building community vs. “strictly business”

I read this interesting piece from recomp: http://recomposition.info/2012/10/11/building-relationships-and-community-in-an-iww-workplace-committee/

I liked this piece, and I also strongly agree (as usual) with Juan Conatz’s comment http://recomposition.info/2012/10/11/building-relationships-and-community-in-an-iww-workplace-committee/#comment-4544. I can say, from personal experience (because, despite superficially being from the “young white, male twentysomethings” demographic, I’m not hip and like Juan I’m not from the artsy music hipster subculture, nor from the overlapping punk subculture or any other countercultural scene really), if I had joined the union out of a need to build non-alienating social relationships, I would’ve left long ago. As much as folks in counterculture scenes talk about being “alienated from the dominant,” I often feel more alienated around radical comrades than around more conservative folks with whom I have strong political disagreements. (I’m not a socialite anyway, so that makes it worse, but there’s definitely a cultural component to the issue.)

I’ve never been super comfortable in the dominant social environment in the union, especially in that which again, superficially, most closely matches my own demographic (young white twentysomethings). The only thing I will say in partial disagreement with Juan is that, in my experience, the young hipster crowd (at least within the union, again I don’t really float in hipster circles outside of union functions) is actually the least male-dominated compared, especially compared to older generation radicals (both in the union and outside of it) that I’ve encountered. The massive influx of that crowd into the branch during and after the Jimmy John’s campaign also accompanied an influx of a lot of younger women who at this point are some the biggest “social leaders” in the branch, incl folks who work(ed) at Jimmy John’s as well as folks from the broader social milieu surrounding the JJWU. So I think gender-wise the hipster crowd is doing better than most of the radical left that I’ve encountered outside that scene. A point on which the scene isn’t doing so well, however, is racial demographics… it isn’t actively racist, but it’s overwhelmingly white dominated. Which is also by and large equally true of the union as a whole, incl the older generation, so hardly a hipster-specific problem as far as the union goes.

An issue I’ve been thinking about a lot, and don’t have very good answers for, is the permeation of subcultural trends and norms within the union, some of which I’m friendlier to, and some of which I’m more ambivalent about. I know for me, I can live with this despite being uncomfortable or unfamiliar at times with it, since I adhere what I call a “strictly business” policy (I don’t gotta be friends with everyone there, I don’t gotta share the same culture or background, I don’t even have to like everyone personally, but I can be in the same union and share the same cause). Which is exactly how I’ve survived in the union and avoided negative personality clashes with folks who come from starkly different backgrounds, because I don’t tend to impose on folks and I tend to just suck it up if I have minor issues with folks. But, except to some extent (not entirely) for the formal business meetings, the union definitely does not follow this policy, rather it’s very distinctly informed by the dominant cultural demographics in the union, which to some extent might be unavoidable, I’m not sure.

What makes this issue complicated is that folks in the subculture (which after all is often framed as a “counterculture” scene) despite often verbally claiming to want to break out of the union’s cultural insularity, and even within the subculture claiming to be “welcoming to all types of people,” folks from this cultural background have a strong habit of viewing their own cultural norms through a highly moralistic lens and are easily offended (sometimes rightly, sometimes more dubiously) by anything that violates those norms. Which means they feel deeply uncomfortable outside their familiar milieu, have a hard time dealing with folks who don’t fit into the scene, and instinctively tend to push those same norms in any groups they get involved with (leading to cultural and interpersonal clashes, and thus resentment and eventually an outflux of the “losing” social group, whether it be the hipsters or their rivals).

All of which is totally unsurprising and pretty much common to most “scenes” and cultural movements, especially those with a strong ideological component (incl left-gravitating counterculture movements, like punk scenes, etc., and right-gravitating movement like most fundamentalist churches).

I instinctively tend to view my position in this as conservative, so I hesitate to raise it when it comes up (for instance, I strongly dislike being required at some meetings to state my “preferred gender pronoun,” I have a visceral gut level reaction to it probably the same I would if it was required to state one’s ethnic identity, sexual orientation, etc., but I’ve never challenged it- in fact this is the first time I’ve even brought it up in a non-private setting- both because I’m ingrained to suspect my own motives since I do have a conservative streak, and because even if I knew my motives were “pure” I also know how my position is perceived among the folks who consistently push stuff like the pronouns thing). I’m also more pliable when it comes to these kinds of “cultural” issues, again because I have this “strictly business” attitude which naturally lends itself to a kind of thick-skinned amoralism, in contrast to the heavy moralism of those folks in the milieu that makes them more easily offended. Added to the fact that I’m a minority as far as this stuff goes, and to the fact that again I have “suspect motives” since I’m a white male twentysomething, with a conservative streak (notwithstanding coming from a lower-income demographic than a lot of fellow radicals, and that probly half of the relatives and non-related friends/folks I grew up around are latino, neither of which is visibly obvious nor would it likely impact how my stance on this stuff is perceived since there’s plenty of sexist hetero-normative machismo among poor folks and within latino culture).

The thing is, all this really translates into in practice is a personal policy of mine amounting to little more than “go with the flow and get along with everyone.” Sometimes that falls apart if I spend too much time immersed in the leftie hipster crowd, which can lead me to get grumpy and impatient and antisocial (due to what feels like a never-ending string of compromises to the milieu, that is not reciprocated and knowing full well the negative reaction I’d get if I made an issue out of it). I’ve never made any attempts to push this “strictly business” thing in the union as an organizational philosophy, and I suspect if I did it would provoke a deeply negative reaction from most folks, in particular younger folks in food and retail (which is where I’m most involved right now, and happen to have a lot of love and respect for a bunch of those same young hipster folks no matter how annoying I might find that scene to be). I’m not even convinced it’s necessarily a better take, but I definitely think there are problems with the insular form of “community building” that a lot of folks, especially in the younger crowd (no matter how much they might claim otherwise), gravitate to.

As said earlier, I don’t really have good answers for all of this, and I don’t feel like I’m a good position to push for anything different than what’s already the norm for reasons said above. I hesitate to even make this post (!) but maybe it’ll get some weight off my chest, since it’s something that’s bothered me for a long time, that I’m bad at articulating.

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One thought on “building community vs. “strictly business”

  1. Hey FW,
    The “Building Relationships…” piece is one in a series on methodology and hopefully the forthcoming articles will help round out where we’re coming from. I completely agree with the criticism you and Juan put forth regarding organizing cliques. Do you have time to chat offline about some of these things?

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