A politics of percept, cont.

My friend Tong (super good guy; has never, despite his long career in wealth management, gotten me any kind of return on my monies) texted me about my post yesterday:

I suppose an example of percept would be Republicans taking away the ACA and people figuring out that they actually like not having to worry about pre-existing conditions, insurance limits, etc.

Sort of, I said. But I really mean creating space for people to be more civically involved. So what would that look like? he asked.

I’m still working that out myself, so bear with me. But my rough vision is more about creating avenues for citizens to spend time engaging with each other to solve problems in their communities. You know, the problem with Republicans returning us to the era of preexisting conditions is that yes, people will feel that, but it’s not 100 percent clear to me that they would blame the GOP for it. I know the polls suggest otherwise, and yet the epistemic closure and polarization in this country seem so strong, I can totally imagine a future where a large swath of low-information voters have their affordable healthcare effectively taken away by Republican legislation but end up blaming Obama and the Democrats regardless, for messing with the healthcare system in the first place and forcing the GOP to “fix” it. Even if I’m wrong about that, my idea of a politics of percept is still different.

To return to some kind of shared reality and value system, I think we need to concentrate on creating more contact within our communities; I use that term in a very specific way — it comes from author Samuel R. Delany, who contrasts it with networking. Here’s how I explained it in a comment on another blog a couple years ago (bolding added for emphasis just now, as well as some brackets to refine the point):

In Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Samuel R. Delany contrasts two types of social interaction — “contact” versus “networking.” He’s careful not to position either as better than the other, but suggests that power is increasingly shifting in favor of networking. Contact is [often] serendipitous and arises out of the presence of [more or less] unmediated spaces in which people can meet; it allows for encounters between citizens of different social status, race, etc. — people bumping into each other in their neighborhood or, to take the main example from the book, white-collar and blue-collar men enjoying trysts in a porn theater. Networking is more controlled, and almost always involves the flow of power in one direction — he compares (1) going to writers’ conferences and trying desperately to get the attention of the handful of publishing folk there, among all the young writers doing the same, with (2) a young Ray Bradbury just happening to bump into the established Charles Isherwood (in a bookstore, I think?) and thereby getting a huge boost to his career almost accidentally.

In Delany’s view, contact offers a lot more opportunities for social friction and he makes a strong case for why that friction is so important, and also argues that American society has been an exercise in smoothing out and eradicating places where contact can happen, especially in the last few decades. He published the book in 1999, just as the popular internet was taking hold, and it’s been very interesting to watch how the internet has seemingly accelerated the rise of networking.

The contact–networking dichotomy has struck me as very important ever since I read Delany’s book. Another example Delany uses is that of his grandparents (if I recall correctly), who lived in an apartment in Harlem. Once a month, the landlord stopped by to pick up the rent. There was always a short visit with the tenants. It wasn’t intrusive, but it gave both parties an opening to discuss any issues, problems, irritations. The landlord got a glimpse into the apartment and was reasonably assured it was being kept up. The tenants had an opportunity to mention repairs or appliances that needed work.

Above all else, what this meant was that the two parties involved in this very important ongoing transaction had a direct personal relationship. They weren’t close, but they had to look each other in the eye. What a difference that could make if there were a major problem on one side! If a tenant had a sudden and unexpected financial emergency, they didn’t have to deal with the disembodied voice of an entry-level representative of a faceless property management company — they could speak directly to the person who held their fate in his hands, and they could do so with some basis to believe the landlord would appreciate the seriousness of the situation and respond with a modicum of humanity.

Obviously, this is very different from how it works now: Tenants pay their rent online, over the phone, by mail, or through a dropbox, but far fewer have any routine association with the ultimate authority behind the property. (And this is even more the case for economically marginalized folks, who often live in larger housing projects, rather than, say, a cottage in someone else’s backyard.) I’m reminded of a story the Edge told a few times during U2’s Zoo TV era, about talking with members of the Air Force who were dropping bombs on Iraq in the Gulf War. They described it as being like playing a video game: They saw their targets on a screen, aimed, hit a button, and that was it. These soldiers never had to reckon, in anything more than an abstract sense, with the fact that they were destroying buildings and lives. (And of course, the development of remote-control drones has exacerbated this.)

Our whole society has long been an exercise in taking human beings out of transactions, in the name of convenience. I’m not railing against that like a Luddite, but I am drawing a connection here. Is it any surprise that it’s become so easy for so many better-off white people to see people of color as less than human? Or, because I don’t want to place all the blame on one side of the political spectrum, any surprise so many bourgeois liberals are icked out by the poor or homeless? We’ve conditioned ourselves to view anyone who isn’t doing Important Work as unnecessary, an inconvenience, an obstacle in our path to full self-actualization or something.

When I talk about a politics of percept, what I mainly mean is a politics that gets diverse members of a community into a space together, where their voices get equal play. I mean that I want the angry 65-year-old Trump voter to hear from a Black ex-convict exactly why diligence and a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality are often not enough when you desperately need work. I want Black Lives Matter activists to get a better sense of how someone can, in effect, support police brutality while operating like a morally conscious person in other aspects of their life. I want people to see and hear firsthand from other stakeholders in their communities on a regular basis, so that if some of them are going to keep making decisions that hurt those people, at minimum they need to do it out in the open, with a more complete understanding of the consequences of their choices.

But beyond that, because I don’t think simple contact is sufficient to address our big problems, I would like to see diverse members of a community doing more talking and deliberating and planning and acting together, so that they have a real, immediate sense of ownership and of what their neighbors have contributed. I don’t see any significant change happening until that takes place. At the root of our country’s big problems is a sense of anxiety, of alienation — and those things are ultimately rooted themselves in lack of a sense of control. We’re not going to fix anything until more Americans feel like they better understand where they live, whom else they live with, and most of all, that they can routinely take meaningful steps to improve things.

That’s a tall order and will require a shift in thinking along with harnessing the new technologies that have become available over the last couple decades. But what else is to be done? You and I both know things are real grim all across the globe. To tackle that, we need way more hands on deck.