with the question of how to communicate with, build relationships with, and organize the many, many people who do not have as strong of an ability to “abstract out” intuitive beliefs about the structure of our society.
I had arrived at that essay-rant through my experience trying to talk with workers about the Strike for Black Lives. To be perfectly honest, I was really struggling to have good conversations with some of those workers. Talking with workers about their lived work experiences is easy, but abstractly connecting those experiences with a grander narrative about the racist capitalist system… I was losing lots of folks. (There are techniques and strategies to having these social justice conversations within a union organizing context, of course, but making the full-monty connection was harder than I’d thought it’d be.)
After posting that essay-rant, a friend pointed out to me that what I had observed is, in the field of political psychology, an actual real thing. In the “Big Five” model of personality, there is a trait called “openness,” which has five dimensions: active imagination, aesthetic sensitivity, attentiveness to inner feelings, preference for variety, and intellectual curiosity. Openness, it turns out, is the only personality trait that positively predicts (at least to a modest degree) Left-leaning politics.
I found the psychological research validating. I wasn’t just completely making stuff up. And it reaffirmed for me that Leftists have to find a way to talk with, build relationships with, and organize people who are psycho-metrically low in openness.
The psychological research also got me reflecting that — psycho-metrically, even beyond openness — I was almost destined to be an organizer or social worker of some sort: I am highly open, highly conscientious, endlessly verbal in the way I process information, extremely interested in feelings and people, highly intuitive, deeply concerned with justice, and quieter than average but still classically extroverted in that I gain energy from talking with others.
Now, imagine a mechanic who is politically conservative, low in openness, low in intuition, high in narcissism, and highly anti-social. OK, I know that’s a cartoon-ish caricature, probably an extremely unfair self-serving caricature at that, but point is — if that dude isn’t going to wear a mask, we’re all going to suffer as a society. So we got to find a way to talk with him.
Take-away point: We got to find a way to engage with people of all personality temperaments, even and especially if those personality temperaments make them hard to organize.
How do we talk with — let’s call him — John? How do we talk with John, particularly when in conversation with John we realize that John’s ability to “abstract out” large intuitive conclusions about the structure of society is not strong? (This is a real question, since the psychological research shows that about 57% of openness is inherited. Education, material structures, parental upbringing, and, like, self-determination can largely influence one’s personality, but we have to be able to meet people where they’re at in the here and now.)
My answer is this: to speak from experience, and then where we have to necessarily speak in abstractions, to purely derive those utterances of abstractions from our real experiences rather than from other abstractions.
What do I mean by this?
Here’s a good example. Typical middle-class white 18 year old kid named Bernard who is really into reading Marx and other political theory starts talking with a middle-aged, working-class man conservative John (from before). When Bernard inevitably non-stop talks about Marx’s labor theory of value, John just ignores him, and the conversation goes nowhere.
My point isn’t just that Bernard is being fundamentally un-relatable. It’s more than that.
1. There is a sort of social-emotional frenetic energy when people are talking about abstractions from abstraction’s sake. It feels un-grounded. That frenetic, un-grounded social-emotional energy is bad for organizing.
2. In contrast, when your abstract beliefs are derived from actual experiences — if they are truly coming from your experiences, and therefore uniquely yours — you often say genuinely surprising things. You are never 100% aligned with any common ideology and therefore cannot be dismissed as an embodied representation of an ideology. You become much harder to be ignored. And when speaking from your experiences, people can sense your authenticity. You become someone whose speech is something real and grounded and human, which creates authentic and real non-judgmental space for people to speak their truth as well. That’s how real and engaged conversations happen.
3. When you’re organizing using abstractions that come from abstractions, you’re necessarily trying to “convince” someone to think about something differently. From a social-emotional energetic perspective, that’s “taking.” People don’t want to feel like you’re taking from them socially and emotionally. Instead, if you are sharing your abstractions which are uniquely derived from your experiences, you are expressing a part of yourself, which is sharing and “giving” socially and emotionally, making you a lot more palatable in conversation.
4. I’d go so far as to say that if your organizing comes from abstractions that come from abstractions, it isn’t sustainable and you won’t be an organizer for very long. I think this is observable in a large part of the Left today. There’s this common critique of the Left: “Middle-class Leftists hate the rich more than they love the poor.” And I think that’s a lot more true than we’d like to believe! Simply hating the rich makes you resentful, relegated to posting a bunch of nihilistic memes on Facebook — and that makes total sense if you’re coming from a place of pure abstraction. Yet if you engage with your own experience and the experience of others — from a place of actually loving the poor — that will motivate you to actually talk with other workers, you will actually be able to create power, and that can drive you to continue organizing. And given that deriving your abstractions from experience is in the first place a much more effective way of organizing, you have to ask yourself: do you actually want to win? Or do you just want to see everyone fall and lose?
I’d go so far as to say that you should speak from a foundation of experience even if you happen to find a conservative worker who prefers to speak on a plane of pure abstraction. Abstractions that come from abstraction when in conversation with more abstractions produce a debate in which there is no solid basis (since there is no experience on which they are grounded). What’s left, then, is just a battle of pure expressions of ideological power — and that’s a losing game because given the capitalist structure of our society, the Right has more hegemonic cultural power. In addition, based on my personal experience watching young organizers try to talk at people in this pure-abstraction-power game, I’ve repeatedly sensed this (as I mentioned earlier) “taking social-emotional energy, frenetic, un-grounded-ness” to their conversations, and it just isn’t good organizing.
So, I’ve been saying repeatedly that your beliefs should be integrated abstractions from your experiences.
I’ll add one final point, which is vital: people need their beliefs to survive.
The world is too infinite and there are simply too many experiences to be had not to have any form of abstractions to interpret the world. It’s *literally* how we survive.
Here’s an example of that: What happens when people lose all their beliefs? They become depressed.
So it’s a really delicate thing to play with people’s beliefs.
Here’s another Life Fact. Almost everyone I’m close with, deep down, is broken in some way or another. I suspect that the few people I’m close with who aren’t broken in some way deep down — I think maybe I’m simply not close enough with them to know how they’ve been broken. I certainly have all sorts of trauma, and I’ve done horrible things — I’m pretty sure almost everyone has and will if they live long enough. That pain connects us all.
I once was building an organizing relationship with a worker-leader who was very popular and almost universally seen as angelic. As luck would have it, they also purported to have strong Leftist politics, talking about Black Lives Matter, the importance of unions, etc., all the time. But, despite this, they struggled to take action at their own worksite. What I learned much later in that organizing drive was that this worker-leader had extremely strict parents, and in their childhood they interpreted their parents’ strictness as meaning that they had to follow the rules in order to be loved. So while they agreed with union organizing as an abstract, that worker-leader had a hard time integrating that abstract into their being enough such that they could take action. And it was only in watching many, many, many of their coworkers take action, and those coworkers talking with that worker-leader, that finally that worker-leader was able to take action themselves.
Maybe, then, it is in conversation with one another, in the act of many many people sharing their experiences, improving our capacity to truly communicate, to be in touch with others, to be in touch with a fully integrated self, based in our true experiences, that we may be able to shed abstractions which are false and harming us, and that we then may be able to both heal ourselves and heal the world.