When I was in college, a dorm mate came to me one day: “Are you going to this Khalid Muhammad speech?” I thought he meant the Al Qaeda leader, which seemed like a poor choice to invite to campus. Instead he meant Khalid Abdul Muhammad, former Nation of Islam leader and black power activist.
The ‘speech’ was a video tape played in the common room of the African-American Studies dorm. The audience was mostly African-American — except for me, my friend, and two Jewish kids who happened to live in the dorm.
The title of the speech was, “The Bullet or The Bullet“: Muhammad argued that the time had come to give up on political change, and that blacks should begin a shooting war to achieve equality. I think it was a condensed version of the speech — I remember it as being only 45 minutes or so. It was hateful, nonsensical, and deeply anti-Semitic.
When it ended, we discussed it. The Jewish students found it terrifying. But most of the black students found it thought-provoking, and the ease with which they processed Muhammad’s argument made me realize I didn’t understand race politics nearly as well as I thought I did. Which will probably always be true. But still…..
When it was my turn to discuss, I basically said: I’m from the South, and I grew up around plenty of white people who would be thrilled to fight a race war. They already have the guns and the hate and this video confirms many of their worst fantasies about black people.
You start shooting, those people are going to shoot back. And there’s a ton of them. Just strategically, this seems like not a good plan.
I don’t remember if my comments made any difference. We didn’t start a race war, so maybe?
Around the same time, I started teaching public speaking. One of the core concepts we drilled into our students was ‘audience analysis’. If you want people to believe you or buy your idea or change in any way, you have to understand who they are and how to motivate them.
This principle applies to political action as well, and in that arena the key debate is ‘respectability politics’. Do we assimilate the norms of our oppressors in hopes of changing their minds? Or reject those norms and insist on liberation on our own terms?
I am sympathetic to the latter idea, but… I’ve never seen it work. Right now Black Lives Matter is the most visible movement to disavow respectability. In three years their biggest accomplishment might be the extent to which they wigged out closet racists in this country. It’s not at all BLM’s fault, but white racist panic helped Trump win.
That said, I think ‘respectability’ is too narrow a construal of the central problem. Respectability is perhaps just an instance of a more abstract problem, that has more to do with how people relate to one another and how change occurs in social systems.
There’s a decent amount of research on how that sort of change occurs, and most of that research points to some form of interpersonal connection as key. Here’s an Atul Gawande story about changing health practices in which he paraphrases Everett Rogers, a leading scholar of social change:
[…]people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.
You might have heard of the This American Life episode on changing minds, which featured a bogus study on canvassing techniques. The study was redone properly and showed support for the technique – which then was another TAL episode. Anyway, that canvassing technique depends on cultivating the know/trust interaction in face-to-face politics.
The sociological term for that know/trust aspect is ‘entrainment’ — the connection we get to other people at the face-to-face level. Entrainment is something we do instinctively, to varying degrees. Yet one reason identity politics is so powerful is that we find entrainment easiest with people who are more similar to us. The more the gap between two people, the more work has to happen for entrainment to occur.
You can think of the civil rights movement’s use of respectability as a way to cultivate entrainment. They couldn’t erase the skin color issue, but they did push back the class divide and some of the stereotypes that helped oppress black America. This is why it was so effective for demonstrators to wear nice clothes to demonstrations. It was also why making it an explicitly Christian movement helped.
Entrainment is the main reason I am skeptical of demonstrations as a change model. I’ve participated in a bunch, and they are great for the people who are already on your side. But they have to be very strategic to reach the people who aren’t. Demonstrations usually need a single, clear message, and careful management of visuals if they are to be persuasive.
When I taught civics, I showed my class pictures from various demonstrations, and asked them to tell me what was being protested. The civil rights protests were easy: the marchers all had similar signs, with a unified message. And that was basically the model for a long time.
Then you get into the ’90s, and start seeing people in elaborate costumes, like sea turtles — or this guy, with the hands, from the early 2000s. I don’t remember what he’s protesting — I think the Bush Administration — but what I get from this picture is how much he likes doing papier-mâché. Really, really, really likes papier-mâché. I wonder if he still has the hands.
It’s not to say that giant papier-mâché hands are pointless. Just to say, they probably won’t foster entrainment with people watching at home — unless those people are also fans of papier-mâché.
In 2002, when Bush was talking about a possible invasion of Iraq, I joined a march against that plan. I wore a suit, because I wanted to affect sober reason. A busload of hipsters from New York showed up in glitter heels and fur boas, with signs that said ‘Rockstars Against War’. I don’t know what their theory of change was, but it was wrong.
I have a pretty good idea how Rockstars Against War came to be: a bunch of friends sat around talking about the war protest, and decided it would be ‘super fun’ to dress up, and probably they’d get on TV. But they didn’t really consider the people who would be watching TV, and what they’d think or how they would change their minds. The people watching at home weren’t rockstars, and didn’t believe these hipsters were rockstars, either.
To some extent, I think debates about respectability politics are similar: more to do with the internal politics of the movement, than how it speaks to those outside. And I see how that can be important, for sure. Yet too much internal scrutiny ignores the people external to the movement, those minds whom we wish to change. And disregard for those minds — even if they are full of bad and hateful ideas — makes entrainment and change much more difficult. In fact, there is a ton of evidence that people are more likely to harden their views against you in those circumstances.
On the other hand, I think the respectability model is a bit overweening, insofar as it demands respectability in both private and public life. My sense is, you can be who and what you are in your private life and still be an effective advocate for social change — so long as you recognize advocacy as an extraordinarily public role and are careful to position yourself in ways that foster entrainment. That may indeed mean bending somewhat to norms you find oppressive, but it does not mean surrendering to them.
This is not an abstract problem for me. In my community — the sick and disabled — we put tremendous effort into making ourselves appear healthy, so that we can participate in public life. To the extent that illness and disability are socially constructed — it’s way more than you would guess — the norms that govern our lives are oppressive. We bend to those norms all the time, especially when we are trying to change them through our advocacy.
I understand the desire to win on one’s own terms, to win complete legitimacy and equality for your complete self. But is anybody their complete self in public? Do the norms we live under really give anybody that sort of freedom? My sense is that the norms are there to spare us the internecine conflict of our unrestrained selves.
And those norms are only ideas, kept in our minds. But they are kept in all our minds, as a society. We keep them together, so we have to change them together. And that means acknowledging and even cultivating the connections that allow us to change. Respectability is just one way to do that. Race war is not.
That’s my view of the question, in any case. If any of it sounds reasonable or useful, you might be interested in my book, Political (how people rule), which explains in more detail the ideas and concepts I’ve used in this post. I’m happy to let you read it free of charge.