Getting Our Houses in Order: Learning from Political Contradiction

“If your house ain’t in order, you ain’t in order.” – Toni Cade Bambara

Contradictions are not to be swept under the rug, but examined as a means of clarifying the vision of our movements.

The recent rounds in the debate over universal healthcare in the US have resparked old arguments in mainstream political arenas. Left-leaning supporters of the bill have been criticized by conservatives for organizing around funding from a state whose military action (and the revenue it generates) they are constantly protesting. Conservatives, in retaliation, have been criticized for garnering their political support on a platform of no-taxation, then denying basic services to those same supporters based on a supposed lack of available funds. Familiar though they may be, both of these criticisms, I think, are good ones. And as someone who supports healthcare for all people, I have had to reflect recently on my inclination to demand money from a state without thinking thoroughly about where that money would come from, whose suffering would necessarily fund my healthcare.

For myself, the lesson of this debate (and the ways in which I have found myself personally checked by it) is not one about political theorizing, nor trying to point out the fault in an opponent’s logic. To me, it is about learning to recognize and look honestly at the contradictions which exist in all of our beliefs. Inconsistencies and paradoxes are a part of all of our doctrines, teachings and personal opinions, and in a climate focused on competitive debate instead of the forging of inclusive movements for solidarity, these inconsistencies are things we are made to avoid and conceal. When we sense a weak point in our own political stances, we fear exposing it in any way which might put us at a disadvantage in a match of wits. Admitting this not only exposes the divisive nature of politics-as-usual–within all political arenas–but also reveals how reluctant we are to examine the contradictions within our own beliefs. This is an issue, not only because it stops us from being honest with ourselves and our political communities, but equally because it dampens some of the most transformative kinds of discussion and action.

I can think of tons of contradictions in my own politics, but it was in college where I first encountered one of the most major double standards in my own political beliefs–one closely related to those revealed in the present debate around healthcare. Over the course of my four years as an undergraduate I joined and supported multiple student projects and protests which sought to demand financial support from our university–everything from the funding of Ethnic Studies and Student of Color programs, to sexual assault prevention training and classes for prisoners in local jails. While I believed wholeheartedly in many of these struggles, I discovered a circular conflict in myself in relation to almost every one of them. When the university ignored or refused demands, I was frustrated with its indifference, and smug at its reluctance to change. Yet equally, on the few occasions when administrators did agree to accept responsibility for the funding of a project or program, I immediately felt suspicion rise up in myself. What was it about this program that made it “acceptable” enough to receive university funding? Did I trust an institution with which I had so many qualms to properly construct and support this program in the vision of my community? No matter what the outcome, I always felt equally outraged and disappointed. I found that while I was making demands, I didn’t actually know what I wanted–or perhaps more accurately, that none of the things I was demanding were what I actually wanted.

It was during one of these periods of political contradiction and frustration that I was introduced to The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex by the organization INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. The book documents the organization’s coming to its own realization that foundation-based funding was just as selective, limiting and problematic as funding from the state. This conflict, which sounds like it might stop radical organizing dead in its tracks, caused group members to name the trap in which they found themselves caught, and to devise whole new ways of organizing and advocating for oppressed women that don’t depend on any funding at all–strategies which are outlined in their book. A contradiction in their politics which seemed at first like a roadblock ended up leading the group to develop radical approaches to their political work which challenged systems of funding at their base, and which completely reframed the needs, aims and beliefs of their collective.

Addressing the contradictions in our beliefs and ideas isn’t about invalidation, or calling each other out. Rather, it is about challenging ourselves to think of politics not as a debate between warring camps, but as a compassionate process of articulating and aligning the needs and desires of our multifold collectives. Examining actively and honestly the pieces of our politics which do not add up is the precise place to begin, because these are the points in which we have not yet been able to connect the many values and beliefs existing within our own movements. When we are courageous enough to engage these contradictions together, we open ourselves to the opportunity to dig deeper towards the linked roots of the systems which oppress us, and of shifting the entire perspective and goals of our projects, organizations and movements. And like INCITE!, we may find that examining our political inconsistencies may actually save us from unsustainable grappling with unjust systems, and help us arrive at strategies for action which reject those systems altogether. If we are lucky, we may come to understand that scrutinizing contradiction is not about halting action, but about changing the direction and nature of that action, pushing our movements forward with more effectiveness, honesty, and clarity in our unified vision.

4 responses to “Getting Our Houses in Order: Learning from Political Contradiction

    • Wow, I had not thought about this question in relation to a learning community, but I clearly should have. Examining contradictions in learning can be a powerful way to begin uprooting the systems of oppression and domination which govern traditional education as well. Thank you for making that connection! What issues are on your mind in relation to education?

      • I pointed you before to my poem about my ideal school. I think families need to choose schools, so they can be in tune with the school. But that’s not at all the model we currently have for public education, and I’m not sure how to get there from here in a way that is responsive to social justice concerns.

        There’s too much wrong with public schools right now, so my son has gone to a ‘free school’ (not financially free), and to some mini-schools in friends’ homes. We are not part of that system. I have some issues with that, but I feel like it’s most important to do right by my son.

        I think that the people who manage to be good k12 teachers are saints. But a system that demands that much is problematic.

        I love math, but my students usually don’t. I am part of a system that uses math as a filter – that’s oppressive.

        That’s 4. I could probably frame it another 4 ways, if I didn’t have to get to bed… ;^)

    • I think those are all interesting and real points. I’d be really interested in seeing how a learning community might discuss and actively address some of those very questions–how contradiction in public schooling and the immediate classroom could actually become areas of study and collective question asking.

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