Reflexive Praxis and Being An Ally

Reflexive Praxis and Being an Ally

July 18th, 2008 by waynemellinger

Throughout “Doing Modernity”, I have advocated aCritical Interactionist approach to understanding everyday life that focuses on how people create and recreate the social world through their historically-specific practices in concrete instances of life. I have particularly been concerned with locating the practices through which “societies structured in dominance” (Stuart Hall) are made, re-made and consciously changed.  For example, I have outlined some practices involved in “doing inequality” and “how ideologies work“.
In this entry I want to consider how we can consciously change the world through reflexive praxis, a mode of acting on the world filled with keen awareness of our ability to alter reality.  This will be contrasted with ourunreflexive behavior–our habitual modes of “going along” with the status quo.  I will relate these two modes of acting on the world to issues of unlearning oppression and the work of being an ally.
It might not be apparent but virtually every blog entry I create begins with an observation from my lived reality, and a brief ethnographic fieldnote on that happening in a journal I keep.  Today my observation concerns an argument I started with an acquaintance at the Santa Barbara Roasting Company. 
Many of the people I know are good, honest, working-class men in “recovery” from alcoholism and addiction who are evangelical Christians whose language is often peppered with colorful phrases drawn from street culture.
“Peppered with colorful phrases drawn from street culture” is a polite and euphemistic gloss for what I often times feel is oppressive and discriminatory language in which women, people of color, lesbians and gays, and others who are ‘different’ are openly denigrated and castigated.  For many of these men, women are ‘bitches’, gays are ‘fags’ and Mexican immigrants are ‘beaners’.  Imagine being an anti-oppression educator living in this social world!  I often feel very alienated.

As I wrote in Unlearning Oppression, becoming an “ally” in struggles against injustice involves understanding our own roles in systems of oppression.  I argued that:
“Everyday oppression sometimes occurs through inaction rather than through overt actions.  The passivity of well-meaning people, fueled by ignorance and indifference, is critical to the operation of dominator culture.  We often live in denial, refusing to acknowledge the consequences of our behavior.”
In other words, there are consequences to our simply “going along” with oppressive jokes, comments and words.  Because oppressions exist as an interconnected web, reinforcing one another, our inactions are essential to the systems’s perpetuation. In “going along” with oppressive actions we actually help to maintain the status quo.  Going along with oppressive actions we play a part, an essential part actually, in reproducing those hierarchical systems.  This is un-reflexive behaviorroutine actions operating within ideologies which serve to maintain and reproduce the (hierarchical) status quo.
In Reflexivity and Reflexive Modernity, I wrote about how in contemporary societies we are now (supposedly) much more aware about how our actions and interventions have the potential to change the world.  This “reflexive attitude“, I have argued, is an essential aspect of modernity.  Of course, because I am not fully aware of all of the taken-for-granted aspects of my own behavior which end up contributing to our hierarchical society, I must be careful in singling out those behaviors of others that are oppressive.  Nothing is worse than hypocritical goody-two-shoes so keen on seeing others’s missteps that they are blind to their own thoughtless stumbings.
To engage in reflexive praxis is to take action in the social world based upon awareness and insight into our role in perpetuating or not perpetuating societies structured in dominance.  Employing a reflexive attitude, we hopefully do not simply “go along” with the status quo.  We do not do the “routine” and “polite” and the “taken-for-granted” accepted behavior, but instead, choose to use our actions as interventions in the world, interventions with the potential of making the world a better place.  Clearly, reflexive praxis is an essential aspect of being a change agent.

I have called Critical Interactionism the “microsociology of domination” and have urged us all to be participant observers to how societies structured in dominance are ongoingly reproduced all around us through our actions / inactions and the actions / inactions of others.  We need to more fully examine the everyday local practices through which power and hierarchy are constituted and resisted.
Our norms of “politeness” and “civility” can act as powerful deterrences to our reflexive praxis concerning oppressive behavior.  To be polite can be to not “stir things up”, not draw attention to degrading and thoughtless comments, archaic and offensive terms, and ugly and disgusting jokes. “Nice” people supposedly pretend not to hear these “indiscretions”, and allow others to “save face” by ignoring these actions.  My own privileges as a white man can also act as deterrence to my reflexive praxis concerning oppressive behavior.
Back to my situation this morning.  My acquintances were talking loudly in the coffee shop while one of the baristas was wiping the counter clean.  One of them makes a comment to her about his just coming back to the counter to admire her beauty.  She flirtatiously goes along with his comment.  The other guy makes a joke saying something like “oh I thought you were coming here to look at me”.  The first guy responds, “I would be really weird if I was looking at you, wouldn’t I”.
(I acknowledge how important it would be to have recordings of events like these to capture in their fullest detail what actually happened. My ethnographic gloss of the event is very rough.) 
I responded: “You must think I’m weird, Joe!”  As a gay man I found his comment offensive.  He seemed to be saying that any man who looked at another man as attractive is “weird” and abnormal.  Impulsively, I choose to say something to draw attention to the presuppositions underlying his remark.  In so doing, I might have been a little “rude” in that I did not allow him to “save face”.  In fact, by publicly drawing attention to his comment I might have embarassed him, and perhaps that was my goal.
To intervene in routine actions to draw attention to oppression is reflexive praxis.  We choose to take a stand.
To be an ally is to stand up for other people’s oppression.  This is even harder.  Twenty minutes later when the grumpy sea captain across from me at the counter made a comment about the lesbian couple ordering coffee being “dikes”, I choose to say nothing.  I was involved in checking my email, and don’t really consider him as worth me spending time debating this topic, so I just silently “went along” with his comment.  At that moment I failed as an ally, and know that my passive inaction contributed to the maintainance of a society structured in dominance. Perhaps we could call thisreflexive passivity because I am aware of my inaction’s contribution to the status quo. I was probably afraid that if I stood up for these women as lesbians, he would have thought I was gay.  I know that he thinks that I am straight and I am often able to assume privileges as a “straight-looking” gay man.
As these events were occurring I thought about what a conversation analysis of “being an ally” would like like.  To be an ally is going to involve specific types of sequential turn-taking mechanisms, including disagreements and other turns at talk that can be considered “beginning arguments”.
Critical interactionism moves beyond treating oppression and resistance as abstract theoretical concepts and seeks to locate these concerns as members’s accomplishments through social practices in concrete instances of everyday life.

Wayne Martin Mellinger 07-18-08


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