Media for Movement Self-Reflection

In fall 2012, I was asked to speak at a Media Democracy conference in Ottawa. At first, I wasn’t sure what I could contribute. While I’ve had a long-time appreciation for activist media, I’d never actually considered myself a media maker. This is interesting, considering my work with Left Turn magazine (RIP), Upping the Anti, and publishing projects of the Institute for Anarchist Studies.

On reflection, I realized I’ve been involved with very specific kind of media-making, what I think of it as media for movement self-reflection. By this, I mean media that help us, as activists, to discuss collectively what we’re doing, what we want to achieve, what challenges we’re facing, and how we can strengthen our efforts.

My investment in creating and sustaining media for movement self-reflection is pretty simple. Based on my understanding of social movement histories, I’m convinced that successful movements require lively, serious, and widely-used media to facilitate self-reflection – to discuss strategy and vision, and to catalyze new forms of action.

The big question for me is: What forms of media for movement self-reflection can we develop that are adequate to this moment and to our movements? I honestly don’t know the answer. But growing out of my experiences, I have some ideas about what features media for movement self-reflection should have. I’ll mention three here.

1. Build radical intellectual culture

Have you ever looked at an academic journal or book? Across disciplines, they tend to be fairly consistent in form: specialized vocabulary, agonistic argumentative style, ample citations, and prominently displayed author credentials. This form communicates that only a select, “in the know” few can participate.

In the absence of a vibrant and broad-based left today, these sorts of academic conventions have unfortunately come to stand in for genuine radical intellectual culture, even in a lot of activist media. They make it seem like the only way to discuss ideas is to speak and write like an academic.

But our movements need a much wider and more deeply engaged intellectual culture – a culture that invites and welcomes people rather than telling them that they’re stupid and not part of the club. One important task, then, for movement media is to generate positive collective spaces for people to develop ideas and discuss them. As part of this, it’s particularly crucial to facilitate contributions from those who are conventionally excluded from officially-recognized intellectual culture through systems of ableism, hetero-patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism.

To be clear, I’m not calling for banning big words and abstract discussions, or being less rigorous. But I do believe that building sophisticated radical intellectual culture requires intentional and sustained movement educational work, such as writing workshops, critical literacy programs, and study groups.

One small example of this is the simple and straightforward writing suggestions featured in every issue of The Abolitionist. Also, check out the detailed study groups guide recently developed by Mamos of the Black Orchid Collective in Seattle.

2. Bridge conversations and movement sectors

Have you participated in a comment thread on Facebook in which you’ve offered your opinion about an activist effort? That’s a kind of movement self-reflection that many of us do regularly. The tragedy is that Facebook keeps us separated into friend silos that limit our discussions and reflective capacities. So, while there is a tremendous amount of reflective work happening on Facebook, most of it isn’t connected very widely or playing the catalyzing role that it could. In various ways, this manifests in other forms of web-based media and in print publications too.

To build broad and smart movements, we need media that help us climb out of our silos and engage with other sectors. In part, this involves bringing together contributions coming from different political perspectives and movement experiences. The point is to facilitate conversations that can enable new kinds of alliances and strategies.

Left Turn magazine, over its more than ten-year life, offered one good example of this kind of cross-movement media effort. Online, Organizing Upgrade has pointed in this direction as well.

3. Grapple with difficult questions in ways that open up possibilities

There are two common forms of how we, as activists, tend to write or talk about movement efforts. One is cheerleading, highlighting how totally amazing an initiative is, and the other is tearing down, emphasizing how completely messed up something is. What’s more rare – but what I think we desperately need – is a third form: grappling with situations in which things aren’t 100% awesome or horrible. This means embracing complexity and acknowledging that we can constantly learn from what we’re doing.

For this, we need movement media that aren’t about cheerleading or tearing down, but instead push us to discuss difficult questions: What mistakes have we made? What limitations do our efforts currently have? What have we actually achieved? What should we do differently next time? The point in grappling with these kinds of questions is to learn lessons and improve our efforts, understanding that everything we do is an experiment worthy of evaluation.

Organized well, roundtables featuring several activists reflecting on their work can dig into difficult questions and distill lessons. Many of the roundtables featured in Upping the Anti have succeeded at this. The “Waves of Resistance” roundtable in Harsha Walia’s book Undoing Border Imperialism offers another great example, as does the roundtable on working-class power in last November’s issue of Briarpatch magazine.

How do you think about media for movement self-reflection? What features do you think are important? What examples do you learn from?