Wednesday, July 21, 1999

Who cares?

Silence = Apathy, at least when it comes to politics.

Posted By on Wed, Jul 21, 1999 at 12:00 AM

Just get any activist started on the topic of apathy. Environmentalist, union steward, soccer dad – their biggest gripe is always the indifference of everybody else. "Don’t these people care?" they fume.

Apathy is indeed rampant, and many political scientists assume it’s normal; it’s the politically engaged who are weird. Left-wing sociologist Nina Eliasoph takes the opposite tack, to say that what looks like political apathy is not a natural state of affairs.

One key reason is society’s group norms that say what is polite to talk about. In her research for this book, Eliasoph looked at interactions between people, what they say to each other and what kind of talk is permitted in different contexts.

Americans devalue talk, she argues, dismissing it as "rhetoric." But political talk is the very basis of citizen participation, she says, and should be valued in and of itself. By tossing ideas back and forth, unembarrassed, in the public sphere –whether at the bar or the soccer meeting – people learn what others think and discover what they think themselves.

To test her theories, Eliasoph participated in three different types of groups in the atomized suburbs of the San Francisco Bay area: Political activists, "volunteers," and a country-western dance club.

In her book, she shows how activists avoid analytical, idealistic, political talk in public settings – even in their own meetings.

The political group Eliasoph studied opposed construction of a toxic waste incinerator, and came to be knowledgeable about the military’s role in toxics production, the place of profit in incinerator construction, and the stonewalling of government officials. And yet they were always afraid that such discussion in their meetings – as opposed to during a poster-making session or over breakfast – was "going off on a tangent." They would even apologize for bringing up such topics.

When it came to speaking at a rally or to the press, their statements of concern focused on property values, amorphous fear, or what Eliasoph calls "mandatory public Momism."

The discourse would often shift the very moment reporters turned on their cameras, and shift back again the moment cameras went off. One older woman, an activist since the civil rights movement, always dumbed down her response to reporters: "She’s a new mom and I’m an old mom. That’s why we’re in it. We’re worried."

I learned myself that the media encourage this stance, in the days when I took my daughter to picket lines in a stroller; I could count on being singled out for a sound bite.

If activists practiced self-censorship about public political talk, that was even more true of the other groups Eliasoph joined. A volunteer group of parents, for example, was discussing fundraising to buy computers for the local high school, through hot dog sales and the like. A newcomer suggested that Silicon Valley companies be asked to donate the computers, because "big corporations take our money but they don’t give it back … It’s training them to work in industry, and the corporations need that as much as the kids. They should pay for the services the schools give them." His suggestion was completely ignored – but buying a new Royal Dog Steamer was discussed in great detail.

For these volunteers, silencing public-spirited political conversation was actually their way of looking out for the common good. They picked small topics they saw as "doable," in an effort to convince themselves and others that "regular people really can make a difference," and to wall off the larger sphere in which they felt powerless.

The country-westerners never discussed politics as such at all, except in the sense that racist, sexist and homophobic jokes are a form of political expression. Even a remark like "Coors, that’s scab beer; I’ll take a Bud" produced an embarrassed silence.

The country-westerners saw anyone who took a stand on anything as "getting on a high horse." They believed that no one could or should have an opinion on any issue unless in possession of all the facts – which ruled out ordinary people such as themselves and left politics in the hands of technical experts.

The heartening point is that within a couple of years the anti-incinerator activists did begin to value and practice open political discussion within their group (though the newspapers still printed only Momisms). One reason is that they discovered regional networks of groups similar to their own – sympathetic "ears" for their voices. The other groups looked to them for ideas, and vice versa.

"Having an encouraging audience made a difference in the group’s speech," Eliasoph writes. At a statewide meeting of anti-toxics groups, members talked about the implications of profit-making incinerators "front-stage" instead of during coffee breaks.

Eliasoph’s unexpected observations and humorous asides, as well as the many quotes from the natives, bring all three types of mindsets vividly to life. She convinced me that it was a good thing for our Detroit Labor Party chapter to discuss impeachment, for example, even if there was no action plan attached.

I recommend this book to any activist who’s sick of boring meetings and would like to argue for changing the culture of her group – or anyone who’s ever wondered why they should care at all.


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