This is our truth, tell us yours
It’s been a weird week for politics, as August usually is.
I had a late-ish night last night that involved waiting for someone to come home from a post exam celebration, and a discussion about lefty politics with her. Watching the anti fracking demonstrators get the train to Balcombe yesterday was a trigger to all sorts of memories of my younger self. As the bairn points out, stuff that is fresh in my memory, like Greenham or the miners strike, is history to her, and less relevant than you might expect.
In what might be a link back to a post about history last week, the lessons from those histories for me is less about narratives than methods. The Greenham women left an indelible mark upon the the womens movement, and on history, because they evolved a way of working that enshrined listening at its very heart. All the rows I remember about the Greenham camps were about people not listening, or not making space to listen to others.
Arthur Scargill, of course, ushered the NUM out of history by not listening. No matter what the rights and wrongs of the dispute, you can’t ignore the damage Scargill did by not listening, by leading from the platform wielding his privilege as leader as a scourge to lash the doubters and the critics into line.
So when a Twitter spat blew up into full blown row overnight about American sex work activists telling Irish SW’s how to campaign I reflected on what I learned about leadership fully thirty years ago.
I sat with miners, some of them my relatives, and I listened. These were men who knew how to win strikes. Every story they told about driving cross country in vans and cars to picket and campaign was their experience of the things victories were made of. When they told me they thought they would not win so easily, or at all, I had to listen. They didn’t need a callow youth telling them about how to do it. If they voiced doubts about how the strike came about, my duty was to listen, not to lecture them.
Hilariously, of course, I failed miserably, and tried to debate with them. Thankfully, they’d also had that experience before, and they tolerated me, and helped me learn. They didn’t tell me to be silent; they shared experiences, and told stories, so that the weight of evidence was more persuasive than their authority as men who had been there and done it.
Somewhere during that strike I started to make the connection between Greenham and the strike. So, in startling and brilliant ways, did many of the miners’ wives. They listened to other women, and learned.
I learned so many things during those years, but what I learned, most of all, is that evidence trumps authority, and that experience is not a badge you wear to silence others, but a collection of stories you provide to others to help them find the best path for them.
How does this help in the American versus Irish sex workers debate? Simply this. Everyone’s road is different. Your experience of your journey is helpful to anyone walking the same road, but may not be as valuable to people travelling a different road. Understanding which road your peers are one comes from listening, not from telling them which road you are on. If you’re on a motorway with huge signposts every two miles your experience (trust the signposts!) may not be much use to someone walking alone along a country lane where you can’t even see over a hedge to get your bearings.
Never mind the debate about privilege, or class, or assumptions. If you want to be an effective leader, you have to listen, to understand the maps of the worlds others are experiencing, before you can be any use to them at all. Of course, if you want to be a thought leader, you can simply use your platform, and its innate authority, to shout down anyone who disagrees with you. Before you do, I’d urge you to remember Arthur Scargill.