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Breaking from the Script

In Sports & Political Fetish I discussed how when an urge is taboo, it may attach itself to something else. []

I talked about sports as an obvious example.

But what about less obvious examples? A highly counter-intuitive place to look for political fetish objects would be in the overt political sphere itself, but I believe it would be a mistake to not look there. Might we be so conflict-averse/conflict-suppressive that even within the context of overt political struggle, we send out signals that we do not intend to actually pose a threat or cause alarm to the established order? As a person who has thrown myself into the center of political struggles for the past 17 years, I believe that the answer is unequivocally yes. To fully break with the script between established power relationships, I believe, strikes terror in most people’s hearts. It is such a dangerous and unpredictable venture, that most people avoid it at all costs &#151 even most people who are involved in overt political struggle, most of the time. Instead we engage in a dance of mutual accommodation with the powers that be. We may even go so far as to engage in arrestable acts of civil disobedience&#151we may even go to jail and to court&#151but there is often even a script for that now.

Breaking from the script

In my years of activism and organizing, the moments I remember most vividly are those rare moments where we actually broke from the script. One clear collective moment was the shutdown of the World Trade Organization’s ministerial meetings on November 30, 1999. There on the streets of Seattle, thousands of people used tactics that had often seemed symbolic&#151we all knew “the drill” (we lock ourselves to something; cops and firefighters come and cut us out; we go to jail; we get out and pay a fine; repeat process)&#151and succeeded in actually preventing the meetings from starting. This tactical success, combined with activists’ remarkable success in popularly framing the issues, posed an actual problem&#151more than a minor inconvenience&#151for the powers-that-be. Things got real fast.

The possibility of that kind of dramatic break comes along rarely. But there are constantly opportunities in our daily lives for real political interventions. We tend to let them pass. That’s understandable, and probably even advisable most of the time. Actually challenging power and privilege is a dangerous ordeal. It makes a load of sense to be highly selective about how and when one does so. But it also makes sense to be clear about when one is actually doing so, and when one is accommodating the expectations of the powerful; when one is following the dominant script.

That script has grown to complex proportions, to the point that it can even include a visible part for an ineffectual activist character:

[Activist enters stage left, waves sign, makes noise, decries injustice. No one joins activist. Activist leaves stage left, wondering when audience will wake up.]

We need to recognize that there is indeed a part written for us, where we can express our identity as conscientious social justice-loving people&#151we are even free to “speak truth to power”&#151so long as we “stay in character”; so long as we play a part in the script that the broader audience is effectively inoculated against.

I want to make three points about this “script”:

  1. There is indeed a sort of “script.” That doesn’t mean there’s some grand conspiracy to write the script. In fact, the script varies with particular company and situations. The script is about accommodating expectations and yielding to existing power relations. It’s about fitting into people’s understandings of the world, including fitting into their labels, categories, and stereotypes.
  2. Our tendency is to stick to the script. Breaking the script is dangerous and exhausting. Even if we are a radical in a group of conservatives&#151or a radical group in a conservative culture&#151we will tend to establish expectations around that radical identity. We tend to accommodate others’ expectations of us, even of our opponents. Again, to do otherwise is dangerous and exhausting.
  3. We need to look for moments when effective intervention (i.e. breaking from the script) is possible. I’m not advocating that folks go around defying everyone’s expectations all the time. That would probably drive most people to madness, and it wouldn’t even work; by messing with expectations all the time, you’d be pegged as the person who does just that. However, almost all successful political struggle, I believe, involves some form of “breaking from the script” &#151 i.e. intervening in ways that defy expectations, cause cognitive dissonance, “get people talking” (because something real is actually happening), shake assumptions, and throw opponents off balance. To hit those openings for intervention well, we need to orient ourselves to look for them, and for how to create them.

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