“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”– Fredrick Douglass
Part 1: Interpretation
The word agitate or agitator is often used in a very negative way. Politicians and others warn of “outside agitators” during intense protests. Young siblings often agitate one another (ie, get on each other’s nerves). So what does this word really mean? And why do Fredrick Douglass and current-day organizers use this seemingly tainted word?
What, exactly, does it mean to “agitate” as part of an organizing effort? Beyond the dictionary definition, here is a more detailed definition of agitate in the context of organizing:
To agitate means to guide others in probing their own thoughts about oppressive realities. This inherently means asking questions and deeply listening in order to ask more and sharper questions, in order to help people fully see, cope with, and come to actively oppose injustice.
This definition, and this article, does not focus on wider public agitation through writing, story-telling, speeches, music and video. Such agitation is also valuable, but is different and deserves to be examined on its own.
Part 2: Alienation
In capitalist modernity, people go through their lives in varying states of alienation. Alienation takes on many different forms. It is a state of anti-being which prevents us from realizing our innate potential. Alienation is the primary obstacle to both self-awareness and social/class consciousness. The goal of good agitation is to help people see past their alienation, and begin to overcome it.
As Douglass aptly put it in the quote above, agitation is necessary for social change to take place, especially drastic, overdue social change led by those who are aggrieved. It is moral and psychological ammunition. It is fuel for the fire that can devour oppression.
Alienation and agitation stand juxtaposed. Alienation holds us in place. It is a force of social stagnation. Agitation hastens us to move. It is a force for social transformation.
But what does this abstract concept – alienation – look like in real life?
Alienation, in part, means relating to different groups of people mainly through texts and/or images curated by mass media rather than personal connection. This is, for instance, how the urban US relates to rural US communities, and vice versa.
Alienation can mean working at a place you don’t like purely out of economic necessity.
Alienation can mean people staying in bad personal relationships mostly for economic reasons.
Alienation can mean belonging to a tight-knit community, or family, that has toxic patterns which seem impossible to challenge.
Alienation can mean not looking deeply enough at your own life to know why you’re not satisfied.
Alienation can mean blaming other people or groups of people for your pain, even if they never did anything to hurt you.
Alienation can mean finding enjoyment in the suffering of others, rather than seeking to alleviate your own suffering and theirs.
Alienation can mean nursing a perverse desire for domination over others because you yourself are dominated in your everyday life.
Alienation often means having few, if any, people to turn to for support.
Alienation can mean being afraid to stand up for anything, even yourself.
Agitation alone does not resolve any of the above problems. It is more akin to lifting a veil so that people can see the path to doing so.
Part 3: Purpose
The purpose of agitation is to bring suppressed feelings to the surface. The organizer must be ready to “probe” different topics and experiences, to see what people feel the most intensely about.
Outrage is the appropriate response to the daily abuse our class suffers because of our exploiters. The outrage people should feel when they are underpaid, disrespected, or made to endure unsafe working conditions is dulled by their awareness that standing up for themselves might only end up condemning them to dispossession.
Often people do become outraged, but because of alienation, their feelings are subconsciously “blocked” from being aimed at their direct exploiter. The bottled up feelings of outrage and impotence can be redirected and unfairly unleashed on pets, partners, children or other family members, other workers in a subordinate position, random people on the internet, or into far-fetched conspiracy theories, or substance abuse, and/or in many other (mis)directions.
All of this is the outcome of exploitation and its byproduct: alienation.
Often, it can take the persistent yet caring presence of another for many people to move past their alienation and acknowledge the true source of their unhappiness. Like removing the blockage in an artery, this pushing aside of alienation opens the way for a healthy flow of both righteous outrage and even newfound self-respect.
Part 4: Method
Agitation is an essential beginning step in the larger process of organizing conversations. There are a few key guidelines on how best to conduct such a conversation.
- Most important – actively listen. Do not simply hear what the other person is saying. Seek to fully understand them. Your thoughts should be focused on what they are expressing, not what you want to express.
- Organizing conversations must be held in times and spaces private enough for people to freely express themselves
- The organizer should not be speaking more than one quarter of the time, and must leave the other three quarters (or more) to the person one is seeking to organize.
- The organizer should gently steer the conversation by asking mostly open-ended questions (rather than yes/no questions). This helps open up space for the person one is seeking to organize to share more of their feelings and experience.
- The organizer should focus on finding a person’s pain and anger and empathizing with it. Do not seek to rush or dominate the process, but do not seek to slow it down either.
- The organizer should not be angrier (or, at least, as outwardly angry) as the person they are seeking to organize. Making your own feelings and experience the central force in the conversation is a sure route to failure. People are much more likely to “balance out” expressions of anger by seeking to calm the organizer down than they are to be led by example.
- An organizing conversation is not a “polite conversation.” The organizer may have to ask questions that may seem too personal, such as about how someone is doing financially, the impact on their health (including mental health), or on their family or others close to them. Don’t go too far, of course, but don’t be overly constrained by the boundaries of “politeness.”
There are a few more things to keep in mind, or rather, to keep out of your mind. Foremost, true organizers have deep respect for the process that others they organize with are going through. The process does not belong to the organizer.
When you set a caged bird free, you do not seek to control where it flies. When you organize with someone, you do not seek to control what actions they take. You can advise them, but if you exert control through fear, shame, deception or other means, then you are merely placing them back in a cage.
As such, you should not seek to chastise or browbeat anyone you embark on this process with, even if they express retrograde views. The correct way to handle this is to ask a carefully crafted question which invites them to critically reflect on their own backwards sentiments.
Do not ever let an organizing conversation turn towards argument. When this occurs, it is almost always because the would-be organizer is centering their own ego, consciously or subconsciously, and attempting to usurp the process.
Another very important thing to let go of is most of your own noisy thoughts. Almost like in meditation; you should not dwell on your own tangential thoughts, but rather be fully in tune with the motivations and feelings of the person whose process of agitation you are facilitating. Let yourself feel what they have felt, as much as you can. Be engulfed by their experience. Ask them the same questions they sometimes quietly ask themselves, but have been too timid to answer.
Part 5: Refinement
It is easier to understand what a process of agitation should look like than it is to actually make it happen. Making it happen well can take practice, just like doing anything well can take practice.
Fortunately, you don’t need to practice by doing the real thing unprepared. Just as airplane pilots do not begin by flying an airplane, beginner organizers should not attempt high-stakes organizing conversations before they are ready.
People beginning their path as organizers can practice with anyone who knows them well, or even by themselves.
Here are some exercises to get started.
Envision a situation of exploitation. It can be a real one. Answer these questions about the situation:
- What leverage does the exploiter / oppressor have against the exploited / oppressed?
- What could the exploited / oppressed do to turn the tables if they were united?
- Are there outside forces that unite the exploiter and the exploited / the oppressed and the oppressed? If so, what are these forces?
- What is keeping the exploited / oppressed from unifying with one another?
- What would build more trust among the exploited / oppressed?
- What past events may there have been that either built or demolished trust and morale among the exploited / oppressed?
- Has anyone already sought to correct these injustices, or similar ones that existed in the past? If so, where did these efforts lead?
- What do the oppressed / exploited care most about? What is the thing that, if threatened, would instantly turn fear into rage?
Think of questions you might ask someone in a process of agitation. They should be open ended (not yes/no).
Here are some examples:
- How do you feel after work?
- Why do you think they treat you / us this way?
- What would you do differently if you were in charge?
- What would get them to show you / us more respect?
- How much do you think we should be paid?
- How much longer can you put up with this?
- How do things like this ever change?
Now come up with your own. Take as long as you need, and feel free to use any of them in real conversations.
Sit down with a friend or organizing buddy. One of you will play the organizer and another will play the person being agitated. You will both need to have a real situation in mind to make this work.
The person playing the organizer should gently steer the conversation, asking questions. The person playing the person being agitated should respond as realistically as they can. The latter may be playing an imaginary person or trying to evoke a real one.
See where the conversation goes. The organizer should seek to follow the guidelines above, such as not talking too much or asking too many yes/no questions. The person playing the person being agitated should seek to observe their partner’s strong and weak points, and not make the exercise too easy or too challenging.
Another exercise might be to try and come up with your own exercises!
Agitation is only one early step in the larger process of overturning oppression, exaltation and other injustice. There are several other steps.
This article should not be taken as a definitive or all-encompassing guide to agitation. It too is only an imperfect starting point.
To learn more about agitation and the role it plays in organizing conversations, check out the links below: