Either we want change or we don’t: more on CCCC 2018 and the state of Missouri
If you read my previous post, you know I’ve taken a fairly emphatic stance on the 2018 CCCC’s host city, Kansas City, and the problems that arise from hosting an academic conference and claiming to value doing social justice work. It’s counterintuitive to have the conference in a state where members of the academic community aren’t safe. It’s wrong.
I used the word hypocrite in my last post. In response to a friend who sent my letter on to the NCTE in reference to their other conference (which is also happening in Missouri, in St. Louis), the idea was introduced that it would be hypocritical to NOT have the conference, that it would be “running away.”
I want to explain why that’s wrong, because it’s time for us to stop playing games and be honest with each other. I have not called for people to flee Missouri in fear. All you have to do is read my words and you can see that. What I have called for is for us to not put money into an economy in a state that is unsafe for my colleagues, that is unsafe for me. I’m not scared of Kansas City. I’m not scared of Ferguson. I grew up in an all-white community, went to an all-white high school. I was shot at and beaten up. My car and locker and house were vandalized. I’m not scared.
I was more scared, up until just a while back, of the NCTE and CCCC. You see these institutions are quite talented with their rhetoric. And they’re trying to do the thing that Socrates told us, centuries ago, was the problem with rhetoric. They’re twisting their message.
The claim from the executive committee, circa 2013, was:
In principle, CCCC will work to change state or local policies in host convention cities that diverge from established CCCC positions or otherwise threaten the safety or well-being of our membership. We will do so by consulting closely with local groups who share our principles and arranging activities and opportunities for members to support those who are disadvantaged by offensive policies or otherwise to use their presence in the offending state as a vehicle for nonviolent protest. We will vigorously communicate the methods of support and/or protest to the media, convention and tourist bureaus, and local and state government officials, with the avowed purpose of provoking policy change or supporting current policies threatened by hostile change. In general, we will follow this strategy of engagement rather than abrogating or cancelling contracts for future conventions as a method of protesting existing or future legislation. (check link for citation)
This is where we all have to remember our rhetorical analysis training. What does that statement actually say? It starts with “in principle” which is a disclaimer, a hedge before the statement even begins. Then the solution offered is to work with local groups to try to arrange activities. Then to show “vigorous” verbal support. This is what we will do “instead of cancelling contracts.”
And sure, that’s a great idea if you’re going to a place where there’s something to protest. I can see that, though to be fair that’s not what happened in Houston when there was a major LGBT legal issue. The response to that was markedly “tepid” if I may choose a phrase to contrast to “vigorous.”
But what about when there’s NOT a way to specifically protest? What if the best method of protest is to not give money to the economy of the region? Money is what is valued in these situations in the first place, as the reason CCCC doesn’t want to cancel an event is loss of money. So CCCC understand the value of the money spent on the conference.
I’ve called for CCCC to cancel. I am sure, given how NCTE has reacted to the NCTE conference, my call for cancellation will be ignored, or worse, will be recast with this language of “we can’t run away,” which is an easy thing for a white person to say about a conference in Kansas City or St. Louis. The people who weren’t warned against going have nothing to fear, and they can pretend all they want that the presence of white academics in a city is a better protest than denying that city a huge weekend of business. It’s fiction; having the conference doesn’t bring about any sort of change, and the conference will not labor to bring about change because it really never has (members might, but CCCC isn’t going to stand up to the state of Missouri).
So I have a proposal to people who care, who want to see something done. Respond to this post with a vow to not attend NCTE or CCCC this year and instead to give the money you would spend on the conference to a charity. I can recommend a few. AATF seems appealing given current events. The United Negro College Fund is a great one. The NAACP is another. There’s a great charity called Sami For Syria that is providing medical care to refugees in Syria, and another called APOPO that trains mine sniffing and tuberculosis rats. Locally, I often give to a battered women’s shelter called Genesis; if you have one of those locally, they can always use help. These are things that matter.
I am sorry to say this as an academic, because I do enjoy seeing my old friends, my current peers, the leaders of the field, etc. But attending CCCC is a sunken cost. The organization has become so large that it’s not concerned with doing what is right over what is financially expedient. We can share our ideas on the internet now; we can stream talks to each other. There is no need for us to spend hundreds on hotel rooms, hundreds on food, sometimes thousands on airfare. The era where we need to be in the same room for these sorts of things has ended.
And while it’s nice to see each other, if we gather and inflate the economy of a place where a number of us aren’t even safe, we’re doing bad work. That’s not — in principle — the right thing to do.
Join me in withdrawing from these conferences. We can find another way to talk about our ideas. But since we live in the era where money is the universal signifier for value, speak with your money.
If we do this together, maybe we can make a difference. Maybe we can “provoke change.” The old methods don’t work anymore. It’s time for us to start trying something new.