To struggle against the forces of fascism, war, oppression, and ecocide is to confront and resist fearsome foes. The path is not always clear, perceived and actual weakness causes a defensive stance, wounds rub raw and leave lasting scars. The stakes are high, margins for error low.
Under such conditions, how do you tell a comrade that they’re wrong? Maybe even disastrously wrong? And how would you react, if that comrade was you?
Nietzsche once warned, “Whoever fights monsters might take care, lest he thereby becomes a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” Comrades, siblings, friends – we’ve been fighting monsters, and indeed we might take care. The monsters are not us, they are not even all the people who accept or even aid the oppressive and violent systems we fight to change. The oppressive systems themselves are the monsters. These systems promote monstrous behavior in those at the top who stand to benefit most, and to an extent, also in the rest who struggle to endure. In this way, the monstrous values reproduced by our society are the only true “trickle down” effect that actually works.
For those of us who have embraced our disillusionment with these systems and moved forward by bravely working towards something better for all, it is essential that we not lose sight of the monsters we pursue and in the heat of struggle, turn on each other. When we tear each other apart we become that which we aim to reject, we do the work of our foes and declare war on ourselves. When we lose sight of the difference between monstrous systems and the people who resist them in good faith, but in different and sometimes even misguided ways, we cannot hope to win. It’s strategy 101 – they’ve got the guns but we’ve got the numbers, so we’d better not attack each other. Attack the argument, not the person.
Better yet, constructively critique the argument to improve it and invite its proponents to consider your position. The goal being to narrow the gap while arriving at continually refined positions together that better achieve shared goals. In heated times, the ever iterative crucibles of movements, we call on solidarity as a form of social glue. Solidarity, however, must be a practice if it is to be a value. Solidarity does not mean a feebleness of conviction nor quashing diversity of thought. It doesn’t require blind trust nor a lockstep parade under a single flag. However, it does require that we want to change the world more than we want to win an argument, or somehow rise by taking someone else down. It matters how we argue and why, and it matters that above all, we want to move forward towards better outcomes.
The art of discourse towards a common goal of better outcomes has become threatened by our increasingly siloed culture. Forums of public discourse now resemble either suspicious echo chambers requiring a litmus test for entry, or otherwise, all out brawls seeking noise and blood over substance. Our tolerance for difference all too often shrivels as our anger rises. Debate, deliberation, and discussion are all tools to improve understanding, analysis and strategy towards our immediate and ultimate liberatory aims. Yet we have been conditioned to misuse and even fear these tools by the very monstrous systems we should be applying them against. We must relearn how to utilize the tools of discourse.
In practice, this means avoiding the trap of fighting to beat each other within the terms of existing systems, when what we need is to fight collaboratively to change the terms of existing systems. Effective resistance remains vigilant against being baited by the inherent, monstrous values that pressure towards individualist, winner-take-all forms of struggle. Fight to win must always mean fight to win fundamental change. Progress towards this overarching goal cannot be sacrificed to the tangential, dead-end, dopamine hits of winning a debate for the seductive pleasure of that ephemeral superiority.
To be clear, this is not a call for everyone to agree or to fear confronting difference. It is a call to argue towards our shared vision as opposed to arguing away from it. There is nothing inherently wrong with debate as a form of sport or development of skill – but debate as sport has more to do with a boxing match than with vision, strategy, policy, and mobilization towards winning social change. It is a competitive demonstration of debate skill, more than an effective way to collectively conceive of and mobilize around positions towards the outcomes we desire. Again, our debates must not operate within the terms of our winner-take-all society becoming mere performative rationality. Our debates must further the struggle to change those terms. To win requires an art of discourse, that while bolstered by skill in debate, is not reducible to the sport of debate.
What does this perspective and strategic shift, this re-aiming towards the actual targets of our rage, mean in more concrete terms? It means coming together, picking up and dusting off the deliberative tools at our disposal to find better solutions and constructive ways forward. One such worthy effort was made recently on Jan 22, when the Central Jersey Coalition Against Endless War hosted a 2 hour debate and discussion about the war in Ukraine and the role of the US. An effort to identify common ground and to delve into differences in analysis and strategy in a constructive way, the debate confronts the divergence of thought that has emerged on the Left regarding the ongoing war.
Debaters, Medea Benjamin of Code Pink and Bill Fletcher Jr. of the Ukraine Solidarity Network, have both been vocal about this conflict. Both consider the Russian invasion unjustified, both agree that NATO should have been disbanded decades ago, let alone that it should not have been expanded, and both are active in efforts to seek peace. Though these facts establish an important baseline of common ground, going forward from here, their analyses and strategy for how to end the war and pursue peace diverge.
Benjamin and Fletcher are both lifelong, highly committed activists and have even worked together many times over decades of organizing, generally considering one another friends. They are also both members of the ZFriends, a group that serves as advisors and contributors to ZNetwork.org, the left media project where I work. Since the invasion in February 2022, Z has published their contending views, as well as those of Stephen Shalom, Noam Chomsky, Mel Gurtov, Kathy Kelly, Jeffrey Sachs, Anatol Lieven, Katrina van den Heuvel and numerous others. Z has published interviews with Ukrainian, Russian, and international peace activists, organizers, and draft resisters in an attempt to give voice not just to prominent intellectual commentators, but also to those on the ground actively experiencing this conflict day to day. In the spirit of solidarity and the relentless pursuit of our shared values, even and especially when confronting serious differences, Z desires to give voice to constructive good-faith debate as part of our collective discourse.
The views expressed in this article, in this debate, and in all content published by Z – are not always fully reflective of Z’s views, of each ZStaff member’s views, or of each ZFriend’s views. This is not a cop out or a disclaimer. It is a reminder of what an independent media platform should be – a forum to facilitate and amplify the type of crucial discourse outlined in this essay. Our mission is to elevate and give voice to content that advances analysis, vision, and strategy towards a better world for all. In doing so, we sometimes give voice to content that we may not agree with, but that we deem constructive, well-reasoned, and anchored by shared values. Our mandate is to provide a richly nuanced and participatory platform for a thriving community of people well practiced in challenging, questioning, and building. We aim to respect your right to think for yourselves, and in doing so, we show that we trust you to think for yourselves.
Beyond Z as a media platform, encouraging a diversity of thought and practice is not just about having the humility to know that no single person is completely right about everything, always. In terms of wider movements, engaging with diversity is also strategic towards actually winning the better world we all seek because it avoids tunnel vision, remains responsive and relevant to changing conditions, fosters creativity, inquiry and scrutiny, and facilitates dissent. Finally, if we cannot give, receive, and constructively utilize self-criticism amongst fellow leftists, how will we have any hope of refining our positions and communicating them to the rest of the world?
A confident position does not fear discussion or debate, rather it seeks to prove itself and improve itself through discussing and debating widely. Z aims to remain a platform for essential discussions to occur in an atmosphere of mutual respect, supporting the radical strategy of playing to win.
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