I want to draw out an implication in this quick rant by Sarah Jaffe, the class implications of “know your history.” Jaffe:
It’s been bothering me lately, in regards to Occupy Wall Street. The critiques—so many of them are well-meaning, and so many of them are calling for the protesters to have read this or that pet theorist, to have studied the history of protest movements, to have been connected to organizers on the ground.
And the thing is: we live in a society that is structured specifically so that “the 99%,” most of us, DON’T do that….but most people…haven’t spent the last six years reading feminist blogs and all the theory and history they could get their hands on. They are struggling to get by. Most people are not connected to community organizers on the ground because there are no community organizers on the ground in most neighborhoods…
Which plays into the question of why the protesters call for mainstream media coverage…I had a conversation with the cab driver who picked me up yesterday—yes, I’m going into Thomas Friedman territory I KNOW LEAVE ME ALONE—about Occupy Wall Street. Why? Because it was on the AM news radio station he listens to…So many times the left would rather be pure than win battles…But right now, Occupy Wall Street is getting in people’s heads….it’s attracting people beyond the usual suspects, and it’s creating a space where you can learn. Because most people? They get radicalized when something happens to them.
What comes first, belief or action? Do people join causes because they believe in the cause, or do they believe in the cause because they joined the action?
Your mind will instinctively believe the first – why else would you act unless you were acting on a want, a desire or a preference? And indeed a lot of meta-commentary about activism and OWS follows this instrumental arrow – how do we get all the people with the right beliefs together? Now that we have people who roughly have the same beliefs all together, how do we turn those beliefs into actionable demands?
But what if that is backwards? What if participation structures beliefs? What if people start to get a version of what Occupy Wall Street is about – in all its forms, ranging from progressive economics to direct democracy to deep concerns about financialization and political corruption – because they stop by and check it out, or participate for a little bit? What if the things Jaffe describes – from the cab driver listening to it on the radio, to someone who could use some free food stopping by, to a formerly disinterested person staying to listen to a teach-in in a park – in turn structure the beliefs that then in turn call for more engaged action?
This dynamic Jaffe describes was found in the sociologist’s Ziad Munson’s excellent ethnography The Making of Pro-Life Activists: How Social Movement Mobilization Works. From the book (my bold):
The link between beliefs and action must be turned on its head: real action often precedes meaningful beliefs about an issue. Demographic and attitudinal differences between activists and nonactivists cannot explain why some people join the pro-life movement and others do not. Instead, mobilization occurs when people are drawn into activism through organizational and relational ties, not when they form strong beliefs about abortion. Beliefs about abortion are often underdeveloped, incoherent, and inconsistent until individuals become actively engaged with the movement. The “process of conviction” (Maxwell 2002) is the result of mobilization, not a necessary prerequisite for it (pg. 20).
Here’s a summary. From the copy: “Munson makes the startling discovery that many activists join up before they develop strong beliefs about abortion—in fact, some are even pro-choice prior to their mobilization. Therefore, Munson concludes, commitment to an issue is often a consequence rather than a cause of activism.”
I liked that book but am not engaged in the literature. How many sociologists and others who would critically engage this literature are in the audience? What’s your take on this book and this argument? I like it because it makes sense, especially to a now-atrophied part of my brain that used to be pretty good at using phrases like “dialectical” and “habitus” correctly.
And I’d say that the OWS movement should consider this a major goal and major wins – education and bringing people in, or turning the “Belief->Action” arrow backwards.