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Criticism Part II: How to respond March 8, 2009

Posted by obnoxioususername in Uncategorized.
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In my last post, I talked about criticism of social movements-in this post, I’ll go more into answering criticism towards your movement and dealing with counter-movements since I didn’t really go into that enough in my previous post.

No-one would probably believe me if I told them that our little movement had an actual counter-movement. As one person who signed a postcard as part of our letter-writing campaign put it, “do you hate homeless kids?”
No-one hates homeless kids (or at least, nobody will admit to it in public). Even the critic at our movie event who said she wasn’t convinced that she should vote for the Minnesota Runaway and Homeless Youth act because she thought that Runaway youth were responsible for their own situation made sure to say that she agreed that homeless youth needed help and that she hoped to become a foster parent someday. But I think that, in her statement, we see how counter movements to movements with even the most benevolent intentions justify themselves.
“Responsibility”-sure, just as nobody wants to say that they don’t like homeless youth, nobody wants to say that they oppose building a responsible society. And so, opposing the Minnesota Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (and, perhaps not coincidentally, the minor tax hike necessary to fund it) becomes a matter of “responsibility”. It’s a classic example of using framing to your advantage: one cannot oppose the act on the grounds that it helps homeless youth, so you change the argument so that it’s about “responsibility”-and opposing the act becomes the duty of all those who want a responsible society.
This can be seen at its most ridiculous form in the anti abortion and pro abortion movements, or, as they love to call themselves, the “pro-life” and “pro-choice” movements. No-one can really claim to be anti-life or anti-choice-and that’s not what the argument is really about. People who aren’t pro-life do not go around spreading death as far as possible (in fact, people who ARE pro-life are more likely to kill people over abortion than those who aren’t). People who aren’t pro-choice don’t follow others around when they’re doing their shopping and try to prevent them from choosing between blue and red shirts. It’s a ridiculous use of language, for people to label themselves “pro-choice” or “pro-life”. And yet, they do it, hoping that a few twists on language will make their position seem more palatable to the predictably simple and gullible public.
In order to work against counter movements, and to defend yourself against criticism of your movement, you will have to make sure to debate on your own terms: you need to call out the critics (I still stand by what I said about them being necessary, btw) when they try to warp the issue so that their side of the debate looks better. In the case of the woman who wasn’t convinced to support the Minnesota Runaway and Homeless Youth act, we needed to point out that this wasn’t about responsibility-this was about helping homeless youth, who, as they are under 18, cannot be held responsible for their homelessness.



A Conundrum of Mobilization March 6, 2009

Posted by aufderhr in Uncategorized.
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Today, each movement presented their experiences over the term.  Our class of eighteen held a total of six “social movements.”  For me this was a bit overwhelming and I left class experiencing a bit of unease.  This unease, I believe, came from two issues—the realization at how many possible movements there are and the question of how effective is the way we approach movements.

Each group described how it went through the process of selecting a topic.  Though each group started with a specific topic—Darfur, women’s rights, LGBT rights, immigration issues, environmental issues, and peacekeeping and conflict resolution—each group went through the process of further specifying their topic.  My unease was caused in this: if there are such a variety of issues, and in order to deal with any one of these issues we have to specify, how do we manage to deal with all the issues? Of course to some extent we cannot deal with all the issues but nevertheless, this unsettled me.  I think this is primarily because of an issue I brought up in an earlier post about the specification of movement issues.  I discussed how there were no organizations above the local level that were really dealing with both homelessness and LGBT issues.  In most cases these bridging issues fall between the cracks and never directly dealt with except by those interacting with the actual people in need of help.

This same issue of movement specification came up in a discussion I had about the intersections between the feminist movement and the civil rights movement.  In discussion someone brought up the example of the movie Iron Jawed Angels.  This movie focused on the women suffrage movement in the early 20th century.  While organizing a march is support of women suffrage the black women suffragists were required to march in the back.  This was primarily because the white suffragists did not want to have to deal with issues of race as well, lest it hinder their primary goals.  The LGBT movement undergoes the same issues in incorporating transgender issues into legislation and programs.

To me this seems short sighted.  Yes, incorporating movements may mean slower short- term results, but it would mean less work in the future in mending the gaps between movements.  It also has a less risk of leaving groups behind which will later need to be remobilized.

At the same time, usually a movement needs specific goals to mobilize people around.  Are the two compatible?  Is there a way to specify the goals without specifying the issue and the movement itself?  I do not know the answer.  I am not sure there are many examples to refer to, but I pose the question as something I have been considering.


Results and Retrospective March 6, 2009

Posted by aufderhr in Uncategorized.
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Monday we had our last event which marked the end of our official “social movement.”  This movie showing was the culmination of a series of events including a weeklong letter-writing campaign and a volunteer day.  The success of our events varied.  In my opinion the volunteer day was the most successful.  For this event we were only looking to recruit between six and eight people.  However, though it was the event that involved the least number of people—between finding a location to volunteer at, coordinating dates, organizing transportation, organizing lunch, and all the other little details that go along with this—it took the most time to organize.  Even with all the stress of organization, the satisfaction of spending a few hours to help out a shelter made this event by far the most rewarding.

Our letter-writing campaign was also pretty successful.  We got over a hundred letters signed and send to different Minnesota representatives and senators—this made for a sizable stack of papers. However, the problem with a letter writing campaign is that we cannot be sure what the impact will be.

Our movie showing was less successful.  In a large part this was because it was out last event and was on a busy Monday night.  We had started advertising earlier the week before for the volunteering event and by the time this event came around our movement had lost steam.  It is hard to sustain advertising and momentum at Carleton.  There is so much going on that events can be easily overshadowed if there is not a final push.

Primarily because of our volunteer event I would call our movement a success.  It was not a broad event—only three other people aside from us came—but these people formed a much stronger attachment to the movement and received a greater personal benefit than if they had only come to see a movie.  For example, one of the volunteers asked if the shelter would be interested in hosting a performance by his improv group sometime next term.  As Jeff Blodgett informed us, there are three options—fast, broad, and deep—and you can only pick two.  By design we had to organize the volunteer project quickly, but it seems that we were able to mobilize a few volunteers who are excited to participate in the future.

In regards to the future of the movement, I hope we will be able to continue to some extent in future terms.  We have already done the work of establishing a contact with one of the shelters and they said they would happy to have us back.  Hopefully this will make organizing a volunteer event easier in the future.  I have also been talking to people in Carleton’s GSC to suggest expanding the GSC volunteer work and community involvement.  If we can create a group of volunteers who is really interested in doing this in the future, and gain some institutional support for the GSC or ACT then maybe we can make something more sustainable.

If I were redoing this movement one thing I would change was how we organized the movie.  I think it would have been best if we had the movie during the week we were tabling and before the volunteer day while the advertising momentum was stronger.  I think this ordering would have better served the flow of the momentum.  This was our original plan but due to scheduling issues we had to shift the order.  The other thing I plan differently would be to establish a better division of labor.  Part of the inequality in the division of labor was due to an underestimation about the amount of work some tasks would take, but we also did not establish clear responsibilities.

On a separate note, today were the class presentations of our movement experiences.  As one group discussed how they had dealt with the possibility of counter movements, I realized that this was a discussion our group had never had.  In some ways that is surprising because movements around LGBT issues can be so contentious.  However, in other ways it makes sense.  For starters, we were organizing primarily at Carleton College.  While there is by no means 100% support for LGBT issues, the overall campus climate supports these issues.  A countermovement would have been more surprising then the lack of one.  Secondly, though our original issue was LGBT issues, because of our work with shelters and the MN Runaway and Homeless Youth act, our topic gradually because more centered on homelessness.  “Homelessness” as an issue is unlikely to spawn a direct countermovement.  While people might not support funding homeless support programs, rarely are people pro-homelessness.  I just mention this because I find it extremely interesting to note that we were organizing in an environment where I never even considered the possibility of countermovement until another group suggested it.  This is a dramatic reflection on the type of climate we were mobilizing in.


Criticism and Critics March 4, 2009

Posted by obnoxioususername in Uncategorized.
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This Monday, we did a presentation in the college library on youth homelessness, showing a ½ hour long documentary on homeless youth in Minnesota. Afterwards, we had a discussion…and honestly got a little surprise.
One of the (very few) people who attended the presentation stated that she wasn’t convinced by our presentation that she should support the runaway and homeless youth act. This was, quite honestly, a pretty major surprise for the 3 of us-of all the reactions we were expecting to get, “this isn’t worth my time” honestly wasn’t one of those.
What are we to think of naysayers and critics? Well, honestly, I think movements need them very badly. Movements without internal criticism, or who do not listen to external criticism, will fail. Because they will not be able to refine their counterarguments, the movement will end up looking foolish in any public debate. Possibly, they will lose touch with their audience and sympathizers, as they will not be able to change their message, goals, or methods when it becomes necessary because they lack the ability to respond to constructive criticism. Without critics and naysayers, movements would be in a very sorry state-and impartial observers who see the movement ignoring the concerns of those who question its agenda will probably conclude that the movement is totalitarian. Movements need their criticism.
Of course, this does lead to the question of which arguments to take seriously, and which to not take seriously. Many criticisms of the environmental movement come from think-tanks that are obviously working on behalf of corporations who stand to lose a lot of profit if the environmental movements have their way. It’s obvious that the think-tanks are following an agenda that could be quite rightly described as nefarious. But what if they make some valid criticism? Simply dismissing them out of hand for having a “corporate agenda” may make the movement miss some vital and necessary change their argument will have to undergo for them to succeed.
The only answer that I can really give is that there is no one easy answer-no movement can waste energy answering every question or criticism leveled against them, particularly criticism from quarters that will never side with the movement, but ignoring all criticism can be just as problematic for the movement in the long run. Many left-wing movements need to shed the illusion that every critic they have is nothing but the tool of a vast right-wing conspiracy, and must learn to defend their agenda. Martin Luther King Jr., in response to public letters from Southern clergy criticizing his movement, took their criticism seriously and responded quickly and clearly to their points in his famous letter from the Birmingham jail. He emerged from jail and criticism with his movement strengthened, his actions against the status quo justified, and his opponents humiliated by his icily polite but extremely powerful reply.