White Saviour Complex, COP26 and #climate activism – my two cents

I was sat recently in a room as white as Cumbria. It was full (80ish)  of white people who sincerely believe that the revolution will only come when the last capitalist is strangled with the intestines of the last racist.  There were three women of colour present. I was sat next to one, a friend, (who prefers the term black).  She is, as I said to her, one of my very few Black/poc friends (as in, I’m no better than any other white person on this matter).

And the meeting was about climate change. And the meeting was all culminating with… Fucking Glasgow.

But wait. This.  I’m a white guy.  And if I am gonna write about whiteness and climate change, I gotta flag some debts.  Beyond the debts to folks like June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Bob Moses and others who’ve shaped my thinking long term, more recently, Mary Heglar has been just nailing it. To not read her is to court serious ignorance.  Follow this link, read this piece then come back.

“I find it nearly impossible to look at the climate crisis without seeing the consequences of all the times white folks told people of color: “Wait, we’ll get back to it later.” To be satisfied with “incremental change” and not “push too far.” To settle for band-aids atop gaping, festering wounds.”

Back? Right, well, go away again and read this piece too.  Then come back.

Where was I? Oh yeah, fucking fucking Glasgow.  There was even someone there, from Glasgow, telling us we should all be there in November for this fucking COP26, big fat emotacycle that it will be.

Imma call it now.  The obsession with “summit hopping” is just another manifestation of white privilege.  Not as blatant as chanting “we love the police” or sending flowers to Brixton Police Station, but another manifestation nonetheless. Harder to see because it would be horribly conflicting to see it.  Summit hopping is just another way for us white folks, with our unexamined privilege, to avoid the tricky work of local activism around local issues, of building coalitions with people who don’t talk like us, dress like us, speak like us and have the same/similar experience of the state (1).

Instead we can get to prepare for months for some big international jamboree, displaying our virtue, our knowledge, our concern.   Those who go will be the students, the retired and those who can take annual leave. Those with caring responsibilities, those on zero hour contracts, those who can’t afford to get nicked, will not go. And will feel second class for it, no matter what assurances are given that “we are all crew.” And for what? To achieve  what exactly?

And there is a zero-sum game here. Time we spend on that is time we don’t spend  on local issues.

And yes, as individuals these people will admit that they don’t expect Glasgow to be a magical solution. But the emotional and organisational imperatives are overwhelming. And the herd mentality is overwhelming. It’s not the Abilene Paradox, it’s the goddam Glasgow Paradox (except the reasons for it are not difficult to understand).

Where does the white saviour thing come in? Allow me to use my reconditioned IPhone6 (2) to share the scribblings I made and shared with my black friend.

First, the Glasgow shitshow and its demobilising potential…  (see also here)

IMG_0061

 

Now, White Saviour Complex.  Teju Cole kinda nailed that.

white saviour variation

and then, because I wanted to make my friend laugh (with/at me), and because it’s true-

virtue signalling

 

 

I suspect many people enraged by this post will have stopped reading by now. But for the record

  • I am not saying everyone who is “organising” for Glasgow is a racist.
  • I am not saying everyone who wants to go to Glasgow is a racist.

That would be absurd, and I am leaving the absurdity to those among us (and there are many) who think that the current system is in ANY way sustainable. It has been a horrorshow for most people of colour for a very long time. And a lot of white folks.  The horrorshowness of it all is expanding, is all  (oh, and don’t even start me on the other species we allegedly “share” this planet with).

For clarity, what I am saying is that there is more to unexamined privilege that we folks with most of the privilege can understand without a serious and painful effort.

What I am saying is we need to listen carefully to those among us  – black, white, indigo, green with polka dots – who are making an argument about white privilege that get our hackles up, that get us defensive. Because if the claims makesus angry, well, there’s quite possibly something to them, eh? And it then becomes a question of whether we retreat into the comfort of white tears, of being allowed to be angry (and who gets to be legitimate and non-hysterical in their anger is a whole other blog post).  Or if we try to manage our emotions and think with clarity about who we are, why we do what we do and what is not getting done that really really needs to get done because we’re too busy organising the next emotacycle.

FINALLY, those of you who know me, online or in meat space, know that I am hardly any bloody paragon of virtue. I am full of unexamined privilege (some would say full of other things). I have pissed off people I massively respect, and had my ass (quite rightly) kicked to the kerb, more than once, which is a source of ongoing regret (the pain caused to others, more than the exile).  But pointing out that I am a hypocrite (for the record – I AM A HYPOCRITE) does not invalidate the argument I’ve made.  Counter-arguments could well do that, but ad hominems are not counter-arguments..

Okay, FINALLY FINALLY. We have work to do.  Summit-hopping is going to at the very best be a massive distraction from that work. At worst it will kill the possibility of building that mass movement (less white than Cumbria please) that we all agree we need.  We white folks have the privilege of a choice. I hope we have the wisdom and the courage to choose right.

 

Footnotes

(1) This is NOT to say that all white people have the same privilege in relation to the state. If you’re working class, well, the truncheon will come down on you too. You The middle-classness of various environmental activists didn’t protect them from being abused by the SpyCops..

(2) Nonetheless originally mined by children, gorillas killed, put together by slaves prevented from killing themselves with those safety nets.

30 mins at a meeting’s outset tell you EVERYTHING. Also, crap plenaries…

There are other blog posts I need to write.

A review of an extraordinary book about Norfolk, the Stone Age, incumbency, patriarchy and sociotechnical transitions (no, seriously it’s all that and more. Staggeringly good))

Something about the intellectual work behind the job I just was interviewed for (accelerating sociotechnical transitions. Or sociomaterial transitions – or something in between)

Something about ‘you can’t blow up a social relationship’ – a bunch of novels I’ve read recently or a long time ago about ill-fated adventures in violent resistance (a 1970s genre of fiction, not all of it pulp)

But for now, I have Something To Get Off My Chest (as usual)

FOR FUCKS SAKE CAN WE PLEASE BE LESS FUCKING SHIT?? (okay, okay, I will tone this down now, given potential future and future potential bosses have checked out this site),.

So, sweet- natured version.

“Progressive social movement organisations may possibly benefit from some reflection on long-standing methods of organising and holding meetings”

So, here’s the ranty bit about the first 30 minutes of meetings

You can tell how a meeting, (and quite probably the campaign it is ‘part’ of will go) from the 15 minutes either side of the start.

If the answer to many of the following questions is “no”,  then time and energy are being spaffed against the wall.

Have people been given the option of wearing name badges and badges that say broadly where they are from, to help make it easier for other people to cross the first hurdle and speak to them?

Is there a notice up on the powerpoint saying “a big part of today is you getting to meet other people you don’t already know, to thicken the networks on which a movement sits.  Please do talk to strangers!”

Is it clear where the toilets are, the coffee/tea etc?

Opening speeches/announcements

  • Is there a clear “thank you for coming” and a repeated encouragement (perhaps even two minutes of doing it) to talk with someone you don’t know?
  • Has provision been made for people who would like to come but couldn’t (e.g. livestreaming of opening speeches, some sort of online interaction (a hashtag at least)
  • Is the opening introduction clear and concise and high energy?
  • Is the opening speech – if there is one – full of things that those attending DON’T already know/agree with?
  • Is there an opportunity for at least a couple of questions to the opening speaker, so the tone is set for, you know, discussion?  Is that opportunity after people have had a chance to talk with someone else to hone their question (if not, the usual suspects’ hands will go straight up)
  • Is it clear – crystal clear – what the purposes of the day are, from the opening introductions and the first speech?

So, here’s the ranty bit about plenary sessions. Also if the answer is no…

  • Has the reporting back from break out sessions been carefully designed (or, if you must “curated”), with clear time limits?   (Reporting back meaningfully from breakouts sessions is a skill. Most people do not possess that skill at all, or at the level required for it to be meaningful. In the absence of that skill, and of a time constraint, the report-backers will blather and foreground their own (organisational/emotional) needs. This will drain energy  from the room and credibility from the process, simultaneously.)
  • Have the announcements of upcoming events been carefully thought through, and a way of avoiding rants devised and implemented?  (If you really want concise comments, especially about upcoming events, have a ‘hand in details’ form, which can be entered on a powerpoint and flashed up for all to see.  Again, no time limit is going to mean some very long, rambling and energy-sapping and credibility destroying speechifying).

Oh, and sidebar – the emotacycle will get us all killed.

The answers to most of these questions, at most of the events I go to is “no”. Which is why I don’t stick around.  The number of months we have before the shit properly hits the fan is more finite than we want to admit – it’s later than you think.  So, why waste time at time-wasting and morale-destroying meetings.

What’s that you say?  I sound down on the “Left”?  Why, yes, yes I do, don’t I.

What’s that?  Am I a Daily Mail reader?  No, but I can see why you would need to believe that, since I am traipsing all over your tribe’s culture, and there is an implicit rebuke in this to you for tolerating crap culture in your subculture for so long.

Fwiw, I have raised these issues REPEATEDLY.  Both unhelpfully, but also as helpfully as I know how. You can, on a good day, get individual “organisers” to agree with bits and pieces.  But when time comes for them to innovate, to push past the resistance of their colleagues to any deviation from The Way Things Have Always Been Done, they bottle it. They lack either the skills or the spine – or both – to make things any different.  So it goes.

 

Why does nothing change, will nothing change?
Because the success or failure of one meeting doesn’t register for those who are making the decisions about it and future meetings, because those people are a tight-ish band of long-term/baked on activists, who will keep doing what they do. They lack the insight into what behaviours really put off newcomers, or have the insight but are unwilling to innovate the format of meetings because. well, lots of reasons.  Nobody else is going to be able to do a sustained change of format – the incumbents will have to do the disrupting, and everything we know about incumbents is that them doing disrupting is pretty damn rare.

So, we’re doomed. So it goes. It didn’t have to be this way, but it is, so suck it up.

 

 

Asking the wrong people the wrong questions in the wrong way: WW2 bombers and social movements

Those who know me will put two and two together, but the rest of you can wonder why and what.

This.

There’s a story about the beginnings of Operations Research, I think from De Landa’s War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, which goes like this:

trying to figure out what bits of bombers required (heavy and therefore necessarily scarce) reinforcement, the people assessing would look at planes which came back from hitting German targets, see where all the holes in the fuselage/wings were and say “reinforce the bits with the most holes.

No.  No, that’s wrong.  Because the planes that made it back, with that damage, were the ones that were still flying, by definition.  Those bits full of holes were precisely the bits that did NOT need reinforcing.  But it’s hard to look at planes that got hit in their weak spots and went down in flames, them being in thousands of pieces in Nazi Germany and all.

Fortunately, the mistake was seen, the right bits reinforced and We Won the War.

 

So, when I see an excruciating survey, full of the wrong questions, being aimed at people who are STILL INVOLVED, I weep.  Because nowhere does it ask “do you know anyone who is no longer coming? Did they tell you why they stopped coming?  If not, could you ask them to tell you, anonymously?”

THEN we might be looking at the right bits of the shot-down planes.

But that would open up a different can of worms, and quite a squidgy one. And require a level of emotional intelligence that is lacking. Has always been lacking, not just from this particular iteration.
We are just not smart enough. Or we are smart enough – on our good days – but simply not BRAVE enough.

Whatever it is, we are toast.