Heart-breakingly inept “privilege” “discussion”

What the fuck? What the fucking fuck? How DARE they get forty people in a room to discuss privilege and then fuck it up so fucking monu-fucking-mentally? I’d like to say “un-fucking-believable,” but in truth, it’s all too plausible. It’s one of the (many) reasons I barely ever bother with the “anarcho/alternative/non-hierarchical/whatever-they-are-calling-themselves-these-days” scene. Good riddance to bad rubbish, basically.

What happened
So, it started more or less on time, with two facilitators introducing themselves and starting to talk. Just as I write “really innovative format” on a bit of paper and show it to my friend, they announce a spectrum. I scribble down “Ok, I’m wrong” and stand up.
Fuck me if it isn’t the most pointless (actually, actively counter-productive) tokenistic and nonsensical spectrum of all time.
We were to put ourselves on a line of “privilege” from least to most. That’s it. No then “talk to the person you’re nearest”. No problematising of the concept of privilege. No other spectra. Nothing.
We then all sat down, and they admitted that “well, that was supposed to be chaos, and it was even more than we thought.”
You. Can’t. Do. That. If you’re going to use these tools, use them well, use them to create fruitful confusion, fruitful challenges. You don’t just plonk everyone back down and then witter a bit.
And you don’t then “open the floor” for discussions and questions, because what will happen – what DID happen – is that the people who speak will be the ones full of confidence/ideology/privilege.
And so it came to pass. After this droned on for a bit, complete with the inevitable contribution(s) from someone whose background allows endless drivelling without fear of challenge.

We then broke down into three groups. No mixing up of people, no strategic assessment of whether it was a good or bad idea for people who knew each other well to clump together in the same groups. Not spontaneous, just random. And the groups were far too big (10 to 12 people) and so the same shitty dynamic – of a few people talking lots and everyone else sitting there bored or seething – replicated itself. And in our group, we just didn’t know what we were supposed to be discussing. There was nothing written down for us, no facilitator. Several times people asked “what are we supposed to be doing?” So it was boring chaos, and – as my friend pointed out – people just making random dog-chasing-tail statements for fear of silence.
I earwigged the other groups, and saw that the same people who had talked drivel in the big discussion were doing the same, and getting away with it.

We then briefly formed a big group again, but I can’t remember what if anything was discussed in the final couple of minutes. I think there was some reading out from an article that the facilitators had written, but I was too busy listening to my heart break into a thousand tiny fragments.
Forty-ish people – at least 12 white women, 19 white men, five women of colour and one man of colour – had gathered together to discuss a crucial topic. And they’d been so poorly served by the ‘design’ (there wasn’t any) and execution of the workshop that nothing was gained. Criminal.

How it could have been worse
The only way that could have been worse is if we’d all – forty – of us been invited to say our names and a little about ourselves. Actually, that might have made the whole thing BETTER, since I might have spotted some people worth talking to.

Conclusion
The presence or absence of sensitivity/awareness about privilege has little if anything to do with the movement’s death throes. (But it would be nice to get it right, no?) The movement – if you choose to believe it exists – has bigger problems than policing the “obvious” privilege within it. One of the big privileges – oddly not mentioned – is of people who can be “full-time activists”, and who have the social/cultural capital to get their boring articles published and then to – without challenge – deliver staggeringly lousy “workshops.”

What could have happened in the same space, with the same time, and the same money.

“Hi, we’re here to try to share some ideas about privilege, and hear some ideas, and help everyone ask questions and share concerns and experiences. One of the privileges we don’t talk about, because we talk so much about race class gender and sexual orientation, is how connected people are, and how confident they are in a particular social setting. There are people in this room who might only know one or two other people by name. There might even be people who know no-one. We welcome those people especially. We hope that you find this space welcoming enough that you join this movement for a fairer, saner world.

“So, could we all look around the room, and do a rough count of how many people we know by name. How many people here know more than half the people in this room?
How many people know 10 or more people?
How many people know 5 or more?
[stop there – you don’t want to force people who don’t know many people to own up!]

“Before we start, a health warning;  this discussion might bring up some really powerful, and distressing, emotions and memories. If you decide the workshop is too much, or you need to take five minutes out or whatever, don’t wait, don’t ask anyone’s permission, just go. And if you see someone going, don’t ask them to explain themselves. If you want to talk to someone though, we have a couple of folks willing to listen to you on hand. They’re over there (points to them, or asks them to volunteer themselves)

“Right. Could everyone find someone they don’t know, and introduce themselves. Just your name and a little bit about yourself. And because this is a workshop and discussion about privilege, we want the two of you to share an experience where you feel that something about you – your age, your skin, your height, your looks, your confidence levels, your class – whatever you choose! – either gave you more privilege or less privilege in a situation. We won’t be sharing that back, we just want to get you talking and thinking with someone.

[Let that happen for a few minutes.]

“Right, before we do a bit about the article we’ve written, we want to find out who is in the room.

“So we’re going to do some spectrums” (and some carefully chosen ones – might be level of education, physical size, how many times have been on the receiving end of police brutality, discrimination, financial security, secure employment, parents who you could turn to if you had major crisis, etc etc. Obviously have to be sensitive about this, and not expect people to reveal personal stuff.)

[Bit from whatever dire article you’ve written]

“OK, if we go into a big discussion now, what will probably happen is that a few people, who feel especially empowered to speak, will speak a lot, and other people – who probably have just as interesting things – will be crowded out.”

“So, instead of that, we’re gonna have you in small groups of three or at most four for just a couple of minutes, and then we’re going to have each group call out ONE sentence. And that sentence can either be a question, or a statement, or a challenge around the question of “privilege in the movement and privilege in society – how do they relate?”. And the rest of the workshop is going to be structured around those statements, so we hope you choose wisely!

[Once all the groups have done their call outs (and be strict on the one sentence rule!), then there needs to be a five minute break while the facilitators reframe/shape the questions that various groups will tackle.]

“Right everyone. We’re going to count you off into small groups, and we want you, for five minutes at least, to stay in those groups. But after five minutes, if the discussion is not working for you, feel free to move to another group. However, when you arrive in a new group, you are NOT allowed to speak until you have heard three people in that group speak. We want someone to scribe, and we will type up what we can of the observations and discussions. We are going to do a super-brief plenary at the end.”

“So, please, everyone in a big circle. We’ve got 40 people, and we want groups of no more than 5. So the sentence we are going to call out is “The people united will never be defeated. Venceremos!” (or some such).

“Ok, all the “thes” over in that corner. All the “peoples” over there…

“In your groups, introduce yourselves. One of the facilitators will be arriving imminently with your question for discussion. Remember, stick it in one group until you hear the five minute buzzer. Then, if you have a burning passion for a different group, go to it. We will have put up a flipchart of which group is discussing what question by then…..”

After those discussions have been going a while, call everyone back into a big circle.

“Thank you everyone for participating.  We know it’s a different format, but our point is this – the people-at-the-front-having-discussions-with-their-friends-in-the-audience model is NOT a reflection of the politics we say we aspire to. And it doesn’t work to build connection and confidence.

“These issues – of power and privilege – are really difficult, and our own opinions are forever shifting.  We hope though, that you’ve heard some new ideas, and met some people today with whom you can continue those discussions. Could you turn to whoever you are stood next to, and thank them for their participation.  Thank you.”

About dwighttowers

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8 Responses to Heart-breakingly inept “privilege” “discussion”

  1. You have good ideas. When are you going to do some of them?

    • dwighttowers says:

      You’re right, I should do this stuff more. Part of the problem is, Adrian, that because I am blunt to the point of rudeness with the people who make the decisions about who gets to do what workshop where, I tend not to get invited to do stuff. My concepts – like the smugosphere, and “ego-fodder” really irritate some people (as do I more generally). So, when I stage events, they are very small-group etc etc. When I go to other people’s events, I seethe about the “people at the front playing comment tennis with their friends in the audience” ness. And then I go home and imagine how it COULD be done… So it goes.

  2. tabitha says:

    Hey, thanks for this. It’s always useful to get feedback from events put on. I see you’ve put a lot of thought into how you would structure your own workshop, and I like some of the polemics of the article. However, there are some wonderfully illustrative points here that really reinforce the points we were trying to make about Privilege as a Political Lens. (www.shiftmag.co.uk – it’s not online yet but buy a copy if you’d like to read further or have informed criticism!)
    As one of the facilitators I’m sorry that you misunderstood what the workshop was going to be about. It sounds as if you expected something else entirely and when that didn’t happen, as you say: “When I go to other people’s events, I seethe about the “people at the front playing comment tennis with their friends in the audience” ness. And then I go home and imagine how it COULD be done… So it goes.” Seems like doing that meant you missed the whole thing. That’s a shame because maybe if you weren’t, and you listened, there might be some more things to learn or think about?
    Although as you also say “So, it started more or less on time, with two facilitators introducing themselves and starting to talk. Just as I write “really innovative format” on a bit of paper and show it to my friend,”…woah, sounds like you had already decided to hate on it if you’re writing notes at the back just as we started to talk. If you’d listened to the introduction you maybe couldn’t have made such sweeping assumptions such as we were “full time activists”. Maybe instead you would have thought, oh, she’s just said she’s a working mother, she’s fitting in this workshop on her spare sunday, i won’t expect her to have spent months preparing the perfect workshop”….cos, you know, there is a lot of room for imperfection and uncertainty and inexpertise. what i feel a lot less tolerant of are comments such as “people who can be “full-time activists”, and who have the social/cultural capital to get their boring articles published and then to – without challenge – deliver staggeringly lousy “workshops.””. Because that’s using something completely fabricated in order to try to win points to win an argument….via your published article on a blog (which entails a different amount of social/cultural capital and in many ways is less likely to be challenged.)
    Indeed, we were challenged. which is of course fine. We were challenged on the ideas we were presenting, which, somehow, almost unfathomably, was missed by you. We do put it a lot better in print though, because it’s a medium I feel a lot more comfortable in, it’s a different sort of “privilege” to think and feel quickly on your feet. In fact, you relate to it in your comments and the fact you didn’t challenge us at the time but wrote angry notes to your friend then angry posts ages later. I’m not sure how you knew the article was dire without reading it. Maybe in the way you knew we were full time activists and knew what we were trying to do in the workshop. That way being, basically, wrong.
    The spectrum thing was a gamble. As I said, it’s ok to gamble sometimes isn’t it? To try new ways of doing workshops. Again, it seems this misfired with you. I’m pleased that most people we spoke to afterwards understood it. You say “Fuck me if it isn’t the most pointless (actually, actively counter-productive) tokenistic and nonsensical spectrum of all time.
    We were to put ourselves on a line of “privilege” from least to most. That’s it. No then “talk to the person you’re nearest”. No problematising of the concept of privilege. No other spectra. Nothing.”
    Well, this was exactly the point we were making. So you DID get the point, but only because you thought you were criticising what we were trying to do. So I guess that it did work in some way. What we were illustrating was the tokenism and nonsense of the concept of privilege. It was MEANT to be a piss take, and to demonstrate this pointless endeavour. Our article is all about the problematising of the concept of privilege and the importance of intersectionality. What we feel we are seeing in much of the non-hierarchical movement (that you increasingly have no time for, maybe for similar reasons) is a simplification of politics and a fascination with point scoring for oppression. The workshop you suggest is an interesting take on the sort we are increasingly seeing, which are obsessed with trigger warnings and internal dynamics of mundane categories of power, and less about understanding capital and our multifaceted and multilayered resistances to it.
    So, again, thanks for taking the time to think about what you thought we were presenting. I look forward to your response to our actual article when you read it. And I’m genuinely appreciative of the Kurt Vonnegut references in your text.
    For love and Revolution.

    • Robyn says:

      Could you give examples of the “internal dynamics of mundane categories of power” you refer to? I’m not sure what you actually mean.

    • dwighttowers says:

      Hello,

      thanks for taking the time to read the post, and leave such a lengthy comment. I won’t respond point by point, since we are both very busy, and both of us will be dead a long time.

      You claim that being critical of other people’s events and then going home and imagining how I’d have done it “ meant [I] missed the whole thing.”
      Er, no. I multi-tasked.

      “woah, sounds like you had already decided to hate on it if you’re writing notes at the back just as we started to talk.”

      Well, before you started to talk, you could have invited people to turn to someone near them and get “warmed up.” Activation phenomena, much? You also very carefully don’t quote the very next sentence in my blog post – “I scribble down “Ok, I’m wrong”” , since this would undercut your argument as to how open-minded I was prepared to be. I was prepared to be reflexive, change my opinon. But it’s far more convenient for me to be a strawman, no?

      “Maybe instead you would have thought, oh, she’s just said she’s a working mother, she’s fitting in this workshop on her spare sunday, i won’t expect her to have spent months preparing the perfect workshop”.
      Fair point – I should not have used terminology like “full-time activist.” I won’t start playing games about which of us is busier or more oppressed. Suffice to say, if you are going to have the privilege of having 40 people come to pay attention, then it’s rude to deliver dross.
      You are also however, setting up a totally phony opposition here – I did not expect “the perfect workshop.” I just expected one that went beyond two people talking about their article, followed by comment tennis followed by still-too big groups of people in which the loudest dominated and others were bewildered. Clearly this was totally unreasonable, classist and patriarchal of me. So it goes.

      “but wrote angry notes to your friend then angry posts ages later.”
      it would be helpful if you checked the date of publication of my blog post. It was published on October 11th. Your workshop was on October 7th. That does not constitute “ages.” Perhaps you are confused, thinking that because you have only just seen it, then the blog post did not yet exist? Sort of Bishop Berkely and the tree falling in the forest maybe?

      “I’m not sure how you knew the article was dire without reading it.”
      Copies of Shift (the f is silent)’s last issue were on sale at the Kraak gallery. I bought one (more fool me). I read your article on the day. Simples.

      “The workshop you suggest is an interesting take on the sort we are increasingly seeing, which are obsessed with trigger warnings and internal dynamics of mundane categories of power, and less about understanding capital and our multifaceted and multilayered resistances to it.”

      So, one trigger warning means I am “obsessed””? Whatever you need to tell yourself, comrade.
      And I would be entertained to know what you actually mean by “multifaceted and multilayered resistances”. Is that the writing of turgid and utterly forgettable sub-academese in magazines nobody reads? Or is that sitting in a field surrounded by cops and calling it the eco-revolution? Or squatting? Or flashmobs? Maybe I should start reading SchNews again?

  3. JP says:

    Oh my fucking god… I was in that workshop/discussion too, and you monu-fucking-mentally missed the point didn’t you?

    • Turgid says:

      Well, what was the point JP?
      Everyone I got the time to speak to who’d been in the workshop was mighty confused and less clear about the issues than when they’d arrived. Clearly this wasn’t a full survey, but please do share your understandings from the workshop. I was genuinely interested and want(ed) to learn.

      Tabitha’s sentence starting “What we feel we are seeing..” is spot on and really important. The next sentence however I don’t understand at all, sounds like something out of Turbulence magazine! That Dwight misrepresents the amount of time or identity-label you fall into is a bit irrelevant (though rude) – we need to take time to prepare our workshops for them to be useful.

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