In Alinsky style organizing, there’s this thing called Agitation.
Agitation shares many characteristics with group therapy tools, from recovery and rehabilitation. It’s a way for people to help each other understand their own mental models, their own stories, especially when they’re getting in the way of organizing.
It often dissolves quickly into one person asking the other “and where do you think that comes from?” over and over again.
Often, whether they admit it out loud or not, people evaluate the success of their Agitation by if they can get the other person to cry.
There are many strong good arguments for why it should not be used in organizing, because of trauma, oppression, power dynamics. There are many fairly strong arguments for why it should be used in organizing, based on many of the same reasons.
It is, either way, a weirdly intimate tool for a workplace setting.
In one exercise, a kind of interactive Allegory, the organizing trainer gives commands, demanding that people do more and more things outside of their self interest, that make them uncomfortable, until someone figures out they have to fight back.
The goal is for participants to resist, stop taking orders, to take over the room for themselves. The irony is almost no training room gets this at first, successfully revolts. most people are left helpless, struggling to articulate what feels off in the room, until the end, when the instructor pulls out a gotcha —You should’ve trusted your gut.
The night before this training exercise, participants were supposed to have read a story from Ancient Greece. It is a Warrior Story, about an island victimized by Athens and Sparta, and thus destroyed. The island residents told a story to themselves where they were victims, and that’s what led to their destruction.
This story is a Mental Model, a mirror, about what happens to you when you don’t fight back.
It’s no wonder, after doing this on the first day of the training — every single slight, every microgression, gets challenged. People hold protests and sit ins. They bring up long-standing issues with the entire organization from structural racism to sexual harassment.
The people who got the most out of this exercise spend the rest of the week fighting back.
Agitation is all about stories. It’s a little psychoanalysis-y, a little Jung, I think, though I’ve never read Jung.
There are stories you tell yourself, mental models that keep you from achieving your full potential. Other people can see how the story is playing out in your life, but you can’t, so they hold up a mirror.
In the organizing training I went to, at the places where I worked, the assumption is that those stories come from systems of oppression. There is a story tied to your experience of oppression, once pervasive and obvious, and it’s ruining your life.
Just like what happened in Ancient Greece.
When I got Agitated, when I went to a training where everybody got Agitated, my agitators kept asking me, what are the stories about trans people that you’ve internalized, that keep you trapped in a losing mindset?
It was awkward, mostly because there weren’t a lot of trans people at this training, but also because that’s a really weird question.
I don’t know, I would say back, trying to be earnest. What are the stories about trans people you know?
When other people know Trans Stories, I want to know, in case I’ve never heard them before.
After I asked this question more than once, I got accused of trying to fight back.
But I really don’t know all that many trans stories, so it’s hard for me to figure out which ones I’ve internalized.
We find out later that the Warrior Story we read, the mirror, the mental model, was written by the Athenians. It’s propaganda. It’s fake.
I only know one other story from Ancient Greece, but it’s also fake, written by an Athenian. It’s the story of Perseus and Medusa.
It’s maybe sort of fake, to use Greek myths as a mirror for understanding your own life.
Here’s how they finally got me at Agitation: I started getting mad about someone who had gone on TV, who is trans and got harassed when I worked at a different job. I still felt responsible. the person, the agitator, asked me, can you forgive yourself? Can you forgive yourself and move forward? I cried about it. I didn’t fight back.
Is this a Trans Story?
According to the Athenians, you kill Medusa by never looking directly at her, using a mirror, a mental model, to figure out your next move.
Right now there are very few trans mental models, very few Trans Stories, though that’s changing.
The classification and application of Trans Stories and how they figure into Trans Oppression has yet to be discussed, at least, by people who are Not Trans.
At least, by people doing Agitation. At least, by Athenians.
So, as of yet, there are no good mirrors for My Trans Story.
And I don’t want to fight a monster blind.
NOTE: If you’re reading this email, you might notice that it’s styled a little different.
I switched to using Substack because people often mention that the formatting of Notes on Feednet makes it challenging to read. I’m hoping this platform will make it easier to read + mean I spend less time anxiously fiddling with HTML templates.