August 12, 2008 | Leave a Comment

Category: Activism

Building coalitions on the left, there are those things that we can agree to argue about and those things that we are not exactly agreeing to argue about that we argue about anyway.  As fatiguing as it is to argue about the former, it is the latter that is more likely to cause damage.

Building and participating in coalitions and networks is where I seem to spend a lot of my organizing time, either in meetings or conference calls.  There are long discussions on the use of language when protests are being planned, conferences designed and flyers created.  These wordsmith sessions are attempts to reach the greatest number of people using words that mirror their experience while introducing to them ideas and dynamics that they may not share or be familiar with.  “Palestine, South America,” the words “imperialist” or “anti-imperialist,” “New Orleans” and other hot spots are weighed as words as the urgency of what the words represent are compared to the urgency of the primary communication of the piece being worked on.  The further focus strays from the event or issue that a coalition has been formed around, the more likely there are arguments over language as coalition partners express dismay with emerging concepts.

It is rare that I contribute to these discussions.  The decision about where to draw these lines seems based on personal experience.  My personal experience of respecting people’s personal experience often results in my having few opinions on matters of words.  When discussions turn to process, I become engaged.

In the discussions of process, words are often used but not defined.  Sometimes this method is intentional so that an argument is avoided.  If the coalition partners are familiar to each other, it is often not a problem.  For example, if in coalition discussions you have a blend of top-down and bottom-up organizations and you know each other well, you don’t have to labor each other with differing opinions of democratic process.  You’ve had the discussion before.

Where it gets complicated is when coalition members have different ideas of democratic process and those different ideas are not clear and agreed upon.  These difficulties are exaggerated if all communication is by conference call and if participants are relative strangers.  The difficulties become even more complex when different participants have different opinions on the importance of clarity of process.  To many folks, it’s just not interesting.  To others, it’s not important.  To a third group, they see that clarity in this area might undermine the ways they most efficiently achieve their goals.

This third group tends to be less transparent, less diverse and more hierarchical in their orientation.  I’ve noted that individuals in these groups tend to define “transparency, diversity and horizontal communication” in a coalition context, in ways that include their less transparent, less diverse and less horizontal ways in making decisions, without sharing that this incongruity is the case.  It’s an incongruity that often works to help them achieve their goals, particularly if they are in positions of control.  But their method often seeds distrust among their coalition partners.  For example, if it is decided by the group that information provided to the chair will be reviewed by the chair and brought to the group for a vote, and then the chair does not bring the information to the group for a vote, there has been a violation of process, more so if the chair suggests that there has not been a violation of process when information is withheld.

It is not the case that the more top-down, less transparent groups necessarily engage in this kind of incongruent communication.  When the details of transparency, diversity and horizontal communication are defined by coalition partners, misunderstandings are less likely to occur.  There is often annoyance expressed at differing definitions of process, but if there are no allegations of hidden agendas assigned to coalition partners, then cooperation can proceed.

From the bottom up, I’ve observed abuse of process when individuals behave uncivilly with words and tone corralling ideological opponents into channels they would not have taken.  Abusive language is abuse of process.  Activists frequently confront each other if they disagree on issues, but rarely do they express dismay, at the time that it is occurring, when inappropriate words or tone are used.  Inappropriate behavior, not confronted, will seed distrust within a coalition.

Transparency, diversity and horizontal communication are the foundations of democratic process.  Coalition-building is all about having these three things in common and agreeing to embrace these things as more important than the issues that define your constituency or the issue that brought together the coalition.  Allegiance to these process foundations engenders the trust that makes coalition-building fruitful.  Perhaps the most destructive tendency the Left exhibits is an expectation that good process will be violated.  The resulting distrust is ubiquitous.  It is sad and ironic that the Left, champions of good process as represented by transparency, diversity and horizontal communication, is often unable to unite in trust to accomplish those very goals.


Name (required)

Email (required)


Share your wisdom