As part of my oral history project I have done 47 interviews with long-time Canadian activists, and in almost all of them I started out by asking people how they became politicized. Given that, and given that any attractive vision for social change necessarily involves the politicization of ever-increasing numbers of people who are keen on creating change, I have been thinking about this subject a lot.
One theme that I have been pondering is the complex connection between experience, particularly experiences of oppression and privilege, and politicization.
I think it is important to make a distinction between at least two different ways that people can be said to understand things -- I think it's more complicated than just these two, but they are a start. The first kind of understanding is intellectual, which has to do with facts and arguments and in-your-head beliefs. The other I have been thinking of as "commonsense" (a usage I have adapted from Playing The Race Card: Exposing White Power and Privilege by George Dei, Leeno Karumanchery, and Nisha Karumanchery-Luik, though I'd imagine it is used more widely than that). It is a more embodied kind of understanding -- our instinctive reactions, our gut feelings, the unarticulated whole which informs what we do and how we react to things in that 90% (or 99%?) of the time when we aren't explicitly applying our intellectual filters. Of course these two do not exist in isolation, but are constantly in interaction with one another.
The mainstream understanding of politics tends to treat it as at best an intellectual position or belief or at worst an identity-related brand. Some people who disavow interest in or discussion of politics are responding to this; what they are really saying is, "I see no point in being involved in bitter arguments over competing brands, which seems to be the core activity of politics, when it has no real relevance to my life." Even people who are actively engaged in politics, even in radical politics, can fall prey to this misunderstanding -- I've met people who are members of campus-based Marxist groupings who treat their political affiliation as just as much of a brand as the mainstream does, and who think signifying their "revolutionary" label around campus and getting in loud arguments is the essence of actual social change (let alone revolution).
I think this tendency is related to the tradition of Western dualistic thinking, to seeing mind and body as completely separate and the former as the natural residence of politics -- politics are the position you take in an argument down at the pub, they the careful deliberation before casting your vote, they are a segment of identity that has been deliberately chosen.
All of those are part of politics, of course, but it neglects the fact that politics are also very much embodied. A person's politics are not just the summation of all of the relevant "I support...", "I oppose...", "I endorse...", "I think..." statements that are applicable that person. They are also the summation of all activity which is political in a private or public sense. Politics is inherently something that is about interactions between human beings so it makes sense that the ways in which positions are translated in small and large ways into impacts on other people, the world, and the institutions that structure society should be recognized as part of the sum total of things that comprises a person's politics.
Another consequence of recognizing the embodied nature of politics is valuing not only their embodied expression but their embodied origins. That is essentially a recognition that what I do is not just a product of rational deliberation, but of instinct and gut feeling and the sum of my past experiences. In other words, my thoughts on and actions in this world (i.e. my politics) are a product not just of my intellect, but also of my commonsense, and that is very much shaped by experience.
Various strands of anti-oppressive politics also recognize the importance of experience in shaping our politics and our lives. For example, some feminists reserve the term "feminist" to apply to women with feminist consciousness and use some variation on "pro-feminist man" or "pro-feminist ally" to designate men who are involved in the struggle for gender equity. This is to recgonize that actual experience of sexist oppression creates a position from which anti-sexist struggle can be waged that is distinct from that of someone who supports the struggle but lives with unearned male privilege. Both positions must play a role (though opinions vary on the details and on their relationship) but they are not the same.
It might be possible to quibble about the semantics, but my own experience, and what I have heard from people I have interviewed, corroborates the importance of experience. The only thing is, I'm not sure I have more than a vague understanding of how it works. But here's a first attempt to figure some of it out, at least in some very general ways:
Experience of oppression requires those who experience it to develop, at the level of their commonsense, an understanding of power, and necessitates the development of strategies for resistance and survival at the individual level. In this sense, as some interview participants pointed out, being (for example) born Black or Aboriginal in North America means being politicized from the start, as a requirement for survival in a white-supremacist environment. The mainstream narratives which are easily available in the culture to contextualize these experiences of oppression tend to devalue them, make them culturally invisible, and/or say they are natural and inevitable. The individual response at the level of commonsense can take many different forms, including some that are very depoliticizing (in a slightly different sense of that term) and which reinforce the painful cycle of that oppression being internalized. Politicization, in this context, means oppressed people taking that disjuncture between inherited mainstream narratives and their own commonsense, and in a variety of ways constructing a consistent counter-narrative attached to collective, liberatory action.
This general process can be seen as being at the centre of the liberation model of social movements. This model involves groups of people who all experience a particular kind of oppression getting together, sharing experiences, collectively changing their own and each other's consciousness, and moving on to action together.
It is important to emphasize again that the connection between experience of oppression and politicization is complex. As I said above, the suffering and deprivation of resources (both material and psychological) imposed by oppression make it a perfectly understandable outcome for people who experience oppression and therefore have an understanding, in their commonsense, of some of the structures of that oppression to respond with individualized resistance focused on coping and survival. This path may or may not be conscious, depending on the person. Other people might become active around oppressions they do not experience and not around those they do, to avoid the pain of dealing with those issues. Still other people might engage in collective action around the oppression they experience but be resistant to broadening their consciousness to include awareness of and resistance to other oppressions. There are many other writers who are much better equipped than I to talk about various kinds of consciousness and resistance, both individual and collective, among the targets of what bell hooks calls "imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy."
But what about politicization which is not directly grounded in experience? At first blush, this question is most directly relevant to people like me -- people who are, by and large, on the privileged side of pretty much all of the ways in which power and privilege divide our society. (My class privilege is middle-class, not owning-class, but it is still privilege.)
One clear difference from the liberation model of politicization roughly described above is the relationship between commonsense and intellectual understanding. In the liberation model, part of the process is building an analytical framework under which the commonsense derived from experience of oppression can be understood in a way that is not self-blaming and that leads towards collective action for liberation. Impetus down this path comes from both intellect and commonsense, but there is opportunity for grounding it in commonsense because of the experience that has shaped it. But for those of us who have a commonsense built mainly around experiences of privilege, in a lot of cases understandings of struggles for justice and liberation are reached intellectually first, and can only be integrated into commonsense slowly over time, and even then only to a limited degree.
On a little more reflection, however, this question is of interest to more than just straight, white, middle-class, male leftists. Obviously people who are politicized in connection with their experience of oppression very often are politicized (have consciousness and take collective action around) issues beyond their experience.
But how and why does this happen? How can we make it happen more?
I have no clear answers to these questions, just a few general ideas.
One factor can be a willingness to allow intellect to override the naturalization of privilege that comes from a commonsense forged in the experience of privilege, a willingness to translate the intellect into action and therefore into new experience which ultimately modifies your commonsense (in limited ways). Though this can be very productive, it can also be dangerous -- much evil has been done in the world in the name of ideas that were intellectually perceived to be good, in some abstract sense, but that were divorced from real human experience. Still, I think some variant on this plays a role in politicization for many people in areas where experience of oppression is absent.
Another important factor is human connection -- the innate tendency of human beings to want to connect to other human beings, and to be able to engage in imaginative empathy with them. It is important to stress that it is not the job of people who experience oppression to educate people who do not; we all must take responsibility for educating ourselves. Nonetheless, one way to learn in a way that impacts not just our intellectual understanding but also, in an indirect but still real way, our commonsense is to hear the experiences of others. This is, I think, least effective in terms of generating imaginative empathy (and is politically and personally offensive) if it is voyeuristic and if the human connection through which it happens is purely utilitarian (i.e. it exists only to get this information). It can be very valuable in the context of mutual, wholistic, genuine human connections in which solidarity and affection or even love are shared.
I think partially shared experience can also be important. I don't have a lot of evidence of this from other people, but I know in my own case, I think some of my openness to feminist analysis in later years (however perpetually partial its incorporation into my commonsense might be) relates to experiences in my family of origin that weren't particularly my experiences but which still had a huge impact on the atmosphere and an indirect impact on me.
None of that is very satisfying, though. Nor is it necessarily all that useful if your goal is to try and further politicization in others. After all, there are lots of resources out there, both published works and generous, amazing individuals, from which to learn about thes things. Yet most of us who benefit from privilege tend to resist seeing such things even at an intellectual level, let alone trying to truly recognize them in our commonsense, let alone taking action based on them. Interpersonal empathy and intellectual argument can be important for learning under the right circumstances, but they are hardly a magic answer.
This also leads to various questions at a larger scale than individual politicization processes, with respect to how movements organize themselves. I recently read Masculinities by R.W. Connell, an excellent analysis of masculine experiences in the current gender order. In one section of the book Connell points out that a movement based on the liberation model was tried by pro-feminist men in Western countries starting in the '70s. Over time the use of techniques like consciousness raising groups led the movement and many individuals within it towards depoliticized understandings of gender, and in some cases to reactionary ones that reinforce patriarchical institutions and male privilege. He argues that it is foolish to try and construct a movement based on the liberation model around a shared experience of privilege rather than oppression. But then how are pro-feminist men to engage in political action? I don't get the sense that he is particularly happy with the way he answers this question, but it is still useful: an alliance model. In other words, pro-feminist men engaged in struggles around other areas in which they do experience oppression can work with feminist women to ensure that, in that context, women's liberation issues are addressed. He gives the examples of the trade union movement and the anti-racism movement as places where this can be a useful way for pro-feminist men to engage in political action for gender justice.
I don't have a rip-roaring conclusion, I'm afraid. The thinking that went into this post is still very much in progress. But I would like to say that I would be interested in hearing from readers about this -- I know there aren't many of you out there, but there are a few. If you feel comfortable doing so, I'd like feedback (either by email or through posting a comment) on how all of this relates to you and how you were (or were not) politicized. Does any of this make sense? Is any of it just dumb? A mischaracterization of the world? Missing the obvious? Offensive? Let me know!