In the past few weeks I’ve had a remarkable number of experiences that lead me to reconsider some principles that once seemed rock solid. The through-line I want to write about today has to do with a particular dialectic: for now, let’s call it “inside/outside” or “exclusion/entitlement,” but it will take more than two words to do it justice.
If you’re on mailing lists that relate to environmental concerns, you’ve probably heard about “The Death of Environmentalism,” an essay by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus written to chastise the environmental movement and unveiled at a meeting last fall of the Environmental Grantmakers Association.
The essay has provoked a tremendous controversy, in part because it entails certain unacknowledged impacts. Delivering the paper at a funders’ meeting amplified its potential effect on the environmental movement, because if it strikes funders as worthy, it could influence their decisions. The essay is based on interviews with 25 activist leaders, almost all of whom are white males like its authors; putting forward a critique based on those particular individuals’ observations asserted their collective authority to speak for a whole movement. The essay made no mention of race, gender or class as important factors in assessing the environmental movement’s impacts and failures.
Indeed, it made no mention at all of the environmental justice movement, organized by people of color and working class people to make essential links between environmental despoliation and racial and economic discrimination, including such common sense questions as why toxic dumping tends to happen where people without a lot of money or access to political power live. You can read my friend Ludovic Blain’s pointed response — “Ain’t I an Enviromentalist?” — at his blog site The Real Deal.
The whole controversy is interesting and worthy of attention; you can learn the details by following the above links. But I want to focus now on one aspect of it: what happened to our ideas about inclusion, equity and participation?
Things used to be much simpler. In past decades, when vigilant activism produced massive feelings of guilt, progressives who were planning a meeting would use a paint-chip approach to composing a roster of speakers: one of this shade, one of this gender and one of this surname equals diversity. But in an age when the triumvirate disassembling our civil liberties comprises George Bush, Alberto Gonzales and Condoleezza Rice, neither gender nor complexion provides a guarantee of diversity of opinion. The rhetoric of representation has always been flimsy anyway, leading to situations in which women and cultural minorities are expected to represent a whole class or community by their mere presence, while those considered “mainstream” are free to represent no one other than themselves. But more recently, since the whole representation argument has been co-opted by elites and majorities (\i.e.\, Christian rightists and other conservatives are currently the loudest voices arguing that they are underrepresented in the media and textbooks), things are truly murky.
It would be hard to name a group that has paid more lip service to inclusion, equity and participation than progressive grantmakers, yet evidently no one on the environmental grantmakers conference planning committee thought to question whether they should give center stage at their own convocation to a perspective that incorporates none of them. From what I can see, things have become so muddled, people have lost their way. Is the way to be found?
Case in point from a whole ‘nother world: I’ve written before about my participation in a progressive Jewish discussion list. While the “death of environmentalism” controversy has been bubbling, the Jewish discussion list had a little tempest of its own. One member posted a link to the Web site of a singer of mystical chants. When you attempt to download a sample from the site, you find this notice: “music samples are only for women to listen to.” This prohibition stems from a religious precept many Orthodox Jews accept: that for the voices of women to be lifted in prayer or song among men is immodest, distracting, unacceptable. Most of the people who are on the progressive list reject this teaching for themselves, along with other prohibitions, such as forbidding women to become rabbis or serve as teachers to male students. To me these seem straightforward expressions of oppression of women; but I am also aware that, as in Muslim and Christian realms, there are women who voluntarily accept and defend such prohibitions.
We members of the progressive Jewish list respect religious liberty, each individual’s right to adopt chosen values and practices. Even though it may threaten to burst at the seams, the argument for this right can be stretched to accommodate an individual who, without coercion, adopts a position that restricts her own liberty. But take one more step and you’ll see where it really gets tricky: most of us also have accepted and taken part in situations where participation was limited to one gender or ethnicity, such as women’s groups or caucuses of women, gays, Jews or people of color within larger multicultural organizations or gatherings. In the formation of women’s liberation groups, for instance, women’s right to gather without men was asserted as a necessary condition for speaking freely, and thus to understanding and throwing off oppressive social restrictions or expectations that consolidated men’s position of privilege in society and in the family.
Nowadays some women, motivated by spiritual seeking, have rejected the free mixing of the sexes typical of mainstream society, adopting instead the types of restriction described above. Some are veterans of the women’s movement, extensively educated in the discourse of rights and freedoms characteristic of progressive politics. Thus they are adept at explaining their decision to eschew certain freedoms as a higher form of liberation, grounded in the same understandings about the value of women’s solidarity that animated the women’s liberation movement.
As you can imagine, this precipitated a bit of a mind-warp in our discussion group. Some people responded by saying the key issue was motive: let’s find out why the singer asked men not to download her music, and if she has a good reason, that’s that. But trying to use motive as the yardstick leads to a mental morass, as one thoughtful member of the group experienced: “Is it ok for men-only groups to exist,” he wrote, “even if they are not specifically engaged in examining the nature of their masculinity and its relationship to power? Is power the litmus test? What if my male experience in a pro-feminist larger group is that of outsider, may I set up a men-only smaller group as a route to empowerment? Even if it will bring me to a place where I am empowered, e.g., a member of the male-power-elite of the even-larger society? eek! If I am a man, hadn’t I better be a mouse?”
In trying to extract general principles from this tangle of relationships, I’m reminded of an image from the cartoons of my childhood: presented with a steaming bowl of cartoon spaghetti, a character inserts the end of one strand in his mouth and begins to suck…and suck and suck, because it turns out the entire bowl is filled by the coils of a single strand.
If I pull on the argument from representation, Condoleezza Rice pops up to remind me that gender, skin color or ethnic heritage are no more reliable as a guide to values than is any other accident of birth. If I pull on the argument from motive, the face of a soldier pops up, one holding a prisoner on a leash: the soldier went to Iraq to liberate the people and spread democracy, he (or she) tells me, and motives being separate from results, how am I to say this is a lie? If I pull on the argument from power — that it’s okay to exclude others if you lack social or political power, but not if you possess it — then a chorus of faces pop up, members of my own generation arguing ourselves out of any positive relationship to power, thus leaving the field to those who have no objections to exercising power to destroy.
Only two arguments survive the spaghetti test. First, the argument from complexity: every situation, every policy is connected — like that strand of spaghetti — to every dimension of human meaning. It’s a good thing, I think, that we can’t retreat to easy solutions like saying that something is representative (and therefore valid) if token individuals of diverse gender, orientation or complexion are included. But neither can we have any hope of reflecting the true nature of our society if they are not. We have to go beyond crude categories to actually consider such decisions in terms of the full range of forces shaping our lives — such as class, ethnicity, sex, spirituality and other cultural and social categories of experience — and then make decisions that honor that complexity.
Second, the argument from privilege, in my view the truest yardstick. Last week, establishing a new low-water mark for the public’s right to know, a federal appeals court dismissed a suit several organizations brought against Vice President Dick Cheney, seeking disclosure of the guest list and working documents of his infamous “energy summit” early in the Bush administration, where advisors such as Enron’s Kenneth Lay helped to craft a policy of tax breaks for energy corporations, expanded oil drilling on public lands and other special favors for energy industries. The core issue is not whether Cheney and his friends in the energy industry had the country’s best interests at heart (the argument from motive), whether they flexed their political muscle or not (the argument from power), or whether some of the guests were women, sexual minorities or people of color (the argument from representation).
For me, the bottom-line issue is whether in excluding the taxpaying public from their meetings, even to the extent of refusing to disclose the names of participants, they aggrandized and consolidated their privilege — their collective unearned advantage over other groups and individuals within society — at the expense of the rest of us. And the answer is…yes!
Whether we’re talking about energy corporations, the Christian right or the conservative establishment, their ability to set the agenda for all of us shows how privilege is at work. Currently, these last two groups are denouncing NPR and PBS for bias, calling for more airtime for right-wing views. The stark truth is that at this moment of empire and its privileges, they can get more attention and power by issuing a press release or making a call to their friends in high places than we can by bringing countless thousands into the streets to protest or demand change.
Keep that yardstick in your pocket and the muddle will begin to come clear. It shows that the environmental grantmakers, however principled and well-intentioned, have a default dose of privilege that comes bundled with the job of granting largesse to worthy recipients. It may not be their own money they are dispensing, but their control of it confers privilege, the proof of which is the extent to which people defer to them, hang on their every word, and do all they can to please them. Knowing this, and knowing their responsibility to take in and reflect the true complexity of the field they support, they should not have consolidated their privilege by anointing a body of wise (white) men to declare the movement’s fate. As Ludovic Blain says in the essay I linked earlier, the very process whereby the death of environmentalism verdict was formulated and delivered tells us what’s wrong with the environmental establishment.
We are in the midst of a powerfully resurgent tendency to behave as if elite white men speak for the entire world, but the truth is that healing the world demands that each person have the capacity and support to say one’s own words in one’s true voice. Bringing that about calls for an even more powerful commitment to actually practicing inclusion, equity and participation, and to opposing entrenched privilege wherever it exists.