I spent this past week end at a retreat in the mountains for peace activists from the state of
The group, consisting mainly of white middle to upper class couples and individuals, was very interesting. Almost everyone in the group was very intelligent, well educated, friendly and compassionate. Almost everyone was in their fifties or older, and young people, though present, were so scarce that they could be counted on the fingers of one hand. The absence of people of color was quite noticeable, so much so that I wondered sometimes if I was the only none white person around. Fortunately, there were a couple more, but that was about it.
It did not take me very long to start noticing the group dynamics and how they effected the way the whole group functions. It seemed as if each member of the group had his or her own views on what the issues were (or should be), and the actions necessary to deal with those issues. The differences were not confined to the issues, but they went on to include the processes governing the interaction of the whole group. What made it even more interesting was that the group almost entirely agreed to operate on consensus, rejecting any hierarchies what so ever. There was no president, vice president, treasurer, chief, specialist, expert – each member of the group held the same weight. Any mention of hierarchies was almost like a taboo, with no one daring to publicly speak about it (at least not in the meetings), even those who privately agreed that it may be necessary. So with everyone deeply entrenched in what they believe, each having their own view of issues and actions, and many unwilling to compromise, meetings dragged forever, and decisions were often so elusive that it was sometimes difficult to know what they were (and to make matters worse, no one seemed to take notes). People fought over definitions of very familiar words, and each wanted their own term or definition to be adopted. The thing that came to my mind at the time was President Clinton’s statement during his deposition in the Paula Jones case in early 1998, when he said “it depends on what you mean by is”.
After an afternoon of throwing strings around to make connections, talking about triggers and how to deal with them, and a very badly bodged session on strategy in which the audience had a hard time deciding on what strategy to use for an example (despite the facilitator’s very good understanding of the subject matter), and after sitting through hours of discussion on one simple matter, my open mind suddenly disappeared, and my bag of biases was suddenly cut open. Being a type A, someone who believes in taking care of business and playing hard afterwards, I was in pain. I felt that each time someone spoke, they made the issue at hand even more murky, and sometimes creating outright hostility (though that tended to be short lived, and overshadowed by the plethora of others who wish to speak and who quickly took the discussion in a different direction). I found myself looking at each and everyone as just another Liberal, just another Radical, someone who I absolutely cannot be around, let alone work with.
It didn’t take me long to realize that I have broken my promise to myself of being open-minded, and it was time for me to take a step back and try to contain my biases again. I tried to look at ways in which I could make my presence useful to both myself and the group, so as to take away something from this week end. I made a commitment to speak with as many of the individuals present and try to personally get to know them, as well as think of ways in which I can help them get to know me and build up enough credibility to where I can at least be comfortable sharing my views with them, and I believe I did.
As I got to know different individuals, I couldn’t help but notice the uniqueness of each of them. Although there was reasonable consensus on many of the issues, I was amazed at how different people were when it comes to many other issues. There were many who held what would be classified as conservative views on some issues, some who held extremely radical views, and others who had no views at all. Despite all of that, everyone identified themselves as being Liberal, and seemed to do their best to conform. I also found myself holding very liberal views on some issues even though I always thought of myself as a Conservative.
On Saturday night, I got up in front of a subset of the whole group who got together to watch a movie, and shared with them the fact that I was conservative (well, I put it as Conservative actually). I have, by then, come to personally know many of the people in that group with whom I talked about and mostly agreed on various issues. As you can understand, I didn’t talk to everyone about every issue – we talked about whatever issue came up for discussion. What I am trying to say is that not everyone knew my views about every issue, and in the same token I didn’t know everyone’s view about each issue.
When I uttered the word Conservative however, just as what happened to me the night before, I have no doubt that many people filled in the blanks regarding my views of the issues about which we didn’t talk. This, I’m sure, has caused them to form an opinion of me, just as it caused me to form an opinion of them before. Just as I quickly discovered, through talking to various members of the group, that I was wrong on many assumptions I made regarding those particular persons, I had no doubt that many people made assumptions about me that were simply incorrect.
As I left on Sunday, I couldn’t help but wonder whether labels really are an obstacle in the way of political action. They are a simple way for us to categorize people and judge them, much like race, sex, language or ethnicity. The trouble is that we may share all of the above, including political views, but because of a simple label, we may fail to see that in one another. Another problem with labels is that they sometimes control us rather than us controlling them. A Liberal, for example, feels that he or she has to shop at a health food store, has to be mostly (or wholly) vegetarian, has to hate the establishment, when they may not necessarily do so. A conservative, on the other hand, has to be anti abortion, pro guns, support the troupes and blindly believe in capitalism. The fact of the matter is that this is very far from the truth. People may have different opinions on different issues. Their backgrounds, religious beliefs, personality, interest and many other factors contribute to the shaping of those beliefs. To paint people in one brush simply based on a label is tantamount to doing the same thing based on race, ethnic background, gender, nationality or religious beliefs. We have come to find out how unhealthy this practice is when it comes to the above mentioned, but yet we seem to be blind to its destructive effect on political action.
I believe that the issues that confront us now transcend labels – in fact they transcend everything else. Our way of life, our existence as a civilization are being threatened, and the lives of future generations, our kids and grand kids are going to be in danger. It seems to me that we should take a step back, and try to see beyond the label, seeking practical and reasonable means to achieve our goals, rather than sticking to something that doesn’t work simply because it fits our label. This doesn’t apply only to Liberals, as some may conclude from the above, it goes for everyone, regardless of what their political beliefs are, and regardless of the label they carry. Let us remember that it wasn’t just Republicans or Democrats or Federalists who brought good things to this country, it was the people who did, the people irrespective of their ethnic composition and political views.