Solidarity versus Sympathy
Some people, like economist Paul Krugman, or historian Judith Leavitt, think the labor struggles in Wisconsin are of major historical significance, possibly akin to the uprisings in Egypt. Others, like my free-market friend Josh, think the fight for or against collective bargaining for state employees in Wisconsin is “important,” but “the pundit class is in danger of overstating the stakes.”
I’m not sure. Frankly, we don’t even know how important the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and elsewhere are going to be. In The Landscape of History, John Lewis Gaddis insists that we know much more about the past than we do the present, because we don’t yet have the benefit of perspective. I invoke Communist leader Zhou Enlai, when asked in the late 20th century about the impact of the French Revolution of 1789: “It is too soon to say.”
I do know this much though: I support the workers of Wisconsin. But I’m not sure I’m in solidarity with them. Let me explain.
Lots of people are telling me to be in “solidarity” with the workers of Wisconsin. I recently got an email from GSOC, New York University’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee, the proto-union for graduate students/teaching assistants affiliated with United Auto Workers, telling me exactly that: “We’re All Badgers now!” the subject line proclaims triumphantly, as the body of the text tells me that on Thursday, February 24, 2011 (today), I should “wear red in solidarity with the workers of Wisconsin.” Of course, GSOC is not alone. Apparently several members of the Superbowl champion Green Bay Packers, including corrnerback, captain and union rep Charles Woodson (pictured here), as well as Packer veterans, voiced their support for the public workers of Wisconsin. So have the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), the union for NFL players.
There’s something wonderful about this sentiment. It bring to mind Karl Marx’s inspirational cry at the end of the Communist Manifesto: “workers of the world, unite!”
And yet, as much as I am moved and inspired into sympathy by it, I give pause.
Because my experiences as a “worker,” a teaching assistant and graduate student at NYU, is not all that similar to the experiences of most public sector workers in Wisconsin, or private sector workers in factories, or the multi-millionaire athletes in the National Football League.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “solidarity” as: “the fact or quality, on the part of communities, etc., of being perfectly united or at one in some respect, esp. in interests, sympathies, or aspirations; spec. with reference to the aspirations or actions of trade-union members” (emphasis mine).
A second meaning refers to the “community or perfect coincidence of (or between) interests” (emphasis mine).
My understanding, then, is that “solidarity” refers to a very strong bond or connection of interests.
Sympathy, meanwhile, has a different connotation. The OED defines “sympathy” as “a (real or supposed) affinity between certain things, by virtue of which they are similarly or correspondingly affected by the same influence, affect, or influence one another (esp. in some occult way) or attract or tend towards each other.”
Another definition is “agreement, accord, harmony, consonance, concord; agreement in qualities, likeness, conformity, correspondence.”
The third definition is the most appropriate here. It states: “conformity of feelings, inclinations, or temperament, which makes persons agreeable to each other; community of feeling, harmony of disposition.” In the same vein, the OED adds another variation: “the quality or state of being affected by the condition of another with a feeling similar or corresponding to that of the other; the fact or capacity of entering into or sharing the feeling of another or others; fellow-feeling. Also a feeling or frame of mind evoked by and responsive to some external influence.”
Last, we have “the quality or state of being thus affected by the suffering or sorrow of another; a feeling of compassion or commiseration.”
The OED then references the “sympathy card” we send to a friend mourning the loss of a loved one, or the “sympathy strike” held in support of similarly embattled workers.
Yet those two things are rather different. When we offer our sympathy, or our condolences, it is perhaps because we know the feeling of loss, yet we can never know precisely what the mourner is feeling. Indeed, the various definitions of “sympathy” are all considerably softer than those of “solidarity.”
I’m reminded of the sentiments of our very own Luce, who while performing jury duty, sympathized with the plaintiff in the case, despite the chasms of class and culture that divided them, and granted them radically different life experiences. Her response to the comments makes this especially clear. She uses the word “empathy,” which the OED defines as “the power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation.” That strikes me is too strong: one needn’t (and probably can’t) “fully” comprehend a foreign situation, but one can have a sense that people with different experiences may still have similar interests.
I know I let out an overflow of OED definitions in this post, and I don’t want to get too hung up on semantics here. My point is simply that sometimes I wish there was a word that could convey my feelings here: a strong, even passionate support for the workers of Wisconsin, and indeed the world, along with a recognition that my experiences are VASTLY different, and in most cases more privileged, than theirs. I don’t think solidarity is that word.
But maybe I’m wrong. It’s possible, maybe even likely, that all the members of GSOC who feel “solidarity” with the public employees of Wisconsin recognize all these differences in their experiences, yet still feel passionate enough to proclaim a strong sense of identification.
To be sure, there are times when I feel solidarity with fellow workers. Or at least I think I do. Our very own Wiz is extremely active in GSOC, and has written about it here at PhD Octopus. His leadership there inspires me, as do the actions of workers across the nation fighting for their rights.
I am a strong supporter of unions in a rather moderate way (I also support teacher’s unions, though not without criticism). I think the right to form unions, and the right to strike, are important in terms of keeping employers in check. But to me, unions are primarily a means to an end, not an end in themselves. From a pragmatic point of view, I recognize that the existence of a strong union allows workers for a constant means to achieve those ends, but in principle I don’t think that a union is necessary provided that nobody is being exploited and workers are satisfied with salary, benefits, and other necessities.
Historically, I think unions have done tremendous good in the United States in terms of increasing workers’ rights, salaries and dignity and the overall good to society. And yet, as I mentioned in a previous post, when I look across time, at American Jewish history, and the workers who unionized so that they could leave the tenements and the sweatshops and ensure better lives for their children, I think it would be disingenuous to truly compare my situation to theirs. They unionized, and struck, at least in part so that their children, and people like me, could indulge myself in the Ivory Tower as a graduate student (I say all this metaphorically, as my grandparents came to Montreal after WW2). Had I been one of them, I would have felt solidarity, but as a beneficiary of their efforts, looking back, I feel sympathy, and gratitude.
Perhaps now is the time for solidarity with the workers of Wisconsin, to fight at their side for what is right. But perhaps the more appropriate emotions, for me, are sympathy and gratitude. They are the real workers, and the real fighters. Maybe that’s the real difference: I offer moral support from the Ivory Tower, while Wiz, metaphorically and literally, marches alongside them. But maybe I should be marching too.
As you can tell, I’m not really sure what to feel, as I’ve been working through my own sentiments throughout this post. But one thing I do know: Either in support, sympathy, solidarity, or something in between, I’m going to be wearing red today.