When I wrote my first column for The Seattle Times three years ago, I said we must be “brave enough to talk to one another, with respect, humility and honesty.”
I still believe that. But in the years since, it seems we have become even more reluctant to do so, our divisions even more stark, our hatred for one another even more visceral, aided by a social media ecosystem that profits from our enmity.
In the past few years, we have had a pandemic, a racial justice uprising and a riot at the Capitol, each exposing an increasingly polarized society that can’t even agree on basic facts of events.
Can the progressive movement open its doors to more people and divergent views? If not, we might fail to build the more just society we seek.
To be clear, this is not a both-sides argument — I do not believe in false equivalencies that would say believing in racial equity and universal health care on one side, for example, is the same as believing in white supremacy or wanting to deny love and support to trans kids.
I have also been troubled by the corollary phenomenon of people who share almost all the same values spending their precious energy attacking each other like mortal enemies for relatively slight differences of approach.
It was with this on my mind and heart that I came to read “The Persuaders,” in preparation for an event at Seattle’s Town Hall last week with the author Anand Giridharadas. The book is fundamentally hopeful, a project he wanted to be an “antidote to despair.”
In the book, Giridharadas, who is a former New York Times columnist, correspondent and MSNBC analyst, tackles these questions head on, and argues for an approach where progressive policies and values are more “irresistible” — to paraphrase author Toni Cade Bambara — and progressive movements build more onramps than barriers to entry, as he describes it.
To make this case, Giridharadas spent years talking with organizers, messaging experts and others — mostly women of color — who live the ethos of a more welcoming movement and shared the wisdom of their experience.
In an interview last week, Giridharadas called the book a work of “loving intervention,” for a progressive movement that at times seemed to be content with keeping its numbers small while lamenting the consequences of that smallness.
He said in spending time with the organizers in the book, he realized one of the challenges they faced in their own spaces was a lack of “small ‘e’ evangelism” for their ideas.
“There was a skepticism about the possibility of converting people, there was a sense that it’s corrupting to try, there was a purity about who gets to get into the cause,” he said.
Black Lives Matter co-founder and longtime organizer Alicia Garza said in the book’s chapter about her work, “sometimes part of our purist culture can be not having room for the waking among the woke. And because of that, we just kind of keep circulating among the woke. Forgetting that the whole point is not to be cliques.”
Another longtime organizer and reproductive justice leader highlighted in the book, Loretta Ross, calls for a more nuanced “threat assessment.” As Giridharadas describes her concept, you have your problematic near-allies, who might share 90% of your values but you diverge on some points. But on the other side are people who want to eliminate people like you from existence. It’s important to be able to discern between the levels of threat.
“Every hurt is not trying to exterminate you,” Ross said in the book. “but you dump on the person accessible to you because you can’t get at the past hurt that’s inaccessible.”
Another important point Ross makes is not all persuasive work is for everyone to do. You often hear from people who have been systemically marginalized, “I shouldn’t have to educate that [racist/sexist/homophobic] person, when I am barely surviving as it is” from the consequences of that oppression. That is very understandable. As Ross said in the book, “There’s enough work in the movement for us all to do different work. So you don’t have to do the work I do. Do the work that works for you.”
But if you are a person with more capacity or resources to shoulder more labor, there are opportunities for you, too. Instead of unfriending that racist uncle on Facebook or threatening to move to Canada, perhaps you could get in that messy space where you engage with them on their ideas and yours and, possibly, bring them closer to your values or better understand how they got theirs.
What’s at stake? Oh, just our democracy itself, Giridharadas said.
“If we don’t make our movements bigger, bolder, more open hearted, more feisty, more strategic, above all more devoted to growing, growing, growing, we’re going to lose the republic.”