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.