EdgeWise 6.3.2004

2004-03-06

Urgency of Progressive Action

Priority is determined by both importance and urgency. The importance of social justice I'll discuss some other time, and just assume it is "important" here. But what about the urgency?

Using the rhetoric of a war as in the "Culture War" skips the hard work of making a really robust and universally persuasive case for why this or that specific progressive reform or action is urgently needed. Those who are opposed to same sex marriage will not be persuaded by proponent's use of the phrase "Culture War", nor will opponent's use of it persuade proponents. It is polemic. Moderates and undecideds are turned off by extreme rhetoric.

People are dying and suffering due to a lack of progressive reforms, and it can be argued that this is more urgent than the imminent threat in war, since it is an ongoing certainty. Abolishing slavery in the past, and universal healthcare in the present are good examples. My problem is that once we equate the urgency of progressive action with that of action in war, we have cranked it to maximum and can't make useful decisions.

Which progressive reform is most urgent? Is women's suffrage more urgent than ending segregation? How does the urgency of ending something as directly harmful as slavery compare to more indirectly beneficial reforms like truly representative democracy that have the potential to facilitate ending many such directly harmful practices? How urgent is a given progressive reform to a rich, white, protestant, American male as compared to a poor, black, lesbian, atheist?
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Is Civil Disobedience Coercive?

Jeff interestingly implies that civl disobedience is coercive, and that coercion can lead to broad agreement (forget consensus) such as we enjoy on progressive reforms such as universal suffrage, civil rights, and women's liberation.

Were nonviolent Civil Rights era direct actions compelling? Were sit-ins or marches compelling? Did the nonviolent Civil Rights era protests and sit-ins carry an implicit threat of violence if concerns were not met?

The government certainly responded with compelling force (firehoses, attack dogs, etc.). I personally think the unjustifiable response by the government and vigilantes (church bombings, lynchings, etc.) helped persuade people that opposing Civil Rights was not legitimate. This persuasion was not compelled.

When people talk about a "compelling argument", they're using hyperbole. No one can be compelled to believe something even by all the eloquent presentation of irrefutable empirical fact and ironclad logic. People quite often irrationally choose to believe nonsense. That's why we still have racists, mysogynists, etc. who deny our broad agreement on progressive reforms a complete consensus.

Those progressive reforms, once enacted as law, are coercively enforced now by the government, and while I accept that as necessary, I think that's a digression from the question of whether the civil disobedience and direct action leading to those laws was coercive.

Direct action is arguably a "force" for changing people's minds, but it is not due to physical force, violence, or the threat of violence. It can garner attention. If it gives positive attention to a persuasive case, it is effective. It does not compel people to change their minds, because people cannot be so compelled.

I am an activist, and spend a lot of time trying to make the world better. More than that, I'm very proactive in seeking out and working on things that aren't yet seen as problems (like adopting Instant Runoff Voting and promoting Worker Coops). I do believe that direct action can be effective, and many progressive changes such as Women's suffrage, Civil Rights, Women's liberation, etc. are at least partly the result of direct action. I attend at least one protest a year (SOA watch). The presence of so many like-minded people at a protest is really energizing. However, in the absence of media attention, I doubt that a protest really does much for anyone but the protesters. That's why I spend a lot more time organizing educational talks and other more low-key affairs to reach and persuade the undecided.

As far as Same Sex Marriage, I support the civil disobedience of San Francisco's Mayor and others who have been marrying same sex couples. I think the unjustifiable response of trying to get a constitutional amendment banning both Civil Unions and Same Sex Marriage (that will never pass) has similarly helped to undermine the legitimacy of opposing both Civil Unions and Same Sex Marriage. Whether it helps in the short run to wind up Bush's base and get him re-elected is anyone's guess.
posted at 13:57:04    #    comment []    trackback []
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