A feed of recent articles from the independent global media platform openDemocracy’s Section Transformation, which tells the stories of those who are combining personal and social change in order to reimagine their societies.

17 February 2017. Trying to save the world should be fun

If we can't find joy in our work for peace and social justice, what's the point?

Credit: Common Dreams/CC BY 3.0.

Since Election Day in the US my mood has been sunk deep in the shadows. It’s been hard to find the energy to smile, even on the sunniest day.

Then came the Women’s March. I arrived late and joined the march in mid-route. The signs, the banners, the colors, and everywhere the smiles—it was like plunging into a river of hope and good cheer, flowing gently and gracefully through the streets.

Suddenly, all those negative feelings that had been freezing my heart for more than two months vanished. This was exciting. This was exhilarating. This was FUN!

In a flash I felt like a time machine had swept me back nearly half a century to my first protest marches, against the Vietnam war. And I remembered what I should have known all along, the lesson I first learned in the late ‘60s and had to re-learn, over and over again, in all my years of activism since then: Politics is supposed to be fun. If your political activism isn’t fun, you aren’t doing it right.

For all the mistakes we ‘60s radicals have made, we got one thing right. Activism, done right, means following Gandhi’s motto: Be the change you want to see in the world.  Create, here and now, as best you can, the future you are trying to bring about.

For most of us, that future is a world filled with as much joy as possible, a world where it is easy to have fun, not all the time, but most of the time. So that’s the change we should be, now.

We started out protesting a horrendous war that we watched on television every night. Nevertheless, we found so many ways to bring fun into our protests and all our political activities.

Now our chief concern, highlighted in the Women’s March, is the oppression that some people and groups may experience at the hands of a minority that still thinks it’s the majority. We won’t stand for anything less than full justice and equal rights for all people.

But there is little point in securing equal rights for all if all are going to be merely equally joyless. What we want is a society that offers equal opportunity for joy to all, and equal opportunity to have fun. So, as we work toward that goal, we should take care to bring as much joy and fun as we can into the process.

Having fun is also a smart political tactic. Sadness, anxiety, and gloom drain us of energy and hope. Joy and fun fill us with energy. They make us more hopeful, make it feel like there’s good reason to keep on keeping on.

It’s going to be a long four years. We are going to need all the energy and hope we can muster. It’s just a smart tactic to fill our activism with as much fun as we can.

It isn’t very hard, as we saw at the March. Enjoying the diversity of ideas and images created by such diverse people all around us was fun. Seeing all the creative signs and banners and costumes, hearing the chants and the songs, was fun.

In all our activism we can incorporate such creative tactics. We can have parades, pageants, street theater, satire, stirring oratory, dinners, dances, communal feasts, coffee houses, cabarets, and much more. It’s all fun.

And we do all of it together. As we saw at the March, the sheer excitement of creating the kind of massive community we would want to live in, even if only for a few hours, is surely a lot of fun. We will rarely be in a community that big. But whatever kind of activism we do, we usually do it with others, with friends old and/or new. Creating and renewing bonds of friendship, finding pleasure in the give and take of relationships, feeling the joy and excitement of being part of the group – all that is bound to feel like fun, not all the time, but much of the time.

In my years as a teacher I talked to a lot of students who were considering starting some kind of progressive activism. I always told them that there was no guarantee their efforts would change the world. But I could guarantee that in progressive activist circles they would meet the nicest people. They would surely share uplifting experiences with people they like and admire. And that would be fun.

Just hanging out with good folks who share your political views, sharing the banter, the jokes and the sarcasm, even the griping and commiserating, is a kind of fun. We spend a lot of that time making fun of people and political views we oppose. Why not recognize that we are having fun?

Fun is an attitude that we can choose. We can choose to see the funny side of so much of political life, at least some of the time. And we can interpret most of our experiences in activism as fun if we choose to.

Suppose a group of you go into a Congressperson’s office and have to deal with a semi-robotic staffer who obviously knows much less than you about your issue and gives you no answers but empty cliches. It’s like talking to a stone wall. What’s the point? The group can easily leave depressed at how useless it all seems.

Or you can walk out and say to each other, “Well, that got us charged up. We got to see how ridiculous those people can be; it’s enough to make us want to laugh. And we showed them how knowledgeable we are about the issue, as good citizens should be. Hey, that was fun. Let’s do it again some time.” Focusing on the fun rather than the frustration makes it more likely that you will, indeed, do it again some time.

We can never predict with any certainty the effects of our political actions. In that sense, activism is always an adventure into the unknown. Thinking of it like that is yet another way to make it exciting and fun.

When we decide to look for the fun in our activism, it helps us focus on the intrinsic value of the process rather than judging it solely by the outcome, which can often lead to feelings of failure. Though the outcome may be less than we hoped, we can make always make the process feel gratifying and, in that sense, a success.

Of course we cannot be having fun all the time. We are activists because we are paying attention and caring deeply about what’s going on in our country and in the world. That means we are seriously worried and often depressed every time we read or watch or hear the news. It’s unavoidable.

That’s precisely why we should take care to fill our political lives, and every aspect of our lives, with as much fun as we can. America needs us to be at our strongest and most effective, as we try our best to move the nation closer to liberty and justice for all, despite the forces dragging us down. So America needs us to be having some fun along the way. Let’s remember to stop every so often and ask ourselves, are we having fun yet?

This article was first published on Common Dreams.

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15 February 2017. How we talk about race and safety can really make a difference

Speaking with both honesty and care can transform a conflict in unexpected ways.

Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay. Credit: Twitter/

“Do you really believe that US police kill black people unprovoked, without any real reason?”

This question from an Israeli friend of mine is no more unusual than the relentless killings of black people themselves. Like my friend, many white people remain unaware of structural racism and implicit bias. They believe that the police are simply doing their best to protect public safety, and are reinforced in their views by the fact that police officers are acquitted so often.

Safety is a tricky concept, both abstract and emotionally compelling. Focusing on safety activates the fight-flight-freeze part of our brains. Our circle of care then shrinks to include self and kin only. This dramatically reduces the chances that we will reach out and collaborate with others in a moment of actual or perceived conflict. In that way, framing things in terms of safety separates us from each other and from the larger web of life of which we are a part.

As David Schneider says, a Rice University psychologist and author of The Psychology of Stereotyping, “the most popular stereotype of black people is still that they’re violent.” These stereotypes are not accidental; they have been reinforced for centuries with devastating consequences for African-American communities. In some parts of Oakland, for example, black youth don’t walk outside in their own neighborhoods for fear of being targeted. An East Bay Express article documents extensive racial profiling by white residents on the private (commercial) social network Nextdoor, while the company itself and some of its users have given less-than-serious consideration to complaints about racism.

The criminalization of the Black community, and the structures that sustain it, also inform police action. Ongoing police violence is why a UN Committee condemns U.S. for racial disparity and police brutality. Vox reports that Black teens are 21 times more likely to be shot by cops than white teens, and USA Today reports a staggering racial disparity in U.S. arrest rates. According to the Guardian, the “final total of people killed by US police officers in 2015 shows the rate of death for young black men was five times higher than white men of the same age.” 

Still, despite all the evidence, Blacks and whites are worlds apart in their perceptions about the role of race in the US. On every measure used, the gap is significant. For example, 84 per cent of blacks say that blacks are treated unfairly by the police compared to only 50 per cent of whites.

In that case, how can white people who do understand these realities respond?

Bridging the gap of perception, especially when safety is invoked, requires speaking both from our heart and to the other person’s. As the following stories illustrate, this is far from a trivial task. It requires changing what we say to ourselves, and, by extension, changing how we speak. More than anything, it takes a commitment to learning over time, and never giving up. 

Melanie is a white woman from a small town in upstate New York who I talked with on a recent conference call. She encountered the standard stereotypes of black people in a conversation with a police officer. Speaking of the mostly black population of housing projects in New York City, he told her that they deserve worse treatment than he gives them. When Melanie spoke of their humanity, he countered like this: “these people are thugs; they will rob you; that’s just what they do, and then they laugh about it.”

Melanie was paralyzed: “I was really unsure what to say to the police officer in the moment because my mind was racing around judging him,” she said. Even while seeing the irony that she was judging him for judging “these people,” she remained unable to reach across the divide and connect. Neither she nor any of us can truly have a conversation with someone while judging them. Something else is needed to give us the power to subvert societal scripts. It starts with reflecting on what makes it possible for police violence—and more generally, white indifference to the plight of black people—to persist.

The officer’s words provide a window into answering that question. No explicit thoughts about black people are required. Structural privilege hides the effect of our actions, choices, thoughts, and lifestyles on other groups of people. Sometimes, the conditioning that comes with privilege obscures the very humanity of others. For the police officer it’s simple: one group that’s implicitly white deserves safety, and the other group that’s implicitly black deserves punishment. With that mindset, anyone can contribute to violence without actively choosing it.  

Here’s a dilemma from my own experience. I had just boarded a Southwest flight in the US. Gradually, I became aware of an escalating conversation behind me. A white flight attendant was telling one of two young black women in an exit row to move, saying that she hadn’t responded with a clear ‘yes’ when asked whether she could perform the required actions in the event of an emergency. The young woman insisted that of course she could, and had said so. The flight attendant said repeatedly: “I needed a ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ and you gave me an attitude.”

I can’t imagine a white woman being told this, so despite my unease I decided to step in (I’m providing a window into my internal thought processes because I hope this might support others in their own reflections). My habitual response to situations involving authority tends to be fearful, but as I often tell other people, “use your privilege, mobilize it for everyone’s benefit.” Despite being Jewish and an immigrant, I know my relative privilege as a white woman. So I stood up to speak.

Ideally I believe in finding a way to care for everyone simultaneously in a situation like this. In this case, I didn’t find it on the spot. Instead, I chose to prioritize the needs of the two black women to compensate for their relative lack of power. With barely an acknowledgment of the flight attendant’s concern for safety, I focused on the potential racial undertones of the conversation. Instead of the situation deescalating, the flight attendant brought the white captain and a Latina security guard to our seats while I was talking with the young women and offering them my support. The black woman then agreed to move, and I continued to monitor things, standing. When the security guard raised her voice to tell me to sit down or get on another flight, I lost my courage and complied.

On some level, my intervention was unsuccessful: the young black woman ended up vacating her seat, separated from her friend in the absence of other seats. The airline staff didn’t consider any perspective outside the frame of their safety protocols. But on other levels, perhaps something was achieved. The two black women thanked me, leaving me with the sense that what I did had had a micro-effect—perhaps supporting them in being ever so slightly less alone in what was happening. I also succeeded in diverting a cloud of hostility towards myself. Maybe a few other people noticed and perhaps thought about what was happening. My seatmates, an Asian-American couple, initiated a conversation and affirmed my perceptions and action. Something outside the norm did happen.

What was missing, perhaps, was more of a capacity to see the humanity and concerns of the flight attendant even while advocating for the black women. Speaking with a high degree of honesty without losing care can sometimes transform a situation in unexpected ways. When we manage this feat, the person we challenge might respond differently in their next moment.

This is what the writer Ijeoma Oluo did in response to racist trolling on Twitter on Martin Luther King Day in 2015. By Quoting Dr. King, by offering empathy to her troll, and by sharing her experience directly, she transformed the situation. By the end of their exchange, she had discovered that the ‘troll’ was a 14-year old boy who had lost his mother and was using Twitter to release his anger. His final words? “You’re so nice and I am so sorry.”

When we don’t make a conscious attempt to include and understand everyone in a challenging situation like this, we can come across as telling the other person that what they’re doing is wrong, which doesn’t help us to bridge perception gaps. Even when we are free of judgment, it takes a concerted effort to make that clear across divides. Stating explicitly that we trust another person’s intention not to cause harm deliberately can go a long way to reducing their defensiveness, and opening the way to a different outcome.

For Melanie, this would have meant acknowledging the concerns of the police officer she was speaking to at the same time as standing up for the community that he was maligning. For me, it would have meant communicating to the flight attendant my care for the dilemma she was facing, at the same time as standing up for the dignity of the young black woman who was asked to move—not one or the other.

Whatever we try in challenging situations like these may or may not work. We can’t know that in advance. I only know that each time I allow myself to feel the heartbreak of these situations, to see my own humanity and that of others, and to learn from my mistakes, I get one bit closer to the world of my dreams. There’s nothing more I could ask of myself or anyone else. 

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14 February 2017. Cold war, hot love

The collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in a revolution of the intimate. To open our series on Romantic regimes, we discuss the trajectories of emotional socialism and emotional capitalism in the post-Soviet context. Русский

Russian lovers per excellence, in Western imagination: Yuri Zhivago and Lara, protagonists of Boris Pasternak´s Nobel Prize winning novel "Doctor Zhivago". Source: Wiki Commons.In the mid-1990s, I observed Russia’s transition to “emotional capitalism” — a value system based on personal autonomy, individual choice and private interests not only in the market, but in the private realm, too. Every morning as I made my way to school, I would linger at the newspaper stand near the metro, where I was entranced by the ever-changing assortment of newspapers and magazines. Glossy covers, one after the other, with pictures of racy women and equally racy cars were forcing the greying Pravda into the back row — until it disappeared completely. Whereas the front page of a newspaper previously ordered Soviet citizens to dedicate every minute of their lives to socialist labour on factory floors and fields of collective farms, Cosmo, Vogue and GQ now insisted that men and women alike ought to focus on a new sphere of productivity: their own lives and their own bedrooms.

“Sex or Chocolate: There is time for Everything!” a Cosmopolitan cover instructed a nation that had just ceased to measure their lives in five-year plans. Moreover, it claimed that “successful thirty-year old women did not need husbands” and invited the reader to test “how well they know their partner”. Once again in the history of the twentieth century, the Russian individual was to be radically “re-forged” (to use a Soviet term), this time from collectivist, fatalist Homo Soveticus into an emotional capitalist who measures the quality of their marriage on a scale of one to ten, masters the “25 sexual positions everyone can for a fold-up bed” and knows how to “pursuit their emotional needs” in a communal kitchen.

A Western lover per excellence, in Russian imagination: Cosmo girl. This is the cover of the first Russian issue of the Cosmopolitan magazine published in May 1994. Source: of the heart suddenly acquired a new vocabulary: where the thousand-page Russian novels said “love”, the stars of the new sitcoms said “relationship”; where our folk songs sang of “destiny”, Cosmo spoke of “decisions”; where our mothers were still saying “fiancée”, we were learning to say boifrend and gelfrend; and where well-bred Russians shrugged shoulders and turned red, Cosmo said “sex”, “oral sex”, “anal sex”, “body contact” and “orgasm”.

The usual pattern of relationships has been challenged, too. In place of a steady progression of “falling in love”, “seeing each other” and “getting married”, we are now taught to “stay independent”, distinguish between “sex” and “feelings”, give the partner a “trial period” and only then “commit”. This was a revolution of intimacy. Together with the economic and political regimes of late socialism, another, subtler but equally potent regime had crumbled — the romantic regime, a system of emotional conduct that affects how we speak about how we feel, determine “normal” behaviours, and establish who is eligible for love, and who is not.

To open oDR’s series on “Romantic regimes”, I spoke to Julia Lerner, a sociologist and professor at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University, and a former resident of St Petersburg, who came up with the concept of “emotional socialism” in her research on emotional language in the mass media. 

Julia, how did you come to the topic of “emotional socialism”? Did you yourself experience the clash of “Soviet” or “Russian” ideas about emotions and love with their “western” counterparts? 

I left for Israel when I was 18 years old — the very peak of the beginning of romantic relationships, and I, of course, searched for love. I was in love with Israel, its language, and I wanted relationships only with Israelis. But I was completely unprepared for the way first dates are conducted there. For instance, I heard this Hebrew expression lo matim li (“this doesn’t suit me”) from a young man. And I just couldn’t understand what it meant, why he was saying this to me and what further development of our relationship it foresaw — would he call me after or not? I understood Hebrew, but this expression was completely alien to me. 

What does this lo matim li mean? First, it supposes an autonomous Self. And this Self has some kind of emotional needs, a clear idea of what and who is suitable, and who isn’t. This might be banal, but it’s like as if he’s entered the supermarket, and there are different women there, and he’s choosing — but he can’t make up his mind straight away, and so he tries, and after the first or second dates, after sex, he says “No, I don’t want that, but that, yes, perhaps.” And he isn’t thinking about offending me, not at all. But he has his Self, and the Self has needs. He — Igal, Omri, Dudu — knows them and is constantly studying them, and this is why it seems to him that he isn’t humiliating me whatsoever. I just don’t suit him, but he doesn’t say anything about that to me. That is, I’m just absent from this picture. 

In the Russian model, if you don’t fall head over heels, then you aren’t really in love, and this kind of love won’t bring you happiness

But the most important thing after someone says lo matim li to you is that you have absolutely nothing to say. The whole romantic scenario of wooing someone just doesn’t work anymore. Because how will you woo them? Change their needs? Change yourself so you suit them? 

According to the Russian version of love, you can love someone that doesn’t suit you. And this doesn’t make you “unhealthy”, as it were. It actually emphasises your humanity. But in the western model, if you love something or someone that doesn’t suit you, it means that you’re neurotic. 

Sure, that’s how I see it. But the differences are felt even when people come to the conclusion that they “suit” one another. After I got married to an Israeli, we nevertheless perceived what happened between us completely differently. I was still signed up to that model of love where there are certain laws. In the first place, love - either it’s there, or it isn’t. But he was “in a relationship”, which could and had to be “worked on”. It’s interesting that, despite the fact that a Soviet person was meant to work on themselves in different spheres, you still can’t “work on love” in the Russian paradigm. Love is beyond that. 

lead If Anna Karenina did a better job working on her relationships, may be she wouldn't have to be so sad. Photo CC BY-ND 2.0: John E. Branch Jr./Flickr. Some rights reserved. In general, the therapeutic management of emotions is an illusion. Because, in actual factual, you don’t choose anything. You organise yourself, your behaviour according to a healthy norm. I spent a year in America, and the whole time there I had the sense that everything was designed to cultivate the feeling that you had many choices. So that you would never think that you had no choice. And this is why you would be constantly asked if you wanted a plastic bag or a paper bag — you were supposed to have the feeling that you were choking on this choice.

How free are we in love? We live in this paradigm, we choke on this choice, as you put it — but how real is it?

We’re limiting ourselves to romantic love right now, yes? When another, separate person, who suddenly according to fate, or your choice, or because they satisfy your needs becomes something significant for you and you want to be with them, spend time with them, touch them – in this sense?

For me, freedom is not a relevant issue when it comes to this experience. It seems to me that this kind of love, this kind of attachment, it fundamentally denies the possibility of freedom. It proposes dependency instead. Compromise. It’s just in the Russian model that the women, as a rule, always compromises, and not the man. But, on the whole, freedom can only exist from it, from love, but this kind of freedom is charged with unhappiness and emptiness. 

What are emotional socialism and emotional capitalism? Do they actually exist? 

Let’s start with capitalism — it’s been studied and described in closer detail. Emotional capitalism is a very general concept that tries to describe the result of the interaction of different economic forces, grand cultural narratives and social institutions. It’s a fusion of psychological discipline and its practices, free-market capitalism and the major life scenarios of American culture. Here you have the protestant ethic, and individual autonomy, and the never-ending ideology of choice. This mixture, this is what emotional capitalism is.

Pet Shop Boys - Love is a bourgeois construct. 

Emotional socialism is also a fusion generated by disparate phenomena existing in the same historical time and place. Firstly, this is the economic and value system of socialism — its principles of collective property and service to society. Secondly, it includes the life scenarios of Russian, or rather, Russian-language culture, at the heart of which lie the norms of 19th century literature. Apart from this, Orthodoxy and, of course, everything that Soviet ideology had to see about emotions and your private life. 

In this sense, “Russianness” plays a role in emotional socialism, just as “Americanness” does in emotional capitalism. This is why, when I talk about emotional socialism, I don’t lose sight of the dominant role of Russian literature and, of course, Russian language itself. That is, you can probably work with the concept of emotional socialism in Cuba and China, but it will be different from the former Soviet Union. 

Of course, we should be critical towards the idea of “emotional socialism” as a reality. Any attempt to describe a culture purely in opposition to another is fraught with simplification: we start to see more differences and fewer similarities. When someone or something starts to be perceived as an Other, then that Other very quickly transforms into The Other, the complete opposite. What I mean is that the Russian emotional style, the Russian style of relationships, the Russian model of love begins to be interpreted as the polar opposite to the American, western and so on. 

I don’t consider Russian or Soviet emotional culture something exotic, something that would be completely alien to the population of France, Britain or America. This is why the concept of “emotional socialism” very strongly simplifies our understanding. All that being said, the idea of emotional socialism seems to me correct and suitable for analysis. In the post-Soviet space, people think and talk about their private lives, emotional experiences differently. And this becomes particularly prominent in Russian-speaking émigré communities where there’s the possibility of direct comparison, reflection. 

Let’s come back to the life scenarios that emotional socialism is built upon. What do they represent? And who are its heroes? What qualities do they have? What trials and tests do they have to pass through? 

Well, for example, I understand that the protagonist of Russian literature suffers, and his suffering is his value. That is, avoiding suffering is not his goal. In modern pop-psychology (don’t confuse it with Freud!), there is the idea of avoiding suffering. The Russian narrative doesn’t have this, it has pain. Suffering is not seen as a barrier, as something that suggests you’re living your life wrong, or doing the wrong thing.

A Soviet lady in distress was a lady like any other and had the empathy of women far beyond the USSR. Best proof: an Oscar won by "Moscow doesn't believe in tears" in 1981, arguably, the most famous socialist rom-com. Photo: RIA NovostiI’ll give you an example. I once carried out some research for Sochnut, the Jewish Agency for Israel, about how they should represent Israel to Russian Jews still in Russia. So that they would understand how good they could have it in Israel. The agency decided to opt for a business strategy, rather than an ideology: Russian Jews most likely have some unsatisfied needs, and Israel should be represented as a product that will satisfy them. 

The main life scenario today is self-realisation, personal growth. Curiously, people find this scenario largely through self-help technologies and media, rather than through professional psychology

We did a huge number of focus groups, and I saw something that really surprised me: people spoke about their unsatisfied needs, but changing their place of residence was not, for them, a way of solving them. The majority of them said that to learn how to live with these problems, get used to them, live despite them — this is was a more meaningful, valuable experience. This is their route to success. This doesn’t wash over that a million people left, but people who stayed articulate their reasons in these terms.

This is another specific element of emotional socialism, which is a place for things like fate, destiny, circumstances. There’s a certain set-up of forces or some kind of route that you follow, and you need to follow it, not resist it. To adapt, not change. 

In western literature, Homo Sovieticus or Soviet man is often described precisely in these terms — as someone who is subjugated to circumstances, who doesn’t have what is called “agency”, that is, self-definition, freedom of will, the freedom to take action. Personally, it seems to me that this reading is rather simplified and incorrect, and so I’d like to ask you: where does emotional freedom, the emotional will of a person raised on emotional socialism lie?

Most likely, it’s in the freedom to fall head over heels in love, in the freedom to love madly. Why was there such a cult of love in Soviet literature, cinema? After all, it was completely legitimate to make films about “mad love”, betrayal, leaving your family.

It was, it seems, a special kind of niche: to lose your head, the freedom of emotional self-expression. But not with the aim of “self-realisation”, for example, but an end in itself. Here, economic prosperity and happiness do not follow from big authentic feelings. And nothing good, as a rule, comes of them. Perhaps, it’s like the exercise yard in prison. A system that always holds you in place very firmly, but, to exist, has to create some spaces where its guard drops.

So it’s like Mikhail Bakhtin’s “carnival”, the authorised chaos in a world of total control. Russia’s freedom to lose your head has a dark side, too: domestic violence, abandoned children, alcoholism, the highest number of divorces per capita in a developed country. Is “losing your head” really freedom or a just lack of responsibility?

This is a normative question. It suggests that we look at “Russian” and “American” love judgmentally. I try not to suppose that Russian love is madness and irresponsibility, and American is responsible regulation that minimises harm to oneself and those around you, or, indeed, the other way round — that Russian love is true and deep, and American is like a programme for robots. Although in all my personal experience, I feel ambivalence, my own conscience and language are psychologised and, perhaps, through my fantasy about Russian emotions I am trying to resist their complete colonisation.

How are life scenarios changing in post-Soviet culture? Where do people get their ideas of how to express their emotions, how to live with them?

There’s been a discursive shift. It’s become unclear where we find meaning, where these meanings are produced. I think that, for a huge number of people, blogs and Facebook – this is all that they read. And social media are incredibly normative. It’s completely clear that the place of classic literature as a source of life scenarios and, in particular, emotional life, has been seriously reduced. 

The Soviet individual was made with an axe, and what you just described [self-help culture] is an attempt to slaughter this personality type with a weapon that is just as blunt

The main life scenario today is self-realisation, personal growth. Curiously, people find this scenario largely through self-help technologies and media, and not through professional psychology. Russia has a therapy culture, just not a culture of turning to therapists for help.

The idea of freedom from love as freedom from dependency, which is promoted in self-help literature, is also very popular. But it often takes very radical forms, such as neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). How do you explain this? 

This is usually connected with a situation where a break with the past is being sold well. Some researchers write that you have to understand Soviet civilisation not through the command economy, but the building of a new type of personality, individual. The Soviet individual was made with an axe, and what you just described [self-help culture] is an attempt to slaughter this personality type with a weapon that is just as blunt, together with its emotional socialism, and create a new one in its place. And that’s in a situation where, when we analyse what’s happening in Russia’s media discourse, in popular culture, we see a lot of Soviet material there. 

The format of communicating ideas is absolutely Soviet. The emphasis and aim (to destroy the old or foreign) is absolutely the same. I was just thinking that, if we’re going to talk about emotional socialism and emotional capitalism, then we’re currently living in the times of the emotional “New Economic Policy” (NEP) — i.e. a time of permitted experimentation and acquisition after upheaval. In 1925, Nikolai Bukharin came to the workers and peasants and announced: “Get rich!” And this is precisely what post-Soviet self-help does. It comes to people and says: Onward, take control of your life, you don’t owe anyone anything! Don’t give up your seat to old ladies on the metro. Only get married to an alpha male who brings in 100,000 roubles a month. What do you think?

That’s an interesting thought. But at the same time, I think you and I have fallen into a certain trap of this omnipotent emotional capitalism. We’ve taken the bait, and used its baseline economic metaphor. Take me, for instance, I recently went to a professional coach, who explained to me how to grow in my profession. And she asked me: “How do you fill up your emotional bank? Let’s take a look at what investments you have, what outgoings?” And I told her that I don’t want to use those kinds of concepts. I don’t see my soul and my life as a bank.

I am not sure that this is necessary or the correct way to write about the emotional lives of people and their concerns in terms of property, capitalism and socialism. There’s something wrong about this, in accepting this structure of thought as a baseline. 

Let’s round up. what’s the main difference between “Russian” and “western” love? 

In the Russian model, if you don’t fall head over heels, then you aren’t really in love, and this kind of love won’t bring you happiness. And in the American model, if you lose your head, then it’s first and foremost a sign that something’s wrong with you. To be happy in love there, you need to show — yourself and your partner — that “I can live without you”. 

Coming soon: the next part of “Romantic Regimes”, where we look at the changing norms of love in marriage counselling in Czechoslovakia. 


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13 February 2017. America is not the Promised Land

Wrapping Jesus in the Stars and Stripes so that we can wage wars, claim exceptionalism, and justify the expansion of US business interests is not Christianity.

Credit: Some rights reserved.

I constantly battle a myth within me. It formed me—as ancient stories do—and its logic crops up unbidden as I go about my life. I notice it as I walk along the shore of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga and the land vibrates with history. Making my way over the bridge to the business district, the streets swarm with students and tourists visiting an aquarium, a museum, a theater, and restaurants. In the midst of business, I remember that my city is known for being a Bible-based city. It is one of the most Christian towns in the nation.

When I descend the steps to the river’s edge, another story emerges. Native symbols line the stairs, and murals mark our essential elements of wind, fire, earth, and sun. The walls call to the four corners of the earth, lending me a compass that grounds me as I honor the Cherokee Nation that once thrived on this land, before their forced removal created a Trail of Tears along which thousands of people died from disease, starvation, and exposure.

As I stand at the water, I remember how I’ve prayed along these shores with their members and elders. Our chants matched the rhythm of beating drums as they scattered ash into the flowing river, lifting up those who died along the terrible path. When I walk along the river, my internal mythic battle ensues.

As a white woman who grew up as a conservative Christian, the European colonizers’ story mixed with my theology in awkward ways. I internalized those triumphant ideas of Manifest Destiny—that the American people hold special virtues, that we are exceptional, and that it is our divine right and destiny to remake others in our own image. In our history, as settlers moved west to take more land, Manifest Destiny reverberated through pulpits, proclaiming that we were a Christian nation, a ‘shining city on a hill.’ 

Growing up, the Religious Right echoed this message and I often heard it. We co-opted the stories of the Jewish people. In our Sunday school classrooms, we learned under the glowing visage of Warner Sallman’s Jesus. The curriculum recounted narratives with flannel-graph figures in the shape of a blonde Moses leading his pale-skinned followers through the wilderness to the Promised Land. As our teacher tried to make the lessons of an ancient nomadic people applicable to our 10-year-old 1980s lives, we understood that the U.S. was our Promised Land, given to us by God, so that we could have religious freedom.

As we moved from our classrooms into the sanctuary to hear the pastor expound, our national narratives became more confused with the stories of the Bible. We learned that God blesses certain nations, and God was blessing America. It was our duty to defend our country, fight for its Christian identity, and inspire its people to uphold the highest moral purity.

The clear evidence of God’s favor was our wealth as a country. We were to be a light to all nations. In my pew, the words of Jesus began to sound a lot like Ronald Reagan’s addresses. When we belted out, “Onward Christian Soldier” and “God bless America,” our hearts soared and our eyes watered, because we believed that we were exceptional. We had reached the Promised Land, and we intended to defend it against any physical, religious, or moral threat.

Now, thirty years later, I have broken with my Religious Right heritage and have written about healing from the damage it has caused. I became a social justice Christian and a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA). As I walk along the shores of the Tennessee River, I realize how mixing God and white nationalism together has had devastating effects on my country, particularly when it comes to inciting wars, suppressing religious freedom, and encouraging the spread of unbridled capitalism.

First, in the military actions of the United States, we have heard the echoes of crusader language coming from those who want to use religion to frame armed missions abroad. Conjuring God to ignite warfare has been an effective mobilizing tool since the days of the Emperor Constantine, but peace between nations is impossible when suspicious politicians drag  faith onto their battlefields. President Trump’s ban on immigrants from seven Muslim countries shows how the war on terror has been set up as a religious war, and how politicians have used ‘God and country’ rhetoric to incite public support for it.

In order to stop this flagrant use of Christianity to foment violence, we must realize that American soil is not the Promised Land. Instead of allowing faith to be dragged into war, we have to unravel our deepest beliefs from the possession of property and economic gain. Only then we can look to the ancient wisdom of different religions to inspire peace, forgiveness, and dignity between faiths.

Second, the concept of religious freedom—the right of people to practice their faith and not persecute people of any other faith or none—has long been upheld by the religious Right. Yet instead of understanding this right as celebrating all faiths in a diverse country, they perceive themselves as persecuted. Conservative Evangelical Christians often understand the idea of religious freedom to mean that they have the right to uphold certain beliefs, even if that belief causes discriminatory action or physical harm to another citizen.

For example, they might explain that a baker should not be forced to bake a cake for a couple’s religious ceremony if the baker does not agree with same-sex marriage. Or they might maintain that a business owner should not have to provide insurance coverage for a woman’s reproductive health.  But when the rights of Muslims are severely curtailed, many of these Christians don’t seem to feel the same passion to defend religious freedom.

When we understand that American Christians are not God’s chosen people we can begin to uphold the right of all people to practice religion, or not to practice it. If we begin to uphold the religious convictions of all people, then we must recognize the dignity of those who celebrate a religious ceremony, women who need access to reproductive health, and refugees who travel across borders for sanctuary, because above all, we are people who have been called to lives of love.

Third, the idea of a God that blesses people with wealth has seeped into our national dialogue so deeply that many Christians do not begrudge an economic system that encourages the increasing disparity between rich and poor. In fact, they have baptized it as holy, because they imagine people with wealth and health are blessed by God. On the other hand, those who struggle to pay their debts or cannot access medical care are seen as morally flawed. But the American system of high student loans, limited access to healthcare, and low wages makes solvency untenable for most of the population. As U.S. influence expands to other countries, the economic interests of the USA have taken on a missionary fervor.

Yet Christians must know that their faith has been co-opted. When they go back to their texts, they see that Jesus claimed that the poor were blessed, and he compels us always to be looking after the “least of these.” Jesus said that when we feed a hungry person, clothe a naked person, or welcome a stranger, we welcome God.

As I look over the Tennessee River and stand with the ghosts of the past, I’m reminded that Christianity does not condone wrapping Jesus in the American flag so that we can wage wars, claim exceptionalism, and justify the expansion of U.S. business interests. America is not the Promised Land. Instead, Jesus calls out over troubled waters in a nation which still has to recognize its great atrocities, and he encourages love for our neighbors as for ourselves.

When faith is used by its most pernicious elements to incite violence, oppress religious diversity, and create economic disparity, we need to reclaim the truth of our moral core: we need to relearn love.

Carol Merritt’s new book is Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God after Experiencing a Hurtful Church.


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11 February 2017. ‘Arrival’ and the possibility of conversation

The gift is their language itself, and the new perception of reality it unlocks.

lead New arrivals. Sand sculpture at the 'Sandworld' exhibit in Warnemunde, Germany, 2014.Flickr/Brando.n. Some rights reserved. Arrival, the film adaption of the novella Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, has been recognised as one of the most intelligent sci-fi films of recent years, as concerned with helping us see our own world anew as with what might exist beyond it. It is especially poignant, perhaps, that Denis Villeneuve’s movie was released only days after a bitter US Presidential race, whose outcome was only the most shocking upset of a year that has exposed seemingly irresolvable political and cultural divisions. For essentially it is a story about the possibility of communication, of bridging the abysmal gulfs that stop us talking to each other.

An alien civilisation visits Earth, their opaque, ovoid spacecraft – monumental structures recalling 2001’s monoliths – materialising one day at various locations across the world: the Indian Ocean, the Siberian tundra, the plains of Montana - twelve in all. Their portals hover a few metres from the ground, inviting entry. The subsequent meetings with the extraterrestrials powerfully convey something of the radical otherness of alien life. Partially visible, swathed in swirling fog behind a transparent screen, the tentacular ‘heptapods’ have no front or back, and communicate by projecting enigmatic circular symbols on the barrier’s surface. This is sci-fi that understands the difference between encountering and communicating with other forms of life, recalling Wittgenstein’s observation that if ‘a lion could speak, we couldn’t understand him.’

But a breakthrough is made. And as the alien script is gradually decoded it becomes apparent they have come to bring a gift, not war, and that the gift is their language itself, and the new perception of reality it unlocks: the ability to see, as they do, into the future as well as the past, to experience time as a totality, not simply as a linear series of events. That may be an improbable interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language structures our perception of the world. But whatever liberties have been taken with the theory for cinematic purposes, the film’s essential message is delivered with emotional force and clarity: a shared language opens the possibility of conversation, and conversation the possibility of peace. It’s a thought worth holding onto today, when our public discourse is so charged with anger.

Poster for Arrival (film).The spectacular political events of 2016 indicate that fierce but familiar differences between neoliberals and social democrats, austerians and Keynesians, social conservatives and liberals, climate change sceptics and environmentalists, have been transcended by a more elemental divide between what might be called ‘nativists’ and ‘cosmopolitans’: between those who emphasise national identity, protectionism, isolationism, fidelity to place and family, and an idealised past; and those who prioritise internationalism, trade, social liberalism, and an idealised future.

Even mainstream politicians have indulged in the intemperate rhetoric that suffuses contemporary debate, the centre-left Hillary Clinton referring to Trump supporters as a ‘basket of deplorables’ and the centre-right Theresa May suggesting in her Tory conference speech that ‘a citizen of the world’ is ‘a citizen of nowhere’, unable to ‘understand what citizenship means.’

But Villeneuve’s film reminds us that we do share something fundamental: language. However much we disagree about the interpretation of concepts such as ‘freedom’, ‘prosperity’, ‘happiness’ and ‘equality’ we recognise they form part of a common moral vocabulary that offers a starting point for conversation. We do not stand on either side of a screen, with nothing to say to each other. Our moral grammar is ‘open-textured’, contestable, rich in possible meanings that can be shaped and refined through discussion between parties who – precisely because they disagree – all have something unique to bring to the table.

The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, whose work emphasises the importance of conversation, suggests that our debates are so intense not because we have different values, but because we recognise the importance of the same set of values and disagree over their meaning:

“It is, in part, because we have shared horizons of meaning, because these are debates between people who share so many other values and so much else in the way of belief and of habit, that they are as sharp and as painful as they are.”

And today, for cosmopolitans concerned by the rapid rise of the new populism, it is especially important to be prepared to talk about those elements of our moral grammar that risk colonisation by the nativists, such as ‘patriotism’, ‘faith’, ‘family’, ‘security’ and ‘community.’ These are words that belong to all of us, and close consideration of their meanings shows that, like all moral terms, they are inherently fluid concepts that permit progressive as well as conservative interpretations.

Consider, for example, that most charged of words, ‘patriotism.’ Certainly, it is saturated with ostensibly conservative sentiments: the love of a homeland, with its particular landscape, myths and history, and the sense of pride and belonging that attends that love.

But these are complex sentiments. For the conservative the idea of nation may evoke the continuity of a settled social order, the slow evolution of a constitution and its embodiment in the figure of a monarch. But progressives have their own rich national mythologies - histories of uprisings, labour movements, radical writings - which over time secured the gradual enfranchisement of the wider population. And it is possible to retain a special bond with one’s own nation while believing its interests are best served through membership of transnational institutions. National loyalty does not preclude internationalism.

‘Community’ is another term that risks appropriation by the new populists, for whom it signifies attachment to family, neighbourhood and place, in contrast with a ’rootless cosmopolitanism.’

But communities are always in flux, forming and reforming as their populations shift, morphing into fresh shapes as new clusters of people find ways to live together. Something similar might be said about ‘family’, a term that through history has been used to refer to many configurations, encompassing extended families, nuclear families, adopted children, heterosexual and gay couples, and single parents.

And the value of community – however it might be understood – is something recognised by both radicals and conservatives. Community is the necessary condition for any kind of progressive political project, the source of the collective agency necessary to build welfare states, health services and education systems.

Consider one further example, ‘faith’, a term freighted with notions of timeless patterns of life established by what has been revealed and cannot be changed. But religious traditions have always yielded radical as well as conservative interpretations, producing liberation theologies as well as doctrines demarcating gender roles.

Discussion with those with whom one profoundly disagrees is, of course, hard work, requiring courtesy, patience, a capacity to listen and a recognition that dialogue usually won’t change views overnight, if at all: our foundational values are deeply rooted, evolving over long periods of time, with a high degree of immunity to whatever questions might be raised in the course of a challenging conversation.

Arrival fondly imagines a universal language that, once understood, facilitates spiritual awakening, a kind of Zen enlightenment that opens the way for a new era of peace. Our reality is rather different: language is always, by its very nature, contestable, even when we share the same vocabulary.

But if we are prepared to keep talking, and to begin fresh conversations, we can continue to refine and enrich our moral language, to find new meanings in well-worn words, and find surprising points of agreement with those with whom we most disagree. A simple thought, but important today, when darker means of resolving conflicts loom on the horizon.

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10 February 2017. How Somali Muslims are raising a 10,000-person anti-hate army

The refugee community in Minnesota is a big target for bigotry, but they have a plan.

Credit: Fibonacci Blue / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

In November 2015, Asma Jama, a Somali-born woman living in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, was waiting for her pasta alfredo at Applebee’s, chatting in Swahili with her family, when she was confronted by Jodie Burchard-Risch. Burchard-Risch demanded that Jama speak English or go home. Then, she smashed her beer mug in Jama’s face.

The attack was shocking and made national news. This past December, Jama spoke at the sentencing hearing for Burchard-Risch, who pleaded guilty to third-degree assault and will serve six months in jail. Jama recounted the fear she lives with after the attack, saying she no longer goes anywhere alone. Still, she spoke words of kindness to the woman who showed her none. “In front of everybody here,” Jama told the packed courtroom, “I forgive you. And I hope that you choose love over hate.”

Minnesota is home to the nation's largest Somali population. And like so many Muslim communities throughout the United States, Minnesota Somalis are organizing to combat the Islamophobia stoked by Trump. The Minnesota Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN) plans to activate 10,000 Minnesotans using a three-part strategy grounded in the belief that people will, when given a chance, choose respect and understanding instead of fear, following Jama’s example of rejecting hate.

CAIR-MN plans to use a combination of traditional organizing tactics and new outreach efforts to communities not historically engaged in this fight.

Successfully engaging thousands of people to fight Islamophobia depends on an understanding that Jaylani Hussein, executive director of CAIR-MN, laid out to about 60 Somali and non-Somali activists in late December. “Most Americans agree there is something wrong with how we are treating American Muslims,” Hussein said. “They know something is wrong, even if they cannot identify it.” As Trump’s presidency approached, Hussein told the room, “They know they’ve got to do something about it.”

Muslims expect American Islamophobia to intensify under Trump, and Somali Americans expect to be on the front line.

The Somali-American community had been the target of institutionalized Islamophobia prior to the campaign and subsequent election of Donald Trump. “The Somali community in Minnesota was at the blunt end of Islamophobia before this election,” says Hussein. “But it is a phenomenon that has outgrown all previous levels.”

Somalis in Minnesota are targeted.

The U.S. Census Bureau data estimates there are 40,000 Somali-speaking residents in Minnesota. Underreporting to the U.S. Census Bureau is common, though, and by some accounts, the number of Somalis—including resettled refugees, inter-state migrants, and native U.S.-born residents—could be twice as high. While Somali Americans have planted deep roots in the state, starting thousands of businesses and non-profit organizations, opening schools and mosques around the Twin Cities metro area and beyond, tension between the state’s largest Muslim population and native Minnesotans has risen in recent years.

The uncertainty and tension felt by Somalis result in part from the Somali identity inhabiting multiple American fault lines. Imam Hassan Mohamud put it bluntly: “We are Black. We are immigrants. We are Muslims.”

Mohamud, Imam at the Minnesota Da’Wah Institute, spoke at a recent anti-Islamophobia meeting, where he explained how Somali Americans feel the harsh rhetoric against Muslims, the anti-refugee rhetoric in general, and racism against African Americans. The compounding effect of this racism and Islamophobia has left Somalis feeling specifically targeted.

Last April, a Minnesota man crossed the border to Grand Forks, North Dakota, where he burned down a Somali-owned restaurant. The same month, former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman wrote an op-ed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune intending to address the number of Twin Cities-based individuals who returned to Somalia to fight in that nation’s civil war. In the piece, Coleman labeled Minnesota “ground zero” for radical Islamic terrorism and called out “a specific population—Somalis.” The letter was titled “The Land of 10,000 Terrorists.”

Perhaps the biggest source of concern in the Somali community—and the one that makes Somalis feel uniquely targeted by the U.S. government—is a Department of Justice program called Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). The program is meant to root out radicalization and extremism on U.S. soil, but it has led to controversy and fear among Somali Muslims. Mohamud and Hussein both agree that CVE’s policy of offering money into a resource-starved population in exchange for information about activities taking place within the community has left the Somali community divided. Muslim support for CVE is rare, Hussein explained, but many are in a position where they need to choose the money over their opposition to the program.

According to Mohamud and Hussein, CVE imbeds Islamophobia into government policy. “The program’s very premise is Islamophobic,” Hussein points out. It targets one community, Somali Americans, and builds suspicion that any individual in that community might be a source of radical extremism. That’s “the playbook of the Islamophobia network,” Hussein says, and it affirms the principle that Somali Americans are a threat to America.

This was the tense landscape in Minnesota even before Donald Trump arrived at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Nov. 6, two days before his election, to address his supporters. Trump said, “A disaster is taking place in Minnesota” as a result of lax vetting in refugee resettlement, “with very large numbers of Somali refugees coming into your state without your knowledge, without your support or approval.”

Trump didn’t refer specifically to the stabbing at a mall in St. Cloud, Minnesota, nor to the ISIS trial in which nine men were tried for providing support to the terrorist organization. But the message that he did share was clear: The Somali community as a whole is a threat to Minnesota. “You’ve suffered enough,” he told the crowd.

Building a strategy toward understanding.

CAIR-MN’s overall strategy to fight Islamophobia is rooted in Asma Jama’s story of violence and forgiveness. She “has the literal scars (of Islamophobia) on her face,” and could have retreated after her attack, says Hussein. “But she chose love instead of fear.”

The first part of the strategy is to make conversations about Islam easier for everyone by “training the trainers.” CAIR-MN will provide the preparation for people to accurately combat the misinformation and fear used to perpetuate Islamophobia. Then, the trainers can talk to those who might be susceptible to that fear, those who have little contact with Muslims and are unfamiliar with Islam.

Islamophobia feeds on small pieces of misinformation that build a case for fear, says Hussein. That strategy succeeds because “people make decisions based on what they feel” and not what is true about Islam or Muslims.

The second part is to share success stories of the Somali community with non-Muslim Minnesotans to challenge the ugly narratives about Islam. Much of that sharing will take place on social media, used by many Somali youth. Hussein estimates that 50–60 percent of the Somali population in Minnesota is under the age of 40. They know English, have adapted to the culture, and are one of community’s best advantages in the fight against Islamophobia. The youth, Hussein says, are better able to communicate across the cultural divide—on the internet and off—without losing their own cultural identity.

Finally, CAIR-MN envisions an increase in traditional non-violent organizing tactics that raise public awareness, such as rallies and community education events. Mobilizing public events around Islamophobic incidents or targeted neighborhoods remains a crucial part in the fight against Islamophobia.

The most important element in these parts, Hussein stressed, is reaching beyond the existing participants of a conversation. Most people having conversations about Islamophobia in Minnesota are talking to people who agree with them, he points out. During Trump’s presidency, the only way to progress will be to hold conversations with people who disagree. “You can no longer say these people disagree with me or voted the other way, so I am not going to have a respectful conversation with them.”

Hussein would like to work with evangelical congregations, where pockets of Islamophobia can be found. Muslim outreach to evangelical Christians could “re-engineer how we communicate on this issue,” he says. “Without that outreach, we’re just talking to the same people we have already reached.”

Gaining resilience from experience.

Some Muslims use humor as a way to assuage the fear and uncertainty. Mohamud joked about an anti-Islamophobia sticker produced by a local organization that was translated incorrectly into Somali and Arabic, before moving to a sincere plea to recognize that “not all Republicans” are Islamophobes. He related the story of former Utah Sen. Bob Bennet’s dying remarks to Muslims, in which he apologized for his party’s embrace of Islamophobia.

Hussein opened his meeting at CAIR-MN with similar levity, joking about the election even as the fear created by Trump’s victory animated the room. There are reasons to be positive. From the election of the nation’s first Somali representative, Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis, who was sworn in last week, to the overwhelming interest in fighting Islamophobia that has emerged since Election Day, Somalis are hopeful.

The Somali community in Minnesota is a big target for bigotry, and tensions are expected to get worse. But in their experiences of facing both institutional and societal Islamophobia, their resilience and optimism is evident.

This article was first published in YES! Magazine.

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8 February 2017. Can we handle the truth?

The critical need for genuine fact cannot be overstated.

Credit: Pixabay/Geralt. CC0 Public Domain.

In December 2016 Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” the word of the year, the singular term that their merry band of logophiles found to capture “the ethos, mood, or preoccupations” of the past 365 days. As an adjective, “post-truth” is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Our post-truth era is not a moment in time after truth, but the juncture beyond truth—an occasion in which truth is no longer relevant.

Can we no longer handle the truth? Perhaps that depends on what the ‘truth’ truly is.

Before we can dissect the pitfalls of post-truth existence we must first understand what truth is: the state of being the case; a judgment, proposition, or idea that is true or accepted as true; the property of being in accord with fact or reality. Truth assumes actuality but it does not require it. Often, for something to be held as true it must only be accepted as such: 70 virgins patiently awaiting in the afterlife, Meryl Streep as the most talented actress in the world, the sky above us a celestial blue.

Truth can be subjective, based on personal opinion and experience. The perception of truth, whether you’re a devout Catholic, Katherine Hepburn fan, or colorblind, redefines truth from person to person, seemingly without minimizing the acceptance of any one of those beliefs as truth.

In a world teeming with selfie affirmations, the idea of one’s own truth—‘my truth’—has come to define an entire generation. The pursuit of the authentic self comes with the freedom to editorialize. A quick search of #mytruth on Twitter reveals intellectual breakthroughs on everything from life wisdoms (“Attention to detail is what divides the exceptional from the average #mytruth”) to personal reportage (“#mytruth I woke up with that familiar clammy taste in mouth, mouth as dry as cotton. I blinked”) to financial advice (“Parents, save up: Cost of raising a child is more than $233K Children are a bad investment #mytruth”).

In this context, truth is not the same as fact—the quality of being actual, something that actually exists. Those creating their own truths are simply deepening their own beliefs.

Think about two people standing in the middle of Central Park as a bird flies by. New Yorker 1 says to New Yorker 2, “I just saw a red bird.” New Yorker 2 responds, “No, that was a yellow bird.” Technological interventions aside, there would be no way for this pair to confirm who is right, to know what the truth is—whether a red or yellow bird flew by. Even if the same bird flew by moments later, NYers 1 and 2 would never be able to confirm it was the same bird that flew by before, in that moment, at that time: hashtag my truth.

Truth and fact may not be synonymous, but what about fact and reality? One of Albert Einstein’s favorite thought experiments will take us down another hypothetically complex path.  

Imagine yourself in the first car of a train cruising down an outdoor track. Your friend is on a platform up ahead waiting for you to rush by. Lightning strikes, two bolts at either end of the train. From the platform your buddy sees both bolts crash at the same time. You, however, being closer to the strike at the front of the train, see that bolt first because the light has a shorter distance to travel to you. When comparing notes after the fact, both you and your friend would be right (you did see one bolt strike first and your friend did see two bolts strike at the same time), but here fact is certainly different from reality. With this thought experiment Einstein launched his theory of relativity.

Does that mean that facts are relative, too?

In an interview on January 22 2016, one of President Trump’s senior advisors, Kellyanne Conway, introduced the phrase “alternative facts” in response to conflicting truths regarding attendance numbers at the presidential inauguration two days before. On Inauguration Day, Trump’s Press Secretary Sean Spicer alleged, among other things, that the 2017 gathering had the “total largest audience” of any inauguration ever, a fact that has since been hotly contested. In defense of her colleague and employer, Mrs. Conway offered “alternative facts” as an explanation for why Mr. Spicer’s comments differed from mounting evidence to the contrary—a very post-truth truthiness moment.

Later in the same interview, Meet the Press’s Chuck Todd railed against Conway’s contention, to which she responded, “There’s no real way to quantify crowds. We all know that.” Simple math seems like the simple answer to this inane debate, but even that measurable fact is in question. We dispute everything from the afterlife to the gods of acting, but surely this is something we can prove?

Well, maybe not. Spicer doubled down on his earlier comments by declaring that “sometimes we can disagree with the facts.” The New York Times estimates that 160,000 people awaited the newly-minted president’s inaugural speech. On day two in office Trump said that the event drew 250,000. Aerial shots of January 20, 2017 abound, but who can count every single person from 8,000 feet up?

Suddenly, each one of those attendees becomes a red-yellow bird flying by.

It would also seem that the line between alternative facts and ‘fake news’ is tantalizingly blurry. Having already asserted that truth is not fact or reality, it’s hard to remember a time when fake news didn’t exist. The Greeks gave a horse to the Trojans as a ‘peace offering.’ Closeted homosexual Rock Hudson was a ‘celebrated womanizer.’ Kids get to ‘meet Santa Claus’ at Christmas, who’s usually a guy in a fat suit making the minimum wage.

Everyday we’re bombarded with total falsehoods. Some we know and love, and some we unknowingly and blindly accept. Because the spectrum for truth is so broad, fake news can appear to be as rampant as the real thing. One man’s fake news trash is another man’s real news treasure.

Trump and his team have long had a tempestuous relationship with the media, attacking digital and print outlets for skewing reality. At a recent press conference, the president directed his fury at CNN for publishing unsubstantiated claims about some (ahem) personal matters, condemning the channel’s prodding reporter without allowing a question to be asked. A couple of weeks later CNN took what some might argue was revenge by not covering the inauguration in full depth, shying away from assessment and coverage for fear of ‘normalizing’ what many perceive to be a sad, scary truth.

No news outlet can cover every moment of history, but there’s an expectation that the ostensibly bipartisan news outlets on 24-hour rotation will capture most of the important ones. Without all the various insights and perspectives, how real is the real news really?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident” is what the forefathers of the United States declared. But even those truths, the ones we live and die for and free and enforce by aren’t agreed on. No wonder we can’t make up our collective mind about the color of a dress on the internet, whether the New England Patriots cheat (okay maybe on that one we can), or exactly how many people showed up to stand around for a few hours in Washington DC on January 20. Maybe we’re more self-referential now than we ever knew; maybe we’ve actually been ‘post-truth’ for a long, long time.

To be ‘post-truth’ doesn’t mean that fact and reality don’t exist. All of the events I’ve described actually happened. But the importance of truth beyond belief, the critical need for genuine fact, cannot be overstated. Our post-truth existence threatens to undermine certain truths that we do in fact hold to be self-evident, like the realities of science and discovery that are as close to undeniable as anything can be in this hyper-curated, deeply-connected world.

There’s a fine line between real and fake, between what actually is and what we perceive. That line has always been there, so the question still remains: can we handle the truth?

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6 February 2017. The inconvenient truth about foreign aid

For recipients aid has been a very mixed blessing, but for donors it’s been a bonanza. 

Credit: Flickr/DFID. Some rights reserved.

It’s astonishing when you think about it. Why should an old and poorly-performing industry carry on, burdened with even more tasks, and provided with yet more money? I’m talking about foreign aid, whose mixed results have been reconfirmed countless times in the last 70 years.

For aid’s backers, such skepticism is unfair or at best premature. Successes, from combating diseases to promoting the ‘green revolution,’ are held as self-evident. With new, smarter policy formulas and management focused on results, failure is soon going to be minimized. Across most of the Left-Right spectrum, aid still enjoys political backing. Western spending continues largely upward. New aid donors from Turkey to Thailand are joining in. And tasks are expanding.To achieve the 169 targets of the world’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals by the year 2030, global leaders concur that foreign aid is vital.

For aid’s critics, however, ‘mixed results’ is a euphemism for badly designed, poorly-managed efforts guided by donor hobbies and flip-flopping policies that ignores the graveyards of failed programmes, the histories of waste, and the sometimes toxic outcomes of aid born of coercion and incoherence. China and Vietnam reduced poverty significantly with almost no Western aid, while aid-dependent countries like Malawi and Timor-Leste have fared badly—in which case why does the aid industry keep on prospering?

To answer that question we have to look at the drivers and navigation systems at work upstream in the system where the captains of the aid industry confer. These drivers get little serious probing, but the knowledge we do have points to an inconvenient truth: the main systems of development aid chiefly serve the donors. The aid system colludes in redistributing wealth from poorer to richer. Under an aura of beneficence, aid is harnessed to self-interest.

Here’s how.

To buy goodwill from others or coerce them, aid provides a classic tool of statecraft. For the biggest donors it can buy votes at the United Nations, keep client regimes ‘onside’, punish troublemakers and open doors to powerful people. As a former senior US aid official put it, “Foreign aid … is like political campaign contributions:  it can facilitate the access of those providing it to those receiving it.” Giving aid helps governments to look good in diplomatic forums while encouraging taxpayers to feel good about their generosity.

In addition, ‘our security’ is at stake. Since 9/11 development and humanitarian aid has increasingly been subordinated to hard power aims—that is ‘securitized.’ European aid, for example, is now supposed to help curb irregular migration from Africa.  Meanwhile, military doctrine and operations have become ‘developmentalized,’ complementing older practices in which aid lubricates access to strategic assets as in Kyrgyzstan, where western aid was exchanged for use of an airbase serving NATO operations in Central Asia.

Boosting exports and investments are major objectives of aid providers. A scholarly consensus, backed by many studies, holds that the mercantile interests of aid givers usually enjoy priority over the interests of aid recipients. For donors the pay-offs are many. For example, for every €10 the Dutch provide in bilateral aid to an average recipient country, Dutch exports to that country increase in the short run by €7 to €9. In the longer run, as goodwill and force of habit take hold, aid-induced sales then become even more lucrative. In the period 1988-2004, each dollar in Western bilateral aid yielded 2.15 dollars in additional exports of goods and services by Western businesses.

Donors use aid to gain footholds for their industries, like Japanese fishing fleets in the South Pacific, French uranium mining in Niger and oil and gas companies in emerging producers of hydrocarbons. Aid providers work assiduously to lower costs and risks for their business investors using subsidies like low-cost loans, insurance and market advice. In recipient countries they add to physical infrastructure and occasionally skilled-up workforces. But the aid system’s most powerful contributions involve the transmission and enforcement of ‘sound policy’, meaning policy that is suitable for investors.The formulas are well-rehearsed: sell-offs of public property; weaker protection of labour rights and environmental safeguards; and taxes shifted from foreign flows to domestic sources.  

Under the World Bank’s ‘competitive cities’ approach, municipalities are pushed to compete for outside investment by offering tax ‘sweeteners’, land and other subsidies. With the rise of financial sector power, donors have facilitated the growth of stock markets and hot money flows. Key to these investor-friendly climates has been austerity—driving down public spending in recipient countries.

Acting almost as bailiffs, donors also help to extract payments to big pharmaceutical and software firms who own patents, copyrights and other kinds of ‘intellectual property.’ In the years 2012-2015, sub-Saharan African countries together paid about $10 billion to these private interests, up from about $8.7 billion in the years 2007-2010. But because rich country tax laws allow firms to hide profits, these World Bank data may actually understate the true scale of extraction.

Under vigorous donor pressure, poorer countries have poured trillions of dollars into Western banks under a rationale of self-insurance. As the economist C. P. Chandrasekhar has pointed out “This reverse flow of capital essentially means that excess savings in emerging markets are being ‘recycled’ in ways that put the responsibility of allocating that capital in the hands of a few financial decision makers … sitting at the apex of a concentrated global financial system.”

Consistent with their promotion of rent-seeking from ‘intellectual property’, donors show almost no interest in curbing cartels and other anti-competitive practices by transnational firms. Research is scarce, but it points to massive losses for poorer countries. One study estimates that annual losses are equivalent to at least 50 percent, and could equal as much as 300 percent of aid disbursed.

Donors have also invested in knowledge, but gains can flow back disproportionately to themselves. Aid for the ‘Green Revolution’, for example, helped boost crop yields in poor countries, but major beneficiaries have been western agribusinesses. Up to the early 1990s, estimated returns to such firms were forty times the amount of aid paid out originally by the US for research and development of the ‘Revolution’s’ higher-yield technologies.  

Contrary to the belief that aid-financed programmes target diseases that mainly affect people in the tropics, research shows that “development aid is intended to alleviate the threats to populations within the donor state.” And since the 1960s, foreign aid has brought hundreds of thousands of students from poorer countries to study at universities in Europe and North America. Today, student fees and expenses annually absorb more than $3 billion in aid—virtually all of it spent in donor countries.  Where the longer-term benefits from aid-funded scholarship programmes go isn’t known with much precision, but there is some evidence that former scholarship holders from Africa tend to stay in richer countries, or to work abroad in Western firms and other organisations.

In sum, poorer countries routinely put more resources at the disposal of donor country interests than they receive in foreign aid, yet it isn’t easy to demonstrate this inconvenient truth conclusively. Estimating the extent of the aid system’s collusion in ‘perverse’ aid is often guesswork because the system’s upper reaches lack transparency. Laws, rules, political agreements and sheer inattention shield many counter-flows from public view. Every year, thousands of evaluations of aid’s ‘downstream’ activities take place but I know of no formal evaluation of aid mechanisms ‘upstream’ that would indicate with precision who benefits and by how much.

Does it have to be this way?

In 1943, at a time of enormous human suffering, one of the 20th century’s greatest activist-philosophers, Simone Weil, wrote about the characteristics of practical compassion for others.  She insisted that help must be concrete and authentic: “All human beings are bound by identical obligations, although these are performed in different ways according to the circumstances…. The obligation is only performed if… expressed in a real, not a fictitious, way.” Today, in framing debates about obligations across borders, that plea has lost none of its relevance.  It calls for lucidity, and hence the rejection of pseudo-solutions promoted through the foreign aid system.

Activists, academics, journalists and NGOs in a number of fields are already focusing on counter-flows and the legal gimmicks and non-transparency that promote them.  Although based outside the mainstream aid system, these initiatives are getting respectful attention from some donors, notably in Norway but also in a few knowledge centres of the United Nations. A prime example is the movement for tax justice.These combined efforts have begun to pay off as better tax enforcement and new rules yield more revenues for public purposes. Meanwhile a bloc of non-Western governments at the United Nations led by Ecuador is pressing to create a global tax body

A system of global taxation won’t be with us soon, but as this idea gains traction it may open up a pathway towards an authentic system of redistribution across national borders. In so doing it could help to replace today’s machinery of upward redistribution, re-build decent social contracts, and ultimately sideline foreign aid as we know it.

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3 February 2017. Civic beauty without permission

Why tile a bridge across one of the busiest streets in a city without a permit and with almost no financial support?

Credit: works & conversations/Rick Hawes. All rights reserved.

Besides introducing me to Ted Fullwood, artist Tony May told me about Rick Hawes. In fact, we'd just left Fullwood's house when Tony said, "Let me show you something..." and I couldn't quite make out the rest of it—something about a bridge.

     "A bridge?"
     "There's a guy who's been tiling them."  
     "A guy tiling bridges?"
     Tony nodded. 
     "You mean like freelance?" 
     Tony nodded again.
     "He just started tiling them?" 
     Another nod.
     "You're kidding."

It wasn't long before we were standing on Santa Clara Street in San Jose, California, cars whizzing by, looking at a vintage concrete bridge. It reminded me of the bridges from the '20s and '30s I'd seen as a kid in West Virginia. The sides of the bridge had large inset panels and sure enough, the panels were tiled. In some places, tile had been broken off, vandalized. Each panel featured colorful original designs. Hawes had filled out the rest of the surfaces with a field of broken white tiles all carefully fitted together. The work obviously had required thousands of hours. But the work seemed to have been suspended some time ago leaving an impression of benign neglect.

"I want to meet this guy," I told Tony. If a man had decided to just start tiling a bridge in the middle of San Jose without bothering to file for a permit, without seeing a commissioner, without lobbying the board—well, that would be a pure act of... of what? —unauthorized civic improvement?  

Tony sent me a phone number a few days later, which yielded one of those pre-installed voicemail recordings—impossible to know if I had the right guy. I left a message anyway. A week passed, then another, and basically I forgot about it. Then five or six weeks later, I had a message on my own voicemail. It was Hawes. We chatted a little and I proposed an interview. Hawes was agreeable. Not a loquacious man. A few weeks later I found myself in a trailer park in Sunnyvale and was soon lost in a warren of little lanes. With the help of a generous mailman, I finally stood at Hawes's door. 

He invited me in and immediately wanted to show me around. It had been his mother's place he told me. Here, in her bedroom, was where he kept his books—loose-leaf notebooks, really, covered with white paper and hand-lettered. These were filled with clippings, pictures, evidence of an interest in things Oriental, Eastern philosophy, Islam, world religion. And there were birds and animals too, many volumes.

We went from room to room. Except for the notebooks and the ceramic tiles and the jars of glazes, the numbered glaze tests, the various sheets of design sketches and the long lines of tiles laid out in the living room carpet and also on the coffee table, the place had a conventional look. The furnishings and decor must have been his mother's. In a little back room, he showed me his kiln where he fired the tile he made, a tiny electric kiln that might handle three or four tiles at a time. Amazing.

When I'd first come in, I noticed on a little kitchen table several treats, which clearly had been set out, probably for me—a plate with watermelon wedges carefully cut, a bowl of chocolate chip cookies and another bowl of mixed nuts--enough for ten people. But as Hawes hadn't said a word about this spread, I'd kept my hands to myself. Eventually I couldn't resist and I pointed over at the table. "Oh, they're for you," he said and invited me to help myself.

I carefully moved a few tiles to make some space and set up my old tape recorder on the coffee table. By then I knew that Hawes was not an embellisher of tales. Instead, he was a man of action, perhaps of quiet action. But clearly he did not lack in either boldness or vision. Santa Clara Street is a busy, four-lane thoroughfare. Thousands of cars cross his bridge every day. It was hard to imagine setting up right there with all the traffic and also with people constantly walking across the bridge. No permits. Can people do that? Rick Hawes did.

Richard Whittaker (works & conversations):  You started tiling a bridge in San Jose, an old concrete bridge on Santa Clara Street. Tell what made you start tiling that bridge?
Rick Hawes:  I'd been doing volunteer community service for many years, gardening and landscape work. At that time I was still going to San Jose State, getting my master's degree in art when I discovered the bridge there. Someone had started tiling and had only done maybe a fifth of it. So I thought, this is something I could work on. I could beautify it. It would be an avenue where I could use my talents for service to the community.

works:  Did you talk with anybody about your idea before beginning?
Rick:  [laughs] No. I just went ahead and started. 
works:  You saw a need and just started in on it?
Rick:  Yes. I thought they would welcome it. Police would see me sometimes and would ask me if I had permission, and I'd say, no. I'd tell them I just thought it needed to be done. Eventually an agency got a hold of me and told me I needed permission.
works:  How long before that happened?
Rick::  Several months. Then they wanted me to stop. And they didn't want me to paint the concrete where I wasn't tiling. At first they didn't want me to put the broken white tiles around the inset panels. They told me I had to get permission to do that. 
works:  So eventually you ran afoul of the city.
Rick:  Yes. But eventually they got me a $1000 grant. 
works:  Was this something you had applied for? Had you asked for anything?
Rick:   No. 

works:  So for several months before that you were just working away. How often during the week would you go out there?

Rick:  Three or four times a week. For a while, I was going every day. I used to go there before going to my job as a janitor. I'd get there at 7am and work an hour. Then I'd come back after finishing my janitor job and work on the bridge until dark. 
works: That'd be five or six hours a day on the bridge. And you did this for several months before the city told you to stop. Now the police, they left you alone? 
Rick:  Sometimes-I don't know if they were joking around-they'd kind of grab me and flip me around like they were going to arrest me or something, like I was a criminal. [laughs] I had a lot of different policemen. Later on, they'd kind of wave at me while I was working and say, "Good work!" and stuff. 
works:  They became friendly.
Rick:  Yeah. But occasionally they'd act like I was in trouble or something.  But they'd always let me go. 

works:  So they didn't ever put cuffs on you?
Rick:  No. Not until 2007 when the lady went crazy and stirred things up. The work I was doing wasn't up to her taste, the style of the tile work.  
works:  They put cuffs on you then?
Rick:  No. They told me if I worked on the bridge any more, they'd throw me in jail. The lady found out my permit was out of date. And I didn't get permission from the transportation department. I didn't get a permit from the San Jose arts program. So that's kind of how it is now. I can't work on the bridge. 
works:  Now what was the year you started? 
Rick:  1990.  
works:  So this was seventeen years later. 
Rick:  Yes, I worked for about seven years pretty consistently, but I had a real small apartment then and I just accumulated too much stuff. It got so I couldn't work anymore and I ran out of ideas, too. I burnt out. So I quit for years. Then I lost my job and I moved to Mt. Madonna Center in the Santa Cruz mountains. I started doing tilework up there. 
works:  So when you were first working on the bridge after seven months you had to go and get a permit. Was that a big hassle? 
Rick:  Yeah. The city works very slow. I was ready to work and I had to wait. They were very slow. They had to get the right people to look at it. But some of the council members, David Pandora, he came over and thanked me for what I was doing. 
works:  Was it just one permit you needed?
Rick:  Just one. It took about six months. And then there was something about the white tile, which enhances the rest of the work. 
works:  Did you have to present drawings or plans?

Rick:  Yeah, they wanted me to do that, but I told them I couldn't do it that way. 
works:  And they accepted that?
Rick:  Yeah. So I was working on the Santa Clara bridge for a year and some neighborhood association ladies came over and asked me how would I like to work on their two bridges. These are to the south on the same creek, Coyote Creek. I said okay. So they got me permission to do that. Then they collected three hundred dollars to help me out. But I turned them down. [laughs] I said, "Keep the money." 
works:  Why did you turn them down?
Rick:  Three hundred dollars to do two bridges with tile work? People get paid three hundred dollars for one little piece of work! 
works:  But you weren't getting paid for the work you were doing on the Santa Clara bridge.
Rick:  Just that one thousand dollars.
works:  Have you done work on any other bridges?
Rick:  I got three bridges! Santa Clara Street, San Antonio Street and William Street. 
works:  So those other two were your idea, too?
Rick:  Well, like I said, these neighborhood association ladies asked me to work on their two bridges.
works:  I thought you turned them down.
Rick:  I turned down the money! I told them I'd work for free. So I did the work. 
works:  Oh, I see. Wow! That's really interesting. Did you complete any of these bridges? 
Rick:  No. The Santa Clara is closest. It's a lot of work. See, I've dealt with the small panels and now I've got the large panels. Those are the hardest ones to do. 
works:  Are you interested in finishing any of these?
Rick:  Yes. But right now, I'm not allowed to work on them. The director of Public Art in San Jose told me they could get me a permit. They want me to finish the Santa Clara bridge first. That's the one that's closest to being done. And they want to pay me for my materials. And there's a guy who owns a tile store in San Jose who is going to help me. He's going to supply the bisque tile and help me fire the tiles. But now we have this recession going and there are all these budget cuts. I'm thinking that maybe next year something is going to happen. My friend tells me I've done all these bridges without any help from anyone, so why don't I just keep working and finish it by myself? But I don't have a permit now. If it was just up to me, I'd rather work on the other two bridges. They have the smaller panels. I'd finish them and then get back to the Santa Clara Street bridge. 

works:  Tell me about your tile designs. 

Rick:  I used to do a lot more animals, a lot of birds and plants. I did some abstracts when I was going to junior college. I did some cat skulls and some self-portrait series. Each series of drawings took me about a year to finish.

From the drawings, I made some designs and then I made some tiles from them. After I finished those, I thought I'd like to start a plant series, so I started drawing ice plants. It's just a very sculptural plant. I thought I could get something in a year or two, but the thing has gone on for twenty years and I still haven't been able to take it to the level I wanted to. Now I'm burned out on it and am kind of lost. But if I go back to the bridges, I'll go back to nature. 
works:  Now these tiles here [letterlike designs], when did you start working on these designs? 
Rick:  A lot of these letters are very old. I dug them up from my journals. I've been keeping a journal for thirty years. These are mantras, names of God. I'm exploring this. If they gave me permission to work on the bridges again, I'd do the nature thing and maybe put the mantras in the background in a subtle way. [Hawes gets up and retrieves one of his journals, large with pages full of writing and lots of visual content- sketches, photos, torn-out magazine pages. I spend some time looking through several pages. The drawings are quite interesting.] A lot of this stuff is not high art.
works:  More like design. This is from what, the '80s? 
Rick:  '70s, '80s. 
works:   When did you first get interested in doing art things?
Rick:  I did a little drawing in high school and had some artist friends, but never thought of becoming an artist until I was in pre-med at DeAnza College over here. My fantasy was to become a chiropractor, but I was having some difficulty with the math and science. An astrologer told me I might have a little art talent. So when my medical studies sort of fell through I switched over to art. Eventually I got a master's at San Jose State in ceramics. 
works:  [He hands me a folder with photos of the bridge tilework]. These bird designs are beautiful. I don't know if I've seen any of your animals. Do you have any animal drawings? 
Rick:  For my master's show, I had some vases with dolphins on them. I sold some of those. 
works:  If you had a clear shot at those bridges, what you would want to happen?
Rick:  If they gave me permission, I'd like to finish them. It'd be a challenge, because I'd like to get the colors right. I've been having problems. I keep redoing and redoing it. In order to finish them, they're not going to be perfect. You know Marlow Bartels? [no] He's a tile artist down in Los Angeles. Great stuff! He can just do it, and it looks pretty good. But I'm trying to get it perfect and it's a lot of trouble.
works:  You want the colors to be just right.
Rick:  Yes. Something like a mosque. But it takes too long. They're not going to be quite perfect. Sometimes you get a beautiful color, but the relationship next to another color changes it. And sometimes, the glaze colors don't turn out quite right. It's not like painting where you can change the color right there. You've got to make another tile, glaze it and fire it up. 
works:  Why do you think this woman stirred up trouble? Have you ever talked with her? 
Rick:  I don't even know who she is. The crazy thing is that when I first started, she had one of her sons come over and give me some fruit. It's funny that at one time she thought I was doing ok. I think maybe some other people talked with her and put some ideas in her head. She's into more conservative stuff. Mine's more like graffiti. But Antonio Gaudi, he did it. And that was a hundred years ago. She's out of touch. She doesn't know what's going on. His stuff kind of looks like graffiti in a sense. 
works:  He's a wonderful artist. One art friend of mine went to Barcelona and was standing there in Parque Guell, and it made her cry. Ever been there? 

Rick:  No. There's one part of the park there. If I could just get a book on that section, I wouldn't need to go there. I'd just need a couple pictures here and a couple of pictures there. 
works:  What is it you love so much about that part you're referring to?
Rick:  Gaudi took the tiles and cut them up and made all these different squares about two feet by two feet with white in between. It's just really neat. They had neat tiles, too, then. 
works:  Some of your work you probably feel really good about and some maybe isn't quite right. You're a bit of a perfectionist, I think. So how do you tell when it's just right?
Rick:  It just sings. Sometimes I work for months and I keep changing. I get an idea. I try this. I try that. And I run out of ideas. On the bridge I tried out all these ideas. And I hope to keep doing this. Eventually you figure it out and it just sings. 
This article first appeared in works & conversations.

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1 February 2017. Why mindfulness matters now

I didn’t learn how to cross lines of difference when I was younger. Maybe you didn’t either, but we can all learn it now.  

Credit: Flickr/Darragh O Connor. Some rights reserved.

Many years ago I was working with a group of high school students from different faiths and races in Washington DC when a conversation around race surfaced and all sorts of things started happening at once: stereotypes, white guilt, people shutting each other down, and well-meaning attempts to fix the situation by universalizing particular experiences. The staff met to unpack these threads, but it didn’t lead to any clarity about what to do. 

Then I remembered a time when a friend had called for a few minutes of prayer in a secular meeting of national community service leaders.  So I suggested that we take ten minutes to be quiet together. When I opened my eyes, I saw my colleagues spread out around the room: Jason, a white rabbi, at the window praying; Liz, Catholic and Latina, on her knees with her hands clasped on a chair; and Christian, an African-American Baptist who had pulled out his bible.

The room seemed different—quiet but charged with a palpable energy that made it easier to to figure out next steps.  We decided to use an exercise called “Cross the Line” to increase the students’ awareness of difference, empower students of color to articulate their own understandings of race, and engage everyone in dialogue.  Through a time of shared practice and the specific pathway of each person’s tradition, we’d been able to tap into a more expansive wisdom about interconnectedness.  It was one of the first times I’d experienced a link between the intelligence of the quiet depths and the urgency of action.

If you’re an activist, you’ve likely experienced multiple versions of this story. People who want change spend a lot of time in groups. Progress depends on how well we can hang together and get things done, whether that’s lifting a ban on refugees, ensuring climate science prevails or discerning right action and priorities in the era of President Trump.  As the assaults on human dignity and freedom pile up the weight can be paralyzing.  But the fact that so many different fronts are being threatened holds the key to our future because we know how deeply different forms of oppression are interwoven—and why that requires action across issues and identities. 

The nationwide demonstrations currently taking place under the hash-tag #NoBanNoWall provide a great example, making visible the interdependence between refugees, immigrants and those fighting alongside them. Likewise with the organized groups of Christians, Jews and veterans who showed up in solidarity with the Sioux Tribe at Standing Rock, who made explicit connections between colonialization, marginalization and occupation. However, coming together powerful lines of difference can be tough. The ability and willingness to cross more boundaries more frequently and with greater skill isn’t something that most of us automatically possess, and this is where creating space for people to engage in contemplative practice, prayer and ritual can be vital. 

I didn’t learn how to cross lines of difference when I was younger. Maybe you didn’t either, but we can all learn it now.  And we have to, because our shared humanity and collective survival depends on breaking through old fears and patterns.

Early in the Black Lives Matter movement I was living in Houston, Texas. Like many cities there were town hall protests, campaigns for police body cams and efforts to sign up more people of color to sit on grand juries. These were all vital actions, but there wasn’t much opportunity for people to connect with each other across racial lines. I was working at the Rothko Chapel, a unique space dedicated to art, spirituality and human rights, and we decided to host a program to encourage a deeper dialogue and enable members of the community to hear from historians of transatlantic black migration, elders, judges focused on cooperation with law enforcement, community organizers and many others. We wanted people to be able to express their feelings in the midst of a turbulent time and really hear each other’s perspectives.

At the beginning of the program we included a short meditation, encouraging people to connect with their hearts and with their breath, and explicitly welcoming different emotions into the room: grief, compassion, rage, hope and confusion. Then people broke into small groups mixed by race and age to talk. The room was filled with the buzz of laughter and tears, the energy of people speaking, and listening.  When the groups came back together, people were invited to share. Black parents spoke about their fear for Black youth; a white woman shared her struggles with a racist relative; and a journalist described the challenges of covering the complexities of what was happening. Much of what was said was difficult for some people to hear, but they kept on listening. 

It’s a good illustration of how practices like meditation or prayer can lend depth when people come together across lines of difference. There’s always a lot of creativity at the boundaries of things, in the spaces where open fields meet the forest, or at the edges of society where differences collide to create new possibilities and give birth to revolutionary ideas.  But these boundaries can easily become fault lines which embed differences deeper into society and politics. The good will that’s often expressed in one-on-one interactions doesn’t scale up so easily.  As groups grow and become more diverse, their members tend to be more competitive and less friendly.  Writ large we see this frequently on the left among those who are basically aligned with each-other around core values. And even when we do agree, we stumble and fail to build on each other’s good ideas or make the links between our different struggles. 

As a white woman working in multiracial settings I’ve learned these lessons the hard way, over and over again, and I know how it feels to freeze up in confusion or let fear push me to the safer sidelines. But I’ve been fortunate to have spaces that allow for vulnerability, and I’ve worked to create those spaces for others. I’ve seen what happens when the rough edges of racism are met with a gentle fierceness, and I know the difference between unhealthy shame and healthy regret. A lot of possibilities open up when we meet discomfort at the boundary with courage.   

This is where practice comes in. Many studies have documented the benefits of mindfulness meditation and yoga. They include an improved ability to handle stress, stronger cognition, less depression, and the ability to regulate emotions so that we are not knocked sideways when things get difficult.  One recent study showed that meditation can reduce what the researchers called “implicit bias” around race and age. Intuitively this makes sense, given the ways in which mindful attention slows down the stream of mental activity.  Practices like meditation interrupt our conditioned responses and enable us to step back into a different kind of awareness in which we can start to pull apart pernicious stereotypes and the oppressions they create.

Stopping or quieting the mind, or moving the body in a compassionate and mindful way through something like yoga, brings more attention to the tensions we feel in activism or when talking with those who disagree with us.  We can observe our thoughts and feelings with a little less judgment, and meet others in new ways.  And that’s what begins to short-circuit the default mechanisms we have, and the prejudices or internalized oppressions we might carry around inside of us. As a result, we can think more clearly and interact with others using the best version of ourselves.

However, we’ve barely tapped the potential of these shared practices to transform our politics and our future.  Now more than ever, we need to be bolder and more intentional about including them in our work.  We can plan ahead with colleagues to include yoga or meditation in group settings, not just in the easy contexts but in those with higher stakes too.  We can practice noticing people’s bodily responses and invite them to stretch in simple ways that might shift their energy and attention.  Or we can invite a few moments of silence and reflection when talking seems to have run its course. I think the United States is still in its adolescence when it comes to engaging with the realities and consequences of racism.  And I believe we all want to grow up.  Going forward, that is going to require greater capacity for risk.

As we scale up these practices we can increase our collective capacity to meet others across the boundaries of race, gender, sexual identity and political beliefs, and build stronger relationships of solidarity. It’s about being brave and willing to meet in the tight places, being willing to struggle and even squirm. Being at the boundary with each other is like going further in a yoga pose: if we’re mindful of the stretch, it becomes a fruitful place of growth, but if we’re mindless we can get hurt.  If we relax into the fullness of our breath, the mind softens too.  What’s difficult becomes generative of new ideas and solutions. 

Like the cells that build the body, all of this starts with us—in our daily interactions and in all the groups in which we find ourselves. I believe we all want what every group I’ve ever worked with has wanted: to be seen and heard, to connect authentically with each other, and to move forward to real results. Practices that bring us to the root of our truth like mindfulness can strengthen our capacity to face the future with compassion and solidarity.  And it seems like we’re going to need that more than ever.

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30 January 2017. Who wants to live in a frictionless world?

Unless life is uncomfortable, there’s no room for transformation.

Hoverboard Wars in Second Life 06. Credit: Flickr/Torley. Some rights reserved.

Does it matter that Micah Johnson was killed by a robot, albeit one controlled by human hands? Johnson shot five police officers during a demonstration in Dallas, Texas, on July 7 2016. Twenty-four hours later he was blown apart by explosives maneuvered into position by a robot-controlled device that was normally used for bomb-disposal, after a gun battle and the break-down of negotiations with police. According to the Washington Post, the action was “widely praised as an innovative way to eliminate a threat without risking more officers’ lives.”  

Violence by proxy is already commonplace in warfare.

This form of “violence by proxy” is already commonplace in warfare, where the use of unmanned drones is justified on similar grounds of efficiency. Studies have put the civilian casualty rate from U.S. drone strikes at anywhere between four and 35 percent of the total deaths they have caused. What’s not in doubt is that fewer U.S. military lives are put at risk when direct combat engagement is replaced by so-called ‘frictionless’ methods of attack. This trend will be even more pronounced when much more powerful weapons come on stream like ‘death rays’—giant lasers fired at ‘soft targets’ from the air.

These examples may seem extreme, but they are part of a much broader search for ‘frictionless’ solutions in business, technology, design, philanthropy, foreign aid, education and even politics. Backed by the ideology, influence and resources of Silicon Valley, the race is on to solve social and economic problems in ways that lower transaction costs and increase speed and efficiency, on the assumption that everyone will benefit.

Smart cities” can be planned using big data and technology; money and investment can flow more freely in a frictionless global economy; human judgment can be replaced by algorithms which can search vast oceans of information in seconds; decisions over health care and education can be made using the cost-effectiveness calculations of “effective altruists;” and “frictionless design” can minimize the journeys of users around the real or virtual office.

The titans of technology even have their own friction-free version of the Burning Man festival, designed to avoid cooking and cleaning for themselves: “we have great reverence for Burning Man” said organizer Russell Ward to the Guardian’s Nellie Bowles, “but there’s always an element of arduousness. Here we have spa treatments and green juice. There’s already enough in life that’s tough.”

Who really benefits from this brave new world?

It sounds great if you can afford it, but who really benefits from this brave new world?

The first point to note is that less friction for some means more for others—usually those with less wealth and power who must take on and suffer the consequences of those ‘arduous tasks’, which can be deadly. Drone strikes may be highly efficient for the US Marine Corps but not for the wedding guests (the bride included) who were killed or injured in a drone attack in Yemen in December 2013

Likewise, robot-controlled assassination may reduce the level of friction on hard-pressed law-enforcement officials, but it didn’t do much for Micah Johnson’s chances of a trial from which something useful might have been learned—or for the wider issue of accountability. As journalist Olivia Ward puts it, drones and robots “are your judge, jury and executioner—but they give you no case to answer.” The ease of use of such technologies could lead us to pay less attention to the broader social consequences of our actions.

It’s a similar though less lethal story in Silicon Valley, where the friction of finding a place to live is being aggressively outsourced from the rich to the poor. Technology companies like Facebook and Google worry that even staff who are well paid are struggling to find accommodation in the housing bubble of San Francisco, so they are buying up and redeveloping property for their workers and evicting low-income tenants.

To increase the desirability of neighborhoods nearby, technology gurus are also bankrolling efforts to clear homeless people off ‘their’ streets, echoing attempts to remove those who stood in the way of ‘progress’ in other projects of gentrification. More than a third of children in Silicon Valley are already without a home. Faced by the friction of opposition, the rich can pay, lobby and litigate until it goes away.

Friction is essential for social change.

The second problem is that the benefits of frictionless solutions only outweigh the costs in a restricted number of circumstances—and using a limited definition of efficiency. If I want to get from home to hospital in a medical emergency I want to do so quickly and easily—with the minimum of friction. You could make a similar argument for contactless payments or donations made on your cell-phone, or organizing a supply chain so that it provides what customers need just at the right time to avoid unnecessary costs, or reporting human rights abuses using a new online app. In these situations reducing friction is an excellent idea

But for anything that has broader social or political significance the calculus is different, which is why friction is essential for social change. We all have different interests, and different views about the ‘good society,’ the provision of public goods, and the ethical issues involved in decisions about technology. These views and interests have to be aired, debated and negotiated through democratic politics, which—at least in theory—both produces friction and reconciles the results so that no-one’s voice is excluded and meaningful consensus can be built. The hard work of transforming society is not something to be avoided, but something to be embraced. Only through face-to-face engagement and political struggle can power relations be contested and remade.

Human judgment provides its own source of friction in processes like these, often frustrating and unpredictable and bloody-minded because it’s based in deeply-rooted values and inspirations. Even algorithms and calculations of cost effectiveness contain value judgments made by human beings on the basis of their own biases and priorities. It’s the power relations that underpin the design and use of technology that are important socially and politically, not the machines themselves.  That’s why Facebook’s attempts to automate its news filters are proving so problematic.

Take the example of public school reform in the USA, a favorite cause of Silicon Valley philanthropists like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. Their model of choice is designed to reduce friction in the education system by pushing down costs using online or distance learning; narrowing the curriculum by privileging math and science over art and creativity; and measuring results using standardized tests and rankings of pupils and their teachers. The goal seems to be a more efficient production line of employment-ready graduates, not necessarily rounded human beings who are capable of dissent and imagination—and who can apply their own friction to the system in the future. But like all visions of education and learning, this model is saturated by a particular set of interests and values.

There can’t be any friction if there’s no-one left to produce it.

It’s no coincidence that part of this package consists of curbing the power of the teachers’ unions, which are friction-promoting institutions par excellence (or what we used to think of as counterweights and valuable sources of expertise). In fact any group that can get in the way of the techno-business elite is likely to be marked for disinvestment or undermining by other means, whether it’s a government, a labor union, a grassroots organization or a protest. There can’t be any friction if there’s no-one left to produce it.

In this world of friction-free learning, who checks the facts, or scrutinizes what’s being taught, or balances different views and perspectives? More speed plus a greater volume of information inevitably leads to superficial processing. “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words; now I zip along the surface of knowledge like a guy on a jet ski” as the writer Nicholas Carr once put it. The art of thinking is supposed to be difficult and painful because our assumptions have to be exposed and tested. That’s why friction is so important. Friction slows things down and gives more people a role in producing and critiquing knowledge and ideas. This is the very stuff of democracy.

A world without friction is a world without politics, diversity or sufficient opportunities for human control and intervention. It’s a world in which elites can tighten their grip on decision making under the false promise of market efficiency, scientific neutrality, and technological progress. It heralds the dream—or perhaps the nightmare—of a population who have a basic education and a job or some other form of income security, but who lack the social and political structures and opportunities to be truly active citizens.

A world without friction is a world without politics.

Who wants to live in a frictionless world? If new technology can get me to the emergency room on time then I’m all for it, but in the social, political and artistic worlds there’s little that is healthily friction-free. Struggle is the bedrock of advancement. Our job is to insert ourselves as much and as often as possible into the wheels of technocracy, bureaucracy and business. We should resist anything that evades or removes the human dimension of problems and solutions in politics and economics. And we should celebrate the life-affirming benefits of friction when applied to privilege and power.

After all, unless life is uncomfortable, there’s no room for transformation.

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27 January 2017. What’s so feminist about yoga?

Despite the influence of capitalism on its practice, yoga can strengthen resistance and movement-building.

A young person doing the Cobra pose on a yoga mat outdoors. Credit: Everyday Feminism. All rights reserved.

Originally published on Everyday Feminism.

Yoga is not feminist.

Or that’s what you might think if you only know yoga through the lens of our capitalist, body-shaming, fitness-obsessed American culture.

Seeing magazine covers of thin, wealthy, White, cis women talking about “how to get yoga abs” certainly isn’t appealing for those of us working to eradicate inequality and oppression – nor does it make us want to give the practice a try.

Cultural appropriation is another serious problem in American yoga today.

The historical and contemporary colonization process of Western yoga serves to whitewash and erase yoga’s South Asian roots, while privileging the voices and bodies of White (heterosexual, cisgender, and wealthy) Americans as the owners, purveyors, and consumers of yoga.

This is certainly not feminist. Heterosexism, cultural appropriation, racism, inaccessibility, profit-driving, gender policing, and body shaming are not feminist values; in fact, recognizing and fighting against them are a necessary part of an intersectional feminist movement. And yet, these are all very present elements of yoga in America today.

They’re also completely counter to the values of the practice.

Feminism and yoga are in no way contradictory. In fact, despite all of this, I would argue that yoga and feminism are authentically bound. Despite the destruction that Western patriarchal capitalism has had on yoga practice and culture, yoga holds subversive, feminist elements that can strengthen our movement.

So what role can yoga play in the feminist movement? How does yoga challenge capitalism and systemic oppression, or strengthen our ability to be agents of social change?

What is so feminist about yoga?

Here are four things to consider.

1. Yoga changes our relationships to our bodies.

“By being physical without a focus on weight-loss or competition, yoga can help you become a witness to negative self-talk that comes from years of misguided influence of the media and other cultural forces. Despite what Instagram might look like, yoga can help you reject attachment to cultural beauty standards so that you can feel comfortable in your own skin.” —Veronica Rottman, feminist yoga instructor and doula

Although yoga has only in the last several decades begun to occupy a visible place in the American mainstream, yoga has been practiced globally for over 5,000 years. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root “yuj” meaning “to yoke,” or “to come together,” “to unite.”

The union of the mind and body is at the core of yoga and is certainly no small goal. We tend to view the mind and body as separate things in our culture, and we promote division by prioritizing one over the other.

Certainly, living under an endless amount of body-shaming, victim-blaming, and social pressures around sex and body image creates a context for toxic relationships with our bodies.

Feminism takes up this cause by examining, deconstructing, and challenging these norms. Yoga takes up the cause through the practice of embodiment. This process means connecting and reconnecting and coming into our bodies just by noticing what we’re feeling without judgment or any attempt to control or change those physical and emotional experiences.

Our bodies hold our life stories. They hold our grief and trauma, our anxiety, our sadness, our joy, our histories. And while we live in an incredibly cognitive world, we can’t always verbally explain what’s happened and is happening in our bodies. In fact, most of the time, we don’t even notice or care. The division of our “self” from our bodies allows the space for constant negative self-talk, criticism, and punishment of our bodies for just being what they are.

In a world that teaches us to constantly try to “take control” over ourselves – our bodies, our weight, our health, our emotions – it can be a radically feminist experience to learn to simply hold the space for our bodies to feel whatever sensations arise, to allow ourselves to carry what our bodies want to hold onto, to let go of what they no longer need, to breathe in their history and each passing moment.

This is what yoga teaches – to be in our bodies, fully, and to love the movement and sensations and emotions, with all their complexity.

2. Yoga can help us heal from trauma.

“Feminism offered the ideological tools to examine my tortured relationship with my body systematically and deconstruct mediated images. Yoga provided the practice that rooted the things feminism had taught me. It is one thing to intellectualize self-love and acceptance, it’s another to embody it.” —Melanie Klein, academic, feminist, yoga instructor

To live in this world as a person of marginalized identities is to experience trauma.

As I’ve discussed in past posts, oppression is immensely bad for your mental health. Healing from the systemic and interpersonal violence that one endures in this world, then, must hold a central role in our movement.

We cannot build a movement of strength without acknowledging the daily trauma (big T and little t) that has been carried out in the name of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and other systems of oppression.

When it comes to healing from trauma, both yoga and feminism play important and overlapping roles. While feminism gives us the framework for letting go of internalized shame, yoga grounds that healing in our bodies.

Increasing research shows that because we hold trauma in our bodies, yoga often gives us the tools we need to release it, to let go of the weight and conditioning and to find a new strength for moving through the world.

This process of healing and building strength and power is such a central part of our work. To be a part of this movement is to acknowledge the trauma inherent in living under and alongside rape culturepolice violence in Black communities, violence against abortion providers, the prison industrial complex, gender and sexuality-based hate crimes, and the list goes on and on.

We are witnesses to this trauma, and we are survivors of it. The practice of being present to it, to being awake, and to healing are central to yoga, and central to our social justice work.

The practice of yoga is not only healing – its philosophy also speaks to our social justice goals: The ultimate goal of yoga is liberation.

Yogic philosophy also holds values such as ahimsa, or nonviolence, and kharma, or selfless action, at its core. Yoga, like feminism, seeks to dismantle and deconstruct cultural notions and belief systems through critical thinking, or kind questioning.

It values non-duality and fluidity of the self and in our expression of gender. The idea of “wiping the fog from the mirror” is a common one in yoga – that we can wipe away that which clouds our clarity, that we can be increasingly conscious and awake to what is happening around us.

Yoga, then, can teach us not only to let go of harmful and rigid constructions of self as we heal from trauma, but fills that space with a framework grounded in liberation and taking action.

3. Yoga helps us cultivate being here now.

“The practice of yoga only requires us to act and to be attentive to our actions.” —T.K.V Desikachar

Yoga isn’t just about moving your body. Sure, we make cool shapes in a yoga class, but the practice is about so much more than that. In fact, yoga has eight limbs, only one of which includes the physical poses (asana). Other limbs focus on ethical standards, self-discipline, the steps of meditation, as well as connecting to our breath and to the present moment.

Yoga teaches us to sit in the present moment, to notice every sound, sensation, action – and to notice these things without judgment. This is also called mindfulness, and it is an incredibly challenging thing to practice.

It means being here now, in this moment, and facing whatever we may be trying to avoid by distracting ourselves with work, substances, or television. It also means truly seeing the people and other living beings around us. Seeing them not as separate from us, but as deeply connected.

While capitalism and oppression teach us to strive to “get ahead,” to compete and compare and criticize ourselves and others, yoga teaches us to accept ourselves and those around us. While capitalism values productivity and efficiency, yoga values slowing down and inaction. While capitalism teaches us we don’t own our own bodies or our labor or our time, to always be thinking of the future as a way to get through the long days of work, yoga teaches us that no one can “own” our time or bodies, and that the only way to truly live is to be fully awake to each and every moment.

While capitalism and systemic oppression serve to isolate us from one other and to separate us from our time, our labor, ourselves, and everything around us, yoga teaches us to connect with the present moment, and to the beings around us.

When we take action as a collective, as beings who are deeply connected to one another, we are better able to position the values of empowerment, equality, and empathy at the center of our work – and become a stronger feminist movement because of it.   

4. Yoga teaches both acceptance and change.

“Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.” —B.K.S. Iyengar

When I first started studying yoga, I remember having a really hard time with that word – acceptance. Why would I work toward a place of acceptance when there is so much in this world that needs changing? Isn’t acceptance of each moment counter-revolutionary?

While it can be difficult to hold both ideas at once, it’s possible (and even radical!) both to accept each moment as it is, while rejecting the oppressive violence around us and taking action to enact change.

We can hold that each moment is true and real and authentic while wanting events of those moments to be different. We can hold that we are who we are and where we are, while wanting both of those things to be better.

But we have to start where we are.

I think one of the hardest parts of being an activist is that change is so. frustratingly. slow.

And in a world where waking up to the truth of the terror happening around you can easily set you up for a lifetime of endless anger and frustration, it’s absolutely necessary that we make space for connection and joy.

It’s a long road to change, and burn-out is all too common in our movement. Yoga teaches us how to do just that – to be both patient and demanding for the necessary revolution; to accept and be grateful for each small change as we remain rooted in our larger vision and thirst for deeper shifts; to be awake to the beauty and power offered in each breath and moment, while challenging the emptiness, alienation, self-blame, and disconnection upon which oppression and marginalization thrives.

We need and deserve to see the beauty around us amidst the violence. By doing this, we remind ourselves what kind of world we’re fighting for, and keep that fire for justice burning.

Yoga also teaches us how to hold humility and an openness to learning, especially when it comes to learning from the wisdom of both yoga and feminism’s long history.

In our work, it’s essential to be open to learning from our history – from both the narrow, destructive past of White feminism’s exclusionary vision to the infinite wisdom of radical, intersectional feminists.

While Western yoga culture may position itself as ahistorical, taking credit for its own profit-driven existence, a feminist yoga practice teaches us that we are intimately connected to its long, vibrant history, as well as to its destructive colonization and appropriation from its spiritual roots and culture.

This awareness, gratitude, and openness grounds us in the wisdom of the past while teaching us to create an intention for the present and future.

While I firmly believe that yoga can hold a major role in our movement, this is by no means a call to embrace yoga culture as it exists in America.

There are real problems with the way yoga in this country is practiced and with whom it excludes. But I don’t think this means rejecting yoga completely. Instead, I would argue that the qualities of yoga that reaffirm marginalization and exclusion are definitively un-yoga. They’re counter to yogic philosophy.

There’s a difference between yoga culture and yoga practice – the larger yoga culture in America may be way too body-shaming and appropriative, but your practice doesn’t need to be. Take it from Sparkle Thornton and Dianne Bondy and Nick Krieger and Jessamyn Stanley. Take it from BlackWomenYoga and Queer and Trans Yoga and the Prison Yoga Project.

As we work to make our studios and practices more accessible, inclusive, and critical of the racist, heterosexist, cissexist, and cultural appropriative elements of yoga, we can also work to integrate the elements of yoga we find most beneficial into our movement.

I believe that yoga can only make us stronger activists – radicals with more energy, gratitude, presence, and deeper connections to one another and our planet.

While feminism continues to be our ideological framework for understanding and critiquing oppression, yoga can be the tool to ground us in that framework, to practice the awareness, compassion, and self-love that will create the space for us to be agents of change.

Just start where you are.

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25 January 2017. Empathy and vulnerability in the digital age

The cyber-world collapses the distance between the spectator and the scene of brutality, but does this encourage voyeurism or solidarity?

Credit: Flickr/Marina Shemesh. Some rights reserved.

While the technological advances of the 21st century have brought us unparalleled ways to connect with each-other through social media, they may also be producing a greater sense of isolation. We are drawn towards feelings of loneliness as we navigate an increasingly digitized world, even though the vulnerability of human life is on full display: from cell phone recordings of the murders of Americans of colour to videos from those who are documenting their precarious existence in the rubble of Aleppo; from the Facebook livestream of the torture of a Chicago teen with special needs earlier this month to the video-recording of the infamous ‘Coffin Assault,’ in which two South African farmers forced a man into a coffin while threatening to toss a snake inside and set it ablaze.

Not only do we have more real-time glimpses into the horrors of human savagery, but we also feel an increased intimacy to the victim’s vulnerability. These developments could, in theory, promote greater empathy and more empathic action, but responses to such horrors more often take the form of voyeurism, victim-blaming, shock, momentary outrage and pity, none of which are sufficient motivators for the kinds of activism that are required.

The crafting of empathic responses is necessary in building and sustaining meaningful political resolve, but empathy requires both patience and hard work. The active creation of empathy supports communities as they hone in and focus on long-term structural challenges while sustaining the difficult emotional work of collective and personal introspection. Identifying with the needs and perspectives of others allows for openness and learning, as well as the incorporation of new approaches and ways of thinking. These are crucial tools in building new social movements, alliances and coalitions.

But where empathy is demanding, these other responses to suffering on the internet are easy. Take voyeurism, the easiest response of all. The victim’s pain, suffering and humiliation are transformed from the visceral to the spectacle. By extension, the victim is transformed from a living, breathing and feeling human-being deserving of dignity into an object of entertainment. The dangers of this response aren’t new, though the technology may be. They echo the workings, public nature and souvenir-hunting of lynching in the United States, which necessitated an intimate proximity between the victim, perpetrator and spectator—forming “boundaries of fear and loathing within and between communities.”

It’s in this context that social media are extremely important. The cyber-world collapses the distance between the spectator and the scene of brutality, increasing both the power and position of the observer and the vulnerability and disempowerment of the victim. Any agency gained from such interactions is futile unless it is converted into empathy and on to action in which others are seen and treated as full and equal human beings.

Victim-blaming operates in much the same way as voyeurism, except that it also attempts to reinforce the perceived normative power of the accusers and perpetrators, a form of power that’s legitimatized by the victim-blamer through their relationship to the victim. This power imbalance is justified by the delusion that the victim deserves the treatment they receive as a result of their actions or beliefs: they become collateral damage in the quest for a greater good, a sentiment reflected in a comment on the Coffin Assault video that claims that “[t]his is the culmination of years of people killing farmers in South Africa and taking over their land.”

Shock is another, malleable response to such horrors. Naomi Klein has written extensively about the ways in which neoliberal institutions utilize collective shock in their efforts to increase their power to transform society. But momentary shock can also be used to heighten empathic action if exposure to human vulnerability is crafted in effective ways. This requires building communities of social and political practice in which shock, empathy and collective action are continuously connected. HandsUp United’s Books and Breakfast program provides a good illustration of what this means in practice. Over the sharing of meals and literature, a politics of solidarity and responsibility can be formed.

On the surface, the next reaction to horrific events witnessed on social media—momentary outrage—has more merit, because it lends itself to some level of identification with suffering. However, the empathic nature of this response is often limited by the sheer immediacy of digitized interaction. The duration of an event’s discomfort and thought-provocation is cut short by the new and intense stimulation that is brought directly to our cell-phones, tablets, laptops and digital watches. In the process, our outrage at injustice is often too fleeting to allow for any meaningful reflection or the organization of considered responses.

However, the pragmatism of centrist politics demands that leaders follow the logic of momentary outrage in their actions. Promises to rectify injustice are rarely followed by long-term or structural changes. This leaves space for reactionary politicians to tap into genuine pain that has not been translated into action. In this context, such reactionary figures come across as truth-tellers even if their arguments are devoid of factuality. For example, the Danger and Play website claimed that the perpetrators of the torture of the Chicago teen with special needs came from the #BlackLivesMatter movement and reflected their values. These claims were proven to be nonsense, and the alleged perpetrators have rightly been charged with hate crimes on the grounds of ability.

Pity may be the most damaging of all responses. At worst it is used condescendingly in projects of social stratification, utilizing a victim’s distress to essentialize and stabilize their vulnerability while empowering the observer. At best it is misguided, robbing the victim of their experience and transferring pity onto someone else and the group they represent. One only need look at the comment section of the right-wing Breitbart News website to witness human vulnerability transformed into pity for the sake of power—for example, the oft-repeated line that  “[i]t’s time to stop pretending that white people are the problem.” Pity also manifests itself as a passive recognition of suffering, an acquiescence to current conditions that prevents any meaningful action. Personal feelings of helplessness and temporary political solutions like humanitarian aid without any structural changes both reflect and reinforce the power of pity.

The increased proximity to suffering that’s offered by social media provides a mirror of our own vulnerability, and thus humanity. Undoubtedly, this can be frightening, but instead of running away from this experience we should embrace it. We must refrain from shielding ourselves from the suffering of others because doing so limits our capacity for empathy, action and inspiration. To be human is to be vulnerable. We are all prey to unpredictability; tomorrow is not promised today.

Meaningful action and empathic construction require hard work—intellectually, emotionally and practically. Such labours demand strength, and they cannot be completed alone. Technology can interfere with these labours but it can also support them, if we can find ways of binding together our fractured sense of self and community instead of allowing social media and the internet to splinter us. To do this, we must find ways of recombining the real and virtual elements of how we respond to suffering, and shift our sense of time and distance. We must challenge the instantaneous nature of social media that disable meaningful reflection while actively expanding our sense of togetherness, for we are stronger in unity than in isolation. 

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23 January 2017. The growing political impotence of images

Are photographs of war and atrocity losing the power to move us?

The death of Aylan Kurdi. Credit: Flickr/Ur Cameras. Public Domain.

The moon is bisected by a cloud, then a razor blade slits through a woman’s eyeball with unnerving ease. The narrative jumps quickly to “eight years later”, with the woman’s appearance fully restored. This opening scene, one of the most infamous in the history of cinematography, is a grotesque and violent challenge to the audience’s point of view, slicing literally through their conceptions of society, the arts and culture.

Still from Un Chien Andalou. Credit: Flickr/LLacertae. Some rights reserved.

Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s 1929 surrealist classic Un Chien Andalou (“An Andalusian Dog”) was, in the words of the former, “a violent reaction against what in those days was called ‘avant-garde,’ which was aimed exclusively at artistic sensibility and the audience’s reason.” One of its purposes was to confront audiences and their conceptions of art directly; to make them feel uncomfortable when faced with incomprehensible scenes and distorted narratives.

Today we are inundated with scenes of wartime atrocities from places like Aleppo in Syria, yet few linger long in the memory. There are multiple images of crying mothers, children being pulled from rubble and shattered-looking doctors and nurses. Yet few, if any, of these images assume an iconic status. A community of strangers would struggle to pick out a selection of images that capture or define any particular war zone.

It was not always so. In the past, images have galvanised anti-war movements and become truly iconic. Nick Ut’s famous photograph of a young girl burned by napalm called Kim Phúc, running down the road naked with her arms raised is one such example from the Vietnam War; Nick Ut’s photograph of Kim Phúc.. Credit: Flickr/Tommy Japan. Some rights reserved.or Eddie Adams’s capturing the summary execution of a suspected Viet Cong guerrilla. Such images aroused the passions of protesters thousands of miles away and provided a mobilizing force that a thousand or more words could not provoke.

Eddie Adams’s capturing the summary execution of a suspected Viet Cong guerrilla. Credit: Flickr/Cliff. Some rights reserved.In September 2015, a photograph of the lifeless body of three year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi went global. Like many thousands of people before him, Kurdi perished in the Mediterranean Sea as his family strove to reach Greece. Face down in the Turkish sand in a red t-shirt and blue shorts, his arms resting by his side, Kurdi’s image inspired rhetorical outrage and many calls for action. Within weeks, however, it had faded from view and from memory, catalogued alongside thousands of other images of the victims of a refugee crisis whose causes remain unaddressed.

The death of Aylan Kurdi. Credit: Flickr/Ur Cameras. Public Domain.

 What lies behind the diluted power of imagery like this?

First of all, the contemporary aestheticization of violence has stifled the impact of such images on our collective consciousness. Overproduced and stylised violence permeates all aspects of daily life, diluting and cleansing such images of pain and suffering. Sensationalizations of warfare and crime in popular culture provide a purely aesthetic experience that serves as entertainment as opposed to a potential source of empathy.

The victims captured in images of war have become objects of our gaze, their subjectivity diluted by this commodification and glorification of violence. Their humanities are obliterated along with the landscapes that surround them. In effect, they’ve become collateral damage from the emotional detachment or paralysis of those who are considering the images that are laid-out before them.

Secondly, this process of aestheticization has been made more acute by the exponential rise of the internet and, in particular, by social media. The pace and quantity at which images (whether still or moving) are reproduced and shared has accelerated. Audiences are inundated with images of atrocity and tragedy at a level that reinforces the numbing effect derived from portrayals of violence in contemporary culture, whether in movies, TV dramas, music videos or video games.

The possibilities for distorting and manipulating images using media technology have planted additional seeds of doubt about the veracity of any photograph or video. Scenes of one event (an atrocity or a protest, for example) are regularly used to illuminate an entirely different one. Images are photo-shopped or cropped to add or omit crucial details with the intention of twisting or distorting their meaning. Manipulation means that the same image can be used to support opposite or diverging narratives.  

Juxtaposed with on-line advertisements and celebrity gossip, the perspective in which an image sits is fundamentally altered, changing the connotations of what it had intended to communicate. This is one of the time-honoured lessons of the late John Berger’s seminal ‘Ways of Seeing:’ that the context in which images are presented matters greatly.

Context is the frame through which images are viewed and interpreted. As Berger himself asserted, “When paintings are reproduced they become a form of information, which is being transmitted and so they have to hold their own against the other information which is jostling around them to appear on the same page or the same screen. The meaning of an image can be changed according to what you see beside it or what comes after it.”

Thirdly, war and its complexities are becoming increasingly inaccessible. Photojournalists are used less frequently by editors, and when they are used they can be targeted by combatants or embedded within military deployments. In 2013 and due to a lack of funding for frontline journalists, the French newspaper Libération published an entire edition without any photos to illustrate the impact an absence of images could have on the consumption of news. 

Rémi Ochlik with a Free Syrian Army fighter near Homs, taken the evening before he was killed by a rocket attack in Bab Amr. Credit: Freedom House/Flickr. Some rights reserved.The list of photojournalists killed in war zones continues to grow, including the French photographer, Remi Ochlik, who was accompanying the American journalist, Marie Colvin, when they were apparently deliberately targeted by Syrian shells in Homs in 2012.

As we become increasingly passive observers of war and its crimes, images cease to exercise the mobilizing potential they might once have had. This makes it even more important to slit through our own perspectives in order to challenge the context in which the images we encounter have unfolded. We must engage more assertively with the stories behind these photographs, delving beyond the surface of the images to recognize, understand and empathize with their subjects—both perpetrators and victims. We must explore the structural context in which every image is taken and presented, not just the pure aesthetics of the image itself. Only then might an image tell us ‘more than a thousand words.’ 

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20 January 2017. Six principles for resisting the presidency of Donald Trump

Nonviolent action works best when you stay nonviolent and study the terrain on which you’re fighting.

This article was first published on Waging Nonviolence.

Donald Trump at a rally in Las Vegas. Flickr/Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.

Drawing from the Beautiful Trouble and Beautiful Rising toolboxes, here are six key concepts that may prove useful to movements preparing to resist Donald Trump’s presidency.

1. Clinton’s neoliberal ‘realism’ lost the election. Now what?

Theory: Neoliberalism

In sum: Neoliberalism, today’s dominant ideology, reduces the state to a handmaiden of transnational capital. In pursuing the relentless privatization of the commons, its policies inevitably spark popular discontent.

Donald Trump didn’t so much win the election as Hillary Clinton lost it. Clinton’s failure to turn out the Democrats’ traditional base on election day should be understood as a catastrophic failure of the Democratic Party establishment to fire up their base by responding to the growing public opposition to neoliberalism.

This, in effect, was the key difference between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries: Sanders named the enemy — increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few under deregulated capitalism — and vowed to confront that power. Hillary Clinton preached a “realism” that simply accepted the ground rules of neoliberalism unchallenged. Compared to Trump’s repeated focus on how the country’s leaders had failed the working class, Clinton copped to glib assurances that “America is already great” that had zero resonance in communities where most people are struggling to make ends meet.

Understanding what neoliberalism is and building organizations capable of offering both resistance to it and viable political alternatives must be front and center for U.S. progressives who are committed to real systemic change in the months and years ahead.

2. To resist Trump, we need both ‘expressive’ and ‘instrumental’ actions.

Theory: Expressive and instrumental actions

In sum: Political action tends to be driven by one of two different motivations: expressing an identity and winning concrete changes. It’s important to know the difference, and to strike a balance between the two.

As we prepare to resist Trump, it is more important than ever to understand the difference between “expressive” and “instrumental” actions. “Expressive” actions come from the heart and gut; we do them because they feel meaningful, or “simply because it feels good to do the right thing.”

Most experienced organizers think on another, more “instrumental,” level. Regardless of the self-expressive value for those involved, organizers ask, “What is this action actually achieving?” While the best actions can be both expressive and instrumental, if we confuse the two purposes, say, expecting a primarily expressive, feel-good action to have specific results like forcing the hand of a power-holder, we will likely be disappointed.

In the era of Trump, America risks sliding from a liberal democracy into a more authoritarian regime. Our understanding of protest and power must shift along with it. In the Obama era, symbolic protest could (sometimes) get attention and exert pressure on sympathetic power-holders. Not so under Trump, where our strategic stance must now take into account the higher stakes and evolve tactically into “regime resistance.” Yes, we need healthy political self-expression, but we also need to be thinking strategically and “instrumentally.”

An example of a more instrumental set of actions are the rolling “phone-jams” being done to exert economic pressure on Trump businesses until neo-Nazi Steve Bannon is booted from the Trump White House. Another example is the growing resistance to Medicare privatization, a campaign that is winnable, and cuts across regional, racial and class divides. It could also have lots of additional benefits: Potentially alienating Trump from his base, slowing his momentum, and exacerbating splits between Trump and the GOP.

3. Guerrillas in Trump-land

Principle: Know your cultural terrain

In sum: The first rule of guerrilla warfare is to know your terrain and use it to your advantage. This holds true whether you are fighting in an actual jungle or in the metaphoric wasteland of mass culture.

Trump did not reach the White House by offering a coherent economic policy or political platform. Rather, he made a cultural appeal to voters discontented with the direction in which they saw the country going. We need to understand this cultural wave that helped lift Trump to the presidency if we are going to counter his administration’s policies and divert some of this discontent toward more progressive ends.

A significant part of Trump’s campaign was based in white identity politics. He stoked racial fears while offering a nostalgic vision of a time when the privileges of white Christian men went unchallenged. This aspect of Trump culture is toxic, and must be countered at every turn. Other aspects of Trump’s appeal, however, resonate with the concerns of many on the left and can be built upon to support radical politics. Trump effectively played on people’s utter disgust with a “rigged” two-party system that is elitist, out of touch, and in thrall to undemocratic interests. He spoke to a feeling that the economy has left many, many people out even as it has “recovered.”

These appeals may seem a bit absurd, given Trump’s own elite background and support for Wall Street over Main Street, but they offer potential leverage points for holding Trump accountable and crafting effective cultural strategies. Every time he nominates an establishment politician, or gives a tax break to the wealthy, there is a crack in his narrative that can be exploited.

A word of caution: We shouldn’t overestimate the strength of Trump’s narrative — he did, after all, lose the popular vote amid very low turnout. We also shouldn’t simplify the story, for example painting Trump voters with a broad brush as poor and working class whites. Much of Trump’s support came from traditional Republican strongholds (read: wealthy white people). Still, Trump’s discourse during the election has shaped the cultural terrain that he is about to step into, and that terrain, while largely hostile, has some pitfalls we should be taking advantage of.

4. Now more than ever, we’ve got to take care of one another.

Principle: Seek safety in support networks

In sum: When activists are threatened, it’s important to harness national or international networks that can provide support and deter violence.

As the large numbers of women and minorities signing up for self-defense classes since the election testifies, many people are taking the threat of Trump very seriously. The threat of violence against activists, both directly from the state and indirectly from individuals and groups emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric, has escalated greatly in the last year and may continue to rise.

To counter this threat, we must reach out to and support one another: report threats we’ve received, reach out to others who have been targeted by threats, disrupt and defuse bullying or harassment when we see it, form networks of support, share skills and resources, and call on organizations that can assist. The Southern Poverty Law Center, National Lawyers Guild, ACLU, the Anti-Fascist Network, and the Sanctuary City and Sanctuary Campus campaigns are just a few.

Now is the time to move from impartial observer to ally to solidarity actor. It’s the time to risk privilege and favor, take a stand and show up the when asked to. As Barbara Kingsolver writes, “There’s safety in numbers, but only if we count ourselves out loud.”

5. We have a lot more leverage than we might realize.

Theory: Points of intervention

In sum: Points of intervention are specific places in a system where a targeted action can effectively interrupt the functioning of power and open the way to change.

If we are going to mobilize people to effectively resist the Trump agenda, we must pick our battles wisely, and recognize where we can intervene to have the greatest leverage. It’s worth considering five different types of points: production, consumption, destruction, decision and assumption. For example, ongoing boycotts and targeted phone-jams of Trump’s business empire are applying economic pressure at the point of consumption. Trump’s threat to deport millions of undocumented Americans is being forcefully resisted by rebel cities and a new Sanctuary Movement that will challenge migrants’ criminalization at the point of assumption, and potentially, through mass direct action at airports, train and bus stations, at the point of destruction.

Strikes and other point-of-production actions have historically been used to resist terrible presidencies. Yes, the presidency is a powerful office, but there are many, many other points of decision at which we can intervene and win victories: Remember how during the dark days of the Reagan presidency, ACT-UP brought the fight for justice for people with AIDS directly to drug companies and the FDA.

6. We win through strategic nonviolence

Principle: Maintain nonviolent discipline

In sum: Nonviolent action works best when you stay nonviolent.

Tactic: Strategic nonviolence

In sum: Use strategic nonviolence to create a framework for broad-based direct action conducive to building large, inclusive, diverse and effective movements.

Decades of historical research has again and again shown that nonviolent movements are twice as effective as violent ones. The ugly turn towards a Trump presidency is only likely to reinforce that truth. Maintaining nonviolent discipline in our actions is a critical key to unlocking successful movements and winning victories.

Nonviolent action helps build people power by lowering the bar to participation. (Movements that are able to mobilize just 3.5 percent of their populations are almost always successful.) In addition, nonviolent action can reduce the likelihood of retaliation by authorities and, if they do retaliate, reduce the legitimacy of that retaliation. A public stance committing to nonviolence can help identify violent agent provocateurs, reducing infiltration and disruption of the movement. Moreover, a commitment to nonviolent action encourages creativity (unlike a reliance on violence which typically gets us into a same-old-same-old rut) — and the more innovative our tactics, the more likely we are to win.

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18 January 2017. The internet can spread hate, but it can also help to tackle it

Hate picks no sides—it merely fills the gaps left by broken communication.

Credit: Flickr/John S. Quarterman. CC 2.0 Some rights reserved.

In the weeks surrounding the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, anti-immigrant hate crime in the UK rose to worrying levels, culminating in the dramatic murders of the Polish national Arkadiusz Jóźwik and British MP Jo Cox.

For some, it seems that the victory of the ‘leave’ campaign legitimised hostility towards immigrants and minorities. Brexit was fought on a narrative of division, tapping into deeply-felt tensions that were caused by poverty, growing levels of inequality and a crisis of faith in political representation and democracy. These tensions were then wrapped up in a simplistic package of blame against immigrants. The binary politics of the referendum—‘yes’ or ‘no’—reinforced the narratives of ‘right’ versus ‘wrong’, pushing people to pick sides crudely.

What was happening on the streets was even more present online. The anonymity of the internet offered vitriol a safe haven, with reports revealing a peak in online abuse against those from mainland Europe, British Muslims and other minorities who were openly insulted and told to ‘go back to their country.’

What we’ve seen online in the UK this year is part of a growing global phenomenon. Over the past decade social media has been linked to intensifying religious tensions in Myanmar, where Facebook has been used to feed anti-Muslim sentiment. It has been a catalyst in fuelling post-election conflict in Kenya, where politicians have been calling for violence online. And it has fuelled divisions in the US by reinforcing extreme narratives on both sides during the presidential elections.

Social media has changed the way we communicate. It offers valuable opportunities for connection but at the same time segregates people into social ‘bubbles’ that echo and legitimise one’s own opinions. As Eli Pariser, CEO of Upworthy explains, the growing personalisation of online content, especially news outlets tailored to our interests and opinions, “creates the impression that our narrow self-interest is all that exists.” Rather than offering wider exposure to social and political realities, these bubbles simplify issues and make societies more vulnerable to a ‘mob mentality’ as patterns of hate find fertile ground in a cycle where opinions and assertions go unchallenged.

As a peacebuilding organisation, International Alert’s work in conflict-affected areas around the world has demonstrated time and again that hate speech is never benign. History shows that it has fanned the flames of violence, created a language and culture of enmity, and normalised hostile environments conducive to mass violence. In Rwanda for example, the International Criminal Court has connected hate speech to war and genocide, with newspaper articles and radio broadcasts resulting in widespread acts of violence in 1994. If we are not aware of the tipping points between hate speech and conflict, violence can become a genuine risk.

Online hate speech is all the more harmful because it’s difficult to capture, qualify and regulate, yet it reaches a huge potential audience. Unfortunately, societies are ill-equipped to deal with this phenomenon because legal responses are inadequate, and however well-intentioned technology firms may try to be, they have yet to come up with any effective responses. The criminalisation of hate speech also raises ethical dilemmas: whilst it aims to protect people from harm, it also risks restricting freedom of speech.

The solutions to online vitriol have to be more holistic than simply policing, banning or repressing hateful views. They must involve the development of more responsible political and media practices that re-introduce nuance into public conversation, reflect societies’ complex social identities, and encourage respectful interaction. In the words of political satirist Jonathan Pie, “when will we understand that discussion is key?”

As political and media narratives are increasingly turning legitimate grievances and anger about political failures into irrational fears of the ’other,’ the pathologic phobia and anxiety they generate must be addressed with new tools. In behavioural therapy, one of the most efficient responses to phobia is systematic desensitisation through gradual exposure. Maybe this is what we need, being more exposed to each other, acknowledging each other’s existence and right to be different, accepting each other’s needs and grievances and getting rid of the boogieman.

But unfortunately it isn’t that easy. One experiment that was designed to burst social media bubbles around the US election showed that exposure to opposing viewpoints merely reinforced people’s adversarial attitudes. When divisions are so deep, unmediated exposure only reaffirms pre-existing beliefs. Exposure is not enough: in order to change behaviours, people need to engage safely and willingly in a process of transformation.

Peacebuilding offers a number of tried and tested tools that can help in this process. The first is active listening. In times of uncertainty, we all need to feel that our concerns are being heard, that we can worry about migration, terrorism, the economy or the failure of elite politics without being judged. Expressing one’s needs and fears opens the way to confronting the underlying problems. In addition, conflict analysis, dialogue, mediation and collaborative problem-solving are all tools that can help map grievances and improve relationships among citizens and between citizens and their institutions.

But we also need to find ways to bring these approaches to the online world, adapting the tools of peacebuilding to the particular scale and modalities of the internet, re-imagining citizen-led solutions and creative social responses that can open up the space for alternative narratives and ‘peace speech.’ This is where technology can play an important role.

Existing platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook can be used in innovative ways to encourage dialogue across differences. Recent initiatives such as #refugeeswelcome or Techfugees are good examples of digital tools that facilitate positive responses to migration. Campaigns like #notinmyname or the comical trolling of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have allowed Muslims to voice alternatives to the narratives of blame that follow every terror attack, whilst also highlighting the power of humour as a great way to lighten negativity.

Initiatives like YouGov in the UK, Akshaya in India and the Digital Cabinet in Brazil show the potential of digital technology to improve accountability and increase feelings of empowerment by bringing decision-making closer to people. More generally, in our increasingly lonely societies, social media can help us to create social bonds offline, whether cooking and dining with unknown neighbours in supper clubs, meeting with strangers around common interests, or finding a life partner.

However, even in the aggregate these constructive initiatives struggle to resist the tide of anger and hate. That’s why International Alert organised a #peacehack in October 2016 designed to find better ways of tackling online hate speech through the use of technology. Developers and designers drew on real-life experiences of online abuse and islamophobia described by schoolchildren from the north of England to understand how digital tools can counter hateful narratives. Ideas that emerged included Hate Speech Stopper, a plug-in that makes you pause and think before using hate speech online, and Noby—an interactive educational tool that offers guidance on how to react when faced with real-life hate crime.

Just as important were the relationships built during #peacehack. Technology professionals found out more about how they can use their skills for peace and social justice. Children had their voices heard and were empowered to craft new solutions. Initiatives like these offer an interesting channel to scale up peacebuilding approaches online. Hate picks no sides—it merely fills the gap left by broken communication. We need to stop blaming each other for society’s ills and start focussing on our basic human need and common interest to live in peaceful and prosperous environments.

Peacebuilders often say that ‘peace is a process’ of building new relationships and repairing broken ones. In an era of digital communication these relationships will increasingly be mediated through the internet, so that is where we need to focus our efforts, starting with younger generations who are both more exposed and less resilient to online hate speech. Peace education and digital literacy can be combined to transform the internet into a more positive and hopeful space.

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16 January 2017. Five ways to build solidarity across our differences

How do we build bridges between people who could be allies for radical change but who view each other with anger and suspicion?

Credit: Pixabay/Wolfblur. CC0 Public Domain.

The victory of Brexit in the UK has provoked a confrontational atmosphere, characterised by some as a growing gulf between left-leaning pro-Europe liberals and groups of poor and disenfranchised people voting against the ‘establishment.’ The former accuse the latter of prejudice and/or ignorance. The latter see the former as elites who don’t understand their situation and are reluctant to oppose the status quo. Prejudice and self-interest are likely part of the picture on both sides.

But binary decision-making processes like referendums reflect positions on one issue at one point in time, not whole people with complex lives. Simplistic versions of events can become entrenched, leaving us stuck in different silos. How can we become unstuck? How do we foster solidarity between people who could be allies for radical change but who view each other with suspicion and anger? 

These are questions that concern us at Skills Network, a women’s cooperative in Lambeth, south London. The two of us founded the organisation in 2011 as a space for women from diverse backgrounds to share concerns, receive training on supporting children’s education, and undertake research on issues affecting local families. We wanted to dispense with top-down approaches and work as equals, hoping that radical ways of tackling problems would emerge over time. Our group includes ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ voters, professional women, women who have never been to school or who left early, lifelong Londoners, recent immigrants, women on benefits, women in low-paid work, ex-prisoners and victims of domestic abuse.

Our values and positions sometimes clash. There has been profound disagreement and suspicion. Cliques have formed and arguments have brewed. Nonetheless, we have found ways to understand each-other, to feel the interconnectedness of our struggles and move forward together.

Clearly, local experience can’t simply be scaled up to the level of whole societies, but after the EU referendum there was no ‘growing gulf’ between ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ voters in our network.  So we think our experience may resonate with people who want to come together with others who might disagree with them on divisive issues. What have we learned?

What undermines solidarity? Three lessons.

1. Don’t assume you know where people are coming from—or that it’s your role to ‘educate’ them.

K:  It’s not okay to say you don’t feel comfortable among Muslim members and that it is ‘wrong’ that women wear hijab. It feels like out and out prejudice…

H:  You know me, I don’t dislike anyone. But we’ve fought hard for black women’s rights since the 1970s. And when women put themselves under that headscarf it feels like they’re betraying what we fought for.

These quotes paraphrase a two-hour conversation between Kiran and another core member of the network who we’ll call ‘H.’ H had made what we as co-founders heard as Islamophobic comments. We were outraged: H was someone we liked and respected. She was also a single, disabled mother who had spent time in prison.  She’d experienced discrimination herself. How could she do it to others?

After some hesitation, predicting an uncomfortable conversation about immigration, K challenged H, feeling that she had to ‘educate’ H on how she was wrong, or misled.  But it was K who needed to learn about H’s experience of social struggle and how this affected her position. H went on to have considered debates with Muslim members of the network about why they wore the headscarf.  We have never reached consensus on this issue, but we’ve reached a place where no one feels silenced or undermined. 

Listening well, staying curious and open to challenge when you feel uncomfortable or morally ‘right’ is like walking a tightrope. It’s easy to become over-focused on how to ‘convince’ the other person and hear only what you expect to hear.

To disrupt this habitual thinking, K and H used an approach we had practised called ‘listening from a position of not knowing.’  They allowed each other to speak without interruption for two minutes and used ‘curious’ questions to open up the other’s story. K thought by ‘wrong’ H meant ‘bad,’ but on probing learned that she actually meant ‘unjust.’ This transformed the discussion. They also used a ‘perspective board’ to externalise their disagreement, a technique that “shifted our usual logic as H put it.

Sometimes, though, we slip from the tightrope. When members raise concerns that trigger our ‘liberal values’ sensors as founders we react in ways that shame, patronise or stifle them. Later on we might realise that our assumptions were wrong. But by then the bonds between us are weakened.

2. Power differentials distort conversations.

 “I’m in ‘the system.’ I need to watch what I say. You don’t know what can get you in trouble."

Our professional backgrounds, manner and class meant other Skills Network members were initially worried that we would have official power over them.  They were subtly guarded in what they shared with us and how much they spoke out—so subtly that we didn’t realise for some time what was happening. But as we developed formal, non-hierarchical structures that put everyone on an equal level, people felt safer to challenge us. As M, another member put it:

“the majority of people coming through our doors believed they were at the bottom of the hierarchy ...when we’ve kicked off the hierarchical structure, for the first time in ages for some of them in a public space, they are as important as everyone else in the room.”

Nevertheless, informal power hierarchies distort interactions. We as founders unconsciously manoeuvre discussions, using our university education to out-argue doubters. Often we think that we’ve persuaded people only to discover later that they have ‘managed’ us; smiling and playing a learned subservient role. Other unacknowledged hierarchies emerged as we expanded: between older members and new joiners; or those who spoke good English and new learners; or those who were managing financially and those who weren’t.

We examine these hierarchies using an interactive ‘power ladder’ and role-play. We try to prioritise the least-heard voices in meetings, use non-verbal discussion methods, and are vigilant about sharing information fully and accessibly. This helps, but constant awareness and reflection is crucial. Underestimating how much power hierarchies distort conversations can kill any chance of real solidarity emerging.

3. Value the analytic understanding of people at the sharp end of power

"I’m a poor black woman so everyone wants my ‘gritty story,’ how nasty my life is.  I do have a brain.  I notice and think and have ideas. How about asking me for those?"  

This rebuke from R came two years into our work. She was right.  We thought our role was to elicit people’s ‘stories’ and then do the ‘intellectual’ work of analysis ourselves—keeping people in the role of ‘the researched,’ undermining their status and squandering the chance to develop shared visions. Different members of the group have managed life with abusive partners, navigated social service systems, and even witnessed the complete breakdown of social relations in Mogadishu, Somalia. These experiences have rendered them adept at unpicking and critiquing systems and policies.

When this realisation hit us, we designed sessions to undertake research analysis and organisational strategizing together. This collective inquiry, which places all our knowledges on an equal level, has transformed our sense of mutual respect and shared purpose.  

What strengthens solidarity? Two more lessons.

1. Creating a bigger us.

Focusing on a personalised enemy like Jobcentre advisors, bailiffs or teachers, or on an opposing group like ‘Remainers’ vs ‘Brexiteers,’ is an easy way to create a temporary feeling of solidarity.  But as M commented after an antagonistic discussion about Jobcentre workers:

“Though it was a relief for a while to get it all out … we all left feeling dejected. It’s horrible and oppressive thinking that people are bad. It makes everything feel hopeless.”

So we invited Jobcentre staff in for a ‘citizens’ jury session’ to exchange ideas as equals. The session revealed common goals and frustrations. Everyone felt constrained by the current punitive set-up which, as one member said, “works for nobody, we need to come together to challenge the ideas that divide our humanity.

Together we have built a more expansive solidarity which bonds us against the system as the oppressor. We’ve also explored alternative models like the ‘Core Economy’ which places unpaid care and relationship-building at the centre of the economic system.  These give us something to hope for and work towards, rather than just oppose, staving off exhaustion and fatalism. 

2. Rethinking accepted ideas and frameworks together.

We started off assuming that being ‘self-reliant’ was a desirable goal, but came to understand that continuous pressure to achieve this from the welfare system was oppressive, and often unachievable for women with young dependents and multiple barriers to financial security. It was also an illusion, since every one of us relies on networks and connections.

So we started exploring ‘interdependence’ as an alternative frame, developing new ways to strengthen our reliance on each other and increase our collective power. We also discussed ‘weaknesses’ as having a value of their own—as cracks through which we could let others in and where bonds could be strengthened. Creating and trying to enact these frameworks together has created a profound and robust affinity between us: one stronger than many of us have with our socio-economic peers.

In this post-Brexit era, seeking to convince ‘ignorant’ leave voters they are wrong, or superficial attempts to listen to their ‘stories,’ won’t help us become unstuck. We need to start engaging as equals, however uncomfortable and messy this might be. Since founding Skills Network we have learned that we don’t have all the answers, and that we can be just as misled and prejudiced as anyone else. But standing shoulder to shoulder with people across our differences and creating new understandings and visions together is where the real transformative potential lies.

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13 January 2017. Reaching Trump supporters with the promise of vision

In ordinary times, progressives might get away with casual images of their political opponents, but these are not ordinary times. 

This article was first published on Waging Nonviolence.

Supporter of Donald Trump at a rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona. Credit: Wikimedia/ Gage Skidmore.

If these were ordinary times, progressives might get away with casual images of our political opponents. Those who disagree “lack information,” or “remain prejudiced,” or are “gripped by an emotion like hate.” Reassured, we can return to informational outreach or protests or confrontations and hope that makes a difference.

These, however, are not ordinary times. I further expect more instability and turbulence to come in the United States, a situation that invites more strategizing. And having a good strategy requires more accurate images of the other players in the arena.

Arlie Russell Hochschild’s new book “Strangers in Their Own Land” has arrived just in time. Her writing gives us an in-depth picture of middle- and working-class members of the Tea Party, the foot soldiers of the Republican right. In particular, she reports on Southern Louisiana, chosen for its right-wing politics combined with the devastating impact of capitalism. Louisiana is at or near the bottom of the states in education, health and other measures of general well-being. Its people endure an environment highly degraded by the petrochemical industry.

Hochschild immerses herself in participation in social activities as well as home interviews. She doesn’t hide her teaching job at Berkeley and left politics, but by networking her way through trusted intermediaries and using her people skills she learns how locals see the world and themselves in it. A gifted writer, she invites us into that world, and surprises us with the diversity of their self-perceptions.

‘You have to take the bad with the good.’

Hochschild interviews people whose health, livelihood, and families have been hurt by irresponsible corporate behavior and the refusals to help by bought-off elected officials. Nevertheless, those same people defend capitalism and advocate for Republicans who oppose environmental and safety regulations. She finds four subgroups of Tea Party supporters, each subgroup having what Hochschild calls a “deep story” that makes meaning of their politics and distinguishes them from the people who have the same demographics but support liberal Democrats.

Just this chance to go beyond stereotypes we may have about Trump supporters is reason enough to read the book. (Class stereotypes are not really better than stereotypes based on race or sexuality.) In addition, I learned much that suggests how to strengthen our work.

Among the subgroups – Team Player, Worshipper, Cowboy, and Rebel – there is a recurrent bit of folk wisdom that I first heard from my dad: “You have to take the bad with the good.” If, for example, you believe that the only route to an abundance of jobs is to accept the downside of fracking, then it only makes sense in a job-hungry state to encourage the fracking industry to settle in Louisiana and to fight the threat posed by the federal environmental fanatics in the EPA.

The habitual left activist approach to disagreement, say about fracking, is to add more reasons against it. Hochschild helps us to understand why that approach is so often frustrating. She shows us how the “deep story” of each subgroup, reinforced by personal, lived experience, proves more compelling to its members than the pro’s and con’s of a particular issue. The piling up of reasons why fracking is bad is of very limited value. Hochschild’s description matches my own experience: Their frame of reference already allows for fracking’s down side. “We just need to take the bad with the good.”

In other words, right-wingers don’t really come to a new issue freshly, to judge “on the merits.” (Most of us don’t, either.) They start with a frame of reference that strongly pre-judges the outcome. Their starting point makes them distant from us on the “spectrum of allies,” a tool increasingly used for campaign strategizing.

In ordinary times, liberals might not care about the lower middle- and working-class part of the right wing. Why meet them on the level of frame of reference—of “big picture”—when Clintonian incrementalism has been working just fine? Hammer out compromises on particular points of policy, as was done with Obamacare, and over time we’ll see our country move ahead.

These, however, are not ordinary times, and even liberals might go beyond old habits and learn to play a bigger game. The bigger game means engaging with a larger part of America than before, including workers with Democratic roots who get written off as “misled.” It means meeting them not only by arguing single issues, but by going to their frame of reference itself.

What kind of big picture does the job?

The kind of big picture progressives love is analysis. We like to conceptualize the causes of, systemic faults with, structures of pollution, money in politics, war, poverty, misogyny, racism, class domination, etc. It’s clear, however—as Hochschild shows through political discussions and dialogues among Tea Party people—that they already have a big picture analysis that satisfies them.

What they lack, however, is a big picture vision. Their substitute is to look to the past, the good old days of community, mutual support, a sense of place and continuity. They feel angry and grieve, knowing the past is rapidly fading, but have no alternative vision to reach toward. Ayn Rand’s vision is not theirs, however popular it may be among rich right-wingers.

Hochschild hints at a possible vision for lower middle- and working-class people on the right. She points out that Norway has about the same population as Louisiana, and it is also an oil state. Without tying either place to oil in the long term, she uses Norway to illustrate a systematically different approach that affords Norwegians a healthy environment, more individual freedom than most people in Louisiana enjoy, and far more security and shared prosperity.

For Tea Party adherents who can easily bat away progressives’ arguments for this or that individual policy, an alternative vision that delivers more of their values than free market capitalism is a different discussion altogether. They see themselves as immensely practical—far more than “hippy idealists” found in enclaves such as Berkeley. What, then, to make of the practicality of a Norwegian system that has outperformed Louisiana (and the United States) on economic well-being for over 60 years?

And for job-hungry states, please note that—even before the oil began to flow—Norwegians maintained full employment. Hochschild found that her middle- and working-class Tea Party friends reverence work. Norway has a higher percentage of its population in the labor force than does the United States.

Norway is not a ‘welfare state —the misnomer that prevents dialogue.

In the United States, there is a linguistic trap with terrible political consequences, and not only in Louisiana. Americans commonly believe that the Nordic “welfare states” have the U.S. welfare system on steroids. Administering such a system must be outrageously expensive. To pay for all those “free-loaders,” Nordic workers must be paying oppressively high taxes. The truth is very different.

The Nordics gave up U.S.-style, means-tested welfare very long ago. They realized that “programs for the poor are poor programs.” They therefore substituted universal services: health care, child care, paid family leave, long paid vacations, elder pensions and home care, job training, university and professional and technical school education.

These universal programs are paid for by taxes. A two-term Norwegian prime minister boasted to the New York Times that he was elected twice on the pledge not to cut taxes. Norwegians know that cutting taxes means cutting services everyone uses. They know (Americans do, too) that, to get quality goods and services, we need to pay a lot.

Arlie Hochschild shows in her book the enormous political damage that has been done by the United States’ choice to stick with welfare instead of going for universal services. A central grievance of hard-working Tea Party members is the belief that other people are getting a softer path through “welfare.” When interviewing in Scandinavia for my book “Viking Economics,” I was told over and over that the consensus for universal services that includes the populist rightist parties would disappear immediately if converted to the U.S. approach. Virtually everyone presently supports the system because it is applied to everyone. Furthermore, it is less expensive than market-based health care. The Nordic countries pay per capita one-half to two-thirds what the United States pays. Single-payer is more efficient—a plus for Tea Party people, as it is for the rest of us.

By comparing systems—the Nordics’ vs. that of the United States—a fresh dialogue can replace the shouted exchange of epithets that we have today. “Strangers in Their Own Land” suggests to me that the dialogue could reach farther into the political right than we saw in 2016 among those who were attracted to both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

The challenge for progressives is to pay attention to the promise of vision.

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11 January 2017. Why progressives should worry about the myth gap

If we want to beat Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and their ilk we need new stories, and fast.

Credit: Flickr/OvO. Some rights reserved.

2016 was bruising for progressives—perhaps most of all when we found ourselves confronted with the new “post-truth” politics of the Trump and Brexit campaigns. But while our instincts may be to rebut lies and distortions with yet more facts and data, our real challenge is to become as adept as conservatives in terms of myth-making and storytelling.

Once upon a time, we were rich in stories that united us, and helped us to understand the world and ourselves. We called them myths. Some were rooted in religions. Others told of heroes and quests. But all, in their different ways, had deep truths to teach us—about wisdom and ignorance, good and evil, grief, guilt, and redemption.

Today, we’ve largely forgotten these old myths. We’ve decided that things are either literally, scientifically true, or not true at all. “Myth” has become a synonym for “wrong,” as in “urban myth.” In the thesaurus, you’ll find it filed together with bunk, crock, fabrication, fiction, and hogwash.

What does this have to do with politics, economics and how to shape the future of our societies?

The answer is ‘everything.’ Writing just before the First World War—at the end of another long period of globalisation, innovation, and connectedness—Carl Jung saw all too clearly the risks of “the man who thinks he can live without myth.” Such a person, he wrote,

“…is like one uprooted, having no true link either with the past, or the ancestral life within him or yet with contemporary society”.

What Jung understood was that without shared myths to bind societies together, the risks of fragmentation, polarisation, culture wars and actual violence increase dramatically—exactly as we see all around us today.

In such conditions—in the “myth gap” we now inhabit—it’s all too easy for dark ‘anti-myths’ to fill the void. One of them, expertly propagated by the new myth-makers of the marketing industry and explored by Jonah Sachs in his masterful book Winning the Story Wars, is the meme that ‘you are what you buy.’ If this idea itself is almost metaphysical, the consequences—in terms of consumerism, ecosystem degradation and climate change—are anything but.

Or consider so-called ‘collapsitarianism’—the story that we’re inevitably heading towards ecological overshoot and collapse, that there isn’t enough of everything to go around, and so we need to grab enough for ourselves before others do. This myth, too, can have all too tangible real world expressions, from the Nazi idea of Lebensraum in the 1930s to today’s international scramble for arable land in the form of land grab deals.

And then, of course, there are the nationalist myths of Trump and Farage, Putin and Le Pen. Stories of making America (or Russia, or France, or England) ‘great again.’ Stories of taking back control. Stories that play skilfully on fears of a shadowy ‘other.’ Stories that were at the very core of 2016 and its bitter harvest.

Too often, political progressives try to fight these hugely resonant stories with policy memos. Our hope appears to be that rational arguments and empirical data will somehow win out against brilliant political narratives of the little guy versus remote elites, or corrupt politicians who are only out to line their own pockets, or vast conspiracies to falsify climate change data.

This was the mistake made by the Remain campaign during the Brexit referendum in the UK. It was the mistake made by US climate campaigners in 2009, when they were routed by climate deniers and the Tea Party. And it was the mistake that paved the way for Donald Trump to win the US Presidency.

We ought to know better by now. After all, research consistently shows that evidence and arguments matter less than we think in terms of how we make up our minds about political issues. Instead, it’s the values that are held by our families, friends and colleagues that weigh most heavily in shaping how we think, behave, and vote—values which are in turn  shaped by myths and stories.

What if, rather than spending all our time fact-checking Donald Trump’s tweets and bemoaning the perfidy of the Brexiteers’ infamous claim that the European Union costs the UK £350 million-a-week, progressives became storytellers of their own kinds of myths? What would they look like, and how would we tell them?

While there’s clearly no one myth that will work for everyone, the kind of myths that we need at this point in history share a few common themes.

First and foremost, we need myths that help us to think in terms of a larger us—a seven billion ‘us’ that deliberately includes everyone rather than (as Trump, Farage or Le Pen do) defining ‘us’ in opposition to ‘them.’ Some Progressives are already starting to run with this story, like More United in the UK, or Van Jones’s Love Army in the US, or Avaaz throughout its ten year history.

Second, we need myths that help us to think in terms of a longer now—to situate ourselves at the intersection of a deep past and a deep future, to think across generational timespans, and to protect and cultivate the future rather than gorging ourselves and leaving our successors to pick up the bill.

And third, we need myths that nudge us to imagine a better good life, one that decisively does away with the notion that ‘we are what we buy.’ We have to reimagine growth, away from material consumption towards growing up as a species, and move past the current, dangerously adolescent moment at which we’re testing the limits of the earth to see what will happen.

At a deeper, more subtle level, we also need myths to help us to work through the enormous psychological challenges of a time as turbulent and uncertain as this, as we face threats like climate change or the possibility of a renewed nuclear arms race.

On climate for example, a big part of why so many of us would rather not think and talk about the issue is because to do so would entail confronting the hugely complex and challenging emotions that are involved—like grief and guilt.

In the past, societies have understood that myths have a crucial role in helping them to process the collective psychological dimensions of existential challenges like these—from the prophetic writings of Jeremiah or Isaiah during the Babylonian Exile to the quintessentially mythic language of Churchill’s “finest hour” speech in June 1940.

As these two examples underline, the good news is that turbulent periods in history have always provided the most fertile ground for the emergence of new myths. So as progressives gear up to regain the initiative in 2017 there may be no more important task than reimagining ourselves as storytellers and myth-makers, and working to create new processes of collective storytelling that can start to build bridges across political divides—while retelling the story of who we are and the future that we’re building.

The real power of myths lies in their capacity to become self-fulfilling prophecies: they create our reality as much as they describe it. As the novelist Terry Pratchett once put it, “People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact it’s the other way around.”

Alex Evans’ new book is The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough?

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9 January 2017. Work: it’s time for a new year’s revolution

Feeling burned out in your work for peace and social justice? A new book provides essential guidance.

Credit: Alessandra Pigni. All rights reserved.

So here we are, a brand new year like a blank canvas, a fresh start full of resolutions. No doubt many people will resolve to invest in their ‘work-life balance.’ But more than New Year’s resolutions which hardly ever work beyond the first week of January, I think we need something much more radical akin to a new year’s revolution in our workplaces—and in the ways we organise for social change.

We don’t need a better work-life balance—we need a new way of working that’s fully integrated into our lives so that work doesn’t destroy our souls.

I’ve grown weary of big mission statements in non-profits about making a difference or empowerment, sustainability and equality. They end up by becoming platitudes, providing an unintentional cover-up of some sort: anything goes in the office because we are ‘doing good’ out there. I’m fed up of big ideals and crabby people who are too busy fixing the world to be kind to their colleagues; too busy making a difference ‘out there’ to look within; too occupied changing others to change themselves. When this happens organisations become unfriendly places that breed burnout—preaching justice and equality but practising very little of either in reality.

Take humanitarian organisations: they are full of resilient people on the verge of burnout. All the signs are there: exhaustion, loss of purpose, cynicism and disillusionment. This quote from a Syrian aid worker working with people fleeing from war puts it in a nutshell: “Do I have to fight to deliver services or do I have to fight my managers? We’re fighting the discrimination on the ground but not in the office.”

But burnout isn’t just a personal issue, it’s a structural one. We can’t deal with it unless we are prepared to rethink the way we work, and acknowledge that the quality of relationships that we craft in the office really matters. It matters to our mental health and to the kind of work we want to do.

Many idealists find themselves wondering if the work they are actually doing matches what they imagined when they started out, full of passion to make the world a better place. Humanitarians, activists, teachers, health professionals and non-profit workers may have different personal and professional paths, but they share a common thread: starting out with wide horizons and big ideals, and often ending up jaded and burned-out. Wanting to make the world a place where healthcare, justice and education are not just the privilege of a few but fundamental rights, yet discovering that the road to doing good and meaningful stuff is paved with terrible managers, short-sighted organizational visions, and power relations that can bend your soul.

How we can break out of this mess? The Idealist’s Survival Kit was born out of my own attempts to find ways to keep sane while serving others, to avoid becoming cold-hearted while being exposed to overwhelming human and humanitarian crises, and to avoid drowning in cynicism while maintaining awareness of my own drives and needs as well as keeping a critical eye on the whole, flawed humanitarian enterprise.

My first humanitarian assignment was as a psychologist in Nablus, Palestine, serving with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders. The experience was an eye-opener and the beginning of a love story—not so much with institutionalized humanitarian work but with the Middle East and with people who do work that matters, often at the margins of big institutions and sometimes in spite of them.

As I prepared myself psychologically for the field, my fears were about political violence and possible traumatic incidents, like being caught in the shooting or shelling and becoming disabled. But none of that reflected the realities I met on the ground, which were intense, enriching, inspiring and challenging, though not always in the ways I had expected.

What became clear was that many aid workers’ biggest trials, stressors and traumas came not from so-called ‘frontline work’—in my case listening to the tragic and harrowing stories of people who had lost their homes and loved ones—but from the petty stresses of organizational life, from controlling managers trying to micromanage, or from the burden of bureaucracy and office politics, or losing sight of a larger purpose or the real meaning of the work.

After some years I realized that I needed strength and self-care tools when I stepped into the office, not when I stepped out of it. In fact, the people I was meant to ‘help’ became examples of everyday resilience and courage—and my sources of inspiration. Did I need their help more than they needed mine? I often think that was the case. They certainly enabled me to find my way and my place in the world, and to face my own challenges with more confidence.

I realized that the humanitarian lifestyle might seem charming from a distance but that close-up, it had flaws that were hard for me to digest. The idealism that propelled me and many of my colleagues dimmed the longer we spent in the field. Many lost compassion and became cynical. It was clear that to serve others we needed a certain degree of mental and emotional fitness, as well as enough self-awareness to avoid helping others becoming a form of escapism in which we end up doing more harm than good.

Burnout, not post-traumatic stress disorder, and bad human resource practices, not war, are the things that wear so many people out who work for nonprofits. These are issues over which we have some control, unlike wars or natural disasters. So we need to rethink our organizations and our relationships to work if we don’t want to end up exhausted, jaded and ineffective.

The aim of my new book is to help everyone understand, address and if possible prevent burnout, especially when working as an activist or in other demanding situations of social change. I don’t have a simple recipe for healing, and anyone who advertises a ‘life-changing’ method almost certainly doesn’t have one. As the writer Rebecca Solnit puts it, “We are constantly given one-size-fits-all recipes, but those recipes fail, often and hard. Nevertheless, we are given them again. And again and again. They become prisons and punishments.”

Nevertheless, there are plenty of concrete ways to resist a culture that turns busyness and exhaustion into a barometer to assess our value as human beings, and lots of steps we can take to take care of ourselves while serving others. We can resist by searching for meaning amidst a chaotic yet fulfilling personal and professional exploration. We can begin to take care of ourselves by recognizing that small things matter and by deliberately stepping out of the blender of compulsive busyness. Mental health isn’t something that experts give to you.

For example, something as simple as having lunch together with your colleagues can become an informal yet structured vehicle for emotional debriefing. Over and over again, the people I interviewed told me about the importance of creating forums that breed a culture of respect, care and learning. A meal together doesn't fix the problem or make the pain go away, but it can open up a space to acknowledge that we are not alone in facing what life throws at us.

We can “learn and practice the art of saying no” as a Syrian emergency adviser put it, or “practice yoga (or your favourite body-mind activity) every day, even if you work in a place like Gaza, in fact especially if you work in a place like Gaza.” Other non-profit staff added their own ideas: “keep a journal, write about your experiences, about how you feel;” “connect with a group or an activity that has nothing to do with your work.” “Practice mindfulness and go on a silent meditation retreat; “go on digital detox” or just “go for a walk.” As the late activist Tooker Gomber puts it in his Letter to an Activist: “Be sure to hike and dance and sing. Keeping your spirit alive and healthy is fundamental if you are to keep going.” Do your your work, but don’t overdo it. “If you burn out, you’ll become no good to anyone.”

While these strategies may not save you from burnout if you are immersed in a toxic workplace, they may help you to stay sane and realize that it may be worth knocking on new doors in search of a more humane organisation—or at least a place where lunch-time happens around a table and not behind a computer screen. Instead of pledging committment to some banal new year’s resolution and running after that ideal but impossible work-life balance, we can all embrace a more radical approach that transforms work by starting within ourselves and our own workplaces.

Alessandra Pigni’s new book is The Idealist’s Survival Kit. 75 Simple Ways to Avoid Burnout.

Read the foreword to The Idealist's Survival Kit here.

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5 January 2017. Why do people go to cat cafes? Loneliness and relaxation in a time of neoliberalism

After I began researching the explosion of ‘cat cafes’ in post-economic bubble Japan, I discovered an entire healing industry devoted to the commodification of intimacy.

Listen to a recorded audio version of this article.

Cat cafe, Tokyo 2010. Hiroshi Otabe/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. Cat cafe, Tokyo 2010. Hiroshi Otabe/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Cats are the stars of our social media lives. Cat videos and cat memes are now common, if not clichéd, tools through which boredom and stress are managed and alleviated. They are celebrated by us in anthropomorphic terms as being alternately unruly, inscrutable, cute, and charming. These are the emotions that fuel an industry extending from Instagram and Facebook into the physical world.

You can see this most vividly in the explosion of ‘cat cafes’ throughout East Asia (most prominently in Japan) and now, worldwide. The first cat café opened in Taiwan in 1998, and they soon spread to Japan where the first café opened in Osaka in 2004, and one year later in Tokyo. Current numbers are a bit difficult to ascertain, but it is estimated that there are over roughly 40 of these cafes in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

Japan’s cat cafes are public spaces where customers pay by the hour to drink coffee (or sometimes alcohol), relax, read manga, and play with cats, or attempt to at least. These cafes are homely spaces, meant to evoke the experience of being in your apartment through the carefully staged use of furniture, lighting, reading materials, and background music. Not surprisingly, they are mostly concentrated in Japan’s urban centres, where a high percentage of people live alone. And they are only one choice among a range of themed outlets including maid cafes, music cafes, rabbit cafes and owl cafes.

So why do people go to cat cafes? I began conducting ethnographic research in Tokyo, where I spent time as a patron in a handful of cat cafes, conducted interviews and spoke informally with owners, employees, and customers. It is often suggested that people visit cat cafes because they are not able to own cats due to apartment regulations. But while this is the case for some, I gradually began to discover through my research that the rise of cat cafes is intimately tied to a vast ‘healing industry’, entirely dependent on the sense of loneliness and malaise that has come to the fore in post-economic bubble Japan.

This is a time in Japanese society when companionship (virtual or real) and intimacy itself have become highly marketable and desirable commodities. The healing industry became widespread in the early 1990s, with the collapse of Japan’s economic bubble in 1992, and then the annus horribilis of 1995 which included the Kobe earthquake and a sarin gas terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway.

This is a time in Japanese society when companionship (virtual or real) and intimacy itself have become highly marketable and desirable commodities.

Healing goods and services such as music, colour therapy, aromatherapy, robot interaction, and pet therapy became marketed as necessary tools for coping with economic and social anxieties that seemed to be intensifying. And this desire for healing continues to resonate strongly in Japan today, in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima earthquake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown and ongoing economic stagnation.

People go to cat cafes to be healed – that’s the sentiment frequently repeated by patrons in café guestbook entries. Café owners, employees, customers and advertising language all explicitly told me this as well. Cats are marketed as healing (iyashi, in Japanese) objects through which people can seek a sense of calm and relaxation. While cats are often represented as auspicious animals in Japanese folklore, this wasn’t mentioned by café workers or patrons. Instead, it was the cats’ perceived sense of unruliness and carefree nature that patrons told me was part of their charm and cuteness; a sense of uninhibited charm distinct from the more “obedient” – and implicitly, submissive – personalities of dogs. “Dogs are certainly more straightforward, whereas cats are more complicated and noncommittal,” a café employee told me.

One patron explained the healing qualities of cats in language that focused on their physical warmth and the visceral, pleasurable texture of their fur, telling me these qualities were comforting to him. And it’s not surprising that patrons would explain the healing dimensions of cats in relation to sensory qualities such as comfort and relaxation. Café owners work hard to create an ambience that is highly domesticated but soft, comfortable, and gentle on all the senses. Some cafes provide soft fluffy blankets for patrons to use while lounging on the sofas, should they choose to take a nap – and it is not unusual to see people sleeping with a blanket covering them as if they are in their own bed at home. The cat is integral to the creation of this relaxed environment.

A matchmaking session in a Tokyo cat cafe, 2010. AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. A matchmaking session in a Tokyo cat cafe, 2010. AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Most regular patrons are even led to believe that they have a connection with one specific cat: “their” cat. One customer told me that “his cat” happened to be the one that first approached him upon his initial visit to the café. He told me that he likes the feeling of caring for the cat when he visits the café.

The use of animals as a therapeutic means to relieve stress or provide physical and emotional support for their human companions is certainly not a unique practice limited to Japan – some recent American examples include service dogs used for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffering from PTSD, and bringing puppies or kittens to college campuses during final exams. But the commodification and marketing of cats within cafes, however, suggest a very different engagement with animals than in the use of service pets to help overcome the traumas of war.

With the exception of one café I encountered during my fieldwork where the cats spent each night at an employee’s apartment so they would be “happy” at work the next day, cats normally sleep in cages inside the cafes overnight. They are also often referred to as “cat staff” (neko sutaffu, in Japanese) by the café’s human staff. While it might be tempting to dismiss “cat staff” as an ironic and cheeky anthropomorphism, a play on standard retail-speak, it’s important to recognize the very real effects of labour on the cats.

Their labour is monitored by café employees in all kinds of ways. Unproductive cats – those that are sleeping or sitting quietly away from patrons – are often made to be productive. The café manager watches carefully, knowing that patrons are paying for direct contact with cats. The first time I went to a cat café, the café employee noticed that there were no cats sitting near me so she promptly picked up a cat and plopped it in my lap, upon which it immediately leapt up and scrambled away. This scenario is not uncommon in cafes where the patron’s desire for consuming human-animal interaction is of the utmost importance. Cats are also sometimes placed “on vacation” (taken temporarily to a café employee’s apartment) or spend time in the break room inside the café: a space that is inaccessible to patrons. It’s worth noting that Japan’s animal rights movement is generally opposed to the cat cafe industry, arguing that the cats are overstimulated by the constant attention from patrons.

The labour performed by cats can be explained in terms of what political theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri refer to as affective labour, which is a type of immaterial labour most visible in the service industries. Affective labour is immaterial, they argue, because its products are intangible: a feeling of calm, relaxation, and ease. The cats’ labour is material with very real effects (which are monitored and regulated by café employees), yet the products of their labour – feelings of healing and relaxation for the customers – are decidedly immaterial.

It is important to avoid explaining it as an exoticized example of Japanese culture.

One café owner that I interviewed told me that the cat cafe boom peaked in 2009, and yet the phenomenon appears to be continuing. Each year I return to Tokyo I notice new cat cafes that have opened up since my last visit. This phenomenon is getting renewed interest as cat cafes have begun to spread worldwide over the last few years. While both Japan’s cafes and the more recent global versions are advertised as public spaces for cat lovers to hang out with and interact with cats, the differences between the two models are quite stark. The biggest difference is that cat cafes in North America are tied to local cat shelters and all the café cats are available for adoption. In the case of Japan’s cafes, the cats come from a variety of backgrounds: breeders, pet shops, stray cats, kittens from an employee’s cats – and yet they live out their lives in the café. The phenomenon has not quite been around long enough to know what happens when cats get too old and perhaps are no longer seen as “healing.”

But while the cat cafe phenomenon is expanding worldwide, it is important to avoid explaining it as an exoticized example of Japanese culture. Instead, these cafes emerge as an effect of the post-industrial economy, in which customers seek to consume experiences that produce feelings and sensations. Japan’s cat cafes exist at a time in which social relationships have become increasingly commodified, privatized, and marketed to those who are able to afford it. They are spaces in which humans no longer encounter animals as companions, but as consumers seeking healing and relaxation, at a time of pervasive social and economic anxieties in Japan.

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3 January 2017. John Berger, witness to the human condition (1926-2017)

He sought to protect and if necessary salvage humanity from the inhumanity of consumer capitalism. This gives all his work the quality of resistance. Defiant resistance in the face of likely defeat.

Oysters in Paris. John Berger and Anthony Barnett. Some rights reserved. (Photo Judith Herrin).

The world is a much colder place. A source of indefatigable energy has completed its physical life. The fires John lit in so many of us will live on. None with his intensity.

John’s laughter, over a table, down the phone, filled your lungs. Accompanying its shared pleasure there was always the thrill of menace. His wicked intelligence and extra-ordinary sensitivity could tumble your own perception. And you grew. Anyone he engaged with enjoyed a conspiracy of discovery with him. A sprinkle of his attention could make people blossom. Also his pauses: no one paused better than John. Or could give what, for you or me, would be a passing word such careful hesitation. He could consider an “and” for what seemed like minutes as if he was a nervous shopper uncertain that an apple was ripe but unable to put it down.

He is inside me. Since I got to know him in the early seventies the steel of his judgment, the resilience of his politics, the tenderness of his attention, has shaped my own. He showed me how to take grapes from a bunch, to cook and eat artichokes, to breathe before performing, to open oysters and later, to chop wood.

How the two of us struggled, hands sore, opening oysters in Paris without oyster knives! Now we have a new home and Judith just bought a dozen oysters for 1 January. We had not had any since we moved in. While I opened them we talked about John. When we sat down, I said “I feel we have finally arrived”. As we set their thick, rocky shells, with their exquisite, pearl-like layered insides, and gentle, almost flowering bodies resting on them, between us, on a plate of ice and lemon, without our knowing it was the night John lay dying.

A few, immediate stories.

When John was called up by the army in 1944, aged 18, he was sent to Northern Ireland on an officers’ training course. He may have run away from his St Edwards boarding school that he hated but he was still ‘officer material’. After he had went through the course he informed those in charge that he would refuse a commission. He was not a pacifist but he did not want to become an officer. They took their revenge by making him a corporal and ordering him to take the trainee officers through the course, time and again, for the rest of his two years. I think of him running with heavy weapons, crawling through the mud, dealing with the reactions of the upper-class boys. It made him extremely fit and strong. It may have saved his life too, as many of those from his initial training course were to be sent to the front line of the invasion of Normandy.

The experience also gave John a route out of England’s ridiculous and then very confined class system. It meant he knew, from experience, that he was more than the equal to the upper class while he shared something of what it could be like to be a young, working class man who had to suffer their shit. He became an outsider to the system who carried no chip on his shoulder – it gave him a rare social purity in post-war Britain.

John was a Communist. He was the only true Communist I have ever known and perhaps the only true Communist there ever was after 1945. That’s to say, a Marxist revolutionary who supported the Soviet Union but whose soul and integrity was untouched by Stalinism. It is hard to communicate the horrible pressures of the mid-century domestic cold war on anyone who supported the Soviet Union against the west. The existence of Communists was tolerated if closely spied upon in Britain. Any attempt to break out into larger influence was ruthlessly stifled whenever possible. When, as a critic with a growing reputation writing for the New Statesman, John asked to join the Party, they said that perhaps it would be better for them if he did not. Later, they asked him to join the Party - and he said that perhaps it would be better for them if he did not. Thus, technically, he never was a member of the Communist Party and was never compromised by when he had to leave. That made us laugh. In one of his last political essays he wrote about Rosa Luxembourg. She was his kind of Communist, who warned against the threat of Stalinism that she foresaw. And, of course, with Nella Bielski, John wrote deeply about the Gulag.

In 1972 he won the Booker Prize for G. In his speech, he condemns the way prizes create a culture of competitive celebrity. In those early days, this did not include deciding the prize just before the ceremonial dinner and then announcing it with all the shortlisted present. Instead, to ensure the winner was there, John had been forewarned. That is why his speech is so carefully crafted. You can read it here. He tried it out with me beforehand. He was particularly adamant that, desperately broke though he was at the time, he could not take all the prize money as it had originated in the slave plantations that were the foundation for Booker’s sugar interests. But, as he explains in the speech, he needed funds badly to write what became A Seventh Man, on the migrants in Europe. He announced he would therefore share the prize with the London Black Panthers. After he sat down, George Steiner, who I think was on the jury and must have argued for G, was furious, especially with the cunning way John did not give it all away in a gesture of indifference. “You Leninist”, Steiner snarled. At least, that is the story John told me, with some pleasure.

In everything he did John addressed the human condition. This was his genius. In his novels, his essays or when he wrote about art, he was always exploring aspects of what it means to be human, and the many ways there are of being human. He sought to protect and if necessary salvage and certainly to defend humanity from the inhumanity of consumer capitalism, doing so by revealing the truth of the specific. This gives all his work the quality of resistance. Defiant resistance in the face of likely defeat. The poor, the ill, animals, the prisoner, especially the political prisoner, the migrant, the peasant, the Palestinian: he saw none of them as failures. All in different ways were up against our human fate, so that their experience is the truth of what is being done to us all. He was not sorry for them; it was not a patronising sympathy that he extended. On the contrary he strove to see life through their eyes – as they see truly.

I was never completely convinced. Once he had joined us for a holiday in Italy where we were staying on the outskirts of a village. As we walked through it, there were two mentally disabled men sitting together on a step. Finally, after many years of thinking that I had been completely diplomatic, in my total enthusiasm for his Pig Earth trilogy, I plucked up my courage and said quietly, that there is also such a thing as rural idiocy. He replied, “You know, Anthony, what I admire about you is your patience”. I report this only to demonstrate John’s capacity for tolerance which is not much noted.

When he was talking on the phone about the book that was to become King, he described how he was writing an account of the life of squatters as narrated by an alsatian. “You mean, from the point of view of the underdog?”. He laughed and laughed with delight. He saw the truth as belonging to the poor – it was all they had. I thought of King and its dramatic denouement when the refugee Jungle at Calais was dismantled. Such was his premonition.

We had only one direct disagreement where neither gave way. I did not approve of his writing that Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses should be withdrawn. John was right to see Rushdie as part of an elite he himself was in no way comfortable with. But he was wrong to equate the fatwa with the protests of the oppressed that had to be respected, as it was a ukase of the most authoritarian kind that had to be resisted.

When he addressed the human condition, he did so in the most complete way possible. Simon McBurney calls him a philosopher and this is right. But he was against any ‘philosophy’ abstracted from the human condition that it is supposed to address, or formulated for the classroom or university. In his thought, writing and enquiry John, while intensely learned, was utterly hostile to official writing that separates us from the truth of our condition. For the whole of his life, despite the great influence he sought and exercised, he would never join the officer class.

Perhaps the best way to describe how he worked and lived is to say that John sought to be a true witness of the human condition. Which is why he never attempted to create a system, or build a framework that could only get in the way. The act of witnessing joined his writing to his constant drawing and watercolours.

To witness something, whether it be singing, or light, or time, or digging, or a tree, or the nature of sex, or love, or language, or money, it has to pass the only test that matters: that of being shareable – by being shared. Hence John’s love of collaboration. And of images which exist as shared experience. And also of inspiring letter writing in a beautiful hand.

To be a witness is to make something recognisable. This involves a great effort of exploration that leads not to a conclusive definition but to the question that follows an act of discovery: “Is this not so?” With extraordinary fierceness John battled to retain an openness that was never soft and gave him a capacity for listening and compassion that have been widely saluted. Most important was the reaching out. It was fierce and people loved John for it. He ended a form of isolation in many he never met. Those who did meet him often never recovered. Why would you want to?

He could be distracted, but no one could slow down the energy. There was a very tough side to John – an uncompromising, focused self-belief. He was elemental. He had to be, to tackle the human condition in a way that could be shared and therefore changed by being shared. Here is an example of his writing about this, in a essay on the credibility of language:

“One does not look through writing on to reality – as through a clean or dirty windowpane. Words are never transparent. They create their own space, the space of experience, not that of existence. Clarity of the written word has little to do with style as such. A baroque text can be clear; a simple one can be dim. Clarity, in my view, is the gift of the way the space, created by words in a given text, is arranged…. Authenticity in literature does not come from the writer’s personal honesty…. Authenticity comes from a single faithfulness: that to the ambiguity of experience. Its energy is to be found in how one event leads to another. Its mystery is not in the words but on the page.”

The other side of his discussion of language was a lifelong assault on mystification, guff, words intended to still the spirit and steal from the pocket, the infernal noise of consumerism.

Being a witness demanded being accessible and this could lead, sometimes to exaggerations and simplifications that the ‘sophisticated’ could mock. This usually hid an embarrassment at what he revealed and a discomfort with his adamantine contempt for venality and arse-licking. But he did have a weakness for performance. A wonderful reader of his own work especially, he longed to be a singer and tried to act. In this supreme art he seemed to me to be hopeless. There was too much John in him and so he was always John-trying-to-act.

He wrote a short essay, “13 Theses on the Economy of the Dead”, which was contrived. The final one is among the best.

“How do the living regard those who are dead? Until the dehumanisation of society by capitalism, all the living awaited the experience of the dead. It was their ultimate future. By themselves the living were incomplete. Thus living and dead were inter-dependent. Always. Only a uniquely modern form of egotism has broken this inter-dependence. With disastrous results for the living, who now think of the dead as the eliminated.”

John, capitalism is in big trouble and you will not be eliminated.


PS: For a thorough obituary see Tom Overton's in The Telegraph. His account of John's wartime Northern Ireland experience is more accurate than my recollection of what John told me, John trained working class recruits not officers.

Anthony Barnett is writing The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit & America’s Trump.

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3 January 2017. Welcome to another year of transformation

We need your help to expand our coverage of deep-rooted personal and political change.

Martin Luther King. Credit: All rights reserved.

On a winter’s night in 1955, a young preacher named Martin Luther King climbed into the pulpit of the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Once there, he delivered a speech that would eventually lead to his own assassination, while breathing new life into the struggle to transform the world in the image of love and social justice.

If his words are remembered at all these days it’s because of what they helped to launch—the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which heralded a decisive turn in the movement for civil rights. What King said has largely been forgotten, yet the content of his speech was revolutionary in ways that stretch far beyond the context in which it was delivered.

As I listen to it now on a scratchy YouTube clip, the hairs on my neck stand up straight, the crowd of voices rising to a crescendo as King talks about the keys to the struggle for equal rights.

“But it is not enough for us to talk about love,” he said, “There is another side called justice. And justice is love in calculation. Justice is love working against anything that stands against love. Standing beside love is always justice.”

Love is the anchor or inward expression of social justice, I think King was saying, and justice is the outward expression of “love in calculation”—a conscious design for remaking the world in a different image of ourselves. Radical transformations are possible if love and justice reinforce each-other to create a permanent shift in direction among human beings and the institutions they create.

“Only new selves could give birth to a new world, but only a new world could sustain the new human beings who constituted it, and who would sustain it in turn,”  as Josiah Royce put it in the aftermath of the American Civil War almost one hundred years before.

Then as now, there will be no end to patriarchy without deep-rooted changes in men’s behavior; no solution to climate change unless all of us reduce our consumption and carbon footprint; no decline in inequality unless we learn to share resources with each-other; no meaningful democracy until we work through our differences in a spirit of common purpose; no lasting peace if we continue to project our fears and insecurities onto other people.  

But turning these examples around, there must also be real, living forms of politics, activism and economics that grow from and reinforce the qualities we want to encourage. “We must be the change we want to see” is a favorite quotation falsely attributed to Gandhi, but it’s equally true that ‘we must see the change we want to be.’ And that means showing how real economies can deliver justice and wellbeing, and real politics can bring people together to break the logjam of vested interests.

Unfortunately, such boundary-breaking experiments are in short supply, constantly constrained by the mantra that change is impossible because of (insert your favorite bogeyman): globalization, footloose corporations, human nature, the weakening of governments, corruption in politics, the decline of the public or too much time spent on social media. If we believe that only small changes are possible in our political and economic systems, then small change is all we’re going to see—another turn of the wheel with little or no forward movement.

The challenges of uniting personal and social change were central to the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, expressed through civil rights, gay liberation, the rise of the women’s movement and the first stirrings of environmentalism. In the decades that followed, this spirit was less in evidence in politics and activism, though it remained alive among feminists and other radicals like Audre LordeJune Jordan, and bell hooks. Elsewhere, the social and spiritual sides of activism began to move apart, perhaps exhausted by earlier efforts or beaten down by the arrival of the neo-liberal revolution and the celebration of self-interest and materialism that followed in its wake.

But today, there’s a resurgence of interest in the possibilities of transformation and an upsurge in attempts to put them into practice, spurred on by two key developments: first, the failure of conventional approaches to make much headway against inequality and violence; and second, the urgency of problems like climate change which demand boundary-breaking solutions. That’s why we launched Transformation as a new section of openDemocracy in 2013.

The goal of Transformation is to “publish great writing at the intersection of the personal and the political,” and there’s certainly an audience for the material that we’ve published: in the last three-and-a-half years our stories have been read by over two million people (40 per cent of whom live in the USA), and around 600,000 of them have returned to the site more than twice. Our contributors are diverse, with 65 percent of those returning our questionnaires self-identifying as women or trans-gender, 55 per cent as aged under 40, and 41 per cent as LGBTQ. Most are activists (many of whom have never written for a major audience before), with good representation from academia and a few professional writers.

With funding from a successful campaign in 2016 to raise more support from readers and the renewal of two grants from the NoVo and Hidden Leaf Foundations in the USA, we have enough money in the bank to see us through to the end of 2018, so we’ve decided to take the opportunity that’s provided by some medium-term financial security to make some changes going forward. These changes are designed to expand our reach and strengthen the role of the site in community-building and debate—to engage with our audience in new and better ways and to identify areas that we haven’t covered in our publishing to date, or which need to be deepened. What’s the rationale for these changes?

First of all, the data we collect from Google Analytics show that most of the pieces we publish are only read by between 1,000 and 3,000 people. These are respectable numbers given the type of material we cover, but it seems clear that simply publishing more of the same content is unlikely to grow our audience in the future. The articles with the largest audience comprise less than twenty per cent of the total, but they account for the great majority of reads.

Therefore—and without closing down space for articles that we want to publish regardless of how many reads they might get—we want to find ways of commissioning more articles that reach a significant audience on key elements of the transformation debate. We think this means publishing less material overall in order to free up time to investigate the landscape of issues and authors, analyze where the gaps are, and engage in discussions about content with other organizations and websites so that we can strengthen collaboration and cross-posting.

That’s the second key issue: publishing partnerships and other community building activities take a lot of time and energy to nurture, but the impact of a thriving and well-connected field is going to be much larger than the impact of any one of its components in isolation. So we want to put more time and effort into helping to build a stronger and more influential ecology of communities, groups and organizations that work on the deep transformation of self and society. And that means seeing and using Transformation as more of a shared resource—for example by co-editing special themed content weeks with other groups or handing the section over to others to convene and publish their own material.

Putting these ideas into practice requires stronger links with readers, writers and publishers, so we want to encourage you to contact us with your reactions, ideas and proposals. Unashamedly, Transformation was set up to challenge the reluctance of many progressive activists to take the personal dimensions of social change as seriously as the political, by showing that self-development isn’t (or doesn’t have to be) New Age narcissism. Rather, it means engaging in the daily struggle for dignity and justice in a different spirit that opens up more effective routes to action.

At the same time, we’re also pushing back against the reluctance of many spiritual and self-help advocates to take the political dimensions of personal change as seriously as the inner life they espouse, by showing that love and compassion flourish more easily when new institutions are built on sharing and solidarity instead of the mindless pursuit of competition, growth and power. Rather than agreement or consensus, there’s a sense that readers, writers and editors are all navigating through territory that doesn’t have a map. Transformation is not another good-news magazine, but a place to engage with each-other about the realities and struggles of the radical imagination.

All great stories are love stories in one form or another, but the story of love and justice has not yet been told. With your help we aim to put that right. Welcome to another year of transformation.

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29 December 2016. Here’s how representation in comics could be so much better

Where are the superheroes of color, the women leads, the queer characters and more?

Superheroes demonstrate against unemployment at Occupy Wall Street. Credit: Demotix. All rights reserved.

Originally published on Everyday Feminism.

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27 December 2016. Textured activism: in-between liberation and oppression

By reducing life to dualisms we lose the rich fabric of possibilities that can generate important social change.

Credit: CC0 Public Domain.

Do you ever get that sensation where your insides want to crawl out into the world and fix something that feels wrong? It’s a feeling that keeps me up at night. Encounters with injustice are often deeply felt, and activism is imbued with feelings of rage, anger, hope, despair, fear, excitement and desire. We often think of the political world as a space for thinking and action, yet many of us are drawn to social movements because we feel the urgency to change the world and to change ourselves; the thinking, analyzing and strategizing come later.

Contemporary movement practices of self-care and community accountability acknowledge feelings like this and use them in concrete, positive ways, but what about those sensations that we can’t quite put into words, those feelings that are not quite emotions? These are the non-verbal, not-yet-signified sensations that emerge from what psychoanalytic thinkers, philosophers and cultural theorists call affect.

Affect refers to those aspects of our embodied experiences that move us—not simply feelings of anger, sadness or happiness but the unsettling, shifting, moving intensities that emerge inside each person; the uneasy sensations that don’t yet have definitions, explanations or rationales but which are powerful motivators in both thought and action.

In social movements, we often talk about feelings as a way to put our affective experiences into action—by redirecting that churning feeling in our stomachs into anger or turning euphoric sensations into love for our communities. But mobilising feelings for politics can be risky: critics of neo-liberalism like Lisa Duggan argue that feelings can reinforce hegemonic power by investing desire into the status quo—so gay marriage, for example, is celebrated as a victory of love over hate even though it does little to address the broader issues of social, sexual and gender inequality. Instead of relying on our feelings, affects can help us to redirect our energies in the ways we take action.

Part of my proposal to think about activism in this way comes from critiques of linear progress: the past was bad and the future will be good. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls this a form of dualistic thinking—she’s the gender and queer theory scholar who introduced this way of thinking about affect. For Sedgwick, dualisms like good/bad or repression/liberation trap us in their logics, so we are either ‘oppressed’ or we are ‘free.’

But by reducing life to dualisms we lose the in-between, the texture of agency and possibility that can bring meaningful change even when liberation hasn’t been achieved. This is what textured activism entails: refusing the easy dualisms of political thinking in favour of the richly textured landscape of possibilities that include but are not limited to resistance. It’s an approach that’s informed by the unsettling aspects of affects that move us to change.

Affect is an important concept because it asks us to suspend our need to know our feelings, and instead asks us to consider the open, nuanced, complex, and different ways of feeling and responding—not just anger directed at oppression, or happiness directed at liberation, but adaptive responses to the unsettling feelings of injustice. A textured approach to transformation asks us to consider strategies that aren’t yet fully formed, and that might unsettle us. That might mean not calling for liberation, for example, but asking a different set of questions.

The recent “no big deal” campaign on gender pronouns in Canada provides a useful illustration of textured activism in practice. When a professor at the University of Toronto publicly announced that he would refuse to respect the gender pronouns of his trans, non-binary and gender-nonconforming students, an inflammatory public debate ensued over his position and the status of new legislation that would add the protection of gender expression and gender identity to Canada’s Human Rights Act.

Refusing the dualism of pro-versus-anti-pronouns in the resulting media frenzy, the #nbdcampaign used a more subtle approach by pronouncing that “using someone's preferred gender pronoun is an easy way to show your support for everyone's right to live safely and well in their gender identity.” So “I’ll use your pronoun, no big deal.”

The campaign effectively redirected discussion away from a simplistic either/or analysis and changed the conversation by transforming the terms of engagement and de-escalating the feelings of public panic about pronoun use and legislative changes. This strategy worked because it didn’t try to appeal to people’s feelings such as shame, anger, or fear. Instead it recognized the ways in which feelings were being intensified by the debate, and offered another way of approaching the respectful use of pronouns—a creative approach that unsettled the debate and helped to settle the panic that surrounded it.

Unfortunately, not all political conflicts can develop such solutions. In part, the problem we face is that dualistic thinking is immensely helpful to social movements. Given a clear, binary choice, we can quickly identify power hierarchies and inequalities. Dualistic thinking is a psychological shortcut that helps us to navigate a complex world.  But what happens when this way of thinking leads us to miss opportunities to engage in potentially-transformative practices of change?

Take, for example, the case of domestic violence. Traditional feminist responses see the problem as embedded in patriarchal structures of power in which men perpetrate violence against women. However, in her research on violence against women of colour, Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced a more nuanced analysis of the interplay between the different economic, social, and political dynamics that shape gender-based violence. In what she called an intersectional approach, Crenshaw argued that undocumented women who were victims of domestic violence were not only subject to male violence, but also to racial violence, state violence at the hands of police and immigration enforcement, and family economic and social dependency. Therefore, responses to domestic violence require a more textured approach that connects these different factors together.

In practice, this more textured analysis has opened up a range of different interventions in addition to more traditional campaigns to end violence against women, which tend to focus on the criminalization of the perpetrators. For example, transformative justice approaches call for the end to racial profiling, incarceration and the prison system; expanded social welfare programs; and the building of strong community networks that can respond to cases of violence without criminalization. These responses entail thinking beyond the dichotomy of ‘bad-perpetrator’ and ‘good-victim’ in order to understand and transform the conditions that produce violence, whether they are structural and systemic or psychological and emotional.

Especially for activists, this is difficult to do because the perpetrators of violence (whether states or individuals) seldom face any consequences for their actions. But the pervasiveness of violence, and the inability of social movements to halt it through resistance alone, suggests that other strategies must be considered. Turning to affect theory helps us to consider the subtle, under-developed, adaptive, textured approaches to activism that might help.

We can’t simply rely on the tools and strategies that are readily available to us if we want to build effective approaches to social and political transformation. It’s the same with our feelings, which can betray us when we turn to quick and easy answers because we feel bad about the world. Likewise, our political strategies can fail our vision for transformation when we remain attached to dualisms. Sometimes we don’t need an opponent—we just need to change the script in the way the #nbdcampaign is doing for gender pronouns.

At root, textured activism is a commitment to suspending our expectations and desires that social and political transformation can only be achieved through liberation. Instead, it asks us to consider how an attachment to good/bad dichotomies might prevent us from developing effective strategies in movement building. This is a difficult task because it requires that social movements undertake more nuanced, self-reflexive, and at times contradictory work, but the commitment to thinking about different approaches alongside liberation politics opens up more possibilities for transformation in ways that might be unexpectedly meaningful and effective.

This article is inspired by a previous piece in Atlantis.


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25 December 2016. An anarchist guide to Christmas

On the night before Christmas, we’ll all be about. While the people are sleeping, we’ll realise our clout. We’ll expropriate goods from the stores, ‘cos that’s fair. And distribute them widely, to those who need care.

Can we reclaim Christmas for the masses? Credit: Grace Wilson/STRIKE! magazine. Can we reclaim Christmas for the masses? Credit: Grace Wilson/STRIKE! magazine.

It’s no surprise to discover that anarchist theorist Pyotr Kropotkin was interested in Christmas. In Russian culture, St. Nicholas (Николай Чудотворец) was revered as a defender of the oppressed, the weak and the disadvantaged. Kropotkin shared the sentiments.

But there was also a family link. As everyone knows, Kropotkin could trace his ancestry to the ancient Rurik dynasty that ruled Russia before the upstart Romanovs and which, from the first century CE, controlled the trade routes between Moscow and the Byzantine Empire. Nicholas’s branch of the family had been sent out to patrol the Black Sea. But Nicholas was a spiritual man and sought an escape from the piracy and brigandage for which his Russian Viking family was famed. So he settled under a new name in the southern lands of the Empire, now Greece, and decided to use the wealth that he had amassed from his life of crime to alleviate the sufferings of the poor.

Unpublished archival sources recently discovered in Moscow reveal that Kropotkin was fascinated by this family tie and the striking physical similarity between himself and the figure of Father Christmas, popularised by the publication of ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ (better known as ‘The Night Before Christmas’) in 1823.

Kropotkin was not quite so portly as Klaus, but with a cushion stuffed up his tunic, he felt he could pass. His friend Elisée Reclus advised him to drop the fur trim on the outfit. That was a good idea as it would also allow him to wear a bit more black with the red. He’d decided to follow Elisée’s advice on the reindeer, too, and to use a hand driven sleigh. Kropotkin wasn’t normally given to dressing up. But exploiting the resemblance to spread the anarchist message was excellent propaganda by the deed.

Anticipating ‘V’, Kropotkin thought that we could all pose as Santa Claus. On the edge of one page Kropotkin writes: "Infiltrate the stores, give away the toys!"

Faint remnants on the back of a postcard read:

On the night before Christmas, we’ll all be about
While the people are sleeping, we’ll realise our clout
We’ll expropriate goods from the stores, ‘cos that’s fair
And distribute them widely, to those who need care.

His project notes also reveal some valuable insights into his ideas about the anarchistic features of Christmas and his thinking about the ways in which Victorian Christmas rituals might be adapted.

"We all know", he wrote, "that the big stores – John Lewis, Harrods and Selfridges – are beginning to exploit the sales potential of Christmas, establishing magic caves, grottos and fantastic fairylands to lure our children and pressurise us to buy gifts that we do not want and cannot afford".

"If you are one of us", he continued, "you will realise that the magic of Christmas depends on Father Christmas’s system of production, not the stores’ attempts to seduce you to consume useless luxuries". Kropotkin described the sprawling workshops at the North Pole, where elves worked all year, happily because they knew that they were producing for other peoples’ pleasure. Noting that these workshops were strictly not-for profit, craft-based and run on communal lines, Kropotkin treated them as prototypes for the factories of the future (outlined in Fields, Factories and Workshops).

Some people, he felt, thought that Father Christmas’s dream to see that everyone received gifts on Christmas day, was quixotic. But it could be realised. Indeed, the extension of the workshops – which were quite expensive to run in the Arctic – would facilitate generalised production for need and the transformation of occasional gift-giving into regular sharing. "We need to tell the people", Kropotkin wrote, "that community workshops can be set up anywhere and that we can pool our resources to make sure that everybody has their needs met"!

One of the issues that most bothered Kropotkin about Christmas was the way in which the inspirational role that Nicholas’s had played in conjuring Christmas myths had confused the ethics of Christmas. Nicholas was wrongly represented as a charitable, benevolent man: saintly because he was beneficent. Absorbed in the figure of Father Christmas, Nicholas’s motivations for giving had become further skewed by the Victorian’s fixation with children.

Kropotkin didn’t really understand the links, but felt that it reflected an attempt to moralise childhood through a concept of purity that was symbolised in the birth of Jesus. Naturally he couldn’t imagine the creation of the Big Brother Santa Claus who knows when children are asleep and awake and comes to town apparently knowing which have dared to cry or pout.

But sooner or later, he warned, this idea of purity would be used to distinguish naughty from nice children and only those in the latter group would be rewarded with presents.

Whatever the case, it was important both to recover the principle of Nicholas’ compassion from this confusing mumbo-jumbo and the folkloric origins of Santa Claus. Nicholas gave because he was pained by his awareness of other peoples’ hardship. Though he wasn’t an assassin (as far as Kropotkin knew), he shared the same ethics as Sofia Petrovskaya. And while it was obviously important to worry about the well-being of children, the anarchist principle was to take account of everyone’s suffering.

Similarly, the practice of giving was mistakenly thought to require the implementation of a centrally-directed plan, overseen by an omniscient administrator. This was quite wrong: Father Christmas came from the imagination of the people (just consider the range of local names that Nicholas had accrued – Sinterklaas, Tomte, de Kerstman). And the spreading of good cheer – through festivity – was organised from the bottom up.

Buried in Christmas, Kropotkin argued, was the solidaristic principle of mutual aid.

Kropotkin appreciated the significance of the ritual and the real value that individuals and communities attached to carnivals, acts of remembrance and commemoration. He no more wanted to abolish Christmas than he wished to see it republicanised through some wrong-headed bureaucratic re-ordering of the calendar.

It was important, nonetheless, to detach the ethic that Christmas supported from the singularity of its celebration. Having a party was just that: extending the principle of mutual aid and compassion into everyday life was something else. In capitalist society, Christmas provided a space for special good behaviours. While it might be possible to be a Christian once a year, anarchism was for life.

Kropotkin realised his propaganda would have the best chance of success if he could show how the anarchist message was also embedded in mainstream culture. His notes reveal that he looked particularly to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to find a vehicle for his ideas. The book was widely credited with cementing ideas of love, merriment and goodwill in Christmas. Kropotkin found the genius of the book in its structure. What else was the story of Scrooge’s encounter with the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future than a prefigurative account of change?

By seeing his present through his past, Scrooge was given the chance to alter his miserly ways and re-shape both his future and the future of the Cratchit family. Even if it was only remembered once a year, Kropotkin thought, Dickens’s book lent anarchists a perfect vehicle to teach this lesson: by altering what we do today, by modelling our behaviours on Nicholas, we can help construct a future which is Christmas!

This article was originally published by STRIKE! magazine.


23 December 2016. Violence brought us Trump, but it’s not how we will stop him

The best way to protect those we love is to win over those who hate them.

This article was first published on Waging Nonviolence.

A protest against Trump at Union Square on November 9 2016. Credit: Waging Nonviolence/Eric Stoner. All rights reserved.

What’s next? That's the big question facing the United States after the presidential election. And many people have been sharing their thoughts on that over social and traditional media, over dinner conversations, at the office and on the bus with complete strangers. And, as expected, people are all over the map with ideas and strategies.

One developing theme is that we need to escalate—utilize more militant tactics in our resistance movements. Hatred, division and ignorance has escalated, so it is only natural that our response to it has to escalate along with it to match its intensity.

At the same time, however, I have also seen people suggesting that we need to consider using violent methods to resist Trump and what he stands for—that in this day and age, nonviolence is “not enough.”

While I certainly empathize with the emotions driving that idea, we also have to remember that it is violence that got us here. It is hatred, ignorance, division, intimidation—all manifestations of violence—that brought us Trump.

If we choose to be motivated by anger and hatred, if we choose to divide our communities even more, all we do is continue to feed the exact energy that got us Trump. Even if the anger is towards Trump and his supporters, we are empowering the forces that allowed him to rise to power. We need to be angry, but at the forces of injustice, not its human participants.

In the most thorough study on the subject to date, Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, an academic and author who started as a critic of nonviolence, found that nonviolent movements—even under the most repressive regimes—were statistically twice as effective as violent movements all over the world. They also found (looking at cases where the objective was secession of land or revolution) that movements able to mobilize 3.5 percent of the general population never fail in meeting their stated objective.

Violence breeds patriarchy, which is at the root of so much of the violence in our society. Once you introduce violence to the equation, you limit those who can be on the front lines and those who can lead. Mostly, you limit it to young able-bodied men. And look where that has gotten us as a society. If we are not building a movement with leadership from the most disenfranchised—those who often can’t take up arms—we are fighting a never-ending losing battle. Stephan and Chenoweth’s work also shows that only nonviolent movements have been able to mobilize that magical 3.5 percent.

We also know, however, that simply getting millions of people out into the streets by itself is not enough. If people think that nonviolence is only about getting millions to hold flowers and sing “Kumbaya,” they would be mistaken. Most people forget—or had no idea in the first place—how radical and militant Martin Luther King, Jr. was, and how aggressive a force nonviolence can be. King called for a movement that was just as attention-grabbing and disruptive as a riot.

As a society, we have studied violence for centuries. That’s all we know. So, we assume that’s the only thing that’s going to work, or it’s the most radical thing, or the most effective thing, as a last resort. And that’s because that’s what the state teaches us. We have not studied nonviolence. We do not know what it means or how to use it effectively. We have never given it a real chance, despite the evidence that is out there. We have not invested in it the same way we have with violence.

There is nothing radical about violence. There is nothing revolutionary about a force that has destroyed communities forever, a force that we are all too familiar with and a force that got us into this mess. What is radical and revolutionary is using a tool that is new. If you resist violence with violence, you’re not resisting violence. You’re resisting people, and empowering violence. You are not addressing the root cause.

Violence is the enemy. That idea that we can use force, fear and intimidation to get what we want, to force our will, is what needs to change, not the faces that are in power.

Voting was never going to give us the changes that we need in the first place. We need to organize harder than ever, not just in electoral politics, but in the spaces of social movements. And as we work in our movements, we need to keep in mind that it’s not just systems that we are trying to change, but our culture, our worldview and the ways in which we treat each other.

If you’ve been to a political rally, chances are you’ve chanted something along the lines of “justice for all.” But when we say “all,” do we really it? Or do we mean “all of the people we agree with?” Because that’s the mentality that gave us Trump. Building “beloved community” isn’t about loving those who are easy to love.

So what does it mean to give justice to all people? To validate the real, legitimate fears that drove people to vote for Trump? Their legitimate fears and concerns aren’t racism and sexism. Those are the scapegoats that Trump used to drum up fear. There is real concern about insecurity, of not being able to take care of their families, of an uncertain future, of our values being threatened. And if we can’t find a way to validate those fears that over half of this country has, we will always be divided, and there will always be violence.

This is not about empathizing with the oppressor out of charity. It is about gathering information and understanding the dynamic of the conflict. As Sun Tzu in the “Art of War” taught, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

In the wake of Trump’s election, I am also recommitting myself to taking care of myself, of those around me, and of society at large. We need to take care of ourselves, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, because we have a tough road ahead. With all the forces trying to destroy us, staying healthy is an act of resistance. Honoring ourselves, fighting the internal violence that is so often self-inflicted, telling ourselves that we matter and treating ourselves accordingly is revolutionary.

Exactly a week after the election, in the prison where my organization facilitates nonviolence and restorative justice work, one of my teachers said during his check-in, “Today, I find myself in prison. I don’t like being in prison. But I choose to be happy instead of miserable. Because I have that choice.”

So today, I choose to be inspired. I choose to be motivated. I choose to be committed. I choose to cultivate joy. I choose love over hate.

The anger, fear and anxiety that we all feel is legitimate, and we can’t ignore them. We actually need to feel them to the fullest degree. I have real fear for people I love who live in Trumpland. But the best way to protect those we love is to win over those who hate them.

We need to find safe places to feel and release the anger and the fear, so that we can uncover—underneath all of that—an undying yearning for love and connection. That’s what needs to motivate us moving forward. Love can be sweet and sympathetic, but it can also be aggressive and assertive. It is that type of love that we need moving forward.

I will feel that anger, but I refuse to feel desperate, hopeless or apathetic. Those are acts of violence that we do to our own soul, and it is violence that got us to where we are today.

Instead, I will organize harder, protest harder, build harder, train harder, and love harder than I ever have before. And I will always keep in mind these words from King: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

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20 December 2016. Can prayer also be action?

Prayer can break down or reinforce power structures in surprising ways. 

Credit: Pixabay/Zefe. CC0 Public Domain.

We often think of prayer as separate from action. There is praying and there is doing; faith and works. But is this perspective warranted? Perhaps not.

My research with faith-based organizations (FBOs) working on humanitarian, development, and peace-building projects suggests that the role of prayer in these areas is not so clearly separated from the other activities of these groups. Bifurcating the spiritual from the material is both inaccurate and unhelpful, yet most funders, activists and academics continue to insist on their explicit separation.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), for example, requires that FBOs separate their “explicitly religious activities” from those that are funded by USAID. These include practices like prayer. There are important reasons for doing this of course—principally respect for the separation of church and state or religion and public life. But the distinction between “religious” and “non-religious” activities is often difficult to sustain in practice. As researcher Andrea Paras and others have noted, some religious organizations view even something as basic as digging a well to be a religious act.

More generally, prayer and other religious activities are portrayed as fundamentally separate from the ‘real’ work of providing bed nets to prevent malaria, building schools, protesting, engaging in interreligious dialogue, and advocating for the victims of human rights violations. However, my research challenges this dichotomy and suggests that we ought to pay more attention to the role of prayer in public life and social action.

For the past four years, I’ve been observing and conducting interviews with three transnational FBOs: Religions for Peace, International Justice Mission, and the Taizé Community. Each of these organizations works on various forms of social action combined with prayer, though the details and contexts vary widely. Religions for Peace is a multi-religious peace-building group that sometimes begins its meetings with prayer or a moment of silence. The organization’s leaders are cautious about when and how to include prayer, because they want to avoid the possibility of offending anyone, and to maintain an ethics of respect for religious and secular identities.

International Justice Mission is a Christian organization that works against human trafficking and slavery, and also employs prayer in its internal operations. Employees engage in solitary and group prayer on a daily basis. The organization also holds a “Global Prayer Gathering” annually to pray for those involved in specific human rights cases.

Finally the Taizé Community is an ecumenical (Protestant and Catholic) monastic community that strives for reconciliation, peace and solidarity, and which engages in prayer several times a day. The Community is known for its unique kind of communal singing prayer chants, which are accompanied by music. Taizé also holds prayer events all over the world, often with tens of thousands of attendees, including the annual European Meeting which draws large numbers of young adults.

I asked representatives from all three organizations why they engaged in prayer and how they thought it might influence their organizational strategies, goals and impact. From these conversations it became apparent that conceptualizing prayer as fundamentally distinct from other organizational acts doesn’t always make sense. That’s partly because all the other activities in which these groups are involved are also imbued with religiosity in the form of particular values and principles; and partly because the prayer-action distinction isn’t always recognized as valid.

Some of my interviewees saw prayer as action and understood prayer to be doing something real and consequential. Others saw the distinction but didn’t treat one as more important than the other, asserting that prayer was just as essential for achieving their goals as the organizations’ other activities. Everyone in the study saw prayer as foundational to everything they did.

What can we learn from these insights? It’s unhelpful, I think, to allow the conversation to devolve into arguments about whether prayer does something that can be quantified. Conducting tests to determine whether prayer has direct effects through, for example, some form of ‘divine intervention’ is obviously fraught with problems—though some medical studies have attempted to address the effects of prayer on healing. But this doesn’t mean that we should ignore prayer and its role in public and political spaces, because for many people prayer and other spiritual practices are important in shaping their responses to issues of peace and social justice.

It’s true, of course, that prayer can reinforce existing power structures. In some communities, male religious leaders are tasked with leading groups in prayer. Under these circumstances, whether intentional or not, prayer can reinforce patriarchal structures. In interfaith contexts, prayer can buttress the dominance of certain religious groups by privileging the traditions and teachings of majority religions. But in other contexts, prayer can disrupt power structures. One respondent told me that in her interfaith women’s organization in Kenya, for example, prayer enables women to assert themselves. By leading the organization in prayer, these women are taking on the leadership roles that are often reserved for male religious leaders in their community.

Prayer can also bridge divides in ways we might not expect. For example, one study concluded that prayer can strengthen unity among interfaith groups, which is surprising given that religious differences are often highlighted as divisive. My interviews with Religions for Peace and the Taizé Community confirmed the sometimes-central role of prayer in building bridges across the lines of religious, cultural, and political difference. In fact, representatives of the Taizé Community asserted that communal prayer can actually be more effective than dialogue in enabling people to engage with those who are different from themselves or who represent the opposing side of a conflict.

For example, after the end of the wars in the former-Yugoslavia, the Taizé brothers invited people from various sides of the conflict to attend one of their events. The brothers told me that when they first arrived, these attendees didn’t want anything to do with one another. Moreover, the brothers felt that trying to create a dialogue among the groups would actually make things worse, because each side had their own version of events. However, engaging in communal prayer allowed the participants to open up their minds and bodies to new possibilities of engagement and trust, thus eventually creating the space for dialogue and bridge-building.

The performance of prayer can also influence perceptions about specific projects and activities. For example, commentaries on the Standing Rock encampment in North Dakota highlighted the use of prayer and other Indigenous practices and implicitly portrayed the protestors as peaceful and spiritual. Prayer is often depicted in this way—as as an inherently peaceful act. So when protestors pray, they are portrayed as organizing peacefully, and that can both build support and disarm opposition.

Common assumptions about the irrationality or inconsequence of prayer have led many of us to ignore its potential, or to see it as peripheral to ‘real’ action. However, if we want to understand how prayer helps to shape our public and political worlds in both beneficial and problematic ways it’s time to move past these assumptions. Instead, we need to pay more attention to what prayer actually means to those who in engage in it, and to understand the expansive and varied roles that prayer plays in spaces of social action. To ignore prayer means to neglect a practice that millions of individuals employ in their quest to create a more just, peaceful, and harmonious global community.

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19 December 2016. Building community in Berlin’s Sharehaus

Often, things that are seen as a problem in society are not: the house where locals and refugees live and work together. 

Malakeh and Mohammed serve Syrian food in Berlin.Credit: Sharehaus Refugio.All rights reserved.

In a mixed and energetic district of south Berlin lies a street that locals refer to as arabische Straße—Arabic Street. Sonnenallee, as it is really called, has become a hub for the Middle Eastern community, lined with Arabic supermarkets, sweet shops and restaurants. It’s  one of the first points of call for Arabic-speaking newcomers to the city, including the hundreds of thousands of Syrian and Iraqi refugees who arrived in Germany last year, where they can find foods from home and services offered in their mother tongue. The street is also popular with young Germans and tourists who come for the vibrant markets and nearby bars in this gentrifying part of town. Speakeasies and spacious cafes sit alongside busy kebab houses and phone shops.

In a tall building just off this main thoroughfare, members of all these different groups of people come together in the Sharehaus Refugio, which is home to 50 Germans and newcomers from Europe, Africa and the Middle East who live, socialise and run social enterprises together. They also invite others into their community on a daily basis for everything from meditation to language classes to dance parties. At a recent event there I met a young German administrator who was helping to run the project; a Syrian scientist who came for the weekly language exchange; an Australian on a gap year who volunteers in the community cafe; and a teacher from Eritrea who simply wanted to meet some people—a taste of how mixed the environment is.

The Sharehaus was born out of a similar but temporary project established in South Africa by German expats Sven Lager and Elke Naters. Seeing how divided communities had become, they wanted to create a place where people would see each other “on eye level“—a fun and creative space where people could share with one another, work together, and individual talents could shine.

Lager and Naters'  project was limited because the space they were using was rented, but when they returned to Germany they secured support for their idea from Berliner Stadtmission, a Christian housing and community organisation. The Stadtmission owned the building off Sonnenallee and were looking to redevelop it.

The new Sharehaus opened its doors in summer 2015, offering 33 private rooms that are rented by individuals, couples and families, and a big communal kitchen where residents can cook together each night. One year later, the building is filled with a constant stream of visitors. The residents work alongside external volunteers to run the house and its projects, including a popular coffee shop on the ground floor.

Anyone can apply to live there, though the team tries to maintain an even balance of locals and refugees, men and women, and young and old.

“People want to live here because they have shared values,” one of the team members told me. “If you’re just looking for a place to live, this isn’t the right place for you.” Instead, the focus is on community. New residents have a one-month trial period before they move into the house which acts as an opportunity for them to get to know their neighbours and to demonstrate their commitment to the project. Older residents and team members work with them to figure out how they can best contribute their time and skills—from playing music to teaching classes, gardening and organizing events.

“It was difficult to find a place to live when I left the refugee camp,” Murtaza, originally from Afghanistan, told me. “Then I found this place, and it was a good chance for me. Living by yourself isn’t really nice. Here, there is community.”

Malakeh, a TV journalist from Syria, agrees. Her and her husband Mohammed have just renewed the contract on their room for another year. Their newborn son Hussein is one of the community’s newest members. “This place has a good community and for that we’d like to stay,” Malakeh saide. “All the people here are friendly; all the people are kind; they all help each other.”

Aside from community, the Sharehaus also offers practical opportunities. Residents have found the space and support here to establish small businesses and social enterprises, often with a focus on bridging communities.

Arij and her husband Samer, for example, who are lawyers from Syria, offer weekly city tours of Berlin from a refugee’s perspective, giving tourists and locals an insight into what it’s like to arrive in a new city with an unfamiliar language, knowing no one. The tours are frequently sold out.

Murtaza taught himself beekeeping and now produces jars of thick, amber-coloured honey on the roof of the house which he sells at markets; while Malakeh and Mohammed have started a successful catering business, providing Syrian food for parties and events.

“Before I came here there was no chance to meet anyone,” said Mohammed. “We just met refugees, like us, so when I came here it was kind of a big door opening for us.” Team members helped the couple with the paperwork and, as the Sharehaus became better known, they found opportunities to make connections and spread the word about their business. They have since provided catering at events for several big museums, galleries and companies in Berlin.

Now the house is gearing up for the holidays. Crowds of friends and locals gathered in the big hall for its recent Christmas market—talking, eating and browsing stalls of products from the Sharehaus and from other NGOs and refugee projects, including beautifully-crafted wooden toys, handmade soaps and knitted clothes. Stars and fairylights hung from the ceiling; the smell of spicy ginger tea and Malakeh and Mohammed’s chicken shawarma filled the room. A young Turkish migrant stood in front of the audience and told her story. Bands played until late.

The long-term goal is to help establish a network of share homes in other countries: Lager and his team see their own house as a testing ground for experimenting with different ideas, and are looking for partners they can work with. This has required some investment. At the moment, the project is funded only by the Berliner Stadtmission and by donations which, Lager said, has made the effort a bit of a struggle—but he believes the idea is entirely sustainable in the long-run since the costs of each house are paid for by the rent that’s collected from residents (and which, for the refugees, is typically covered by the government in Germany). Once the model is established, it will be easier to replicate elsewhere.

“What I want to say is that it’s absolutely possible [to create this community],” he told me. “It doesn’t matter what your religion is, what your background is, it’s possible and it’s enriching for everyone. Often, things that are seen as a problem in society are not.”

You can find out about events at the sharehaus through its  Facebook page, or donate to the project  here.

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16 December 2016. How cultural appropriation becomes trendy—and the real cost of our consumerism

Doing good doesn’t, and shouldn’t, always feel good. For the sake of justice, let’s face that discomfort.

Originally published on Everyday Feminism.

Side profile of a young person wearing decorative bindi, gazing into the camera. Credit: Everyday Feminism. All rights reserved.

Here at Everyday Feminism we often write about cultural appropriation—when members of dominant culture takes cultural elements and practices from a people who are systematically oppressed by that dominant group.

These aspects of culture are often consumed in a popularized way that dilutes their original significance.

A huge question that pops up is: Well, what can I do about it? It’s not my fault. Isn’t this really an issue of our capitalist culture and globalization—two huge things that seem too big to tackle?

And aren’t big companies to blame? They’re the ones that provide culturally appropriated products and benefit the most from their sales!

While discussions about cultural appropriation often focus on individual actions like wearing a culture as a costume, it’s true that we need to pay attention to the big picture.

We can’t have a real conversation about the impacts of globalization without talking about imperialism, which maintains cultural and economic relationships based on domination and subordination by controlling resources, like land and food.

We also can’t forget the many histories where people of color have been directly used as commodities—like how Black people were used for slave labor.

Imperialism extracts what’s valuable from people and territories that are colonized—which might seem familiar.

Similarly, cultural appropriation makes culture an “extractable,” profitable resource.

Malcolm X famously stated, “You can’t have capitalism without racism.”

Capitalism offers a promise of freedom and equality, yet is premised on unequal distributions of income and wealth. The idea that this system depends on merit—that working harder and better leads to success—obscures racist practices.

Cultures have traveled across so many different communities and through so many places over time, it’s hard to distinguish where something “originally” comes from and who has “ownership” over what. Traditions that we feel connected to as our own may have come from other cultures and places.

Because of this, discussions of cultural appropriation go beyond simple hard and fast rules of who can or can’t do something.

Perhaps, paying closer attention to why certain cultural elements become commodified and appropriated offers a helpful framework.

So instead of throwing our hands up in defeat under the monster of capitalism, we can take our power back by asking questions: Why the mainstreaming and corporatization of yoga? Why headdresses at Coachella? Why did bone broth, goji berries, and quinoa become “it” foods?

Which might lead to more questions, like: So what? If these cultural elements and practices have become so mainstream, isn’t that better? Now anyone can access and experience different cultures more readily and easily, right?

People often argue that culture is a commons, yet simultaneously want to own aspects of culture through consumerism.

Let’s get to the bottom of this contradiction. What are some ways that capitalism, as a system, works alongside racism to make cultural appropriation the “trendy” thing to do? And what’s our role in all of this?

1. Our individual expression is encouraged through consumerism.

Every day, media outlets like advertisements, TV shows, movies, and magazines tell us that the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the way we decorate our personal spaces define and showcase our individuality.

For example, I love to travel and try new things. I often buy souvenirs from my travels to wear or display in my apartment, and try different kinds of cuisines, to express that part of myself.

We’re encouraged to buy a lot of stuff to seem chic and cool, professional and put-together, fun and adventurous, more calm and relaxed.

As different cultural objects and practices come to signify aspects of our personality, interests, and style, we attach values to these cultural elements based on how they benefit us.

This is where racism and capitalism converge into cultural appropriation. Consumer culture simplifies the complexities of culture, often resulting in a replica rooted in stereotypes.

Gwen Stefani, in an attempt to show her “love” of Japan through Harajuku Girls, literally used Japanese and Japanese American women as props. Katy Perry, apparently in “homage” to Japanese culture, drew on the image of the ‘geisha girl’ stereotype during her performance at the American Music Awards.

These examples of self-expression drew solely on racist tropes – and they substantiate images of East Asian women as passive, servile, and sexualized objects.

Also, while freedom of choice and freedom of expression are central tenets in US national culture, these principles don’t apply equally.

While white celebrities benefit from fame and fortune when they exploit Japanese culture, East Asian women in the US face the pressure to distance themselves from their own culture in order to avoid stereotypes, fetishizing, and discrimination.

We should be free to do the things we enjoy or wear the clothes we like—but self-expression is a privilege. Some folks are pressured to change the ways we express ourselves, like the ways we look and act, just to stay employed or stay safe.

What can you do?

While breaking completely free from appropriative consumer culture is a difficult task, there are some initial actions you can take to start breaking away.

Think about the source of your purchase and who it benefits. For example, that Colombian mochila bag might be super cute, but the context changes depending on whether you’re buying it from a local artist while traveling or getting it from Urban Outfitters.

Also, consider why you’re buying something. What are you trying to express about yourself? Is there another way to do it? 

Buying a bag with a pattern you like directly from a Columbian artist won’t silence your self-expression – but it will help you express yourself in a way that’s not exploitative.

2. The idea of diversity has become commodified and consumable.

When you think about the word diversity, what comes up?

If you do a Google Image search for it, you’ll get lots of hands in different skin tones touching a globe. People of different races laughing together. Clip art of silhouettes in rainbow colors or maybe a colorful box of crayons.

The mainstreaming of diversity means that it’s now “sellable.” We’re socialized to think about diversity in aesthetics—as in, the more variety the better.

This aesthetic approach to diversity often leaves out the various intersections of identity—instead of actually including people, we tokenize them with a “one of each” model.

This often translates to: Hey! Let’s try all the different cultures we can!

In the US, metaphors of the “melting pot” and “salad bowl” are often used to describe different cultures and communities coming together in unity. We want to celebrate diversity through a multicultural tapestry.

However, this celebration often happens purely through food and festival. Rather than having a deeper engagement with other cultures, we end up with superficial replicas.

While this kind of “celebrate diversity” culture doesn’t seem terrible on the surface, the commodification of diversity has more harmful consequences. For example, in many gentrified neighborhoods, diversity is an attractive amenity.

In my old neighborhood, there’s an avenue where you can get sushi, Chinese bao, tacos, and banh mi. While this makes the neighborhood seem culturally diverse, it’s diverse in a decorative and aesthetic sense–rather than a social ideal of equality.

Many of these restaurants aren’t owned by the communities that the cuisine purportedly represents–and the decor often looks like a kitschy Epcot-esque theme party.

No matter how “refined” or “elevated” the food, red lanterns and gold accents often fill restaurants that have been “inspired” by the entire continent of Asia. Neon sugar skulls from Dia de los Muertos and sombreros fill Mexican-themed spots.

Based on the price point, these restaurants cater to residents, like myself, who are middle to upper class. The businesses there aren’t truly accessible to diverse groups of people from different economic backgrounds.

Because culture can be tangibly experienced, we can easily consume it. This isn’t to say that it’s bad to learn about other cultures by eating different styles of cuisine, traveling, or consuming media from communities that aren’t your own.

These activities can help expand our perspectives. The problem is when we conflate equity with these consumable experiences–because they are not the same thing.

What can you do?

We need to stop thinking about social justice and equity in terms of an aesthetic model to diversity.

Having a bunch of different voices at the table doesn’t always mean those voices are equally respected—just like having a bunch of different representations of cultures doesn’t always mean those cultures are equally respected, valued, and understood.

Are you actually building true relationships with new people, or do you just like wearing clothes and eating food from other places and communities?

While we may love to celebrate difference through clothing and food, rarely do we acknowledge the actual lived experiences that accompany the cultures we take from.

3. The complexity of cultural expression and history gets flattened through commodification.

The commodification of culture flattens out cultural complexities.

When we reduce culture down to just the pieces we want to take, we often lose the important stories, memories, and rich histories—the stories that tell us how cultural objects and practices came to endure and survive over time.

This creates a sense of distance and detachment. We end up losing our connection to the people, the identities, and the community that we’re taking pieces of culture from.

And thus, it becomes difficult to respect that culture in the way it deserves to be respected.

One example is how some Buddhist spiritual practices have been simplified into consumable pieces. The concept of Zen gets reduced to unwinding as a way to market candles and lotions, the laughing Buddha becomes caricatured into accessories, decorative items, or company logos, and more.

But if you’re trying to practice a tenet like mindfulness, you don’t need to buy “Buddha bookends” or “yoga dog” sculptures—which are, unfortunately, real products from Pier 1—to do so.

We need to focus on what aspects of culture are left out when cultural objects and narratives get appropriated for our own purposes.

How do we rethink and retrace our own perceptions of different places and cultures?

Instead of forgetting that influential power dynamics and hierarchies exist, we can be careful not to replicate them through cultural binaries like “high” vs. “low” fashion, Western societies vs. everywhere else, or “first world” vs. “third world.”

What can you do?

If we’re expressing our love for something, associating ourselves with the most popularized and commodified parts of that culture may not be the best way to show our appreciation.

We can educate ourselves on the histories and significance behind cultural objects and practices: Why are they meaningful? Where have they traveled? What other objects and practices are they associated with? How and where are they made? Are local artists or producers creating them—and if so, how can I support their work?

The information’s out there—read pieces like Minh-Ha T. Pham’s excellent essay on the production and consumption of the “Chinatown plaid” pattern that became “high fashion.” Learn about some of the unique dress and customs of the 566 different recognized Native American tribes in the US, and reject generic patterns from companies using labels like Navajo, “tribal,” and “Native” interchangeably.

By developing a more complex, fuller, and more nuanced picture of these objects and practices, we can understand and appreciate their importance.

4. We buy from big companies and consume their approaches to culture.

Okay, at this point, you might still be thinking, so what? I learn a little more about other cultures, get to know some new people, and ask myself some heartfelt questions.

But how does any of this dismantle the behemoth that is capitalism?

In this market scheme, the process of producing profitable goodies for us to buy often involves cheap labor at a fast pace.

For example, think fast fashion companies, like Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters. We often don’t even know the supply chains of the products that we encounter in clothing stores, restaurants, supermarkets, and other retail spaces.

While we respond to these big companies, they also respond to us. Big company trends don’t materialize from nothing.

Those awful Lord Ganesh duvets and socks at Urban Outfitters and those “face gems” (ahem—bindis) don’t exist in a vacuum. The centuries-late “discovery” of bone broth’s “healing” properties leading to pop-up shops selling cups of broth at $9 a piece doesn’t come out of nowhere.

Companies produce what we’ll consume—and we’re consuming a dangerous ideology that says culture can be mass-produced.

When we approach culture as consumers, that shapes society to operate in a way that seeks out the next big thing–regardless of the consequences.

What can you do?

As Maisha Z. Johnson writes on the appropriation of Black culture, are you giving support or trivializing struggles?

When celebs like Kylie and Kendall Jenner are reported to “rock” cornrows that are “epic” and “edgy,” they sure don’t support Black women ostracized or discouraged by institutional barriers from wearing their hair in natural styles.

But you can reflect on whether or not you’re you showing up for a community’s struggle in a way that’s accountable to that community’s needs.

Investing energy and time in supporting community-led movements is one possible way to demand change in this system. We can work alongside others to organize for justice in a way that’s sustainable and accountable.

For example, Taté Walker offers some ways to honor Native Americans without appropriatingNative culture, such as backing Native-led movements or supporting Native American artists.

Trying to disrupt consumer culture and its link to cultural appropriation can be hard. Consuming stuff is fun! It can feel so good. Yet, in our consumption, no matter how pleasurable, we are complicit in both racism and capitalism.

Companies like Pier 1, Whole Foods, and American Apparel (not really “sweatshop free”) tell us that we can be more ethical and responsible by buying their products.

But even so-called “responsible consumerism” is really not that responsible. It still turns social justice into something that can only be purchased with our dollars. And it’s not nearly enough.

Even if everyone, including you and me, went ahead and said, Well, I’ll no longer shop here, the issue of capitalism and corporate power would still be present in the world around us.

Plus, sometimes we end up buying from big companies because it’s more financially accessible. We need people with class privilege to not just swear off buying from these companies, but commit to changing a system that creates dependency on large companies as the only option.

As we re-program our approach to culture, let’s really think about intention and impact—who ultimately benefits and who doesn’t.

Responsible consumerism benefits us in an individualistic sense—we get to feel good about doing good. However, doing good doesn’t and shouldn’t always feel good.

It can be downright uncomfortable. For the sake of justice, let’s face that discomfort.

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