Feedback from my lecture at the Green Party annual meeting has been trickling in, and it seems that the talk wasn’t as well-received as I thought at the time. The people who walked out in the first five minutes – maybe they didn’t have to go to the bathroom after all, as I’d assumed, ha ha.
The biggest trigger, in many places and not just at the Green Party, seems to be my contention that people who do evil things are not doing them because they are evil people; that therefore, tactics based on demonizing them are grounded in delusion and may be counterproductive; finally, that such an approach is an expression of the very same mentality of conquest and control that lies at the foundation of our civilization’s depredations.
“You want to let them get away with it!” is one response this message evokes. There is a perception of softness, of permissiveness, of shrinking from confrontation and letting the hucksters and bullies have their way.
I think this response mistakes punishment for justice, and fighting for action. Of course I am not saying we should let the frackers, the GMO-ers, the bombers, the corporations, etc. have their way. Nor am I saying that if only we fill our minds with pleasant thoughts of how, deep down, the corporate CEO’s are really good, well-meaning people, then their behavior will magically change. Indeed, I believe that many direct-action tactics, altered in flavor but not in form, will be doubly effective grounded in the story of oneness that says, “Brother, I know that if I were in the totality of your circumstances, I would be doing as you do.” The principle of activism I advocate is to disrupt the story from which the elites and their servants (and who among us is not in some way complicit?) are acting.
Here is a paragraph from MBW:
What do we really want? Is it to triumph over the bad guys and be the winners? Or is it to fundamentally change the system? You might think that these two goals may not be contradictory. I think they are: first, because the pattern of “fighting evil” comes from the same mentality as our competitive, dominator system; second, because in demonizing those we perceive as other, we drive them toward the very behaviors that justify our demonization; third, because we are unlikely to win at the power elite’s own game; fourth, because even if we do win, we will have become better at being them than they are; fifth, because if we enlist allies based on the motivation of triumphing over those greedy folks, they will abandon us once we have achieved that goal, even if the deeper systems remain unchanged. This is what happens nearly every time a dictator is toppled. Thinking they have won, the people go home; someone else steps into the power vacuum, and soon everything more or less goes back to the way it was.
Today, though, another point occurred to me. Sometimes it seems that the tactic of arousing hatred and indignation toward an individual, corporation, or other entity does seem to work. I am interested in when and why. One example of an issue that incited vast public outrage and mass mobilization was net neutrality, in which the rhetoric of “the greed of the telecom companies” arguably elevated the fervor of those trying to stop the latest assualt on net neutrality.
The blade cuts both ways. We see the same model at work in the Gaza conflict and, indeed, in any war: one creates a story in which the actions of one’s opponents are incomprehensible except through the explanation, “They are just evil.” They are not like us. They lack some fundamental essence of humanness.
Isn’t it obvious how this mentality is of a piece with the enabling ideology of exploitation: the dehumanization of the other? (And, more broadly, the desacralization of nature?)
Granting the premise of the evil of one’s opponents, then indeed any alternative to stopping them by force is unconscionably soft and weak. That is why advocates of peace in one context eagerly pile onto the war train in another, showing that they are no softies. Politicians in the U.S. Democratic Party are particularly wont to do this.
Yet, the examples of net neutrality and certain isolated environmental victories seem to indicate that the methods of winning a fight sometimes work. Without them, we certainly would never be able to drag a population into war. Do we need them as well in the “war on fracking,” the “war on global warming,” or the “war on GMO’s”? Or perhaps a better question is, Can we stop these things by other means?
I’m exploring the idea that there are two necessary conditions for the methods of war to work: (1) The goal is to overcome an enemy; for example to stop a dam or a mine or a law; to say “No” to something; (2) One can mobilize force equal or superior to that possessed by the other side.
Absent the first condition, there is nothing to fight against. We can fight a “war on drugs” but not a war to heal the poverty, despair, loss of meaning, community breakdown, loss of identity, and so on that cause drug addiction. We can fight a “war on terror,” killing those we see as terrorists, securing borders, surveiling communications, but we can’t fight a war against the experience of economic and political victimization that spawns such desperate acts.
Absent the second condition, one can only win if the “enemy,” or at least some faction or psychological constituent thereof, has a change of heart. That is something that cannot be forced.
Neither one of these two conditions pertains to the vast majority of the problems facing the world today. Deeply conditioned to view the world in terms of good versus evil, we seek to understand complicated social problems through the simplistic lens of perpetrators and victims. Who is the bad guy? Who can we fight? Ah, look, racism is one cause of poverty and addiction, so lets find some racists and heap upon them ridicule and shame. Having humiliated them on the pages of Huffington Post, we can leave our defeated enemy behind as we assure ourselves that the problem is being solved.
We can also assure ourselves that by adding our blows to the humiliation of the badguy, we ourselves are among the good guys, fighting on the side of right. A badguy thus becomes a necessity to maintain one’s self-approval and identity. If there is no bad guy, we must then manufacture one. Perhaps this is one reason, after the demise of the Soviet Union, America desperately cast about for a new enemy. For a brief time, I recall, it was the Latin American drug lords, who were duly cast as the arch-villians in a number of action movies. Then of course it became the Terrorists Who Hate Our Freedoms. Establishment intellectuals trot out other candidates for badguy from time to time – China, a “resurgent Russia,” the “Axis of Evil,” or Islam in a “clash of civilizations.”
Yet even in the mainstream Left, a similar mentality prevails; only the identity of the badguy is different. Sure, leftists give lip service to the notion that the problem is the system, not the individuals in it, but I hear a lot of vitriol directed at the bankers, the Koch Brothers, and so on. Insofar as the blame for the problem is laid at the feet of an evil entity, the solution is the same – the waging of a war, a struggle, a fight, a campaign. Now, I do not dispute that the behavior of some corporations and governments are hard to understand through any other lens. Nor do I dispute that there is sometimes no alternative but to fight. But addicted to the perceptual and conceptual lens of good versus evil, we apply the methods of a fight out of habit. It is that habit, and the lens that motivates it, that I am criticizing.
In a more and more obviously interconnected age, the habit of war is becoming harder to sustain. Whether in politics, medicine, or our relationship to nature, the program of overcoming an enemy is less and less useful. For the fastest-growing class of diseases, the epidemic of autoimmunity, there is no pathogen to overcome, and even if the enemy is seen as a miscreant element of the immune system, chemical domination of it brings only limited palliative success. In our relationship to nature, our problems are not so simple as to be solved wiping out a harmful species, razing a mountain, or straightening a river; indeed, we are learning that our efforts to conquer nature generate the same kind of blowback that our bombing of Yemeni villages do. The truth of interconnection belies the effectiveness of war in all its guises.
A final example: one might also see the Israeli foray into Gaza as another portent of the end of war – the latest of a number of examples of a vastly superior power failing to achieve its ends by force. That failure is a direct result of three synergistic upwellings of interbeing: (1) The lack of an easily distinguishable enemy to hate amid the evidently ordinary, human inhabitants; (2) The bypassing of traditional means of information control via the internet’s lateral information sharing; (3) Empathy for those suffering, possible only because they are seen as fully human. In a more barbaric age, the aggressor would have had no qualms about exterminating the entire population. (Of course, there may be certain unregenerate elements who want to do just that, but the fact that they will not prevail is significant.)
To make a convincing case that the age of war is drawing to a close is beyond the scope of this short off-the-cuff essay. Without a doubt, though, there are hopeful signs amid the horrors that, admittedly, continue to unfold in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, the Ukraine, and in places outside the mainstream news. Today, the mendacious term “surgical strikes” draws indignation, whereas a mere 70 years ago such a locution would not have even been necessary: the incineration of entire civilian populations was widely accepted, even in democracies (think of Hiroshima, Dresden, Tokyo, Nagasaki). By 1970, similar endeavors (like the carpet-bombing of Cambodia and Laos) had to be carried out in secret. Today they are by comparison furtive and halfhearted. Clearly, the age of war is not over yet, but I don’t think war can survive as the realization of our interconnectedness grows.
As above, so below. Are you and I ready for the end of war? When you read the first paragraph (assuming you are a supporter of these ideas), did you feel a twinge of blame, or othering, towards the people who walked out of my speech? Did you write them off as an enemy, people who did something mildly deplorable, inexcusable? People who “just don’t get it”? Did you feel a twinge of contempt? Judgement? That too is the mentality of war. And that too begins to evaporate in the bright light of the realization of our interbeingness: that I am a mirror of you, that they are a mirror of me, that in your shoes, my sister, I would do as you do.
Jennifer Wylie Brass says
This, again, resonated to my core. And, if I may say, A fucking men! I remember when, just after 9-11, my otherwise progressive in-laws got behind the idea of giving George W. Bush the “blank check” that Congress voted to give him, with the lone voice of Barbara Lee being against it. I stood with Barbara Lee, so, they tried to convince me that we should all get behind the President and allow him to, essentially, seek revenge. A rather heated argument followed as I was not convinced, at all, that revenge seeking made any sense . . . it almost felt to me like playing into the hands of the aggressor; I thought, why should we lower ourselves to that level? I just wished that I had had your gift of calm, thoughtful, and articulate story telling! Thank you so much for sharing this!!!
Ross Blaine says
A couple of thoughts/comments. You do not mention how war is used as a tool by Governments and TPTB to achieve various outcomes. Most of the time wars are not declared for the reasons stated publicly but for a vast array of other reasons. A war on drugs simply moves money and resources into the police state. A war on terrorism does the same but times a zillion. I mean let’s face it, war never produces anything positive for the planet or inhabitants but more misery. Meanwhile some do profit in many various ways by these declared wars. To change this story narrative, we will have to mature to the point that we no longer need or accept a mother society telling us what to think, believe, who is or is not evil, etc.
The second issue is the whole notion of ‘the other.’ This is fundamentally an issue of duality and the humans inability to harmonize the self. Through our own shadow, we are the ‘other’ that we hate. So if we want to change the narrative of the story from where war springs, we have to start with learning as individuals and as a species to harmonize the duality within and heal the shadow. This, I believe, will go a long way toward real interconnectedness and heal our relationships with not only each other, but also the natural world.
Jo Anne Casey says
I LIKE the way you think.
So correct in both accounts.
Written simply so that even a school child could grasp the concept! Brilliant! <3
Jennifer Wylie Brass says
Ross, very well said, “the whole notion of ‘other’ . . . we are the ‘other’ we hate” etc. love the whole paragraph!!!
Kate Culver says
Charles, Howard and I were at the Green Party meeting, and being fans of your work for years, we were at your talk. It was clear from the questions during the Q&A that people weren’t really hearing the message even though they would start with “I hear what you are saying,” and then comes the dropped shoe, “but…”. Afterward I asked several people what they thought and several people said “it was over my head”. Huh?! Love, compassion are over your head?
I was flabbergasted. The Party is a long way, and getting further at this point in the swing, from holding these memes being offered. The more beautiful world. We say we want it and then when the plan is laid before us, complete with its track record of success, we scoff at the message. We scoff because it takes work to break habits of the cultural malaise of separation. So much easier to complain. I want a Party that gets it. I am hoping this Party is it, and I am waiting for the pendulum to come back our way and set the new memes we want to live by.
Thanks for coming Charles. Howard and I aren’t alone in the Party. There are others ready for the shift, we just weren’t as vocal as those not ready to accept their power in relation to the whole. Sorry, we should have been. I am grateful for the opportunity to see you in person. I also taped it and the quality came out pretty good. I have enjoyed listening to it several more times. That’s one of the powers of storytelling, isn’t it, that we get more out of it each time? Some things aren’t ready to be heard once and be absorbed. Not when there are strong cultural norms that speak to the contrary of the message: might is right, the end justifies the means, if you’re not with us you’re against us, etc. Peace!
In Lak’ech, Kate
Susan Livingston says
Kate, do you still have the recording of Charles’s keynote The Revolution Is Love from that Green Party meeting? I wonder if you would be willing/able to upload it to Vimeo and share it.
Lori Lively says
Herb J. Schneider says
I use to live in an activist house in D.C.
Housemates included a western medical student who also studied wholistic healing, a self styled monk, an alternative radio producer, musician, environmentalist, women’s rights advocate, and others. I considered myself a social entrepreneur.
One of the main themes of the house was “F#%k Bush!” There was a spirit of anger and judgment. There was also a spirit of sexiness in the grand, dangerous struggle and fight.
There was a strange juxtaposition of spending much energy hating and fighting for a better world and the fact that we had a huge, old, broken air conditioner in the window with large gaps around it so that much energy was being wasted in the winter. The place was dirty, the pets were neurotic and there was constant quibbling, power struggles and selfish and inconsiderate behavior. If we could not create a healthy, human and functional microcosm in our collective home….how do we create a better larger world?
Those of us who would consciously profit at the expense of others are able to collaborate with others, to find common ground and to further our agendas. Quite effectively it would seem, given the state of things. I have seen often that we, people of conscious goodwill, will find reasons to exclude other people of conscious goodwill. A homophobic environmentalist, a racist feminist….or differences in views with one aspect or another. When more people of conscious goodwill can associate and collaborate with other people of conscious goodwill from varied disciplines, views and backgrounds with mutual respect and find common ground…then we create more so the more beautiful world. This, I believe is the great opportunity and the great obstacle.
Some of the feedback that you wrote in the above essay, Charles, seems to suggest that these individuals did not fully grasp what you were saying. (to point out the obvious) I also noticed a current of negative energy in myself….having a feeling of “Those idiot’s! Don’t they understand that fighting is not the way! Duh.” But then that is more of the same…the lack of compassion. More judging and fighting. More heat but not more light.
If someone is beating a dog or a person and we have the ability to intervene intelligently, firmly and effectively….influencing a peaceful outcome…then, to me that seems good. Of course. And if we can do this on a larger scale…then I say yes. If it can lessen domination and suffering, Then yes. But this will not get us all the way to where we wish to go. This is not enough to build a more beautiful world.
When living in NYC, I thought to myself, “How can extremely rich people spend money and consume and party and be idle when there is so much suffering? How can they perpetuate that lifestyle by going into businesses that harm? How evil!”
I was making good money as a massage therapist at the time….all of my life previously, I had supported myself from minimum wage. I I enjoyed my fancy long black wool coat. It kept me warm in the winter and I felt stylish. I felt more socially enfranchised.
When I noticed my judgement, I did what my father taught me to do. Place myself in another person’s shoes. What if someone approached me on the street who was living a poverty stricken life and he said to me, “How evil you are for wearing a nice coat and drinking wine and going to the movies and having fun when people are suffering!” And what if he wanted to rail against me, even hurt me, because in his mind he thought I deserved it? In my mind, I am a guy who is just trying to make it in this world dealing with many different stresses.
I imagine if I were born to great wealth and saw how the average person lived…I may very well be tempted to safeguard my position and to not think too deeply on the suffering of others.
I think the work you are doing, speaking to groups, is vital work. I imagine there are those who understood what you were saying even though it may have been a new way of seeing for them. I believe there may have been discussions among audience members and some people may have acted as a bridge for those who did not understand. And for those who don’t and are coming from a fighting for peace view….their time will come, I imagine, when they see it…probably after a period of continued self inflicted suffering. i think addressing this kind of feed back is very useful…clarifying…giving an opportunity for increased understanding…if perhaps some of the audience members subscribe to your newsletter and read it. and useful to all that read this blog.
It is so easy to me misunderstood…completely. Even when choosing very carefully how we say something. As I’m sure you know.
On TMBW Fb page there was a small bit of acrimony when discussing whether or not to keep the page an open group. But then, beautifully, it evolved into a very nice, edifying and inspirational discussion.
This is the real hope for our world, I believe. Seeing people of conscio
Herb J Schneider says
…….Seeing people of conscious goodwill associate and collaborate with others from diverse views and backgrounds with respect, finding common ground and creating. Thank you Charles for you work and for all people’s good works. Herb
Susan Livingston says
Thanks for your comments, Herb! I especially resonated with the story of your winter coat and your move from minimum wage slavery to a more comfortable and life-serving livelihood, and I was reminded of an eye-opening metric I subjected myself to. I wish I had bookmarked the link! Anyway, the finding was that, in spite of my position at 50% of the poverty line in the cultural context of the US of A, I’m in the top 5% from a global perspective. Diversity – It’s not just about race any more! And as you so rightly point out, this is not a single-issue world.
Herb Schneider says
Paul G says
Thanks for the post! It reminded me of some of Adam Werbach and others’ writing on the ‘death of environmentalism’ and the need for classic, combative environmentalism to evolve into a broader movement that strives towards a common, inclusive vision.
Stephen Porter says
Peace is the key to everything!
itamar cohn says
I invite you to Israel-Palestine. To strengthen the birth of a new story here in this Land.
kamir bouchareb st says