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.

28 June 2017. Utopia in Sheffield? We have to start somewhere.

“What makes us move is tasting dreams of what could be, stepping into the cracks where another world is coming into view.”

Credit: Flickr/Lucas Theis. Public Domain.

We need utopian thinking.

If this claim had been made 25 years ago, people would have said I was mad. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the idea that utopia equals totalitarianism gained widespread acceptance, and utopianism was regarded as a form of totalising thinking destined to end in terror. Margaret Thatcher famously declared that “There is no alternative” to the neoliberal project, and Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the “End of History.”

One of Fukuyama’s key assertions was that “we cannot picture to ourselves a world that is essentially different from the present one, and at the same time better.” His basic claim was that the time for utopian projects, and even the possibility of utopian thinking, was over. But this strikes me as nonsense. Why can’t we picture and construct a world transformed?

Myself and Max Munday are organizing a series of workshops to begin the difficult task of constructing a shared utopian vision with activists, campaigners, artists and others working for social change. The first worskhop – organised as part of Sheffield’s “Festival of Debate” – provided an opportunity to share experiences, explore political and ethical motivations, and identify aspects of existing practices that point towards a better way of being. 

This might seem a bit pompous or grandiose, but as we put it in our publicity blurb, “We Have to Start Somewhere. I’m well aware of all the criticisms that have been leveled at utopian thinking: there’s the fear that utopianism ignores or negates human plurality and difference; that it quashes individual freedom; that it draws up blueprints of a world in which everything and everyone is uniform and regulated; and that utopia can only be realised through suppression and coercion.

There are also concerns that attempts to realise utopian visions will always fail amidst myriad unintended consequences; that utopias are the wish-fulfillment fantasies of individuals oblivious to the dynamics of class struggle; that utopianism is an elitist project that denies the possibility of workers constructing and determining their own future; and that ultimately, utopianism is a complete irrelevance—those who construct the future won’t give a damn about the pictures we paint today.

However, none of these criticisms strike me as convincing.

Firstly, the idea that utopias quash freedom and suppress difference is based on a misreading—and sometimes a deliberate misrepresentation—of the utopian genre. While there are plenty of utopian visions that are terrifying and about which we should be fearful, the history of utopian ideas is rich and varied, and there are plenty of other interpretations from Charles Fourier to William Morris to Ursula Le Guin that celebrate freedom and difference.

Secondly, although more emphasis has been placed on the diversity of interests and identities than on commonality over the last 30 years of political thinking and action, it’s important to ask whether difference inevitably leads to fragmentation, whether diversity is incompatible with solidarity, and whether plurality precludes the possibility of a shared vision. I think it’s important to stress that visions of the good can accommodate difference. In seeking to picture and construct a world transformed, what happens if we take as our starting point the possibility of shared interests?

Thirdly, it’s certainly true that utopian ideas have often been the fantasies of individuals. Utopian thinking has largely been the preserve of the privileged, and utopianism could be described as a bourgeois genre of writing. But what if we embarked on a collective endeavour to imagine and construct grassroots utopias?

This is especially important because a lot of what we currently do in our work, our groups, and our campaigns, is reactive and defensive. We respond to forces that often seem beyond our control; we defend hard-won ground against the encroachment of austerity; and we devote a lot of time to criticising and resisting.

Political action is often localised, organized around preventing further cuts, further privatisations, and further dehumanisation. It often feels like we are defending ourselves against an onslaught, and this is necessary, important work. We do have to defend and resist.

At the same time, our practices are grounded in ethics, principles, desires, convictions and dreams, and wherever possible we try to ensure that our actions are consistent with those ethics and convictions; we try to prefigure the world we’d like to inhabit in what we do today and how we do it. So the germs of utopian visions are always there, present in many of our everyday practices.

However, the drive for a world transformed often gets lost amidst the pressures of daily life. With so much to defend and resist, there is seldom if ever the time or space to think and act beyond the level of short-term, local resistance. Another world is possible, but everyday life means it remains forever deferred. We never seem to have the resources or opportunities to turn our dreams into reality.

Against that background, utopian visions can do various things: they can inspire, mobilise, and give direction to a struggle. They can provide a critical viewpoint from which the inadequacies of the present become more starkly visible. They call into question the existing order of things and render the present mutable and open to change. They liberate the imagination and make it clear that alternatives can be thought of and fought for. They make us feel uncomfortable—angry even—with the way things are, and they lead us to question whether things really have to be this way.

They provide a goal and a spur to action and act as a catalyst for change in a way that social criticism on its own cannot. As William Morris once said, “these dreams for the future make many a man a socialist whom sober reason deduced from science and political economy would not move at all.” Or as the “Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination” puts it:

“More information is not going to motivate us to act,

neither are representations or pictures of politics,

what makes us move is tasting dreams of what could be,

stepping into the cracks where another world is coming into view.”

Crucially, the very process of working together to construct utopian visions can have transformative effects. Through exploring and reflecting on our ethics, motivations, desires and dreams, we get to know them better. Through sharing with others we can learn, refine, develop and enhance the principles that drive us, and we can gain a clearer picture of how they can guide our daily practices.

It’s not just the end result—a shared utopia—that is useful and important; it’s the journey too, the process of utopian construction as a collaborative endeavour. By working together to build a different world slowly and carefully, we might come to understand this endeavour as something like a shared, reciprocal, respectful, and iterative process of collective learning—a form of utopia in itself.

Can we build a grass-roots utopia? Can we identify shared principles, motivations, aims, practices, ethics and goals? Can we identify in our daily lives thwarted desires, suppressed longings, and untapped possibilities, and can we ask what society would look like if these things were realised?

Can we work together to develop a shared vision of the kind of society we’d like to create? And can we then use this vision—this alternative way of living and being—to help mobilise and drive forward our collective struggles for radical change?

I think we can, and I want to try.

Over the past few years, and especially since the economic crisis of 2008, utopia has started to come back in from the cold. More people are beginning to recognise the need for alternative visions. The articles appearing on these pages are testimony to this fact.

2016 was the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, which saw a flurry of celebrations and events. This year is the centenary of the Russian Revolution. People are starting to write books about communism again. Utopia as a radical project is slowly being rehabilitated. Let’s work together to make utopia our home.


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26 June 2017. The subversive power of joy

The unexpected, spontaneous and pleasantly disruptive nature of collective celebration is one of the great equalisers of social and political struggle.

Credit: Sisters Uncut/Jade Jackman. All rights reserved.

When you hear the words ‘anti fascist rally,’ what do you visualize? An angry crowd with placards, old hippies holding banners with clichés about love, or maybe those rowdy anarchists in black balaclavas?

What about young women and non-binary people gleefully dancing to grime music that’s blasting out of portable speakers? Well, that’s precisely what a recent anti-fascist rally in south London looked like. It’s a perfect example of how collective joy can become powerfully subversive.

When the far-right “pro-British” South East Alliance came to Croydon in south London to hold an “anti-immigrant, anti-Islam” rally, they were interrupted with an unexpected weapon: joy. A big crowd of young activists, predominantly from direct action groups like Sisters Uncut and Black Lives Matter UK, danced joyfully right in front of them, guarded by a line of police. It might seem like an unexpected tactic, but logically it makes perfect sense, both to the individuals involved and to the political goals of these groups.

Where fascism aims to instill fear, joy is the perfect resistance. To laugh in the face of fear is possibly the bravest act, which is why Saffiyah Khan became an instant hero in the UK when she smiled at fascist thugs from the far-right, racist movement English Defence League—who began harassing Muslim women in her hometown. Two core tenets of fascism are fierce racism and rampant sexism, and with that in mind, anti-fascist resistance doesn’t get more powerful than women and non-binary people of colour collectively, loudly and happily dancing together in the streets.

Dance as protest.

Dance as protest is not unique to Croydon. In April, LGBTQ activists in the USA held a “queer dance party” outside Vice President Mike Pence’s home to protest his homophobic policy positions. The global One Billion Rising movement, which aims to end violence against women, is centred on women dancing together on the same day in countries throughout the world. Sisters Uncut are renowned for collective dancing at their demonstrations against cuts to domestic violence services proposed or enacted by the UK government.

Their spontaneous, collective dancing  is described by activist Sur Este as “a fuck you to the powers that be.” She says that dance is both a way to reclaim public space and a way to let go: “When I dance surrounded by cops, or fascists, or when I am trying to make a point about something horrible that is happening, I feel powerful...We are still here and we are still dancing.”

Naatasha Mumbi, who also attended the Croydon protest, recalls the inspirational student protests that took place in South Africa in 2016 as part of the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement:

“The front lines were bringing full-on coordinated dance moves, and what a disarming and radical act it was in the face of state violence. It made my heart pound. Facing up to fascists with the full force of bangin’ grime beats, and putting our bodies on the line together in rhythm, is how I channeled what I saw from South African protests.”

Liberation movements have a long history of communal dance. The writer Barbara Ehrenreich has documented the history of collective joy in her book “Dancing In The Streets.”  She argues that collective and ecstatic dancing is a nearly universal “biotechnology” for binding groups together. Physical movement—a powerful escalation of typical protest chanting—not only releases emotion, it also creates bonding, trust and equality, dissolving hierarchy and increasing a sense of community.

What’s more, it’s actually essential to our survival. Our species, homo sapiens, has outlived all other human species because of our ability to co-ordinate with others in groups. Historically, groups who could hold themselves together through dance and other methods would have enjoyed an advantage over more weakly-bonded groups.

In his book “The Righteous Mind,” social psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes the innate craving that people have to belong to a greater whole; to “transcend self-interest and lose ourselves (temporarily and ecstatically) in something larger than ourselves.” Haidt calls the ability to do this the “hive switch,” which makes groups more cohesive and more successful in relation to others.

This switch can be activated at football matches and raves, through the use of hallucinogens like LSD, and even in choral singing or military drills. It has its roots in biology, since all of these activities release the “hug hormone” oxytocin which promotes social bonding. On an undeniably physical level, collective dancing has the power to generate a deep sense of elation, but at what point does collective joy become subversive?

When pleasure becomes subversion.

Within the context of capitalism, collective joy through dancing and other forms of expression is already subversive. Back in 1905, the German sociologist Max Weber warned of an “unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual” that accompanied the “spirit” of modern capitalism. In a capitalist society founded on competition, privatisation and small family units, collective joy—as opposed to individual happiness—signals both personal resilience and political rebellion. The very act of relishing in a shared connection is a triumph in a society that seeks to divide us.

The subversive power of collective joy is maximised when it occurs in public, politicised spaces as an affirmation of collective identity. Joy can score cultural and political goals in the name of liberation because it simultaneously serves an individual and a broader, political purpose. Many group activities are carried out in the pursuit of hedonist escapism, or in order to forget ourselves. However, when collective joy erupts in pursuit of defiantly reinforcing your very existence—especially in the face of those who seek to erase you—it  has the power to subvert authority and release suppressed rage whilst connecting us to each other, and reinforcing a sense of group safety.

There’s no better example of this process in action than Dabke dancing. Dabke is the traditional folkloric dance of Palestine, supposedly originating as a fertility rite where people stamped their feet on the ground. It is most commonly danced at wedding celebrations, but it can also be found in flash mobs on the streets of Gaza, as well as in BDS protests in New York.

Saeed Suliman, a Dabke teacher from the West Bank, told me that Dabke dancing is an “important weapon in the cultural resistance of Palestinians.” He continued:

“After the Zionists stole our land and named it Israel, our national identity was no longer recognised. We only had Palestinian culture to identify ourselves by, and Dabke dancing shows our roots to the land that has been stolen from us. Dabke is a way to fight against our extermination by reinforcing our identity, energy and pride as a people.”

Our next steps.

Right now we face a hostile world order that’s rapidly shifting to the right. The UK and the USA, supposedly bastions of democracy, both have leaders who ran for election with pledges to remove human rights and build walls; and who aggressively scapegoat migrants and valorize the military. Bearing in mind the 14 characteristics of fascism established by political scientist Lawrence Britt, these measures signal that there are even bigger battles to come.

But the fight-back need not be joyless. Holding onto and centring joy is a vital tactic for personal and group resilience, as well as political resistance to an agenda that seeks to enforce hierarchy and division through mass fear. Authoritarianism is directly incompatible with collective joy; it demands fear, obedience, hierarchy and an obsession with security and preparation for war. The unexpected, spontaneous and pleasantly disruptive nature of collective joy takes people off guard and is one of the great equalisers of social and political struggle.

“If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution” as Emma Goldman, the Russian feminist anarchist, once famously said. We’d do well to take her words literally. Movement builds movements.

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23 June 2017. After the fight: a skinhead’s journey towards nonviolence

How one man moved from gang culture to permaculture.

Credit: Jeff Clark for the Bureau of Land Management, via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I was 18, had just enlisted in the Navy and was stationed in Virginia Beach, Virginia for two years of shore duty when I met him. He was a half-Samoan, half-Caucasian man in his late 20’s. His face tattoos and steel-toed boots added to his intimidating presence, one built on physical power. I’ll never forget him: He was the man who introduced me to the skinhead lifestyle.

We were an anti-racist crew loosely associated with the S.H.A.R.P. Skins ("skinheads against racial prejudice"). The first night that I was invited to a “house party,” that same man blindside tackled me, put me in a headlock and wrestled me out the door, where we beat each other until nothing made sense. It ended with him picking my head up off the sidewalk, kissing me on the forehead and saying, “Welcome to the crew brother.” From my perspective, the great lie of crew life is that everyone is your “brother.” So many people come to a crew looking for a family, but it’s just not there.

I wish I had known at that point what it was that was missing or broken inside of me that would have ever attracted me to start associating with that type of lifestyle. Looking back, I had a fear-based program running in my head, from the media and from the myriad of other influences in Western culture that lead us to believe we are separate and in competition with one another. Fear twisted reality so that violence appeared to be the path toward safety — a man walks around with a brick only if he is afraid of being attacked.

The skinhead rhetoric constantly driven into my mind ordered me to be “tougher” than the other guy. According to the script, the only way to protect “our” women was to beat anyone who looked at them wrong on the street. “Keeping our neighborhood safe” meant pummeling people we saw as threats: drug dealers, racist skinheads, able-bodied men who didn’t work or contribute to society but freely took from it, men who just looked tough. We thought we could fight our way to peace.

The blindfold of fear was so thick that I couldn’t see the fallacy of this pseudo-vigilante worldview. While I’m writing this, it is almost impossible for me to connect emotionally to the feelings that were alive inside me then. The fact that I can visit these memories now and not be burdened by them is truly a testament to finding life on the other side of emotional guilt.

My life started changing for the better when I was 20 and had gotten into some trouble with a handgun (I went after a man who had disrespected me). My getting in trouble surprised no one beyond the fact that I had slipped through the cracks for so long without getting caught. Being an active-duty military member, I was charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. I wound up spending some time locked down in a psych facility because I had chased the cop who busted me around his car while holding my gun in my mouth and telling him to pull the trigger. After that, I was discharged from service.

Upon my release, I found my way back to my home city of York in Pennsylvannia. York has been a rather tumultuous city ever since the race riots of 1969, and the poison from that time still lingers in the air downtown. While the suburbs are modern and progressive, the inner city is known for violence and major drug problems, because York has become a major hub of the drug trade between New York City and Baltimore, Maryland.

I couldn’t move back with my family, who were completely disgusted with me. I moved to the only neighborhood I could afford, one high in crime and poverty. While it was not an ideal place for healing one’s soul, that is where my healing began. I reached my bottom-out point by living in an abandoned crack house with a few other people who had also made some consequential life choices. It’s true: you start to look up when you hit the bottom.

The people who know me today would have a hard time believing that this is really my story, since I no longer use anger as an excuse to further a negative cycle. Almost daily, anger about this incredibly broken system creeps into my thoughts, but I don’t find these feelings scary any more. When they arise, I view them as a reminder that there is a disconnection in my life that can be corrected. They are the reason I continue working toward a more peaceful future.

Trying to walk a peaceful path in the world can be a daunting venture, and I would be lying if I said it is an easy path to take. Every smile I share has the power to communicate truth, even in the midst of conflict. For me, it takes daily meditation and support from my family and friends to stay balanced and continue to live in truth and love.

I have replaced “gang culture” with permaculture in my life. I’m putting a lot of my energy into collaborating on building a gift-economy space where people will be able to unplug, detox from industrialism and learn about sustainable living and nonviolence. While this community-centered project is a tangible expression of peace work, I still strongly believe that the most powerful contribution I can make is the inner work I do, as peace grows from the inside out.

This article was first published in Nonviolence.

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21 June 2017. Strengthening our ecological imagination

To see differently is to live differently, and living differently is the key to avoiding environmental crisis. 

Credit: Flickr/Ryan Hickox. Some rights reserved.

Imagination is often misunderstood, defined as a fanciful flight away from reality—and sometimes it is. But there is another kind of imagination, one that is based on deep inner listening, with a quality of calm presence and a curious, open-minded focus. When ideas, images or symbols arise into that kind of spacious awareness, imagination is tapping into a source of wisdom, a type of intuition that puts us in touch with more of reality, not less.

When we temporarily quiet the cognitive activity of the mind to allow these imaginative functions to be activated, it’s easier to recognize the living connections that exist between ourselves and all other forms of life. I call this felt-sense of connection our ‘ecological imagination,’ because it has the capacity to liberate distorted beliefs about our control over nature and our separation from the natural world. It’s these beliefs that unconsciously guide our lives, directly contributing to our current environmental crisis.

Cultivating ecological imagination has a powerful role to play at this pivotal time in human history, as scientists around the world continue to report the accelerating impacts of climate change. Imagination is a gateway to wisdom, and wisdom is an essential foundation for right action, an internal shift that can steer us towards eco-harmonious living. The stakes have never been higher. Cosmologist Brian Swimme summarizes the challenge we face like this:

“We are living on the planet at the time when the evolutionary dynamics are changing. And the simple way of saying it is that they’re changing from genetic determination to cultural determination…That is an amazing new power that’s taking place on the planet. We, then, have to confront the fact that this planet is evolving according to our decisions…Our responsibility is to structure the human presence on the planet so the fundamental conditions of life are strong and vibrant, and carry into the future.”

As Swimme suggests, every discipline must undergo its own transformation in order to align with this new reality—engineering, parenting, education, healthcare, psychology and farming. This requires a reshaping of our ethics towards an interspecies awareness, and a global perspective on problems and solutions. Our enjoyment of our individual freedoms can no longer be severed from their impact on the whole web of life.

One core aspect of this challenge is that we cannot use our most familiar tools and approaches to accomplish the transformations that are necessary. The insight once attributed to Albert Einstein—that “problems cannot be solved by the same consciousness that created them”—is particularly relevant in a crisis of this magnitude. That’s why strengthening our ecological imagination is essential—a vital ingredient in developing new and innovative solutions to global warming.

The imaginative process brings us into a closer relationship with the unknown. This is similar to any creative process, whether we are facing a blank canvas with a handful of paints, or jotting down notes for a speech on a napkin at a café, or part of a scientific gathering, pondering how quantum gravity helps to explain the origins of the universe. We can step outside what we already know, send our inner critic on vacation, and make room for messy, surprising, and confusing bits and pieces of insight to swirl and shift before connecting together in new and meaningful ways.

This kind of imagination also cultivates intuition. Everyone has this capacity, although many of us are out of practice because our contemporary Western cultures prize logical analysis so highly. While we certainly wouldn’t want to be without our rationality, adding intuitive ways of knowing sheds light on aspects of life that are inaccessible to the logical mind: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift,” as Einstein is also said to have remarked.

The rational and intuitive parts of the mind are like two legs that keep us moving forward. Why would we set out on a lifelong journey with one leg becoming excessively muscle-bound and the other atrophying? We need to strengthen and utilize everything we’re made of. If we want transformation—if we want to come back into balance with the natural world—then we must understand how we got out of balance in the first place, and develop those aspects of ourselves that have been neglected.

In my psychotherapy practice I guide clients into their imagination to address any number of concerns. Imagination brings fresh insights and healing to many issues, and can lead to a deeper transformation. This story, from a client I’ll call Simon to disguise his real name, is an example of how exploring the common struggle of social anxiety can pave the way to a surprising and eco-harmonious outcome.

Simon’s anxiety in social situations had an internal narrative that’s familiar to most of us to varying degrees: “What do I say? What will they think? What if I don’t fit in?”

To begin the session I asked Simon to close his eyes while I guided him through breath-work practices and progressive relaxation. He gradually disengaged his attention from the flow of his thoughts and dropped into a deep, internal focus. I invited him to allow an image to arise of a social situation that had triggered his discomfort. With his eyes closed, he envisioned the details of a happy hour gathering to which a colleague had invited him, describing a constriction in his throat and an adrenalin rush that accompanied this habitual mental narrative. When we explored these images, his experience began to shift:

“It’s like there is a mirror in front of my face—all I’m seeing are my own fears. I’m not actually relating to anyone who is with me in the restaurant. It’s hard to describe, but when I stop being absorbed in my worries, the world suddenly becomes clear. When the mirror dissolves, I recognize that there is a young man across the table from me that looks upset. A woman is standing nearby, chewing on her lower lip, distracted. The guy to my right seems happy.”

Simon became a little teary but continued, “I know these people from work, but it’s like I’m seeing them for the first time.” As we talked more about his experience, he was astounded by how profoundly his internal patterns had affected his outward relationships. We continued with these explorations over several months, and Simon proceeded to peel away even more layers of his early conditioning. He became aware that he had been viewing others as an ‘it,’ a separate and threatening ‘object,’ rather than what he called a dynamic, living “field of large scale intimacy” that opened up to him.

As Simon evolved into a new way of relating to himself and others, his descriptions sounded very similar to the I-Thou relationships that philosopher Marin Buber wrote about, or Vedantic nondualism, or the many Indigenous ways that exist of being one with nature. His transformation reached such depths that it eventually prompted a career shift in which he sought out a new company that produced renewable energy solutions, applying his skills as an engineer in a direction that fosters connection and honors life.

To see differently is to live differently. So when we truly see our interconnectedness, what does that mean for our political structures? What does it mean for education to teach with an understanding of ecological imagination? When we know that we must execute comprehensive, visionary change and quickly, how should we handle challenging conversations and decisions over climate change and other hot-button issues?

Engaging our imagination is far from fanciful: it’s a critical part of finding the answers to these questions; an essential, practical act that allows us to continue discovering and embodying the full spectrum of our humanity and our place in the family of all things. Can we imagine a world in which all beings can thrive?  If not, no amount of policy discussions will get us where we want to go.

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19 June 2017. Fire in neo-liberal London

The burnt-out shell of Grenfell Tower is a visible reminder that public responsibilities should never be watered down.

Grenfell Tower, London. Credit: Wikimedia/Natalie Oxford, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International.

Imagine you are a Nigerian man in his early 50s. You’ve been living in London for well over 20 years. You drive a cab for an upmarket taxi firm ferrying people to airports and train stations. You work night shifts driving people to Heathrow, often in the early hours of the morning.

You have three kids, one who’s training to be a primary school teacher; the others are teenagers at school. Your wife works as a private nanny for a wealthy couple who live just 15 minutes walk away from your home in a high rise. Actually you’ve been encouraging her to become a health worker for the NHS: the employment contract is better and the hours are more fixed, less subject to sudden changes and the requirement to work through the night, often at short notice.

You feel you were lucky to get a council flat in tower block in West London when your first child was born. It’s only a short distance away from the cab company HQ. It’s nice to live centrally, partly because it allows you to work the hours you do and still see something of your kids when they get back from school. Any savings go towards a five-yearly trip back to Lagos.

You love London. You belong to the local Catholic Church and your kids are doing fine. Maybe they will end up with better jobs; the younger one aims to do a degree. She wants to be a documentary film-maker.

And then your tower block goes up in flames, along with your home, your family and your future, the sub-standard cladding of the building melting all around you, with no sprinkler system, no escape plan, and no way of exiting safely from the smoke and fire that suck the oxygen from your lungs.

This story is fiction, but it’s one that’s been told to me a hundred times in different iterations in my own cab journeys through London over the last few years. It could so easily apply to some of the residents of Grenfell Tower that was destroyed last week with so much loss of life.

In her well-known book The Global City, the sociologist Saskia Sassen emphasises the important presence of a service class of workers in metropolitan centres like London. They need to live near to where they work in order to get to their jobs in time. The city needs this army of workers, since it is they who allow the urban middle and upper classes to function. They are cab-drivers, private nannies, nursery assistants, office and street cleaners; they work in retail, or in restaurants and bars.

If they are young and good-looking they may get the more prestigious jobs as personal trainers in gym chains, teaching aqua classes or being a barista in a coffee house. If they are older, they’ll be doing care work or cleaning up in hospitals. They need the city as much as it needs them. Move out of London? No thanks. Their work would dry up. Who needs black-suited cab drivers in polished cars in places where better housing and more green space may be available? Who needs private day-nannies in Middlesbrough, where the best job on offer may be a call centre?

Sassen does not ponder in detail the question of housing provision for this sizeable sector of the new multi-cultural urban working class, but activists, and other sociologists like Loic Wacquant and Pierre Bourdieu, have drawn attention to the poor living conditions that low-paid city workers have come to expect, with little hope of improvement. They have become a fact of life, but until events like the fire in Grenfell Tower this has been an almost-invisible issue, save for those involved in tenants’ action groups or battling the local council to get a move to a bigger place.

Instead, in London at least, the question that has taken up so many column inches has been the plight of young people, especially key service sector workers such as nurses and teachers who cannot get a foot on the housing ladder and who can barely afford the obscenely high rents in a city with no rent controls and a stock of social housing that’s shrinking by the day. Attention has been focused on those who would like to buy their own home, not on those for whom this option is beyond any horizon of expectation, living as they do on minimum wages, or pushed into benefit dependency because of ill-health.

The fact that this population is so often over-looked says much about everyday life in neoliberal London. The city’s wealthier citizens may rely on people on low wages or in jobs that are insecure, but they come to public attention only when a horrific accident like this takes place. Otherwise they are left to the mercy of semi-privatised council services.

It is not surprising that local council leaders in London’s wealthiest borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where Grenfell Tower is located, have seemingly gone into hiding, along with most Conservative politicians.  Those in power have emerged only to utter offensive platitudes, like the Council leader who said that tenants did not want sprinkler systems installed, or the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, who floundered around trying to express sadness while saying she would commit five million Pounds to re-house those now without a roof over their heads.

She talked about giving them some money to buy the basics they need, while ignoring the billions of pounds required to bring Britain’s remaining publicly-owned housing stock up to standard. May and her colleagues must know that they have lost all credibility, having loudly and on camera congratulated themselves over the years on getting rid of health and safety provisions, ignoring fire safety rules and cutting back the fire service, out-sourcing housing departments to not-for-profit agencies that retain the ring of being socially worthy while ensuring their directors get private sector salaries, and abandoning the obligation to keep large numbers of people in safe, well-maintained  urban environments.

This is how the ‘New Public Management’ ethos has worked in practice. As John Clarke and Janet Newman have written, the aim is to reduce the role of the state and of local councils in areas like building control and safety by devolving these functions to private and non-profit agencies who will do the job more cheaply. This large-scale semi-privatisation also permits contractors to avoid adhering to the fine print of building regulations, not because they no longer exist but because—with so much devolution—no-one at the receiving end has a clear sense of who is responsible for what.

In Grenfell Tower and other blocks like it, each and every one of the policies designed to eviscerate the whole idea of social welfare and public housing has been playing out for years. When tenants have complained, they have received letters threatening legal action against them. Who would not be frightened off by this response?

People living there have simply not been listened to. Who, for example, thought that housing elderly people and people with disabilities on the upper levels of tower blocks was a good idea? Who are the private landlords who bought flats on a buy-to-let basis when mortgages companies refused to finance them, so that with some cosmetic tarting-up they could then be rented to young professionals for £500 a week with ‘panoramic views’ of London?

Victims of the Grenfell Tower fire and their relatives, as well as local community leaders, are reporting that no-one is taking charge of the scene of the disaster and its aftermath. ‘Where is the council,’ they ask? Perhaps the council barely exists any more, now that its responsibilities have been devolved down to hundreds of out-sourced agencies.

Where are social services? The same answer applies. In every instance, the New Public Management removes the idea of social responsibility from the vocabulary of public action. It rejects the idea that all citizens are entitled to safe and decent housing. Most of all, it abandons a commitment to equality.

Instead, there is the never-ending mantra of excellence, leadership, and ‘payment by results.’ We can now see those results all around us. They look like the burnt-out shell of Grenfell Tower.


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16 June 2017. How an ancient singing tradition helps people cope with trauma in the modern world

In Finland, lament singing is experiencing a revival, one sad song at a time.

Lament teacher Pirkko Fihlman wears a traditional Käspaikka scarf during a gathering at her home in Helsinki. Credit: YES! Magazine/Katri Heinämäki. All rights reserved.

Riitta Excell wore a pair of homemade wool socks: white with red floral patterns and rounded blue toes. Around her were women sipping tea and enjoying plum pastries and chicken feta pie. They wore homemade wool socks, as well.

It was nearly 3 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon, and Pirkko Fihlman’s living room on the outskirts of Helsinki was filled with black-and-white family photos, porcelain figurines of angels and birds, and embroidered rococo chairs. The clink of tea cups fell silent, and then Excell squeezed her eyes closed, clenched her fists, and began to sing a lament in Finnish.

“I took pills for my depression

just to smother my emotions.

Doctors said that I would need them,

but I learned to cry without them.

So I stopped taking the tablets,

then I let my feelings rise up

for my mother when she passed on,

for my marriage when he quit me,

left me as a single mother,

with a hard job and no weekends.

Now I weep without taking pills,

yet I still feel very angry,

and the fury seems well-founded,

but the feelings will not hurt me.”

Excell’s lyrics may be modern, but the style of singing comes from an older place.

“Lament [singing] is a very old, traditional way to express your feelings,” says Fihlman, a lament teacher and matriarch of the group. “If you are hurt or you have sorrows or you want to express your feelings, you cry it out. You let it come out. That’s what they would do in the old times.”

In Finland, the ancient musical tradition known as lament singing is seeing a revival.

In the past, the custom was observed at funerals, weddings, and during times of war. But today, practitioners have a modern application for it: musical therapy. By providing an opportunity to process emotions through song, lament singing can confer mental health benefits to modern practitioners.

“[In lament] people can express themselves,” Fihlman says. “Very often people [in my courses] make laments of their grief. They miss their parents or they have troubles in their marriage or maybe they were hurt in childhood and they never had a chance to bring it up.” 

While the custom resembles many “new age” practices, Finnish lament singing has a feature that those neo-spiritual systems don’t: It teaches a tradition specific to the region instead of borrowing from other cultures.

 “The function of [lament singing] was to establish positive contact with your ancestors, the dead, and help them in some way,” says Jim Wilce, a professor of anthropology at Northern Arizona University and author of numerous books and papers on lament singing around the world. Originally, he says, the tradition wasn’t about emotional healing.

Which, according to Wilce, is what makes the revival so unique.

“In every traditional lament … you have a connection with what I call ‘the divine powers,’” says Eila Stepanova, a folklore studies Ph.D. at the University of Helsinki. “[This isn’t] a Christian god. It’s something in between—an older layer of traditional beliefs.”

Riitta Excell sings a lament. Credit: YES! Magazine/Katri Heinämäki. All rights reserved.

While lament singing exists in communities from Bangladesh to New Zealand, according to Wilce, and has even been documented in the ancient poem “Beowulf,” the form being practiced in Finland has its roots in the area now known as the Republic of Karelia—the region on the Russian side of the Finnish border. Stepanova says the traditional laments—sung for funerals, weddings, war—were performed to help people move from one world to the other, be it to the land of the dead, to a new family, or to the battlefield. At ceremonies for the dead, for instance, laments were sung to wake deceased members of the family in the other world to meet new arrivals.

But traditional laments weren’t simply a style of song: They were a unique language in which nothing was ever named directly.

 “For example, you have substitute names for all personal relations [and] for objects or phenomenons,” says Stepanova. “So in lament language, when you talk about your mother, you don’t use the word mother. You say, ‘the dearest woman who brought me [into] the sweetest world who carried me,’ or ‘my dear carrier,’ or ‘my dear cherisher.’”

Other examples include the sun, which can be called a “golden disk,” or arms, which can be called "shoulder branches.” And in lament singing, positive descriptions are used. Things are sweet, light, bright, dear, or wonderful. The one exception is any description of the lamenter herself.

“She is always the miserable [one]. She never says the word ‘I,’” explains Stepanova. Instead, when describing herself, the lamenter might say she’s the “miserable body,” “woman of great sorrows,” or “body made of tears.”

Stepanova’s mother published the first lament dictionary in 2004 documenting approximately 1,400 different metaphors for words used in the songs. Like any language, it’s evolving with modern times. Cars can be “headless horses,” phone calls can be “messages that come through metal strings,” and televisions can be “talking boxes.”

But while Finland is seeing a revival—instructor Fihlman says she has conducted nearly 200 courses with almost 2,000 students—other parts of the world are seeing a decline in the traditional practice.

Wilce says that around the world lament singing is threatened. In Bangladesh, for instance, practitioners often face physical violence in rural Muslim societies.

“People are being shamed by their relatives,” says Wilce. “By fundamentalist Christian missionaries in Papua New Guinea and [in] other places by the values of rationality and urbanizing modernity.”

Yet in Finland, the tradition is blossoming, despite a history that has often threatened its survival. In Karelia, Fihlman says that lament singing existed in rural communities for generations, but it was viewed as a pagan tradition by Orthodox and Lutheran Christians and often driven underground. Urbanization also threatened the continued existence of lament singing. In the last century, as young people moved away from their hometowns to find jobs and schooling in cities, villages began to disappear, along with lament singers. And in the early days of the Soviet Union, authorities often employed lament for ideological and propaganda efforts, creating laments that expressed support for the Soviet system and its leaders.

Stepanova says that, eventually, only old people told ancient stories and sang antique laments. “They were museum items, and they stopped being a living tradition among people,” she says.

But somehow, adds Fihlman, it survived. “We don’t have those old people anymore,” she says. “But [now] we have this new generation.”

Minna Hokka wore a candy-striped turtleneck sweater in chartreuse, cream, and maroon. Fihlman, Excell, and other lamenters looked on as she raised her head and began singing. Unlike Excell’s lament, Hokka’s was a historical ode recalling Karelia’s bitter history with Russia.

“To the people of Karelia,

souls and spirits born in beauty:

Through the windows were your green fields,

in the blue skies larks were singing,

saints and icons stood in silence,

watching over wooden log homes.

Kanteles echoed in the dark rooms,

and the stars blinked in the night sky,

but your thoughts were wrapped in darkness:

iron hail rained on your rooftops.”

Hokka, 41, is part of the new generation learning from Fihlman. She says she hopes to start composing laments for young people struggling with addiction.

“Nowadays crying is seen as losing face, so people avoid and fear it,” says Hokka. “Finland needs its tears.”

For Hokka and other lamenters, the practice isn’t just a hobby: It’s an ancient tradition now finding contemporary use. And in Fihlman’s home on the outskirts of Helsinki, it’s taking root with a new generation, one sad song at a time.

“Does [lament singing] have connection to the past? To tradition? To beliefs or values?” Stepanova says. “Or do we make it a museum item behind glass and go and think, Ahh, nice, yes, and forget about it? It depends on us.”

This article was first published in YES! Magazine.

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14 June 2017. Collaborating with the enemy

At a time of increasing polarization, how can we work with people we may not like, trust, or agree with?

Credit: DianneHope14/ CC0 Public Domain.

The central challenge of collaboration is crystallized in the tension between its two dictionary definitions: first, “to work jointly with,” and second, “to cooperate traitorously with the enemy.” The word therefore evokes both a story of generous and inclusive progress such as energetic and creative teamwork (‘We must all collaborate!’), and a story of degenerative and amoral villainy, as in France during World War II (‘Death to collaborators!’).

The challenge of collaboration is that in order to make our way forward, we must work with others, including people we don’t agree with or like or trust; while in order to avoid treachery, we must not work with them. How can we deal with this tension?

This challenge is becoming more and more acute. People today are generally more free and individualistic, and so more diverse, with more voice and less deference. Their identities and affiliations are more fluid. Enabled by new technologies, established political, organizational, social, and familial hierarchies are breaking down. Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity are growing.

Increasingly often therefore, we can’t get things done unilaterally, or only by working with our colleagues and friends. More and more we need to work with others, including our opponents and enemies, but because of our growing differences this is more difficult to accomplish. Collaboration seems both imperative and impossible—but it is neither.

Collaboration is not imperative because it is only one option among four. When we are faced with a situation that is not as we want it to be, we can try forcing it to be the way we want; we can try adapting to it as it is; we can try exiting the situation; or we can try collaborating with others to change it. Although the risks of forcing, adapting and exiting are well-known, in many contexts collaborating also seems too daunting, and so we default to one of these other three options—especially forcing.

But it turns out that collaborating, even with people we don’t agree with or like or trust, isn’t impossible either. It only seems impossible because our conventional understanding of collaboration is based on an assumption that is almost always incorrect: that collaboration requires us to focus on the good and the harmony of the team; to agree on the problem and the solution and the plan to implement the solution; and to get people–other people–to change what they’re doing in order to implement that plan.

This conventional understanding assumes, in essence, one superior whole, one optimal plan, and one paramount leader. It sees collaboration as something that can and must be controlled. But this assumption is usually incorrect, and in complex, conflictual, multi-stakeholder contexts, it is always incorrect. In these contexts, conventional collaboration does not and cannot work.

I have spent the past 25 years helping teams of diverse leaders all over the world to work together on issues that all of them thought were important, but that none of them could address on their own. I grasped the central challenge of collaboration in November 2015 when I was leading the first workshop of a group of 33 such leaders in Latin America.

The participants came from every part of society: politicians, human rights activists, army generals, business owners, religious leaders, trade unionists, intellectuals and journalists. They had deep ideological differences, and many of them were political, professional or personal rivals. They had come together to search for solutions to their country’s most critical problem: the devastating nexus of insecurity, illegality, and inequity. I thought the project was important and was determined to do a good job.

Mostly these leaders did not agree with or like or trust each other. In the country and in the group, suspicion and defensiveness were sky-high. To solve their most important problems, they needed to work together, but they weren’t sure they could. I thought the workshop was going well. The participants were talking about their very different experiences and perspectives, all together and in small groups, and at meals and on walks and trips outside the hotel to visit local people and projects. They were cautiously starting to get to know one another and to hope that together they could make a difference.

Then, on the final morning, the project organizing team (eleven locals and my colleagues and me) got into an argument about some things that were not going so well: methodological confusions, logistical glitches and communications breakdowns. Some of the organizers thought I was doing a bad job, and the next day they wrote a critical note that they circulated among themselves.

One of the team members forwarded the note to me. I felt offended and upset that the organizers were challenging my expertise and professionalism behind my back. I was frightened that the accomplishment and income I was expecting from the project were at risk. I thought I needed to defend myself, so I sent off first one, then a second, and then a third email explaining why, in my expert view, what I had done in the workshop had been correct. I knew that I had made some mistakes but was worried that if I admitted these now, I would be opening myself up to greater danger. I was certain that overall I was right and they were wrong: that they were the villains and I was the victimized hero.

As the week went on and I had phone conversations with the different organizers, my attitude hardened. I thought the people who were blaming me for the problems we were having were unconscionably betraying our team effort and me. I fought back and blamed them. I became increasingly suspicious, mistrustful, assertive and rigid. I also wanted to keep myself safe, so I became increasingly cautious and canny. I decided that I didn’t agree with or like or trust these people and didn’t want to engage with them on this matter or to work with them anymore. What I really wanted was for them to go away and for the whole unpleasantness to disappear.

This short, ordinary conflict enabled me to grasp the core of the challenge of collaboration. In order to make progress on this project, which was important to me, I needed to work with others. These others included people I did not agree with or like or trust. I slipped into thinking of them as my enemies. This polarization within our team put the work we were doing at risk. Moreover, in this small interaction within our team, we reproduced a central dynamic in the larger national system that the project had been established to counter: mistrust, fragmentation and breakdown.

What is the key lesson here? Conventional collaboration attempts to deal with breakdown by doubling down on command and control, but this only accentuates the problem. The alternative is what I call “stretch collaboration.” This approach involves embracing not only connection but also conflict; experimenting our way forward; and stepping into the game, willing to change oneself. It means embracing plural wholes, plural possibilities, and plural co-creators.

Stretch collaboration is simple but it is not easy. It doesn’t solve our problems—it just enables us to get unstuck and get moving and find a way forward. It does not guarantee success—it just makes it more likely. Stretch collaboration makes collaborating less daunting and therefore reduces our reliance on force. At a time of metastasizing social and political fragmentation and polarization, we need to learn to employ this unconventional way of working together at every opportunity.

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12 June 2017. Is there really a crisis around identity politics on the left?

The claim that intersectional critiques are divisive is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of both intersectionality and socialism.

WERK in Solidarity- Celebrating Intersectionality and Resistance, Washington, DC, February 3 2017. Credit: Flickr/Ted Eytan. Some rights reserved.

Two recent encounters with fellow lefties have got me thinking.

One day I’m at a Leninist meeting talking to a Marxist dude who’s bemoaning the increased popularity of ‘identity politics’ within the left, because it distracts from the ‘real struggle’ of ending material exploitation.

And the next day I’m in the basement of a queer bar watching a drag artist shouting to rapturous applause that being ‘non-binary’ means to be free to be whatever you want to be—celebrating personal freedom as a key element of social transformation.

Both of these people belong to and identify with the left, but they seem to represent contradictory positions on a question that’s consuming an awful lot of our energies these days: how to respond to the multifaceted realities of oppression and liberation.

As a queer non-binary Marxist, I can see where both positions are coming from. On the one hand, I want everyone on the left to understand that we’re all fighting the same struggle—that it’s people’s material wellbeing that matters in the end. On the other hand, everyone within the Left isn’t the same—there are many identities, cultures, sexualities and personal expressions that need to be respected.

What are we supposed to do with these tensions? How should the left respond?

Conventional wisdom says ‘take one side or the other,’ but that cements internal divisions still further just when we need more unity. It’s better to recognise that this split itself is artificial, and that both positions can learn from the other. Let me explain.

Since the 1970s the left has grappled with its own exclusion of marginalised people. Women, people of colour, disabled folks, queers and others have drawn attention to the assumptions and behaviours that have sidelined their needs and interests. In a ground breaking public statement issued in 1977, the Boston-based Black feminist group Combahee River Collective highlighted their need to “develop a politics that was anti-racist, unlike those of white women, and anti-sexist, unlike those of Black and white men.”

Since then, many groups and individuals have developed a radical ‘intersectional’ critique which argues that sexism, racism and other forms of oppression in mainstream society are often reproduced within the left. As legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw pointed out in the 1980s, struggles in aid of equality for vulnerable people have often failed to recognise that oppression works along several axes at once.  There has been an implicit assumption on much of the left that the working class is white, male, non-disabled and straight, so the obstacles faced by the majority are ignored.

But now, many on the left are sceptical of this intersectional discourse, arguing that an ‘incessant’ focus on personal characteristics distracts from the common struggle against capitalism—that intersectional politics has become, as Marxist commentator Asad Haider puts it “not about a social structure, but [about] the recognition of an individual or a particular group’s identity.”

Haider continues:

“Now in an organizing meeting, any discussion that takes place between a white person and a person of color will be tense and guarded, because at any time the white person may be accused of white privilege, and thus denounced for bringing irreconcilable political interests into the group. That is a very different kind of politics, and not one that tends to result in open strategic discussions, building trust between activists, or effectively broadening towards a mass movement.”

As these tensions intensify, it’s very important to clear something up: radical queerness and anti-racism are not forms of identity politics; and class struggle is not free from questions of identity. All forms of social life are already coded by class, race, gender and disability, so there are no forms of politics or struggle that exist outside these structures of social power. The claim that intersectional critiques distract from the ‘real struggle’ or are divisive is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of both intersectionality and socialism: the question is not whether the two can be integrated, but how.

These misconceptions are, however, understandable, in part because intersectional critiques have arisen at the same time as a parallel liberal discourse in mainstream society which is about identity politics. This liberal discourse demands the recognition of non-dominant identities in society: that a Black person can be president; that people with disabilities can be entrepreneurs; that women can be corporate CEOs; and that gay people can get married. These demands, which seem obviously desirable and therefore politically neutral, are in fact the product of a particular political ideology, namely liberalism.

At the time of its initial development in early modern Europe, liberalism was a new and radical philosophy that broke away from the traditional feudal belief in a highly regulated social order based on monarchy and serfdom. Instead it emphasised the importance of individual freedom and non-interference by the state or by other people in the private sphere. Every person has the right to behave as they see fit unless they actively cause harm to someone else.

In response to older beliefs that homosexuality cannot be respectable, for example, or that people of colour are ‘naturally’ different from white people, the assertion that marginalised groups are just as human and important as dominant groups is certainly a form of progress. But what liberalism fails to understand is that it isn’t possible to create a just and free society on the basis of these principles. As many on the left have pointed out (including Marx himself), human beings are deeply social creatures who depend on and co-create each other, so no individual can enjoy absolute freedom and autonomy.

Liberals believe that the decisions we make about our lives are personal—that where we work, what we say and how we spend our money, dress and behave is nobody’s business but our own. However, once we realise that people are deeply interconnected these allegedly personal decisions become public and political. Our jobs, for example, are connected to a broader economy that involves a myriad of other workers, consumers and producers.

As a result of these interconnections, certain repeated patterns have emerged through the evolution of Western society that have penetrated deep into our personal lives and personalities. For example, British women have not randomly chosen to do two thirds more housework than men. Black women working in white collar jobs are not constantly mistaken for office cleaners by pure chance. And two women per week are not just accidentally killed by men in cases of domestic violence. As these examples show, expressions of power that shape public life also make their way into private thought and action, and vice-versa.

Intersectional critiques may look similar to liberal identity politics on the surface, but at their core they are not concerned with assimilating marginalised groups into existing mainstream institutions, language and positions. Rather, the goal is to rethink and reconstruct those institutions altogether. And that effort starts by examining how the structures of power that create and regulate race, class, gender, disabiity and sexuality play out in our own lives and in our own organising, as well as in society more broadly.

Hence, instead of encouraging a disabled woman to dominate a panel discussion just as assertively as any non-disabled man, we can organise participatory workshops and train ourselves on how to take part in inclusive discussions. We can rethink our demands and strategies; redesign our posters and websites; change the language we use and our demeanour in meetings and at home; and resist the nation-state by creating more deeply-democratic and participatory forms of governance. In these ways we don’t merely add minorities to existing political practices and structures as liberal identity politics aims to do—we transform them around a much deeper understanding of diversity.

By the same token, the claim that non-binary queerness is solely an expression of individual freedom is based on a liberal misunderstanding. For me, being queer is not just a private preference, it’s about how I behave, know, talk, organise, work and live. Being queer is a necessary response to structural oppression; a vehicle to confront and resist the ways in which capitalism, racism and patriarchy seep into the most intimate aspects of my life. Queerness is not freedom from social interference, it’s the opposite—an active and responsible engagement with the structures of social power.

Therefore, rather than bemoaning the increased popularity of identity politics we should rethink our forms of organising, core questions and priorities. We must let go of the notion that the working class—or the ruling class—are homogenous. To include the concerns of many women, people of colour, queers and disabled people we must organise in the home, in community centres and night clubs, with accessible toilets and hearing loops, for alternatives to racist and violent policing, against gender norms and borders, and with sensitivity, emotion and attention to the needs and voices of specific groups as well as the goals that unite us.

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9 June 2017. Why the moral argument for nonviolence matters

Nonviolence is a way of life, not just a strategy for organizing resistance.

This article was first published on Waging Nonviolence.

Credit: By Francois Polito (Own work) or CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

“Bernard? Oh yeah, he’s great. He was always the principles guy.”

That was what an old Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, organizer told me when I mentioned that I had been trained by Bernard Lafayette, co-author of the Kingian Nonviolence curriculum and a legend of the civil rights era.

“I was always a strategies guy,” this elder went on to tell me. “I believed in nonviolence as an effective strategy, but Bernard was always talking about nonviolence as a principle.”

I let out a little laugh. In that moment, I was proud to have been trained by “the principles guy.”

When people talk about nonviolence in the context of social change, they’re typically talking about nonviolent organizing, nonviolent direct action, nonviolent civil resistance; arenas where the word “nonviolence” is only an adjective describing the absence of physical violence within a set of tactics and strategies. The philosophy of nonviolence and the moral question of violence are often considered too messy or complicated, even by those who do believe it to be a principle.

The civil rights movement was led largely by leaders who believed in nonviolence as a moral imperative. It was not only the most effective thing, but also the right thing. While Martin Luther King Jr. and his closest allies held to this belief, some other movement leaders—as well as the vast majority of people who mobilized for the movement—only understood nonviolence as a strategy.

Most of the movements I have participated in, even those that had a strict policy of nonviolence, tend to shy away from the moral question—possibly for fear of turning away potential participants.

And I get that. Making the argument that nonviolence should be seen as a way of life is a much harder sell than convincing people that it is the most effective strategy to accomplish a goal. Convincing people to remain nonviolent during a demonstration is a lot easier than convincing people to look at how to practice nonviolence in all areas of our life.

We find ourselves in an urgent moment in history. From climate change to the Trump agenda, we do not have the luxury to wait until tomorrow. We need a movement today. So maybe trying to make the moral argument is not the most strategic thing. But King taught us that it is never the wrong time to do the right thing. And so, I believe the time is right to make the argument that violence itself is our biggest enemy.

Honoring violence.

Making the moral argument for nonviolence does not mean placing a moral judgment on those who use or advocate for violence, especially as a means for self-defense.

As an advocate for nonviolence, I have learned a great deal from the likes of the Black Panther Party, the Zapatistas, the Deacons for Defense and the anarchists in the Spanish Civil War, among others. Their struggles and sacrifices should never be discounted, nor should we ignore the many lessons from their movements.

We should also never judge those who have used violence for self-defense in interpersonal relationships — abusive relationships, robberies, assaults, etc. If people felt like that was their only means of protecting themselves, I only pray that they were okay.

Finally, we need to acknowledge the extreme levels of violence that many people are born into because of systemic injustice. We put people into generations of poverty and invest in a culture of violence, then judge them for reacting with violence? As inarticulate as it may be, even riots are typically a cry for peace from a people who have never had it.

So violence can be an effective tool to protect yourself and others against a threat, and it can be used to express outrage about injustice. There is great value in both. Yet violence is also limited in one very important way, and that is that violence can never create relationships.

Violence can never get you closer to reconciliation, closer to King’s “beloved community,” the reconciled world with justice for all people. And that is perhaps the most significant difference between a principled nonviolent approach and an approach using violence or nonviolence that is strictly strategic. The goals are different.

Resolution vs. reconciliation.

In movements that are violent or simply use nonviolent tactics, the goal is victory, where victory is defined as “your” people beating “those” people to win your demands. The victory is over your opponents. But in a principled approach, there is no victory until you’ve won your opponents over.

In a principled nonviolent approach, the goal is always reconciliation and steps toward beloved community. The goal is always to build and strengthen relationships and to bring people and communities together, not separate them. If we are not able to find ways to bring communities together, we will always have separation, violence and injustice.

Even if you are able to achieve short-term gains, if relationships between people were harmed in the conflict and you are further away from each other as a result, then it is not a victory at all. If only your tactics are nonviolent and not your worldview, whatever issue you’re working on may get resolved, but the relationships don’t get repaired.

It was a team of incarcerated Kingian Nonviolence trainers in Soledad Prison that taught me this during a conversation we were having about the difference between conflict resolution and conflict reconciliation.

Conflict resolution is about fixing issues. Conflict reconciliation is about repairing relationships. Resolving an issue is about the mind. It’s about policies, structures, laws—the causes of—violence.  Reconciling a relationship is about the heart. It’s about the people, the stories, the history—the human impact of violence.

The levels of violence today are so heightened that there will be times when movements will need to use assertive and militant nonviolent tactics to stop the immediate harm and demand change.

As Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of nonviolent communication, says, we need to, “use the minimum amount of force necessary to stop the immediate harm.” And we never think about what the “minimum amount” looks like.

That is the realm of nonviolent strategies and tactics like noncooperation and civil disobedience. Tactics that could stop the construction of a pipeline, pass voter protection laws or even lead to a political revolution.

But if we stop there, the relationships between the communities are still divided, and there could still be fear, mistrust and resentment. If the human relationships are not healed, the conflict will resurface again on some other issue. Any peace gained through political revolution but not a revolution of relationships is short-lived. Reconciliation is what a principled nonviolent approach demands.

The need for healing.

The very nature of violence is unjust. As Rev. James Lawson, one of the lead trainers for the civil rights movement, has said, “Violence has a very simple dynamic. I make you suffer more than I suffer. I make you suffer until you cry uncle.” It is the very idea that we can use force, fear and intimidation to get what we want that is our enemy. Because violence hurts. Period.

We all know that. We’ve all experienced it—physical, emotional and spiritual. It hurts to get punched, but it hurts more to feel abandoned, alone, ashamed, hopeless, desperate, unworthy, afraid, used. And too often, we are made to feel those things by people in our own families, in our own movements, in our own communities.

Being committed to a principled approach to nonviolence requires us to look at the pain that we carry ourselves, and the pain that we inflict on each other within our communities. It is easy to point the finger and say that the violence is “over there.”

I have talked to too many people who shared that the traumas they carry were only re-triggered and made worse by the violence they witnessed within movements. When we say that we are committed to nonviolence, we are not only saying that we want to stop the violence “over there” that “those people” are committing. We also try to work on the ways we ourselves perpetuate harm as a result of our own unhealed traumas. We are working to heal our own selves as much as anyone we perceive as our enemies. We are working to change how we relate to each other in own communities as much as we are working to change any policy.

Whether you live in an impoverished community or work in law enforcement where your job is to dehumanize people all day, we are not a healthy society. It hurts to witness violence, it hurts to experience violence, and it hurts to inflict violence. Each causes trauma. Yes, we need to fight. But only so that we can create spaces to heal and to build.

Beloved community.

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

This universal truth comes out in many cultures and traditions throughout the world. The aboriginal peoples in Australia teach us, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

That is the vision of beloved community. A world where we acknowledge our interdependence — our “inter-being,” as Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says.

My liberation is bound up in yours. That is a beautiful concept, and a popular quote in many progressive circles. But to what extent do we really believe it? Is our liberation bound up with the liberation of some and not others? How about people who voted for Donald Trump or people who have hurt us personally? Who draws that line? Do some people fall out of the “network of mutuality” that King talked about?

What does it look like to work together to “liberate” those who commit harm? What does it mean to acknowledge that being oppressed hurts, but being an oppressor also destroys your soul? The privileges of being an oppressor doesn’t take away the violence that gets internalized when you hurt someone.

Beloved community is not about loving the people who are easy to love. It is about cultivating “agape” — a Greek word for unconditional love for all of humanity, including those who are difficult to love.

King said that the civil rights movement was a movement for the bodies of black folks and the souls of white folks. He acknowledged that being a white supremacist destroys your soul. To have so much judgment and hatred in your heart is an act of violence you do to yourself, and part of the goal of the movement was to help them. To bring them back into the network of mutuality and to remind them that they are part of beloved community. Because our liberation depends on it.

Faith in people.

The core of the theory of nonviolence for me has become an unwavering faith in the nature of humanity. That at our core, we are a species that wants to live in peace and wants to be in service and relationship; that we have the resiliency to heal no matter how hurt we are, and we have the ability to transform no matter how much harm we’ve caused.

We get asked all the time in our workshops, “Well, isn’t violence just part of human nature?” And I used to struggle responding to it, because it was hard to argue. It has always been part of our history.

Then several years ago, I met Paul Chappell, a graduate of West Point turned peace activist. During his presentation at a conference, he said that every study that has ever been conducted shows that violence is traumatic. It can cause PTSD, depression, anxiety and permanent damage to our brain. And yet not a single person has ever been traumatized by an act of love.

He then asked, “If violence is part of our nature, then why does it short-circuit our brain?” Shouldn’t we be able to engage in it and not have it cause permanent damage?

That to him was evidence that violence isn’t in our nature, that at the core of human nature are the things that fulfill us: love, joy, community, peace.

And that is what we need today: a determined and dogged belief in the goodness of people. We need the fierce tactics of nonviolence to stop the immediate harm, and the principles of nonviolence to transform the pain. Without one or the other, we are always going to be spinning our wheels, fighting the next injustice or addressing the next hurt.

I’ve been very privileged in my life. I’ve gotten to see so many people transformed from the most violent circumstances, that it might be easier for me to have faith in people. It is the greatest honor being able to work with incarcerated communities. Everyday, I get to learn from people who have survived so much violence and in many cases have inflicted so much harm, yet have transformed to become some of the greatest peacemakers I’ve ever met. It gives me faith in the resiliency of people and in the core of human nature.

And if I can have faith in their core and their ability to transform, why not the prison guards? Why not the politician who passed the laws that filled the prison? Or the corporate lobbyist who pushed for that legislation? Or the conservative voter who put those lawmakers into office?

It may take seven generations, but if we are not working for a world that works for all of us, then what exactly are we working for? If we are working to change laws and policies, but the hearts and minds of the people are still corrupt and we still see each other as exactly that—“others”—will we ever know peace?

We are in need of a truly nonviolent revolution, not just of systems and policies, but also of worldviews and relationships. We need to understand that people are never the enemy, that violence and injustice itself is what we need to defeat, and that the goal of every conflict must be reconciliation.

Each conflict we face has to be seen as an opportunity to strengthen understanding between members of a human family that have grown so far apart that we have forgotten our dependence on each other.

That is why we need a principled nonviolent approach to society’s ills. Because it is not just laws and systems that have poisoned us. It is a worldview that has made us forget that our liberation is bound up in the liberation of all people.

And only a holistic nonviolent approach—one that involves both strategies and principles—can muster the force to stop injustice in its tracks while bringing communities towards reconciliation.


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7 June 2017. Getting to the heart of Universal Basic Income

The benefits of financial security are obvious, so why doesn’t the idea of UBI enjoy more popular support?

Credit: Flickr/Russell Shaw Higgs. Some rights reserved.

If we took all of the income the United States makes in a year and divided it by the total number of Americans, then every woman, man, and child would be making over $50,000. That’s over $200,000 for a family of four.

If we wiped the slate clean and took all of the personal net wealth of the United States and divvied it up among every American with a heartbeat, each person would receive over $250,000 as a nest egg.

Let’s take a second to think about those numbers. Even though nearly 40 per cent of the country doesn’t work in paid employment and 46 per cent couldn’t come up with $400 if their life depended on it, the ‘average’ American apparently pulls in $55,000 a year and has a cool quarter-of-a-million Dollars in assets. The national poverty line is defined as just below $12,000 per year for an individual.

Does it surprise you to learn how much wealth there is in this country, or how rich the top one percent really are? 

These facts should make it clear that we already have the resources to eradicate poverty if we want to. It wouldn’t require a revolution. It would only require an adjustment of our priorities in favor of a Universal Basic Income or UBI.

UBI is a serious solution that simply and elegantly delivers an economic floor of security to every person in society. As these figures show, we can easily afford it, so it should be a no-brainer on the basis of both logic and human decency.

Right now the UBI movement is exploding. It’s founded on the idea that everyone in a civilized society has an inalienable right to the basic necessities of life such as food and shelter and healthcare, and that the most effective way to guarantee those rights is through a regular cash stipend to each individual. In the US a good starting point for a full UBI would be around $12,000 a year for every adult, with a smaller amount provided for each child.

Beyond human decency, there are myriad other arguments to be made in favor of UBI: economic stimulus and sustainability, improved health outcomes, reduced crime, more community action, higher creativity, more self-fulfillment, more participation in politics, and more flexibility to spend time with and care for our children and loved ones when they need us.

Even Silicon Valley is pushing hard for it as a way to help people through the coming times of job displacement due to automation, since recent estimates forecast that we will lose up to half of our jobs to machines in the next 20 years. Basic income pilots are popping up all around the world, doing important research to test these claims and measure the efficacy of direct cash giving under a host of different scenarios.

But here’s the thing: the US has just witnessed a presidential election in which large numbers of voters rebelled against the technocrats and political elites on both sides of the aisle who have ruled America for decades. These voters felt ignored and decided to push back. What’s to say that UBI won’t be seen as another technocratic solution handed down by the same political class from Washington DC? If so, it would probably be doomed.

The UBI movement must avoid the establishment’s tendency to overestimate its own influence and take everyone else for granted, of valuing the support of billionaires and corporations above all else. Basic income is a policy of, by, and for the people, and to succeed it’s going to have to have the support of the great mass of those people, both Democrats and Republicans.

I care less about convincing another tech whiz kid CEO, veteran venture capitalist, or Nobel laureate economist to join the movement, and much more about bringing on board farmers in Missouri, displaced coal miners in West Virginia, and schoolteachers in Wisconsin. This is necessarily politics after all, not just economics and philosophy. To win a Universal Basic Income we must eventually pass legislation, and in order to do so people will have to stand up and demand it across the political divide.

So how do we handle the politics of UBI? My partner and I are filmmakers. Politics runs on storytelling, and we see film and visual media as the most powerful storytelling tool available today. So we’ve decided to make a film about UBI, a documentary film, but what kind of documentary?

It can’t just be for and about the experts and the reams of historical evidence; great research doesn’t rivet an audience. Statistics alone don’t capture hearts and minds or make an emotional connection that’s powerful enough to overcome the opposition. I’ll wager that every single one of the films you remember most vividly in your life, those that have had the most impact on you, have revolved around human stories, not talking heads and facts.

What’s more, they were likely not simple snapshots of people in interesting situations. They were rich character studies, following unexpected plot lines, and ultimately culminating in some kind of growth or change. An effective documentary about UBI must do the same.

And it also needs to honestly address the elephant in the room: some people’s fears about subsidizing laziness in others. While I expect a world with a Universal Basic Income would be freer and more productive—populated by more effective and intrinsically-motivated human beings—others might forecast a world of entitled do-nothings living off the work ethic of a noble few. If we want to prove them wrong we had better provide some evidence to back our claims.

This is the point of the trials that have already happened, or are underway or are coming soon around the world. But how much can a study of UBI in a rural Kenyan village or an already generous Scandinavian social support system offer to Americans? Even successful results in the trial that’s currently taking place in Oakland, California might not hold much water in making the case to a Montana rancher or a manufacturing worker from the Rust Belt.

So instead, what we’ve decided to do is to create a new basic income pilot program specifically for our film, crafted for the sole purpose of telling diverse American stories from all walks of life: a farmer, a student, an athlete, a new family, a manufacturing worker, a police officer, an artist, a teacher, a veteran and a retiree.

We want to know and show what all of them do with a floor of security to stand on. Each participant will receive a basic income of $1,000 per month for two years, and we’ll check in with them regularly, recording their achievements, failures, choices, and growth in their daily lives.

Watch the trailer for Bootstraps.

However, we aren’t billionaires or celebrities, and this film will boast no A-list stars. We’re artists and journalists, and so we need your help. While the big political movers and shakers would consider our $600,000 pilot budget miniscule, it’s an unachievable fortune for everyday Americans. So if you are invested in the idea of a brighter future through UBI please give a few dollars to the campaign to fund our pilot, and share this article widely.

As a former engineer, one of UBI’s greatest appeals for me has to do with human optimization. When people are operating through anxiety, they lose 10-15 IQ points. When they are worried about survival, they aren't dreaming about what they can offer to the world. We are currently turning people into diminished versions of themselves through the systems that we’ve built, but it needn’t be that way.

We can invest in them and support them to bring their best selves to the challenges they face. If we expect people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, the least we can do is provide the boots and a solid floor to stand on. When everyone around us has that same fair footing, we’ll all stand taller together.

You can make a contribution to the Bootstraps campaign here.

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5 June 2017. ‘Trumping’ Let Girls Learn

Getting more girls into school is vital, but it isn’t an answer to poverty and inequality.

UK International Development Secretary Justine Greening and ex-US First Lady Michelle Obama taking part in a discussion about girls’ education at Mulberry School for Girls. Credit: Flickr/DFID. Some rights reserved.

In recent weeks there has been uproar about President Trump’s decision to end support for Let Girls Learn—a White House and USAID project that aims to create educational opportunities for girls, particularly in the global South. While I profoundly disagree with the protectionist sentiments that have motivated the administration to reduce funding for this and other similar initiatives, I also see it as an opportunity to re-think the underlying assumptions that inform these kinds of projects in both the South and the North.

Let Girls Learn is the most recent iteration of projects that assume that social issues as wide-ranging as poverty and terrorism can be resolved through education, an approach described as the “educationalization of social problems.” Programs like this one or the Nike Foundation’s Girl Effect posit formal schooling as the primary avenue through which girls can re-shape themselves into ideal citizens who will then be able to address not only their own needs, but also those of their families and communities.

The theory is simple: if girls acquire an education and transform themselves into workers, consumers or entrepreneurs, they will make a larger contribution to the national GDP, and as the economy grows they too will feel its trickle-down effects. It is clear, however —including in the context of the US—that economic gains do not trickle down in this way. Plenty of studies confirm and elaborate on this conclusion. Relying on girls’ education as the ideal or only pathway to resolve issues as complex as poverty is therefore illogical. In fact, evidence shows that schools often reproduce inequalities rather than eradicating them.

In the case of Pakistan where I conduct research, the issue is even more pronounced. The educational system is deeply divided along lines of social class: the elite send their children to grammar or English-medium schools where they pursue British O and A levels, while the poor attend schools with absent teachers and rundown infrastructure. Understandably then, future opportunities for jobs and upward mobility are radically different for each group.

Girls feel this difference keenly. During a recent research trip to Southern Pakistan, I interviewed girls from low-income families about their aspirations after leaving school. Their stories revolved around the limited futures that awaited them. Most girls knew that the jobs they would most likely be able to obtain were at nearby factories, where wages are low and working conditions abhorrent. Others cited examples of educated brothers who could not find paid employment and had to return to work in their families’ fields. These men felt humiliated: “Poe education jo cha faido?”—“What is the benefit of education then?” as 15-year old Meeran said to me in an interview.

In spite of such examples, many girls desire to obtain schooling so that they might be able to obtain white-collar jobs. Eighteen-year-old Rida’s narrative was particularly instructive. She lived in a low-income neighborhood on the outskirts of the city of Hyderabad, and considered schooling to be a lifeline: “I want to get an education also so that I can stand on my own feet…I have extreme interest and desire to get an education… I am willing to give my life for education.”

Rida was well-aware of the lack of job prospects that awaited girls from her social class, but instead of calling on the state to improve the conditions of people like herself she was resigned to this situation: “If it is in my fate, then I will get a job.” Another girl, Nadia (age 17), bemoaned the myriad additional precarities that schooling had introduced into her and her family’s life: “Education is a burden,” she told me, Whether we have food, housing, or other basic necessities does not matter. Due to education we have to kill our other basic necessities.”

Since when did citizens become responsible for guaranteeing the conditions required for a minimally-decent life? Why should girls like Rida let the state off the hook for its inability to meet the basic needs of its people? Why should they have to give up a meal in order to pay tuition fees for school?

These questions highlight the kind of ‘self-responsibilization’ that underpins programs like Let Girls Learn. It’s a philosophy that sees educated girls as responsible for their own welfare, rather than holding the state accountable for providing the conditions that might enable girls to secure jobs with decent wages and working conditions. Girls like Rida then see their inability to secure a job as their own personal failing.

When we focus on education as the primary pathway to addressing social issues such as poverty, we limit our efficacy considerably. We fail to see the broader range of policies beyond education that must be implemented in order to address poverty and increase the welfare of girls worldwide.

Writing in the context of the United States, historians Harvey Kantor and Robert Lowe have argued that education is not the best anti-poverty program. They call attention to the broad range of redistributive and economic security policies that were put in place during the New Deal, for example. These included increasing the minimum wage, unionization, providing a guaranteed income, and progressive taxation. Such policies must be pursued alongside advocating for girls’ education if the goal is to reduce poverty and inequality.

The Trump administration’s approach to aid and development policy is inspired by a narrow understanding of American self-interest. Gutting programs like Let Girls Learn fits that agenda of protectionism. There’s no doubt that such sentiments should be resisted. At the same time, we have an opportunity to re-imagine policies, projects and advocacy that link girls’ education with broader social and economic goals.

For example, in addition to calling for more support for girls in school, why not institute a higher minimum wage in the US and abroad, or regulate the multinational oil and gas corporations that are engaged in extracting natural resources from Sindh in Pakistan, or end the encroachment of for-profit businesses in directing social policies? Why must Nike Inc. be the ideal partner on girls’ education when there is extensive evidence of its anti-women practices?

Trump’s decision to end Let Girls Learn is shortsighted, but it provides an opportunity to develop a much-needed and deeper conversation about gender and poverty. Let’s not waste it.


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1 June 2017. Stereotyping Appalachians only feeds the coal Industry

As a fifth-generation coal miner, I see the region’s Trump signs and pro-coal stickers as symbols of defense against a world that looks down on us.

Credit: YES! Magazine/by ridvan_celik / iStock. All rights reserved.

President Trump won the vote in Appalachia because people are tired of being looked down on. Considering the work of powerful industry interests, a century’s worth of negative stereotyping, and culturally insensitive protests against coal—a source of people’s pride, heritage, and income—it’s not difficult to understand how.

My family has lived in Appalachia for nine generations, and we have worked hard all our lives without asking for a great deal. We were never drawn to extravagance, nor did we need to keep up with the Joneses. Simplicity and family were the means to much of our happiness. As long as we had a decent home, food, and the time to watch our children grow up with a good moral compass, we were fulfilled. “It’s not your needs that get you into trouble—it’s your wants,” my grandfather would often say.

But this lack of complication has been the subject of ridicule by many outside our communities. Among a national and now international audience, Appalachia has been viewed as a degenerate region without sophistication. The dehumanization of its people has allowed for the exploitation of its vast energy and timber reserves, and putting Appalachians down has often been a means of lifting others up: “I may not be rich, but at least I’m not a hillbilly.” These forces have made maintaining our dignity a constant struggle.

Exploitative economic systems have ensured that there is no change to our status quo. Low property taxes have appeased out-of-state land-holding companies while keeping our public education system in a near constant budget crisis. What money extractive industries do contribute is spent funding state-certified curriculums on the benefits of coal.

Our children are fed an industry narrative that dignity, sacrifice, and the patriotic duty of mining are inextricably tied all while downplaying a century’s worth of labor struggles for basic human rights. These issues, compounded by an existing need to appease common core initiatives and standardized testing goals, have limited teachers’ abilities to instruct on critical thinking.

By co-opting Appalachian values, the coal industry has elbowed itself to the center of our region’s cultural identity. Shannon Bell, a sociologist at the University of Kentucky, has studied the many ways coal industry associations have adapted Appalachian culture in appealing to its people. She found that the industry has used pro-coal media campaigns such as Friends of Coal to manipulate the region into believing that support for the industry, despite its destructive nature, is the accepted cultural norm.

Meanwhile, media misrepresentations have fueled negative stereotypes held by urban populations. In many ways, this has put us on the defensive, pushing Appalachians to seek out and attack the shortcomings of our city counterparts. Rural people have long seen urbanism in contrast to their own values, fixating on stereotypes of city dwellers and suburbanites as being selfish and lacking common sense. Many also associate academia and liberalism with urbanism, an association exploited by media organizations like Fox News that oppose government regulation and environmentalism.

As a result, the efforts of progressive organizations working in Appalachia are sometimes taken as downward-looking elitism. It doesn’t help that many progressives and environmentalists have done a terrible job of communicating with local communities, both in their actions and presentation. When outside activist organizations expect Appalachians to simply accept their protests, marches, street theatre puppets, and public civil disobedience as avenues to their logic, they foster tensions that manifest in bumper stickers like: “lib·er·al / lib(-ə)-rel / noun 1Someone so open minded that their brains have fallen out.”

The Confederate flags, Trump signs, and pro-coal stickers I see displayed throughout Appalachia are not as much the result of deep-rooted racism and bigotry as many would like to believe. They are often symbols of defense against a world that views us as lesser people. They are symbols given to us by politicians and corporations that have learned to speak our language, and they throw gasoline on the fiery dissent many feel toward longstanding urban ridicule.

There is no easy fix for the situation in Appalachia. Poverty causes intense suffering with all of the symptoms you would expect. Health outcomes are plagued by a lack of access to health care, food deserts, and the environmental pollution created by decades of coal and natural gas extraction and processing.

Over-prescription of pain medications has led to a drug abuse epidemic that has spread to younger generations suffering from a loss of hope. Recent media attention on these issues stemming from Donald Trump’s election has fed into the national stereotyping of the region, keeping Appalachia in a vicious cycle of self-destruction.

If there is any hope for Appalachia, it is in eliminating the sources of the problem, not just treating its symptoms. We must address the communication barriers that exacerbate feelings of resentment and increase political and cultural divides. Perhaps then we can work toward ending corporate influence over our local culture, economics, and political systems so that we, ourselves, can really begin to shape a better future for our region.

This article was first published in YES! Magazine.

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30 May 2017. Through the dark night

Inside ourselves and in the world at large, more darkness brings more light rising in response. 

Credit: Pixabay/PublicDomainPictures. CC0 Public Domain.

In Buddhism, the lotus flower is often used as a metaphor for awakening, with its roots in the mud and its blossom exquisite. A fully bloomed lotus represents enlightenment, the bud everything that comes before. At first, the bud is tight, solid, a single dense thing. One petal at a time, it softens and opens. 

It’s an apt metaphor for healing, too, or at least my own experience of it, when breakdown sent me reeling into an extended ‘dark night of the soul.’ There was no single panacea—no solve-all secret, no grand rescue, although I certainly wished for one—but rather many petals, each unfurling a different layer of my tightly-clenched being: the nervous system, the physical body, the psyche and the spirit. At every step, mindfulness provided a crucial foundation.

My nervous system had long been operating in fight-and-flight mode, and so my adrenal glands were depleted and I was utterly exhausted. Working with a generous and gifted practitioner of Somatic Experiencing, a body-based approach to healing trauma, I began to learn to function in a more balanced manner—or rather, my nervous system did. As psychiatrist and PTSD researcher Bessel Van der Kolk writes, “traumatized people feel chronically unsafe inside their bodies: the past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort.” Talk therapy was insufficient; my nervous system had to learn that it was safe, and this came through touch and feedback. 

Meditation had been a wonderful training ground for the kind of mindfulness I needed to bring to this practice, a focused tracking of bodily sensations. But it was vital to have a guide to gently redirect me. For wounds that are inherently relational, I believe the healing must be, too.  Over time, I began to learn to trust the body that I believed had betrayed me. Much of what I’d stored away many years earlier was buried in shame; to enter these dark spaces with a guide leavened this shame, steadily eroding the associated emotional isolation. 

As my resilience grew, life became more bearable. Cars passing by on the street no longer felt like they were driving through me; singing no longer cracked me in two; I could be among people, even socialize a little. I began to emerge from a form of hermitage. Then there was movement, Authentic Movement specifically: in a circle of eight women, guided by a wise facilitator, I found the space for my body to begin to express what had long been repressed. This came through voice (as a singer this was key) and also the exploratory movement of my limbs. 

And then, once I was strong enough to return to it, there was free-form ecstatic dance, and the reliable joy it lent. And Biodanza, a guided movement practice centered in presence and deep connection. Then a friend told me about the work of Byron Katie, who teaches an inquiry process to identify and question the thoughts that cause suffering. I dived in wholeheartedly, methodically unpinning many of the beliefs that had kept me mired in fear and self-hatred. I began to see my internal world shift in significant ways. As these old ways crumbled, I started to touch an abiding sense of freedom, and more joy followed.

This list of practices and techniques isn’t comprehensive. There were also friends who were beacons for me at a time when everything went dark. Their care and wisdom kept me tethered to the earth, and to sanity. There was acupuncture, which brought palpable relief to a system stuck in fight-or-flight. And there were teachers from Buddhist and Advaita traditions who had themselves passed through something this extreme, and assured me that I would make it, that I wouldn’t lose my mind.  I’ll never forget how one of them, Jeannie Zandi, took me onto her lap and held me until my body began to calm. 

Then there were the trees. At times I thought of them as my lovers, holding me steadily through these aching years. At night I’d walk to one of my favorites, climb up and lie in its broad branches. There I would rest and pray until I felt strong enough to pick myself up and face the next hour. On sunny days I lay on the ground. In my worst times of exhaustion and despair I was held by the earth itself.

There were drugs, too. I was adamantly opposed to pharmaceuticals, and it took months of hell followed by the personal persuasion of one of our most respected meditation teachers to change my mind.  Did they help?  Yes, I believe so. But they hurt as well. A psychiatrist who told me to stop taking a powerful sleep medication once my sleep had stabilized plunged me back into hell for months. I learned to move in millimeters, and warily. The drugs didn’t heal me, but they eased my suffering. Gradually I came to see them as a kindness I could give to myself instead of a source of shame. 

If there was any abiding thread, any golden string out of the opaque maze, it was learning to hold myself with compassion. At its worst, when my nerves were shrieking and my body on fire, I’d put my hands over my heart and call myself sweetheart, angel, darling. I’d tell the rage it had a good point, tell the fear I wasn’t running away this time, the hatred that it was welcome. 

“Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child,” said the Buddha, “so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings.” I learned to include myself in my compassion. I learned to hold myself like a screaming infant, and give to myself as to a starved child. This wasn’t due to any great ability of my own. I simply had no choice. If I didn’t learn to be patient with myself when I could hardly function, I’d never have healed. 

That’s what I say when friends offer me praise. I don’t deserve it; courage had nothing to do with this. Were you in my position—and I hope you never are—you’d have done the same. It was that or my life. There were moments when I fervently wished I was dead, that some disease would come and take me, some accident wipe me out. But I didn’t die, at least not in the traditional sense, and now that I’m on the other side I marvel at the gifts I’ve been given. 

Half my life is spiritual practice, I said to a teacher recently. Yet the amazing thing is that, on emerging from this spectacularly dysfunctional period, I have the space for ample practice, and to write and sing and teach. When I had no choice but to surrender utterly—to accept that I might be unable to pay rent next month, even that I might not heal—I started to see that I could trust life. I started to relax into it. And life took me by the hands and began to dance.

Recently I’ve begun to teach on the theme of the ‘dark night of the soul’ as a component of awakening. I’ve come to believe that if we muster what it takes to face the work that life presents to us, then life in turn will hold us as we do it. Sometimes that work is in our own minds, other times in our communities; if we are listening, we may discover an organic rhythm between these two dimensions. Both are needed. Most often we do not have to seek it out, this work. Instead, it reveals itself to us—sometimes subtly, like a dove alighting on an outstretched arm; sometimes a tornado that sweeps us up and drops us somewhere else entirely.

I’m sharing my story now because I hope to help others locate the narratives to usher them through their own experience of the underworld—and to do so without the terrible burden of shame our culture heaps on anything resembling mental illness, which I at times found as crippling as the experience itself. I want others to discover the gifts hidden in these dark nights, gifts they will in turn deliver to a world that sorely needs them.

I want, in short, for others to suffer less than I did. I still have to rest a lot, and I topple into adrenaline-charged emergency mode at the drop of a hat. But I am more resilient, and better at letting go, and it seems that my suffering has diminished in inverse proportion to the growth of these capacities. Most days I am happy. I no longer need crisis to invoke change; the dance has slowed to a foxtrot.

At some point, many of us will be broken by life, whether in ways obvious or hidden. If we stay soft, stay open, the heart will expand, the mind grow clear. Breaking and healing: I’ve come to believe they are different movements of the same underlying love. Sometimes that love must be ferocious to wake us up. 

We are seeing this play out in the world today: more darkness center stage, more light rising in response. Not only is there the individual experience of breakdown, but systems and institutions that we believed unshakeable are also beginning to crack. Ecosystems are changing before our eyes, and the scale of environmental loss is prodigious. It can be terrifying to watch the dissolution of the things that we believe have kept us safe; excruciating to see the destruction of things that we love.

Faced by these circumstances, it may take every ounce of will we possess not to collapse into fear or explode into rage. But even as the skies darken, there are considerable gifts. We are being offered a superb opportunity to develop the strength and wisdom we will need to rise to the occasion. 

There is, I would venture, a greater story unfolding here, with a much wider arc—one that bends inexorably toward the light.     

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29 May 2017. Desmond Tutu was right

As the UK General Election campaign heats up, who says politics and religion don’t mix?

Vicar’s daughter Theresa May visits Al Madina Mosque, 2015. Credit: Flickr/UK Home Office. Some rights reserved.

At the height of the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu confessed that he was confused about which Bible people were reading when they said that religion and politics do not mix. The Archbishop was right: religion and politics do mix, no matter what hardened secularists might assert about a public sphere free from religion. The more important questions to ask are, ‘what kind of religion and what kind of politics?’

In recent years the relationship between religious faith and politics has assumed a growing importance for three reasons. First, faith groups continue to possess significant levels of ‘social capital,’ especially in socially excluded communities. The political theologian Chris Baker calls this ‘religious capital’, or resources in the form of buildings, congregations and community activities. In recent decades politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have recognised that faith groups can help them to deliver (sometimes controversial) social policy agendas.

Second, in an ‘age of austerity,’ faith groups have become increasingly important and visible players in grass-roots campaigning on issues as wide-ranging as low pay, food poverty, racial justice and refugee rights. They have, to a degree, become welfare delivery agencies, filling the gaps previously occupied by the state. Michael Hoelzl and Graham Ward refer to this as “the new visibility of religion.”

Third, this new visibility places the spotlight on the values that drive faith-based action. This question is of vital importance because faith groups can use their religious capital to include or to exclude people, and to challenge injustice or to provide it with a spurious ideological justification.

What role then should religious leaders and people of faith play in politics, and what kind of theological values do those politicians who proclaim themselves to be people of faith communicate and embody? Should they be satisfied with driving the ambulance to the bottom of the cliff, ready to meet those who fall through the cracks of a shrinking welfare state, or as the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once argued, should people of faith ram a spoke into the wheels of injustice?

In the recent US Presidential Election Donald Trump courted Evangelical Christians with his promises on healthcare, abortion and the appointment of ‘pro-life’ Justices to the US Supreme Court. His tactics seemed to work, but the months since his election have seen the rise of a faith-based movement ready to challenge his drive to the right.

The UK is currently in the midst of a similarly-polarised General Election campaign in which the role of faith has also become a source of debate. Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, has been quizzed on his attitude towards homosexuality and abortion. Whilst Christian attitudes towards sexuality are often more progressive than some people might imagine, Farron is shaped by a form of Evangelicalism that condemns homosexuality as ‘sinful.’ As a person of faith myself I want to challenge such notions of the Christian Gospel. That said, Farron’s voting record as a Member of Parliament has been characterised by clear support for equal rights.

Interestingly, the Conservative leader, Theresa May, has referred to the fact that she is the daughter of a Church of England vicar, and that her Christian upbringing has shaped her political beliefs. But so far, the UK media has not quizzed May on her understanding of Christian values, nor on how her tenure as Conservative Home Secretary and Prime Minister reflect them. The New Statesman recently ran an article entitled, “Just What Kind of Christian is Theresa May?” That raises an important, though much broader, question.

Faith communities have social action built into their DNA, but their approaches vary significantly. Broadly speaking we can speak of ‘caring’ and ‘campaigning.’ Shaped by a ‘love your neighbour’ ethic of social responsibility, the dominant approach to faith-based social action continues to be the ‘caring’ approach that’s exemplified by soup runs, befriending projects and foodbanks. Such an approach has an honourable history, but it tends not to challenge the political status quo.

Shaped by a more radical religious tradition, the ‘campaigning’ approach asserts that social justice is a more fundamental theological value than consensual social responsibility. Such activism is generally far less widely welcomed by the political class because it asks fundamental questions about the way things are done, and because it underpins campaigns for far-reaching, systemic social change.

Two distinct theological frameworks characterise these differing approaches to faith-based activism. ‘Caring’ social action arises from theologies of the common good, which argue that, as a result of our common humanity, all government policies should be judged on the extent to which they enhance the well-being of the most vulnerable members of society. Such an approach seeks to balance the needs of the included and the excluded, but it doesn’t assert the need for fundamental structural changes in society.

By contrast, ‘campaigning’ social action, whilst committed to building a society that is characterised by a shared commitment to the common good, goes much further. Such activism is, if only implicitly, shaped by the core values of liberation theology, which emerged first in Latin America in the 1970s. Exemplified by the work of Gustavo Gutiérrez, liberation theology argues that in an unjust world, a God who has created all people in the divine image necessarily has a ‘preferential option for the poor’ and oppressed, and that as a consequence, Christian social action must be characterised by support for that option too.

Such social action argues for deep-seated structural changes that enable the building of a more egalitarian society. So when campaigners knock on people’s doors asking for their vote, they need to ask, ‘Do your policies put the few or the many at the front of the queue? How will your policies transform toxic debates about immigration into a narrative that treasures our diversity as a strength, and not as a problem that needs to be solved?’

There is no way of knowing how Theresa May’s upbringing as a vicar’s daughter shapes her internal wrestling with the kind of challenge that Jesus lays at the feet of his disciples in Matthew 24:31-46: ‘Have you fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, and clothed the naked?’ We cannot see into her heart. All we can do is reflect on the impact of her actions as Home Secretary and Prime Minister. However, it is reasonable to pose a number of sample questions in the light of the forthcoming General Election that get at the relationship between faith and politics.

First, how might refusing to allow child refugees from ‘the jungle’ camp in Calais to settle in the UK, or the implicit xenophobia unleashed by the 2016 Brexit referendum, exemplify an ethic of ‘welcoming the stranger’?

Second, how might the increasing resort to foodbanks by NHS nurses or the withdrawing of free school lunches for Primary school children embody a commitment to ‘feeding the hungry’?

Third, how can we square the doubling of homelessness since 2010 or the massive rise in child poverty with ‘clothing the naked’?

Senior political leaders who consciously self-identify as people of faith would do well to reflect on these questions and others like them when they look in the mirror. Tutu was right: religion and politics do mix, but the more important question is this—does faith give rise to a commitment to building an inclusive and egalitarian society, or is it simply a cynical ploy to get elected?

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26 May 2017. How to culture jam a populist in four easy steps

Our organizing principle should be simple: don’t feed polarization—disarm it.

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

The whole world’s eyes are on Washington today, and not in a good way. As Venezuelans, we’re looking North with more trepidation than most, even though—in fairness—the panic over Trump-as-a-northern-Hugo Chávez is premature. A politician is to be judged by what they do in office, not by what they say before they get there. Beating Chávez’s historic economic demolition of the richest oil country in the world, during the biggest oil bonanza ever—leaving behind an inflation-ridden, bullet-stricken, hungry, ailing country—is quite an ask. But let’s see what happens.

Because in one way, Trump and Chávez are identical: they are masters of Populism.

The recipe is universal. Find a wound common to many, someone to blame for it and a good story to tell. Mix it all together. Tell the wounded you know how they feel. That you found the bad guys. Label them: the minorities, the politicians, the businessmen. Cartoon them. As vermin, evil masterminds, flavourless hipsters, you name it. Then paint yourself as the saviour. Capture their imagination. Forget about policies and plans, just enrapture them with a good story. One that starts in anger and ends in vengeance. A vengeance they can participate in.

That’s how it becomes a movement. There’s something soothing in all that anger. Though full of hatred, it promises redemption. Populism can’t cure your suffering, but it can do something almost as good—better in some ways: it can build a satisfying narrative around it. A fictionalized account of your misery. A promise to make sense of your hurt. It is them. It’s been them all along.

For all those who listen, Populism is built on the irresistible allure of simplicity. The narcotic of the simple answer to an intractable question. The problem is now made simple. The problem is you.

How do I know? Because I grew up as the ‘you’ Trump is about to turn you into. I was cast in the role of the enemy in the political struggle that followed the arrival of Chávez, and watched in frustration year after year as the opposition tried and failed to do anything about the catastrophe unfolding all around. Only later did I realize this failure was, in a significant way, self-inflicted.

And so, some advice:

1. Don’t forget who the enemy is.

Populism can only survive amid polarization. It works through caricature, through the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy. Pro tip: you’re the enemy. Yes, you, with the Starbucks cup. Trump needs you to be the enemy just like all religions need a demon. As a scapegoat. “But facts!” you’ll say, missing the point entirely.

What makes me the enemy, you may ask? In their mind it’s very simple: if you’re not among the victims, you’re among the culprits. In your case, you’re that modern bogeyman called the liberal urbanite hipster who thinks all cultures and religions are valid and equally worthy, who thinks of the working-class disparagingly. You are, in short, ‘a citizen of nowhere’ whose utopia is a massive, world-wide kumbaya with carrot chips, no church, and no soul either.

It’s silly, I know. Especially because you do care. As did I, a teenage CIA agent bent on feeding the serfs at my feudal estate with dog food. However, as long as you don´t recognize the problem is not the message, but the messenger, you will be wasting your time.

Your focus has to be on erasing the cartoon you’ve been drawn into. Scrambling it. Undermining it.

2. Show no contempt.

Your organizing principle is simple: don’t feed polarization, disarm it.

This means leaving the theater of injured decency behind.

The Venezuelan Opposition struggled for years to get this. It wouldn’t stop pontificating about how stupid it all is. Not only to their international friends, but also to the Chavista electoral base itself.

“Really, this guy? Are you nuts? You must be nuts.” We’d say.

The subtext was clear: Look, children—he will destroy the country. He’s blatantly siding with the bad guys: Fidel, Putin, the white supremacists or the guerrillas. Besides, he’s clearly not that smart. He’s threatening to destroy the economy too. He clearly has no respect for democracy. For the intelligentsia. We, who work hard and know how to do business. We, who’ve researched this, thought about this, grasped this. In history, in economics, in diplomacy, in accounting. Now, learn this word. Repeat after me: fascism.

I heard variations on this so many times growing up that my political awakening was set off by the tectonic realization that Chávez, however evil, was not actually a stupid man.

“Don’t listen to them, folks”, says the populist. “Stop letting them think they can school and fool you. The only true fact is that the enemies are few and that they lie. Let’s show them they’re the ones who are wrong. They’re the ones who are stupid. They’re scared! Or, worse, fearing justice! They think only about themselves. Turn off the TV. Listen to me.”

You’ve just lost the first battle. Instead of fighting polarization, you’ve played into it.

In which case, try again, seriously, because by all means…

3. Don’t try to force him out.

Our Opposition tried every single trick in the book. Coup d’etat? Check. Ruinous oil strike? Check. Inviting international intervention? You guessed it. Want to know how they did that last one, by the way? By removing themselves from the ballot in a parliamentary election. Yes, they just handed Chavismo full congressional power as some sort of ‘diplomatic statement.’ Honest to God.

Look, they were desperate. If anything, history has proven they were right to be desperate. If any of those plans had gone well, bear with me for a second, Venezuela wouldn’t be in the shit-show it’s in right now. Lives would have been saved. Many more improved.

But we failed. Because we lost sight that a hissy-fit is not a strategy. The people on the other side, and crucially independents, will rebel against you if you look like you’re losing your mind. Worst of all, you will have proved yourself to be the very thing you’re claiming to be fighting against: an enemy of democracy. And all the while you’re just giving the populist and his followers enough rhetorical fuel to rightly call you a saboteur, an unpatriotic schemer, for years to come.

To a big chunk of the population, the Venezuelan opposition is still that—a spoiled, unpatriotic, schemer. It’s taken many furious years for its politicians to wash away those stains. It sapped the opposition’s effectiveness for the years when we’d need it most.

All non-democratic channels are counter-productive: you lower your message, and give the populist rhetorical fuel.

4. Find a counter-argument (no, not the one you think).

Don’t waste your time trying to prove that this ‘ism’ is better than that one. Ditch all the big words. Why? Because, again, the problem is not the message but the messenger. It’s not that Trump supporters are too stupid to tell right from wrong, it’s that you’re much more valuable to them as an enemy than as a compatriot.

The problem is tribal. Your challenge is to prove that you belong in the same tribe as them: that you are American in exactly the same way they are.

In Venezuela, we fell into the abstraction trap in a bad way. We wrote again and again about principles, about the separation of powers, about civil liberties, about the role of the military in politics, about corruption and economic policy. But it took our leaders ten years to figure out they needed to actually go to the slums and to the countryside. And not for a speech or a rally, but for game of dominoes or to dance salsa—to show that they were Venezuelans too, that they had tumbao and could hit a baseball, could tell a joke that landed. That they could break the tribal divide, come down off the billboards and show that they were real. And no, this is not populism by other means. It is the only way of establishing your standing. It’s deciding not to live in an echo chamber. To press pause on the siren song of polarization.

You will not find that pause button in the cities or the university campuses. You will find it precisely where you’re not expected.

Only then will your message land.

There’s no point sugar coating: the road ahead is tough and the pitfalls are many. It’s way easier to get this wrong than to get it right, and the chances are that the people getting it wrong will drown out those getting it right.

But if you want to be part of the solution, the road ahead is clear: Recognize you’re the enemy they need; show concern, not contempt, for the wounds of those that brought Trump to power; by all means be patient with democracy and struggle relentlessly to free yourself from the shackles of the caricature the populists have drawn of you.

It’s a tall order. But the alternative is worse. Believe me, I know: I’m from Venezuela.

This article was first published in Caracas Chronicles.

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24 May 2017. We protest by creating beauty

Meet the artists and activists writing love letters on the streets.

Credit: all images painted or photographed by Shilo Shiv Suleman and the Fearless Collective. Some rights reserved.

My love,

It was four years ago that I started spilling onto the streets. There were thousands of us there. Our fists were clenched but our eyes were full of water. We came with all our heavy sorrows but backbones pulled up straight. I had the scar of a man who touched me on my hipbone. My mother showed me a scar she had been carrying for over 40 years. This night, for the first time, she slowly un-wrapped it and took it with her to the streets.

Here, at these protests following the gang-rape of a 21 year old girl in New Delhi in 2012, people came with candles and banners, but they also came with invisible things like fear that sometimes caused them to buckle.

Fists clenched, banners alight: “Hang the rapist”.

Girls whispering: “It could have been me. It could have been me. It could have been me” (well, it was you. It is always you).

People saying: “dark daughters, don’t go out at night, don’t attract attention to yourself, don’t take a taxi home, don’t breathe too heavy, don’t smile at strangers, don’t show too much skin, don’t look too meek. It could have been you. It could have been you. It could have been you.”

Others saying: “Break the silence.”

Does breaking the silence always have to look like shattered glass? Can’t we have another metaphor instead—to fill the silence, spill into silence, reclaim silence and transform it?

I wanted to fill this silence by writing a letter to all the men, to all the women I knew, to all those voices on the street. What is it about making injuries public that quickens their healing? When I had my first physical injury (a fractured rib), people gathered around me, helping me to make my way through elevators, train stations and months of recovery. What if I had kept it to myself? What is it about emotional injuries that make us feel as though we need to heal from them alone?

I wanted to fill this silence by writing a letter, but back then I wrote with pictures, so I made a poster instead.

It was an image of a woman with her arms crossed over her chest, the word “fearless” scrawled at the bottom. Soon there were hundreds of these posters online, these letters, from communities and protestors and new friends near and far. And then we went back onto the streets, this time with painted hands and ladders. We painted by the bank of the river in Varanasi, in the slums of Dharavi,  and with women. We opened our stories through rituals. We took pictures of each other and projected them onto walls. We gathered our skirts, our secrets and we spilled open. And as we painted, we started to hear other voices on the streets.

One of them insisted: “this should be a boy riding the bike.”

The voice came from a young man of no more than 20 years watching us from the curb. Women clad in shawls stood high on the scaffolding that we had placed against the wall to paint—an unusual sight for where we were standing (a car service station in Rawalpindi, Pakistan); an even more unusual one in his own mind.

We were painting a transgender person riding a motorcycle, exhaling flowers. The image was a story—a true story. In a world molded into binaries we wanted to carve out space for something different—something transgender, or just a woman or anyone who stands in resistance to these categories. In Pakistan, there were certainly no images like this. The person in the image lived down the road from the car-service station. Most of the people in that neighborhood had never visited their house. They had been neighbours for almost 16 years. Sixteen years is a long time never to be seen as your true self.

Another voice in another place:  “Assad is our hero.”

It was an older woman watching carefully from the window of her second-floor apartment in Bourj Hammoud in Lebanon, seemingly amused by the potluck of people carrying their languages and colours across the large five-story scaffolding where we were painting. We were in a cozy corner of a primarily Syrian-Armenian neighbourhood.

We were painting a story there too. In fact we were folding many stories into one. In a world constantly in movement, does it matter if our point of departure is war, homophobia, economic opportunities or love?  Home is what we all seek, and eventually, should find. The image we created was partly a story of an adolescent boy born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, now struggling to make a home in Lebanon. Assad was not his hero.

These stories are separated by many months and many miles, but they are tied together by the underlying fears that formed the opinions of everyone involved.

The fact that for 16 years a transgender person living in a neighborhood in Rawalpindi is still considered an outsider, or that a woman in Beirut felt threatened by an adolescent boy who didn’t share her ideals, are not just differences of opinion. They are fears that leave long trails; that become emotional injuries; that get inherited and become generational; forming cultures, politics, and eventually systems of oppression.

How do we protest a system of oppression that is fed by injuries and fears kept hidden? We protest by creating beauty. That’s the work of Fearless Collective.

Fearless Collective creates spaces to move from fear to love, drifting away from a system of messaging that is stewed in anger, and from individual opinions to the language of collective affirmation.

In the four years since our inception, we’ve painted numerous affirmations on streets around the world, some in words and some in symbols; some unsaid or unwritten, and some secretly tucked into the hair of a person that we’re painting—but always an affirmation of moving from fear to love.

We’ve painted monuments to the living communities that inhabit these spaces; women protesting politicians who continue to live with impunity despite rape charges against them; and indigenous people reclaiming sacred land that was taken away from them in brutal massacres.

Our banners and tongues aren’t laden with slogans: “Stop War”, “Save the Tigers”, “Stop violence against women.” Our words are invocations that build the imagined city we want to inhabit. When we are sold a pair of shoes through images in public space, we are also sold a sense of ‘empowerment’ and self fulfillment, and yet in social justice movements the actions we take for the earth and its people seem to come as a last resort. We need to examine the anxiety that gets associated with this sense of urgency. The impulse for movement can come from a fear of loss, yes, but it must also come from the recognition of love.

The things that we say under our breath often shift us. We need our movements to be affirmative and inward. Like planets, our outer revolutions must come from deep interior forces. So:

The transgender person riding a motorcycle in all their glory at the car-service station in Rawalpindi affirms ہم ہیں تخلیقِ خدا: ‘I am a creation of God’.

That wall in Bourj Hammoud, layered with bullet holes and stories of displacement in Beirut, now says բարի գալուստ, հազար բարի: “A thousand times welcome.”

A young girl and her cat look up at the Goddess Durga and her tiger by the banks of the river Ganges in Benaras (Varanasi) and affirm, “What we worship, we shall become.”

A street in Okhla, South Delhi demands बुरी नज़र वाले दिल से देखो आँखों से नहीं:You who stare! See me with your heart, not with your eyes.”

At a train station in Chennai, a Tamil film heroine asserts நான் என் கதாநாயகன்:” I am my own hero.”

In an alleyway in the small town of Bogor in Indonesia, a sex worker lying across from a mosque says Aku Adalah Kamu:” “I am, as you are.”

A black body wearing nothing in protest in Johannesburg says “I wear my body without shame.”

A mural in an indigenous village square in Bah’ia, Brazil says “nos protegemos que nos protégé: “We protect, what protects us.”

These affirmations are our open letters to the world. They are rooted in a moment in time, but live on the streets for all those who pass them, and see themselves inside them.

People write letters to make their invisible emotional histories visible—to lovers, friends, editors, politicians and cities. Letters full of stories, sentiments, fears, injuries, protests, affirmations, love and more. Just as old letters between scientists, diplomats and intellectuals go into archives and become part of our shared world history, we want to take our own letters and affirmations and archive them on the streets.

Open letters are intimate and introspective, but they are offered to the public. So we want to invite you to write your own open letter—to a friend, lover, parent, president, sibling, neighbour, country, land, home or yourself. You can write in any language—visual, verbal, poems, symbols, or colors, and we’ll find a home for it somewhere on the streets of the world.

You can send us your letters at this email address: We’ll send you redesigned/enlarged files and further instructions on pasting your letters onto your own streets too if that’s what you want to do.

Follow the conversation digitally on #fearlessopenletters, and find out where yours end up. We’ll also be publishing a selection on Transformation.

By sending us your letter, you will become part of a collective that’s exploring choosing love over fear, compassion over defense and abundance over scarcity, all through collective imagination. We aspire to grow as a movement of people-led narratives of personal and political change. Send us your letters and join the journey. 

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22 May 2017. The mysticism of wide open eyes

How does spirituality connect to social change?

Credit: © Nevit Dilmen. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Three months before his death from pancreatic cancer in 1994, the British playwright Dennis Potter was interviewed for the BBC by broadcaster Melvyn Bragg. In obvious pain and taking regular swigs from a bottle of liquid morphine, Potter explored a wide range of questions about his work, politics, family and feelings—given that he was already in the terminal stage of his illness.

I was spellbound by the raw honesty and energy of his answers, but there was one section that catapulted me into a different state entirely. It came when Potter described the plum tree blossom outside his study window:

“Looking at it, instead of saying ‘Oh that's nice blossom’...I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn't seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know, there's no way of telling you; you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance…the fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it.”

I knew immediately what he meant. Potter had a complicated relationship to religion, and he didn’t use overtly spiritual language to describe his experience that day, but that’s how I felt it. He went on to say that this new state of consciousness had given him more clarity and serenity, along with the ability to stay fully focused in every moment. “Almost in a perverse sort of way”, he told Bragg, “I can celebrate life” so close to death.

These feelings of joy, compassion, clarity and connection are characteristic of mystical experience, but Potter’s story raises an intriguing question: why wait so long to enjoy the fruits of a fully awakened life? Shouldn’t we be living this way for as long as is possible, despite the constraints imposed by mortgages and college fees and all the drudgery of convention that surrounds us?

I’ve always thought so, and not just for personal reasons, though it’s certainly more fulfilling—and more fun—to live a life that is deep instead of shallow. I think it also matters politically, because spirituality, a whole life lived in the way Potter was describing, is of enormous importance in the struggle for social change. This may sound odd given the common image of mystics as people who are removed from the world, but I’m convinced that spiritual experience is one of the keys to the radical transformation of society. How so?

First of all, unlike the received dogmas and hierarchies of religious and secular ideologies, spirituality can give us an actual experience of the unity of all things. This experience, when nurtured as a constant practice, roots equality-consciousness, non-discrimination, non-violence and reverence for all people and the earth deep into our core. Here is the American writer and mystic Thomas Merton describing how this happened to him:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the centre of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness.”

Before this experience, Merton led a fairly conventional spiritual life in a Trappist monastery in Kentucky; afterwards he poured his energies into writing and speaking about poverty, racism, violence and war—and anything else that fractured that experience of unity, equality and reverence. But he continued his spiritual journey as a semi-hermit, moving to a separate cabin on the monastery grounds. This simultaneous turning in and turning out is characteristic of socially-engaged spirituality, repeated in figures like Dorothy Day and Angela Davis. The German feminist theologian Dorothee Soelle called it “the mysticism of wide open eyes.”

Secondly, all spiritual paths involve the destruction or sublimation of the ego, and a surrendering to something greater than oneself—whether that’s defined in terms of the ‘divine,’ or unconditional love, or artistic ecstasy, where even the plum tree outside your study window shimmers with meaning, grace and beauty. When our decision making is dominated by fear, jealousy, greed and other limitations of the ego, the economic and political systems we create will feed from and reproduce those qualities. By contrast, the ultimate security and generosity that flow from spiritual experience can anchor systems based on sharing and equality like nothing else.

Of course, kindness, joy, love and liberation don’t unlock the doors of structural oppression by themselves. They have to be connected to political analysis and concrete plans for action, but those plans can easily be pulled back into destructive, ego-led behavior that disguises self-interest as radical or altruistic. Spirituality won’t make you a Democrat or a Republican or reveal a detailed plan for health care reform, but it can place you in a qualitatively different state from which you can act in more expansive and clear-minded ways. I think that’s what Potter meant when he celebrated ‘life in the present tense:’ concentrate on ‘right action’ as Buddhists call it in the here and now and always. Don’t get locked into the patterns of the past or lose yourself in your ambitions for the future. 

Thirdly, although spiritual experiences are often spontaneous, sustaining their benefits requires practice, rigor and discipline, and those things are crucial in the struggle for social change. Classical practices include prayer, yoga and meditation, but music, art and dance can be powerful doorways too, along with loving interactions with other people—solidarity can be a spiritual experience in itself. Over the last ten years it’s become fashionable to use these practices as tools to promote personal health and wellbeing, financial success, sexual conquest and even the corporate bottom line: “mindfulness opens the doorway to loving kindness,” says Google’s ‘head of mindfulness training,’ “which is at the heart of business success.”

Spirituality is no stranger to this kind of appropriation, which is why the rigor and self-sacrifice involved in authentic spiritual growth is so important—it helps to weed out distractions and keep you on the straight and narrow. Spirituality is not a self-help strategy designed to make you feel happy in the world as it is. There’s no such thing as ‘comfortable compassion,’ because a truly compassionate life—lived through the daily operations of economics, politics, activism, social relations and the family—is exceptionally demanding. It often involves internal breakdown and reconstruction, along with the constant practice of ‘do no harm.’

This is painful, long-term work, but it’s essential to keep on going, however ‘liberated’ you may feel. After all, slippage is characteristic of well-intentioned action: the rising stars of progressive politics who become co-opted along the way; the NGOs and foundations whose radical edges are eroded over time; the social movements that slowly take on the behavior of their oppressors; and the paragons of Corporate Social Responsibility that constantly fall from grace

Does this kind of rigor and discipline have to be mystical or spiritual? If you recoil at such language and the baggage it sometimes carries then never fear, you’re in good company. Here’s the radical writer, activist and lifelong atheist Barbara Ehrenreich trying to explain experiences that were “so anomalous, so disconnected from the normal life you share with other people that you can’t even figure out how to talk about it…without sounding crazy.” Just like Potter, Ehrenreich saw a new world in a tree:

“I was looking at a tree, and then it happened. Something peeled off the visible world, taking with it all meaning, inference, association, labels and words….Was it a place that was suddenly revealed to me? Or was it a substance—the indivisible, elemental material out of which the entire known and agreed upon world arises as a fantastic elaboration?”

Ehrenreich was 17 at the time, and she didn’t return to her quest for meaning as she calls it until she reached middle age. But then she was able to apply her experiences to her activism and writing. And that’s the point: it doesn’t matter what you call them; what matters is that you’re open to experiences like these so that you can utilize their gifts—preferably before your middle age and certainly before your death.

One could argue that—however it’s described—no such experience is required to be effective as a vehicle for social transformation, but that seems unpersuasive to me: my ego is far too clever to dissolve itself or illuminate the way ahead free of the shadow of self-interest. By contrast, I’ve found that connecting spirituality to social action reveals a greatly expanded set of possibilities for personal-political change, so why wait to take advantage of them?

‘We believe in life before death’ as an old Christian Aid slogan put it when I was growing up. It seems a shame to waste an opportunity as wonderfully fruitful as that.

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19 May 2017. Is the new breed of white nationalists in retreat?

As the ‘alt-right’ movement breaks from President Trump, so goes its moment in the sun.

This article was first published in Waging Nonviolence.

Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus. Credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.

In April 2017, while Democrats and Republicans were finding common ground on starting a war in Syria following President Trump’s retaliatory airstrike for a brutal chemical gas attack on civilians, the so-called “alt-right” finally declared its break with the new administration. Richard Spencer, the enigmatic center of the alt-right and their leading “luminary,” took his rage to Twitter.

“The #AltRight is against a war in Syria. Period,” he said to echoes of retweets. “If Trump takes us into war in Syria, I’m done with him.”

Peter Brimelow’s anti-immigration website VDare continued the disappointment with Trump, explaining that the three things voters ended up with after becoming “Trump Republicans” were conflict with Syria, a Paul Ryan healthcare plan and tax cuts for billionaires. Across the blogs, podcasts and message boards, the alt-right is revolting against Trump, declaring his capitulation to military intervention the ultimate betrayal.

For those who have been watching the rise of the far-right in the United States, this response to Trump’s behavior may seem frenetically schizophrenic. This notion comes largely from the belief that white supremacist politics are based in traditional white colonialism, and that “America First” means the ability to enact militarized genocide on the developing world at will. The right-wing politics that the alt-right evolved from, however, is one that is isolationist at its core. They believe nationalism means creating strong boundaries between peoples, which would preclude intervention—both humanitarian and mercantile.

Paleoconservatism, an evolutionary stage leading up to the alt-right in the mid-2000s, was a reactionary response to the growth of “compassionate” interventionist neo-conservatism that rose to prominence inside of the GOP in the 1980s. The American Conservative, a paleo-leaning publication founded by Pat Buchannan, has been running headlines since this month’s bombing like “This Isn’t the Foreign Policy Trump Campaigned On” and “Bombing Syria Doesn’t Provide Humanitarian Relief.” This is not surprising since the defining principle of The American Conservative in the early 2000s was that it was the only major conservative institution to stand against the invasion of Iraq.

This rejection of Syrian intervention is uniform on the alt-right and signals the first major betrayal of the Trump presidency. Most white nationalist ideologues did not think that Trump would actually carry out a clean interpretation of their politics, but hoped they could mobilize him on their key political issues like foreign policy, refugees and non-white immigration. While he has enacted some of their agenda—including the Muslim travel ban, which was taken largely from Kris Kobach and the anti-immigration Tanton Network—his collaboration with Republican business interests has been disheartening. In that sense, the Syria bombing is only the most recent infidelity to the alt-right, albeit the most significant.

As a prelude to the widening rift, Stephen Bannon was removed from his central role on the National Security Council. The political world was shocked when Trump first brought Bannon into his inner circle—his previous job having been as head of Breitbart, which emerged as a “diet white nationalist” news site under his reign. Bannon’s own civic nationalism is tinged with fascist esotericists like Julius Evola and marked by allegations of open racialism and anti-Semitism. As such, he is deeply tied to a post-paleo world, situated to the right of the GOP and acting as the perfect weigh station between the fringe and the state house.

This was as close as Trump could walk to the alt-right, especially when he moved him to his advisory team. As Trump began to capitulate to the negotiations of party politics, Bannon’s hard edge waned, and his removal forced the alt-right to realize that Trump chose party loyalists over his dissident nationalist crew. While the anti-Trump left played a role in making Bannon’s nationalism politically toxic, it is more likely that Trump’s own power plays sunk his status. The hope for Spencer and others was that it was Bannon’s secret opposition to conflict with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that forced him off the council.

This break came after a long sequence of failures, each more significant than the last, which sparked the doubt on the right that then shifted into an anger. The alt-right could correctly be called a “post-libertarian” ideology, as most of their rank-and-file came out of the libertarian movement before abandoning it for ethnic nationalist reasons. Trump’s willingness to flirt with House Speaker Paul Ryan’s anti-worker healthcare policies—which would hit white workers in the Midwest and South especially hard—was a significant point of rupture. The writing was on the wall for months, as his transition team became a glossy episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous — especially from the international financial sector, which the alt-right views through an anti-Semitic conspiracy lens.

As Trump moves further away from the dissident cadre he brought into the halls of power with him, the alt-right is sent floundering, lacking its clear connection to the mainstream. White nationalism is still unpopular to the vast majority of Americans, so they need points of crossover to recruit. The Trump spaces have been that—from the recent “MAGA” rallies to the Students for Trump and Turning Point organizations on college campuses. If the alt-right publicly denounces and organizes against Trump, as Spencer and other major alt-right leaders are calling for, then the movement will lose access to its largest pool of potential converts.

On Sunday, April 9 2017, Spencer led a couple dozen supporters in front of the White House to protest Trump’s war in Syria. They were overwhelmed by counter protesters, who, while also uniformly against the military action, see no place for Spencer in any kind of public anti-war movement. While the alt-right protest itself lacked any crossover appeal to the broader Trump Republicans—a point solidified by the gathering’s anti-Semitic messaging—such a crossover is necessary for the movement to make any material gains.

If the alt-right is forced to divorce itself from Trump, then its members will find themselves in the same boat that white nationalists have always been in when their moderate allies turn on their agenda: completely marginalized. While this would not be the worst political move for the movement, without its own “purity politics” it lacks a reason for existing. The only legitimacy it has provided to itself is that its white nationalism is complete and explicit, presenting itself as the revolutionary alternative to the capitulation of what it calls the “cuckservative” establishment.

To continue supporting Trump amid this deviation from the program would reveal the movement’s own deal-making, and—without a strong sense of how organizing works—its supporters will instead bank their reputation on loud shows of anger rather than strategic thinking. This does not mean the alt-right will voluntarily walk into obscurity, but as it attempts to reclaim its identity firmly away from the Trump pulpit, its proponents will find they made far less progress than they believed.

In the end, the alt-right stands to become just a fascist movement that found a moment in the sun. That moment faded when its Trojan Horse leader was appropriated by his own business party—thereby sending the movement back to the fringes it desperately wanted to leave behind.

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17 May 2017. Yoga in Bogotá: imprisoned female FARC combatants look to the future

In a Bogotá women's prison, dozens of FARC combatants remain behind bars – but that hasn’t stopped them from making plans for political, and personal, transitions ahead. Español

Bogota women's prison. Bogota women's prison. Photo: Kiran Stallone.“Step to the front of your mats. Inhale; lift your arms high, expanding upwards. Exhale; fold over your legs, palms to the floor.” As I walk my students through basic sun salutations, one giggles when she cannot quite balance on one leg or touch the floor. Her name is Marilú, and she smiles at me as I suggest an alternative pose.  

Her reaction is not unusual in a beginner's class. But Marilú, 49, is far from the typical yoga student.

Instead, she is a FARC combatant incarcerated in a high-security women's prison in Bogotá. She has spent the last decade behind bars, convicted of terrorism and aggravated homicide for helping to explode a car bomb inside a military compound in 2007.

The FARC is an armed political group that has fought the Colombian government for nearly 60 years, with stated goals including wealth redistribution and land reforms for poor farmers. In recent decades it has also been linked to drug trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, illegal mining and other criminal activities.

After nearly four years of negotiations, a historic peace deal was finalised in December 2016. Among other things, it grants the FARC ten seats in congress and the right to form a political party. FARC combatants are meanwhile required to appear before special tribunals that will review their cases and award amnesties, prison sentences, or other sanctions.

Women in a demobilisation zone. Women in a demobilisation zone. Photo: Kiran Stallone.Since February approximately 6,900 combatants have arrived at 23 demobilisation zones across the country where they will remain for a maximum of 180 days, give up their weapons, register their cases, and have access to skill-building activities intended to facilitate their integration into civil society.

In the Bogota's women's prison where Marilú is incarcerated, she’s seen many fellow inmates released to these zones in recent weeks. But she and nearly 30 other women remain behind bars, anxiously awaiting news about whether, and when, they too will be allowed to leave.

Inside El Buen Pastor

Inside the prison, El Buen Pastor (The Good Shepherd), FARC prisoners are separated from the other inmates. Women incarcerated for robbery or drug trafficking are permitted to walk freely throughout the main prison areas, but political prisoners are locked behind a large metal door in separate quarters known as Pabellón Seis (the Sixth Pavilion).

The entrance to the Sixth Pavilion is intimidating and heavily guarded. Inside, however, it feels relaxed. The metal door opens onto an internal courtyard, surrounded by two floors of rooms with bright pink and green walls. In the courtyard, some women play basketball, while others sit outside of their rooms braiding each other’s hair.

The women wear civilian clothes, and colorful laundry is hanging to dry from all of the windows and doors. The smell of fried vegetables and meat comes from the adjacent kitchen, where they prepare meals with ingredients received from the prison. There is a small library as well.

"Who’s doing yoga?" I began teaching weekly yoga classes here in April 2017, as a volunteer for the Fundacion Teatro Interno. Set up by Colombian actress Johana Bahamón, it works in prisons country-wide, using yoga, theater, and dance to lessen the psychological consequences of captivity and improve possibilities of reconciliation and reintegration upon release.

As soon as I walk through the Sixth Pavilion's large metal door, one of the women calls out: “Who’s doing yoga?” Women step away from their chores and arrive with makeshift mats, greeting me with kisses on the cheek.

Moving through different yoga poses, they ask familiar questions. “How do I get a flat stomach?” “What can I do so my lower back doesn’t hurt?” One woman says: “If I didn’t exercise, I would go crazy.” Another: “It helps me to relax.”

After each class, I have a few minutes to talk to the women. Using a small notebook, the only object that I am allowed to take into the prison, I have been able to document some of their stories and learn about their plans for the future.

Some say they intend to return home to their families. Many hope to become politically involved as the FARC transitions from an armed group into a political party. All stress that they still support the group's vision for Colombia.

“We're still here!”

At its peak in the late 1990s, the FARC claimed to have 20,000 members. Today there are an estimated 7,500.

Under the 2016 peace deal, FARC combatants must appear before tribunals set up by Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace and receive amnesties, prison sentences, or other sanctions depending on their confessions and details of their cases. Immediate amnesty will be granted only to those with crimes categorised as acts of “political rebellion.”

The deal also covers already-captured and incarcerated FARC members. These prisoners’ cases will be reviewed by the same Special Jurisdiction for Peace, and many will be released to the demobilisation zones to join combatants who are already there.

On 18 April, four of the 60 women imprisoned at El Buen Pastor were sent to these zones. More have followed them in recent weeks.

Last week, 45 women remained behind bars. This week, that figure has dropped to 29. Those still inside are anxious for their release and frustrated at being left in the dark as to whether and when this will happen.

"The FARC is not demobilising, but rather mobilising and transitioning towards a different political phase.”

“When will they let us go? Please tell me when they will let us go,” demanded Doris, 50, last week, exclaiming: “We’re still here!” This week, I learned she was released and is now at a demobilisation zone.

Doris was part of the Bloque Ivan Ríos, a FARC section infamous for its control of narco-trafficking routes. She spent 14 years in prison, after her capture by state security forces in Medellín while attempting what she referred to vaguely as “a special job.”

Before she was released, Doris told me she was eager to get back to work to advance the FARC’s political agenda.

She said: “The FARC is not in the process of demobilising, but rather in a process of mobilising and transitioning towards a different political phase.”

Marilú, the woman incarcerated for her role in exploding the bomb in the Bogotá military compound in 2007, also says she wants “to work to achieve the political causes of the FARC within society, occupying a new space and taking on a new challenge.”

In particular, she wants to study communications and law, and to “serve the FARC within the new political party.” She said: “Particularly now that it is now legal, it is important to advance the FARC’s cause.”

Marilú’s future is uncertain -- but this hasn’t prevented her and her fellow prisoners from making personal, and political plans. Meanwhile, our yoga classes continue. “Inhale, curl yourselves up vertebrae by vertebrae. Exhale; bring your palms to your heart. Namaste.”

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17 May 2017. Emotional politics: suffer the little children?

Outrage over child abuse is no substitute for effective social policy.

Credit: Flickr/Need NOT Greed. Some rights reserved.

The contest for the leadership of Britain’s Conservative Party in July 2016 highlighted the enormous symbolic power of children in politics. When Andrea Leadsom attempted to define her opponent Theresa May as lacking something vital for leadership by virtue of her childlessness, she was attempting to tap into the deep emotions attached to children and parenting.

Politicians and the media frequently seek to exploit these emotions because, in political terms, children embody hope for an imagined future, and they symbolise social and cultural well-being. While Leadsom’s crude assertion that, “being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake” backfired badly, this is not usually the case when children are invoked.

Stories about children can serve particularly important functions, especially in terms of a politician’s need to be, or at least to appear to be, compassionate and empathic. Such stories attract wide attention in the media, especially when they concern children’s suffering.

In the competition for attention among news agencies, as media expert Susan Moeller puts it, “children are perceived to be one of the few sure-fire ways to attract eyeballs.” In the hierarchy of innocence, the face of a child has the capacity to transcend boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them.’

Stories about children’s suffering can produce very strong and apparently shared emotional responses, reflecting people’s identification as parents in a universal sense, even if they don’t have children themselves. As academic Sara Ahmed observes in her book The Cultural Politics of Emotion, “That child could be mine”.

When the body of three-year old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi was washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015, his death came to symbolise not only the desperate plight of refugees but also how ‘we’ might be defined in relation to his suffering. The expression of a shared emotional response to such a terrible event defines us as compassionate, providing us with a more positive image of ourselves.

Given the potential for stories about children to evoke such powerful emotions, it’s not surprising that politicians seek to mobilise them in support of their own agendas. The pressure on politicians to identify with the electorate in empathic terms as being 'just like us' means that a collective emotional response to children's suffering can become an important mechanism to garner more popular support. Nowhere is this seen more powerfully than in political and media reactions to the deaths of children from severe abuse or neglect.

The death of a child at the hands of their own parents or carers arouses deep cultural anxieties and moral disturbance. This is all the more so when childhood is idealised and children are the focus of adult anxieties in an increasingly precarious world, in need of protection from risks ranging from climate change to cyberbullying. The inability of a state or community to secure the welfare of its children renders our collective identity as a ‘good society’ fragile and questionable.

This imagined sense of who we are as a nation is of central importance in the political vocabulary of leaders. Social workers, as professionals to whom the state delegates responsibility for protecting children, become the target of particularly intense levels of anger and hostility when they are perceived to have failed in their duties.

In the UK, this hostility reached its zenith in late 2008 around the death of Peter Connelly (or ‘Baby P’), who died from extensive injuries aged 17 months in August 2007 in the London Borough of Haringey whilst the subject of a child protection plan. Connelly’s case continues to shape the British child protection system, not least through the so-called ‘Baby P effect:’ a dramatic and continuing rise in the numbers of children in care.

Yet it’s important to understand that the starting point for the Baby P story was not just the horrific nature of his death. The names of most children who die from similar forms of extreme abuse and neglect never make the national headlines. What characterised this case was the nature of the political, media and public response.

David Cameron’s reaction—at that time the leader of the Conservative Party in opposition—was immediate and visceral. In the London Evening Standard he wrote this: “Watching the news last night took my breath away. My wife Sam couldn’t watch and left the room...As a father of three small children who I would do anything to protect, I am sickened to the core by these crimes.”

This intensely personal account of his feelings as a parent quickly became a wider appeal to a distinctive national identity. In an article in The Sun newspaper published the next day (and no longer available online), Cameron asserted that “Britain’s sickened and we’re angry too—outraged at the failures that left a child to die.” His article formed part of the newspaper’s launch of a media campaign to punish the professionals involved in Connelly’s care.

The British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, stood accused of failing to respond as a father: “He is a loving father himself, yet he seemed to be the only parent in Britain whose blood was not boiling at those who should have saved Baby P from the merciless savages who killed him…Heads must roll” said The Sun in a leader published on November 13 (also no longer available).

Next day, Ed Balls, then the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, mirrored this emotional language in a blogpost and a column for the Wakefield Express which ran as follows: “The details of how that little boy had been treated by his mum and step-father made my blood boil and my heart bleed.”

Balls eventually penned his own piece for The Sun on November 27 under the headline, “The power of your feeling is clear,” before sacking the Head of Children’s Services involved in the case on national television on December 1.

There can be little doubt that politicians have a moral mandate to respond to news stories about children’s suffering, especially when a child dies under conditions of extreme neglect or abuse. Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild argues that political leaders have a key role to play as ‘feeling legislators’, particularly at times of national turmoil or crisis. They reflect collective emotions, but also and crucially, they have the capacity to mobilise and shape emotional responses to news events by creating rules about how we imagine we should feel.

How and why they do this are key questions that we have to explore and understand, because the consequences of the emotional politics involved in child protection are wide-ranging, long-lasting and profound. The culture of blame that continues to dominate children’s services is wholly counterproductive to the goal of protecting children and supporting their families. Just as crucially, these forms of politics are characterised by their selective inattention to other forms of children’s suffering.

In the account of Peter Connelly’s death, discourses on welfare were combined with a story of so-called ‘underclass’ parenting as evil. A story of evil acts became virtually synonymous with welfare dependency. In its editorial about the case on November 13 2008, for example, The Times asserted that “The welfare state has created some communities with no morality.”

In these ‘welfare ghettos’ of political and media discourse, living children are caught up along with their parents in an emotional politics that’s characterised by a fear of the supposedly expanding threat posed by a culture of dependency and moral degeneration. Far from being viewed as ‘innocents’ in a world of poverty and disadvantage, these children are often implicated as the future ‘dangerous other.’

The dead child is rescued in metaphorical terms from this discourse as a universal child that could be yours or mine. The attention of policy-makers is fixed on a perpetual cycle of inquiry into such deaths, followed by further reforms. By contrast, living children who might be the subject of compassion and political action remain ‘hidden in plain sight’ because the real world they occupy is marginalised, and largely viewed with contempt.

However, it is these children—and their families—whose suffering poses the most urgent and serious moral questions for political leaders. The growing numbers of families with children living in extreme poverty has produced a ‘life chances postcode lottery.’ High levels of deprivation are directly linked to an increase in rates of social work intervention. Social workers are overwhelmed by the levels of needs they see in families. Each step increase in deprivation is accompanied by an increase in the chances that children will end up in care or be subject to a child protection plan.

If political leaders want to exercise their moral mandate to act with compassion in response to children’s suffering, they must turn their attention to the structural problems that produce poverty and inequality and deliver the resources that local authorities need to enable social workers to support families who are coping with intolerable pressures. 

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15 May 2017. Why the left needs to re-embrace the First Amendment

Censorship of the alt-right is tempting, but history tells us it will backfire. 

Credit: Flickr/Newtown Graffiti. Some rights reserved.

Why, around 40 years ago, did the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) defend the right of the Nazi Party of America to hold a march in a majority Jewish Illinois town which was home to 5,000 Holocaust survivors? Why has the ACLU, founded in the midst of the country’s “Red Scare” in 1920, filed federal lawsuits on behalf of the Ku Klux Klan and the notoriously homophobic Westboro Baptist Church?

Viewed from Europe, where a man was once fined for a “loud belch”, the American commitment to free expression—even for racists, fascists, Nazis, and bigots—often seems extreme. However, in recent years there have been growing calls, particularly on American college campuses, for limits on First Amendment protections for categories such as ‘hate speech’ and ‘violent verbal conduct.’

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has tracked this movement closely, and suggests that “39.6 percent of the 449 colleges and universities” it analysed in 2016 “maintain policies that seriously infringe upon the free speech rights of students.” Specific examples reflect a growing emphasis on student sensibilities over free expression: quoting the N-word verbatim from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is “an explicit act of racial violence”; Things Fall Apart, The Great Gatsby, and The Merchant of Venice come with “trigger warnings”; and the annual performance of The Vagina Monologues can be cancelled because “the play excludes the experiences of transgender women who don’t have a vagina.”

Although ‘trigger warnings,’ restrictive speech codes and expansive definitions of ‘hate speech’ are often ridiculed by the right, they represent serious attempts to create a more sensitive political vocabulary that is mindful of the harm that can flow from words—even unintentionally. But the broader debate raises some serious questions for those on the left who want to both protect marginalised social groups and maintain open political discourse.

Do we support free speech for those who would silence us if they had the chance? Do racists—even Nazis—deserve the protection of the First Amendment? Is the revolt against ‘political correctness’ urged on by President Trump and others simply the last line of defence for privileged white males who are threatened by evolving social norms? Should historically oppressed groups be protected from right-wing ‘hate speech’ on college campuses?

These are both personal and political questions. Many of us may passionately agree in principle with Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s famous statement that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” But when translating this sentiment into our lives, are we comfortable telling a transgender person that we extend this right to those who tell them they are “simply gay men dressing up for attention”? Or telling Mexican-Americans that the right to free expression protects those who call them “rapists, pederasts and child abusers”?

Any attempt at resolving the tension between defending free speech for all and challenging economic, racial and gendered oppression must go beyond the realm of abstract philosophical debate. It must be rooted in history, politics and—the most difficult part—an honest appraisal of how our personal convictions square with our worldviews.

To begin with, it is important to assess arguments that seek to define the limits of free speech. On this point, conservative activists have frequently contrasted their absolutist position with that of left-wing ‘snowflakes’ who they see as obsessed with policing language.

Although this ignores the fact that the right’s commitment to free speech is often selective, the notion that “the rhetoric of free speech” has become a “delusion” to “facilitate bigotry” overwhelmingly originates from the left. It stems from the view that ‘hate speech’ is corrosive: free speech isn’t absolute, and ‘you can’t shout fire in a crowded theatre’ as the saying goes, because of the potential consequences if a stampede were to occur. The same applies to stoking up hatred and discrimination in divided societies.

Moreover, there are legitimate question marks against the idea that a “neutral marketplace of ideas” exists. Because of underlying social inequalities, certain voices—which “tend to be white, straight, male and class-privileged”—are inherently louder than others. There’s a danger that these privileged voices are defending free speech not out of any commitment to principle but to protect their continued dominant social position.  

Such arguments have strong foundations. It’s true, for example, that even with the clear wording and protections of the First Amendment, free speech is not considered to be absolute. Contrary to what is sometimes argued, there is no credibly accepted “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment, but libel laws, for example, acknowledge that limits do exist.

Although conservatives like Milo Yiannopoulos have seemingly built their careers on shouting ‘fire in a crowded theatre’ at every opportunity, it’s worth remembering that this charge was originally made by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes against anti-war activists, and was given legal underpinning by the Espionage Act. The 1919 case, Schenck v. United States, “upheld a man’s conviction for distributing leaflets opposing the military draft” because, in Holmes’s words, “when a nation is at war, many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight, and that no Court could regard them as protected by any constitutional right.”

“Comrade Schenk” was not the only socialist who discovered the limits of free speech. Rose Pastor Stokes was given a ten-year prison sentence in 1918 for saying that “the government is for the profiteers”; five-time Socialist Party Presidential Candidate Eugene Debs was thrown behind bars for seditious anti-war speeches; and a Minnesota man also earned a prison sentence for telling volunteer knitters that “No soldier ever sees these socks.” All, apparently, were shouting ‘fire’ and had to be silenced. Their only weapon was the First Amendment, whose defence became a leading cause of the American left from Debs and Stokes through to the free speech movements of the 1960s.

Why does this history matter? In one sense, it gives important context to one of the most commonly quoted statements abridging the right to free expression, indicating why it has since been described by the ACLU as “worse than useless” and has been decisively rejected in subsequent court cases. But it also demonstrates how the First Amendment has been central to defending the marginal and the oppressed—and not just the “white, straight, male, and class-privileged.”

It was Martin Luther King’s defence against Governor George Wallace’s attempt to “protect public safety” by banning his march on from Montgomery to Selma in 1965; Reverend B. Elton Cox’s defence against the sheriff of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who had accused him of “inflammatory” speeches advocating sit-ins at segregated lunch counters; and the principal recourse for 187 black students in South Carolina who were charged with “breaching the peace” for protesting at the site of the state government in 1961.

In these cases, the precedent for First Amendment protection had been set by a racist priest expelled from the Catholic Church, and it was later strengthened by cases defending the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party. This is why leading progressive intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky have signed petitions supporting free speech for Holocaust deniers using the justification that “you either believe in free speech for views you despise, or you don’t believe in it all.”

Defending the First Amendment isn’t a lofty, abstract principle derived from classical liberal philosophy, but a recognition of the fact that even a seemingly innocuous exception to the right of free expression can easily become a rule.

Today of course, activists on college campuses aren’t advocating for censorship from the Federal Government. But they and their universities are heading in a troubling direction. The University of California at Berkeley’s recent cancellation of Ann Coulter’s planned speech due to “security concerns” follows the same logic as Wallace’s attempt to ban the 1965 civil rights march. The university couldn’t guarantee her security from the students who posed “active security threats”; Wallace maintained that he couldn’t guarantee King’s security from angry whites.

This is often known as the “Heckler’s veto”—restricting free speech because it’s likely to provoke a heated response. If activists on the left want to impose it on Coulter, Yiannopoulos, Charles Murray or the countless other conservative speakers accused of ‘hate speech’ or ‘violent verbal conduct,’ they can have no complaints when it’s imposed on them.

Defending free expression for even the most abhorrent views may seem like a luxury while violent immigration raids are accelerating, reproductive rights are threatened and far-right strategists are making themselves comfortable in the White House. However, with a Republican administration displaying constant hostility to activists and the press, this is a dangerous time for the left to be wavering in its commitment to the First Amendment. In the ACLU’s words: “If the government gets to decide which speech counts as hate speech, the powers that be may later feel free to censor any speech they don’t like.”

However, there is a deeper issue here. A progressive or transformational political movement is—almost by definition—based on the constant questioning of authority, the refusal to believe anything until it’s officially denied, and a willingness to entertain dangerous ideas. This has never been confined to fiscal policy, healthcare, trade agreements or tax reform; it’s a much more fundamental commitment to critically examining our culture, worldview and daily life.  Only free speech, with all its risks and controversies, can renew this commitment.

Defending the First Amendment is not just a strategy to protect our views from state repression, it’s an imperative to re-examine ourselves continuously, jarring us out of our complacency and challenging both our reason and our emotions. As Zach Wood of Williams College puts it: “We should not settle for merely refining and advancing our own ideas”; instead, we should embrace “uncomfortable learning” on campus and beyond. This “uncomfortable learning” is central to the history and identity of the left. Now is the time to reclaim it.  



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13 May 2017. No Dogs, No Indians

In a world mediated by sound-bites, perhaps the theatre can take us back to what it means to be human.

Credit: Siddhartha Bose. Some rights reserved.

1998, Kolkata. I am sitting in the bedroom of my parent’s flat watching David Lean’s version of E.M. Forster’s Passage to India. My memory is watery, but I recall certain flickering images on the screen: night-time, cut to a shot of the moon, cut to the camera panning to a sign outside a colonial club. Dogs and Indians Not Allowed. The memory fades to black.

2015, London. Channel 4’s Indian Summers is on the screen. Shot in Malaysia, the story is set in Shimla, which is in the foothills of the Himalayas, and was known as the summer capital of the Raj. Inexplicably, this imposter Shimla is painted in rich green hues as a humid tropical paradise, where the Angrez (English) perspire profusely, while the natives are like cartoon characters mouthing speech bubbles. This is the Indian exotic that returns to the Victorian fear of, and fascination with, the subcontinent and its people, and their supposedly uninhibited nature, sensual and wild.

The camera zooms in on another sign outside another European club in British India. Dogs and Indians Not Allowed. Suddenly, the earlier memory, the fading film image, one that had remained buried and suppressed, resurfaces like one of those corpses that float on the Ganges, shockingly visible, bobbing on filthy water, garlanded by flowers and toxic pollutants. The existence of that sign in the present, on TV, the personal and historical memory of it, humiliates and shames me.

Lean’s Passage to India was part of the Raj revival of the early 1980s in the UK—Salman Rushdie wrote witheringly about it in ‘Outside the Whale’. Three decades later, plus ça change. Intriguingly, in these films and TV shows, there is little on how Indians responded to this shaming provocation. The sign itself was part of colonial policy to keep Indians in their place, to remind them of their subhuman status in the machinery of empire, despite the collaborators, the clerks, the judges, the teachers, the district officers, the maharajas, as well as all the soldiers who laid down their lives in the thousands for Europe’s battles.

Today, the West has outsourced its many wars, and we still live in a world where refugees fleeing these wars are referred to as ‘swarms.’ Language still has infinite powers of exclusion. The wretched of the Earth must address the terrible power of these words, appropriate and remake and dismantle them, in order to become human again.

I grew up in Kolkata and Mumbai, two (post)colonial cities that have played a vital part shaping modern and postmodern India. The Angrez designed large areas of the cities, though Indian hands built them. The Angrez set up schools and colleges and churches, and went about a bewildering and radical process of naming these cities, their streets, and the myriad-coloured slaves who served them. Kolkata was divided into ‘white town’ and ‘black town.’ There was a ‘gray town’ as well, in the heart of the city, north of Dharamtala, where the Chinese, the Armenians, the Afghans and many more lived and worked.

The streets of central Kolkata, once the second city of the British Empire, still echo its imperial past: Russell Street, Elgin Road, Loudon Street, Park Street. It’s much the same in south Mumbai. Despite having an ancient civilisation, the conscious classification and naming of a million Indians (and Indias) happened during colonial rule. Some of the Angrez went native, married Indians, studied Sanskrit, styled themselves as nawabs, morphed into William Dalrymple’s ‘white mughals’—the fairest of the fair, the uber-caste.

Indians, however, were left to negotiate history via appropriation and bricolage. Thomas Macaulay, who sneered at, and rubbished, everything Indian without knowing an Indian language, went about remaking the modern Indian mind by constructing an educational policy that continues to shape, and blight, India today. In 1835, he said: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern—a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”

English became the first language of education, of aspiration, of power. A new type of mutant Indian was born. Many of these mutants were inspired by the ideas of 19th century modernity emerging from the West. The Bengal/Indian Renaissance happened as a negotiation between Europe and ancient India. Rabindranath Tagore—the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature—famously said that he was a product of Hindu, British, and Muslim cultures. However, I suspect that under Western eyes, the ideas of a complex, hybrid Indian modernity will always be viewed as derivative.

The classrooms of Kolkata and Mumbai’s better schools, with names like St. Xavier’s and Cathedral and John Connon, still teach Shakespeare and Keats. Many of the graduates of these schools, ‘brown sahibs’, emigrate, or stay in India, and use their access to the language of the colonisers to exercise an almost colonial power in their nation. Aatish Taseer has written extensively about this in a searing and honest way. A dismantling needs to take place. The revolution will be live.

I am a product of all the cultural neuroses I’ve cited. I grew up in with English, Bengali, and Hindi, but fundamentally, I am one of Macaulay’s great grandchildren, defined by English.

I left India when I was eighteen, moving to the US to study in a small liberal arts college with a generous scholarship programme. I worked many jobs during those years. I painted houses, cleaned bars, pushed carts in libraries, taught English at university, travelled in Greyhound buses, went homeless in New York, voyaged through the American mythic, living a life some Indians would have viewed with some embarrassment. I remember an African American friend called Lyn seated on a barstool in the Midwest, who told me that I was ‘fighting the caste system.’ I lived and survived, and after 9/11 and the Iraq war, I joined the queues of bearded folk who were asked the silliest questions, and detained in the most absurd circumstances while flying in and out of the US. 

Like all colonials dreaming and writing in English, I began yearning for England (even some Americans suffer from this syndrome). I spent two years preparing and securing specific scholarships for doctoral study administered by the British government and the University of London, and I landed at Heathrow in September 2005, armed with two suitcases and a bag.

After immigration, I was ushered into a line of passengers with third world passports, all of whom had to go through medical tests; the fear of disease and contamination by the other still exists. In a flash of inspiration, I told the guardians of the land that I was Indian, but I’d lived in America for seven years. I wasn’t a stray dog—no, I was more of a pet poodle. ‘You lived in America!’ they gasped. I didn’t have to stand in a queue. I was free to enter the city gates.

As we commemorate the 70th anniversary of Indian independence, and as Britain reckons with its own sense of self in times of Brexit, there is much talk of the decline of the West and the rise of the East. In India, a new, muscular form of hyper-capitalism married with the rise of the Hindu right is asserting itself—cheered on and supported by much of the Indian diaspora in the UK and the US. The reaction to historical humiliation is to wear the mask of the coloniser. Thump your chests, make a noise, say with pride that India, despite its grotesque social problems, is an emerging power.

V.S Naipaul’s million mutinies mutate to a billion shocks to the system. India’s version of the new world disorder slouches towards Varanasi to be born. Meanwhile, the West is shutting its doors, building walls and fences, retreating from a necessary internationalism. The dictatorship of the media ensures that we make snap judgements about diverse peoples without actually knowing them. Communities are in conflict, and everyone, if the news is to be believed, feels under siege.

In this environment, all we have left are stories, stories we tell each other, myths that we make as a way not only to negotiate the traumas of the past, but also to remind each other that we are living, breathing bodies, bodies that cry and bleed and laugh, not holograms and projections on 24 hour news feeds. In a world mediated by images and soundbites, perhaps the world of the theatre and performance can take us back to what it means to be human again.

My play, No Dogs, No Indiansis about crossing thresholds, claiming access, seeking personal dignity. Pritalata Waddedar, the forgotten female revolutionary at the heart of the play, reacts to colonial humiliation through violence. Shyamal Chatterjee, the brown sahib, the other protagonist, appropriates the culture of the coloniser. Both enact their own little tragedies. 

In my own journey through gateways and borders, the empty space of the theatre remains the most inclusive, democratic, and celebratory of difference. In a world of walls meant to exclude, the theatre welcomes. 

The theatre is live. The theatre is real. The theatre is inclusive. Here we are, made of flesh and blood, sharing our stories with you. And you, the audience, will help us make this unrepeatable and vanishing moment almost holy.

No Dogs, No Indians plays at the Brighton Festival on May 17 and 18 2017. Tickets are available here.

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12 May 2017. The town that adopted trauma-informed care—and saw a decrease in crime and suspension

Empathy and redemption are far more effective than punishment and incarceration.

Former Lincoln Alternative High School Principal Jim Sporleder and Kelsey Sisavath. Photo courtesy of Jim Sporleder/YES! Magazine. All rights reserved.

A few months into her freshman year at Lincoln Alternative High School, Kelsey Sisavath got into a fight with a girl outside of class. She was sent to the principal’s office and arrived still fuming. There was a time at Lincoln, a school once known as a last resort for those who were expelled from the area’s other high schools, when fights often ended in out-of-school suspensions or arrests. But Principal Jim Sporleder didn’t immediately scold her. Instead, he asked how she was doing, then left her alone in the office with a granola bar, a water bottle, and some tissues to dry her tears. When he returned half an hour later, Sisavath was feeling calm enough to talk.

 “If he would have asked me the details and talked about punishment right away, it probably would have just pushed me even more off of the edge,” she reflected.

At the time, her personal life was riddled with pain. For years, Sisavath had bounced back and forth between her mother, who was addicted to opiates, and her emotionally distant father. Just two years earlier, she had been sexually assaulted by a stranger. All of these experiences left her feeling emotionally and physically neglected. In the eighth grade, she started hanging out with kids in gangs and skipping class to smoke marijuana.

That kind of behavior followed her to high school, where she could have faltered. But Sisavath’s experience at Lincoln was different. Sporleder and the staff created an environment built on empathy and redemption through a framework called trauma-informed care, which acknowledges the presence of childhood trauma in addressing behavioral issues. The practices vary depending on the environment, but they begin with the understanding that childhood trauma can cause adulthood struggles like lack of focus, alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and suicide.

Lincoln Alternative High School is in the small city of Walla Walla in southeastern Washington. It had been a place for students with disciplinary issues, those removed from the area’s other high schools, ordered there by a judge, or those who had performed poorly in middle school.

Tucked in the middle of a residential neighborhood, Lincoln’s brick edifice and cherry-red doors now serve as a place of opportunity for many students. At Lincoln, the first trauma-informed high school in the nation, the graduation rate increased by about 30 percent and suspensions decreased by almost 85 percent a year after implementing the framework. The school’s success, along with the advocacy efforts of relentless community leaders, convinced service providers throughout the city to adopt trauma-informed care in their own fields.

Today, an electric utility provider, the Division of Children and Family Services, the police department, and many others have all committed to raising awareness of traumatic childhood experiences and to providing internal resources to foster a safe and healthy community. As more cities and states consider childhood trauma a public health issue, Walla Walla’s success has transcended this former trading town. It now serves as a model for resilience-building in the burgeoning trauma-informed care movement that is sweeping the nation.

The tipping point began in 1998 with a landmark study of over 17,000 patients in Southern California that showed the pervasiveness of trauma. The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study asked participants if they had experienced any of 10 types of childhood trauma, called adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. These include direct emotional, physical, and sexual abuse; a mother treated violently; a family member with substance dependence or mental illness; parental separation or divorce; a household member who was incarcerated; and emotional and physical neglect.

The more types of trauma a person had experienced, the study found, the more predisposed they were to social, behavioral, and emotional problems and the adult onset of chronic illness. Nearly two-thirds of the participants were found to have experienced at least one traumatizing childhood event. Some specialists have since added other ACEs, such as experiencing racism or witnessing violence.

Around the same time as the ACE study, a group of researchers and pediatricians at Harvard University and elsewhere were conducting research showing that toxic stress, the frequent or continual strain on a young child without adequate adult support, could negatively impact the child’s brain development. Out of this research came an increased interest in trauma’s impact on the brain. Educators and doctors began wondering if childhood trauma could be prevented, or if its impacts could be minimized.

On the first day of her freshman year in 2012, Sisavath noticed that her high school was different. The hallways were plastered with large posters that listed traumatic experiences like emotional abuse beside examples of how to build resilience. On one, the words “attachment to a caring adult” accompanied a colorful cartoon of an adult and child ice-skating. Sisavath started adding up her own childhood traumas as she walked past the posters and soon realized that she had experienced seven of the 10 ACEs.

At Lincoln, students and teachers mingled in a natural way, unlike traditional school settings, where student cliques often dominate campus. Even in cold weather, principal Sporleder stood bundled up at the school’s entrance greeting students with a high-five and a smile. “I’m happy that you’re here,” he said as students rushed past him.

But the relationship between students and staff at Lincoln wasn’t always so symbiotic. When Sporleder first arrived at the school in April 2007, he said, about five or six gangs roamed the halls and an intern with little administrative experience was running the school. The building was in a constant state of chaos. Students freely hurled profanities. So Sporleder took a hard line by handing out automatic three-day out-of-school suspensions for every “f--- you.”

Then, in the spring of 2010, he attended a workshop in Spokane, Washington, on the impacts of stressful childhood experiences. Keynote speaker John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist, explained how toxic stress overfills the brain with cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. Sporleder suddenly understood that his students’ behavior wasn’t completely in their control; their brains were affected by toxic stress. “It just hit me like a bolt of lightning that my discipline was punitive and it was not teaching kids,” he said. He hunted for curriculum to bring this understanding into the classroom, but found none. So he set out on a mission to bring trauma-informed care to his students.

Most of the students he oversaw at Lincoln had experienced multiple forms of trauma, and were in poverty and on free or reduced lunches. “That’s like running the trauma hospital,” Sporleder said. “We were dealing with crisis after crisis after crisis.”

He brought a researcher into the school to train the teachers in trauma-informed care and started replacing out-of-school suspensions with in-school ones. He allowed students to ask for a break when they could sense that their traumas were being triggered. Staff members visited the homes of students who skipped class to figure out what was wrong and how they could help them return to school. The school also provided students with free on-campus counseling and basic health care through a health clinic that received initial funding from a local medical center. There, students could get birth control pills and ibuprofen.

“I don’t know what it is,” Sisavath remarked about the staff at Lincoln. “They just have such a great connection with kids and it’s unreal.”

As the situation at Lincoln improved, Walla Walla began to take notice. Soon, trauma-informed practices that spawned in the school spread throughout the rest of the city. Getting to this point, however, had not been a quick or simple effort.

Theresa Barila moved to Walla Walla in 1984. For about 20 years, she worked as a fisheries biologist in the federal salmon and steelhead recovery program of the Pacific Northwest. Her research specialty was fish stress. When her daughter was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, she decided to resign from her position and pick up a part-time job with an organization that offered resources and services for at-risk youth. It was there she was introduced to the study of childhood trauma and ACEs.

Two years before Lincoln became a trauma-informed school, Barila introduced ACE awareness to Walla Walla. Today, she is the director of the Children’s Resilience Initiative, a community response to childhood trauma, and she credits her scientific background studying stress as a motivation for learning how to prevent and deal with ACEs.

“Yeah, it was for fish, but systems are pretty similar,” she quipped.

At first, Walla Walla residents were skeptical. “This just feels like you’re having a pity party. Where’s the accountability?” Barila recalled community members asking. But to her, a decade of research on the effects of toxic stress on the brain held the keys to understanding behavior. She knew the city could use that information to uncover the roots of trauma in its community.

Resistance has not been specific to Walla Walla. “In 2008, a lot of people would hear about this and think, This is voodoo,” said Jane Stevens, a veteran health reporter who created a social journalism network called ACEs Connection after learning of the Kaiser study. But today, she says, it’s incontrovertible science, and now the focus is on how best to integrate that understanding.

So what changed in the American psyche in the past 20 years for trauma-informed care to gain momentum?

Stevens says her network and the work of many leaders in the movement have helped raise awareness. She likens it to the slow and steady progress of every scientific revelation. “It’s sort of like plate tectonics in geology: For hundreds of years, people thought that the continents never moved,” she said. Although scientists proposed well beforehand that plates moved, “it wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s that plate tectonics was accepted and integrated into geology; and then in earthquake-prone zones, the science was the foundation for changes in building codes, engineering codes, urban planning, emergency response, etc.”

Nearly 10 years after introducing trauma-informed care to Walla Walla, Barila foresees a major breakthrough in resilience-building. The success of Lincoln High School and the enthusiasm of former Principal Sporleder have converted other partners in the community. The Children’s Resilience Initiative created a Memorandum of Understanding in September 2013 with more than 20 community organizations, agencies, and service providers, ranging from the Department of Corrections to a local medical center. They each agreed to create a community that understands the impacts of trauma, brain development, and ways to foster resilience. Walla Walla County Sheriff John Turner has incorporated some of those practices into law enforcement; Barila trained all of the deputies to acknowledge that toxic stress affects brain architecture.

“I think it just added another layer of understanding to some of the issues that [deputies] come across in the field, and it’s easier for them to manage their own emotions toward people that are being unruly toward them,” Turner said. Along with crisis intervention and mental health training, trauma-informed practices gave deputies a deeper understanding of human behavior. It helped them to exercise patience with people who behave disorderly and to deescalate situations.

“It might be something in the person’s physiology, anatomy, or brain structure that they can’t help,” Turner added. “It’s easier to not take it as personally, and it’s easier to deal with the actual situation, as opposed to dealing with the emotions of it.”

Within the past several years, FBI crime statistics in the county have dropped. Although Turner thinks that trauma-informed training has been valuable, he stresses that additional training and hiring decent officers also have impacted those results.

Acts of understanding, patience, and kindness have helped transform strangers into partners and friends. To Annett Bovent, a parent in Walla Walla, ACEs awareness helped illuminate the roots of her own problems and connected her to her neighbors. “People care. Before, I always felt like I was alone, and I don’t feel that way anymore,” she said. Suddenly, the town seemed to transform from black and white to color. “I feel like, to me, the information is common sense, but it was like I was the only one who heard it. And now it’s like everyone wants to know.”

Since retiring in 2014, former Lincoln Principal Sporleder has remained busy flying around the country speaking at educational and community conferences. He recently attended a workshop in Sacramento, California, where he consulted 25 principals, some of whom oversaw thousands of students. They discussed how they could use Lincoln’s model for their own schools, where some have 10 times the population of Lincoln. “I was amazed at how, once they started talking with each other, they were coming up with a model,” Sporleder recounted. An alternative school in Bend, Oregon, is among the many that has built on Lincoln’s example.

For Sisavath, trauma-informed care has had a lasting impact on her life. She graduated last spring with honors and is currently working part time at Dairy Queen while she attends a local community college. She said she doesn’t take things as personally as she once did, and has learned that behaviors often derive from childhood trauma. Her high school experience also sparked an interest in psychology and philosophy, which she hopes to pursue in college.

“There’s so many things that happen outside of the classroom that can’t be helped in school,” she explained. “If every teacher knew the techniques, knew what to do, knew how to support these kids, it would make a huge difference.”

This article was first published in YES! Magazine.

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10 May 2017. Visualising mental illness

Could mapping our anxieties generate more understanding and support?

Credit: Jill Simpson. All rights reserved.

What does mental illness look like? We know how it feels; at least I do, having suffered from anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) for many years. But it’s hard to visualise mental illness in the same way we might visualise physical disabilities, and this can make it difficult for people with no experience of mental health problems to empathise or imagine how they affect peoples’ lives.

Everyone experiences periods of anxiety and at normal levels such anxiety is good for us—it helps to keep us safe and responsive to danger. However, when anxiety reaches extreme and uncontrollable levels that are disproportionate to any actual risks or threats, it becomes a mental health problem. People who have never experienced such intense and irrational anxieties might find it hard to imagine how debilitating this can be. So is it possible to visualise personal experiences of mental health problems in a way that is intelligible and meaningful to those who have never experienced them? Making complex accounts of anxiety disorders more visible might help to increase awareness, understanding and empathy among both policy makers and the public.

The word ‘anxiety’ is widely used in public discourse and in popular culture to express almost any kind of personal experience of worry or concern. This makes it difficult for people to gauge what anxiety means when it becomes an issue of mental health, as with OCD. OCD is increasingly used as an adjective to describe someone who is very particular about how certain things are done, but this reduces a serious disorder to a personality trait, internalising the illness and placing responsibility for it firmly on the shoulders of the sufferer.  

In February 2017, for example, an aide to British Prime Minister Theresa May suggested that state benefits in the UK should go to “really disabled people” and not to those “taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety.” Although the aide was heavily criticised and has since apologised, his comments suggest the existence of a hierarchy in which some disabilities are deemed less worthy of attention and support than others. 

Minimising the significance of anxiety disorders in this way stems not just from the way we talk about them, but also from the invisible nature of much mental illness. Unlike many (but not all) physical disabilities, people with anxiety disorders often show no physical evidence of their existence on their bodies, making it hard for others to understand how they might affect their lives.  My research in critical data studies, combined with my own personal experience of OCD, have prompted me to explore visualisations as a means to communicate these invisible experiences of anxiety in a way that’s accessible and meaningful to non-sufferers. 

Data visualisation is a form of cultural interface; a mediator which allows people to make sense of abstract data and complex analytical processes. The raw data and processing techniques involved remain invisible, but visualisations can communicate trends, patterns and insights from the data in powerful ways. This makes it possible to use the results to help other people make sense of less visible forms of disability, and hopefully encourage awareness and understanding of their impact among policy makers - particularly those responsible for mental health services.

Inspired by an art project called Dear Data I’ve begun to visualise my own experience of OCD by quantifying my compulsions to check and re-check the same thing over and over again. To collect the data I tracked my behaviour for a day, noting every time I checked something, the number of times I checked it, and what it was that I was checking. 

In order to sort through the data I thought about what I needed to communicate to other people in order for them to understand the impact that OCD has on my life. The number of checking incidences was significant, as were the repetitive nature of the checks and the number of times I was compelled to return to re-check things that I had already checked. For the data visualisation to act as an accessible interface it needed to be aesthetically strong but also easy to interpret, inevitably concealing some of the complexity of my experience. In order to re-introduce some personal and contextual detail, and to help users to make a human connection with the data, the visualisation is hand drawn with annotations to describe some of the incidences in more detail.

Making personal experiences of anxiety both visible and public in this way is not something that everyone will want to do.  For many people, disability is a deeply personal and private aspect of their lives, and no-one should be required to make their experiences public in order to receive support from government or other individuals or organisations. However, I’ve found comfort in reading about other people’s accounts of their anxiety disorder, and visualising my own behaviour has helped me to take a step back from it, to see it as a symptom of OCD rather than a personal failing. 

Visualising mental illness might also have the potential to make an impact beyond the individual. In an era of austerity and public service funding cuts in Britain, making experiences of such conditions more visible may be one way to protect vital mental health services. If it’s possible to use visualisations to increase understanding, awareness and empathy among policy makers and the public, it will become harder to dismiss anxiety disorders as unworthy of support. 

Although I’m willing to share some of my experiences more publically, even I don’t want to make everything visible. The data I’ve mapped only represents compulsions which are, ironically, the publicly visible aspect of OCD. I’ve refrained from visualising the obsessive thoughts which drive my anxiety, because I consider these to be private. Yet the visualisation still provides an insight into how OCD impacts my day to day life, particularly in terms of the difficulty I have in completing simple tasks like, locking a door or logging into my emails.

Political considerations are built into all data sets, visualisations and interfaces. Human bias and subjectivity are woven into data through their collection, analysis, interpretation and visualisation. Despite the hype surrounding big data and its potential to ‘objectively’ inform public policy, it usually lacks both depth and context. Big data can be especially misleading because it is big.  So there is value in considering small, rich and subjective data sets alongside the analysis of larger bodies of material. In fact, it’s difficult to see how we could use visualisations to communicate meaningful experiences of anxiety beyond individual accounts, especially because mental illness is an extremely personal and contextual experience. So to understand mental illness it’s important to look at both aggregated data sets and individual stories.

Attempting to quantify a personal experience of OCD inevitably strips away much of its complexity, yet data visualisations do have the potential to communicate some of the ways in which this form of mental illness affects daily life. Even allowing for their limitations, they could certainly be used to encourage greater compassion, deeper understanding, and more empathy towards anxiety disorders and other forms of disability, and to help policy makers and the public see the importance of maintaining and improving mental health services that are publicly-funded, accessible, and comprehensive. 

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8 May 2017. Neoliberal psychology

Why do we allow the logic of the market to occupy our minds?

Credit: By Guillaume Paumier (Own work) CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

All too often, critics speak of neoliberalism as a coercive, external force lying somewhere ‘out there’ in the political landscape. But many of us increasingly and voluntarily govern our lives in a manner mirroring the logic of the market. Is it any wonder, then, that this ideology has become so naturalised, and the alternatives so hard to see?

Neoliberalism is an elusive term, typically used to describe such processes as privatisation, deregulation, the cutting back of social and welfare provision, the retraction of the state, and the idealisation of free-markets: ideas thought to have been born in the minds of scholars in Paris in the 1930s before they emerged as a political reality in the 1970s.

But this definition ignores the fact that this movement has dug its ideological roots deep inside each one of us. Neoliberal rationalities are both political and psychological, serving to create a utopian free-market order with the power of the state and to extend this logic to every corner of society. As the sociologist Loïc Wacquant puts it, neoliberalism represents an “articulation of state, market and citizenship that harnesses the first to impose the stamp of the second onto the third.”

Early neoliberal theorizing recognised that creating an environment that cultivates Darwinian-like competition actually requires a far broader set of rules. Thus, a key aspect of neoliberalism is not so much the rolling-back of regulation, but the type of society the rolling-out of state power is designed to uphold: striving to preserve whatever unequal distributions of talent and capabilities we are born with and whatever good or bad luck happens upon us through the chaos of life; frantically trying to fabricate an illusion of a level playing field; and disciplining those that break the rules or don’t even want to play.

But neoliberal theory didn’t only reject the earlier economic liberals’ belief that competitive free-markets emerge in a spontaneous natural order; it also extended this logic to the personal level, to the citizen, concluding that the rational, self-interested individual at the heart of neoclassical economics doesn’t ‘naturally’ emerge either. This gave rise to an even more active and insidious project to cultivate citizens who seek to compete in every aspect of their lives, chillingly captured by Margaret Thatcher in 1981 with her infamous statement: “Economics is the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”

This model of neoliberal citizenship has received wide-ranging attention from sociologists and political scientists to psychoanalysts and anthropologists. Michel Foucault conceived this new homo economicus as an entrepreneur of himself, shifting the liberal vision of people owning themselves as if they were a piece of property to a neoliberal vision of people owning themselves as if they were a business.

As property, people become devoid of notions such as duty, compassion and solidarity. They gain an artificial sense of separation from other people and from the ecology that supports all life, and seek fulfilment in increased wealth and consumption—a way of living that Aristotle and Siddhartha (the Buddha) would have dismissed thousands of years ago as thoroughly as any modern critic.

But within Neoliberalism there’s a shift: the world is no longer perceived simply as property to be consumed, but as an opportunity to be captured in order to increase returns to financial, social or human capital—a trickle down of capitalist rationality without a trickle down of wealth.

As a result, people become not only separated from each other and ‘nature’ in space, but also projected in time in a process of constant self-improvement, self-investment and the efficient application of one’s bundle-of-skills to maximize future returns. Crucially, this doesn’t just mean commodification, which is essential for capitalism's survival, but also the economisation of areas of human society in which no formal commodities are found. Thus, traditional non-market social norms are displaced by the cold-hearted, means-ends calculus of efficiency, investment, productivity, growth, costs and benefits, and calculated exchange—and along the way the quest for happiness is inverted: want to get rich? Get happy first.

What was once merely theory is now widely practiced. The neoliberal vision of the citizen was first made explicit in the abstract idea of human capital, but now it’s exemplified in more concrete ways every time volunteering in Africa is construed as a great thing to have on your CV; or when nine out of ten arguments for fighting patriarchy in the boardroom are appeals to efficiency; or where morning raves are promoted for their ability to improve productivity at work; or when the first thing on a list of 21 reasons to have sex is looking younger. Neoliberal rationality has become stunningly efficient at reproducing itself.

We can use Google Ngrams to visualise how this collective psychology has swept through society by tracking the frequency with which different words and phrases have been used in English-language books since the 19th century. By carefully selecting words and phrases that we encounter on a daily basis and which embody the spirit of neoliberal rationality, we find some fascinating patterns emerging near the beginning of the 1970s.

For example, there has been an explosion in usage of the phrase ‘sell yourself’—an unsettling sign of the way in which we have learnt to speak of ourselves in the language of the market. Now, we’re even encouraged to sell ourselves on our first dates. It’s as if we have abolished slavery only to replace it with a system of entirely voluntary self-commodification. Aside from the relatively chilled-out decade of the 1960s, time has also become a commodity that we buy, and in which we invest.

Politicians and policy makers make endless attempts to align self-interest with more desirable social or environmental outcomes (rather than appealing to collective responsibilities), a shift that’s manifested in the rapidly-expanding discourse around incentives. And the increasing usage of phrases like ‘it’s none of your (or my) business’ in contexts in which nothing is actually bought or sold shows how the idea of managing life as an entrepreneur has taken hold. Even in fervently anti-neoliberal writings we hear such phrases as ‘bang on the money’ applied to ideas about social justice.

Despite the tendency to see so much of personal, social and economic life as a calculated investment for future returns, contemporary societies don’t appear to have significantly increased their capabilities for solving their long-term problems. Threats such as climate change, exhausted food production systems and water supplies, antibiotic resistance, economic collapse, and the arms race remain mostly un-mitigated. So why do we still fail to react properly to such threats?

It appears that our lives have become almost permanently projected into a place lying somewhere between the present and the future. Our hopes, dreams, and quests for a meaningful existence are cast into a space in time that never actually arrives. It’s as if we’ve fabricated a kind-of secular afterlife—an imaginary destination that justifies the struggles of the present—although, unlike religious afterlives, this is one that we have to believe we’ll reach before our deaths.

These psychological impacts also seem deeply problematic in themselves. By cultivating the antithesis of a mindful, grounded way of living, it’s no wonder that we now hear talk of epidemics of depression, demoralisation, narcissism and other psychological disorders. But perhaps such issues have been breeding for far longer than the word ‘epidemic’ implies. Authors like Charles Eisenstein argue that a process of separation between people and nature began with the development of agriculture thousands of years ago, developing via the separation of the Gods from within nature to become forces of nature themselves, extending into the notion of human dominance over the natural world, and culminating in the neoliberal idea that we are not only separate from nature and each other but from our present selves.

Today, there does at least appear to be a growing recognition of the need to counter these trends, as evidenced by the surge of interest in mindfulness and meditation, which are becoming increasingly demystified by a growing body of scientific research. Predictably, the response of capitalism has been to appropriate these practices and direct them towards productivity and profits, nicely captured by Google’s ‘head of mindfulness training’ in a brand new neoliberal aphorism: “mindfulness opens the doorway to loving kindness, which is at the heart of business success.”

But the contradiction between the projected, atomised self of neoliberalism and the grounded egolessness of mindfulness is glaring. Business managers may believe that investing time in meditation will “pay dividends” in the form of increased employee productivity and reduced healthcare costs, but could a truly mindful consumer or investment banker ever exist? Perhaps such cultural appropriations will prove fatal to the psychological basis of neoliberal capitalism itself.

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5 May 2017. Passive patience is oppressive, but active patience can help us all

Does your commitment to justice override your desire for comfort?

Two people sitting on a couch while touching each other’s hands and smiling. Credit: Everyday Feminism. All rights reserved.

Originally published on Everyday Feminism.

She held me as we lay in bed together, falling asleep. We had only been dating for two months.

“I just ask you to be patient with me.”

I didn’t respond. I lay there thinking, “Not today, Becky. You gots to go.”

You see, I’m a Black woman, and my partner is a (white) Jewish woman. I am no stranger to white women asking me for patience without understanding that the trauma of being a queer Black woman in America means that we don’t have the same access to time.

I started pulling away from (what I perceived to be) the all too familiar request to honor a white woman’s experience(s) above my own. She felt my energy.

“Listen, there’s a difference between active and passive patience. I will never be passively patient with you.”

I was stunned. In 25 years, I had never heard this distinction.

More poignantly, I had never heard a white woman use the term patience in a way that didn’t center on her own experience, thus erasing my own.

Intrigued, I asked, “What’s the difference?”

She responded, “You’ve had a lifetime of white women talking. I’d rather show you.”

For the past 25 years, I’ve almost exclusively heard patience used in a passive, oppressive way. It’s been used as a tool to silence those seeking justice and relief.

It’s been six months, and my partner still hasn’t defined active—or rather, “radical”—patience verbally. Every distinction I’ve gathered has been from observing the way she shows up for justice, both in our relationship and in her work.

The personal is political, and observing the ways that she embodies active patience has given me context to explore the difference between active and passive patience politically.

Here are ten differences between active and passive patience.

1. Passive patience is stagnant—it doesn’t grow or change.

Passive patience doesn’t work towards changing the conditions that cause harm.

It just asks us to stop complaining, resisting, and demanding to comfort and appease folks who are being asked to change.

For example, when white women demanded the patience of trans women, Native women, and women of color during the Women’s March, what they were really saying is: “We meant well. Stop being divisive by reminding us of your oppression—that is both uncomfortable and inconvenient. Let us have this moment of solidarity, even if it comes at the expense of your erasure.”

In some ways, I understand their distress.

Change can be difficult, painful even. But pain and discomfort are inevitable and temporary parts of moving towards change and resolution, both ebbing and flowing in presence and intensity.

Our relationship to it often shifts, as opposed to remaining stagnant.

Suffering, however, is often either caused or inflicted and is the indeterminate and irresolvable experience of pain. It’s long-term, and its psychological, physical, and emotional impact are devastating.

When marginalized folks point out the ways that the actions of our oppressor(s) cause suffering, and our concerns are greeted with an insistence of silence, stagnation, and/or cooperation in our own suffering, as opposed to discussing solutions for change, that’s passive patience.

2. Passive patience conflates acceptance with complacency.

We’re taught that we must accept who and where we are, even if that means accepting one’s harmful tendencies, in order to change them.

But acceptance doesn’t mean that we’re complacent.

For example, if someone is on fire, a complacent reaction would acknowledge that someone is burning, but do nothing to address their suffering.

However, the process of acceptance requires one to acknowledge, or accept, that someone is burning in order to know what steps come next, like finding water to put the fire out.

White cis women must be willing to accept that historically and presently, they contribute to the oppression and erasure of the experiences of women of color. But first, that involves active listening.

They must be willing to listen to the experiences of women of color and accept their participation in white supremacist culture before they’re able to dismantle it.

3. Passive patience centers one’s good intentions over one’s hurtful actions.

In my experience, most people aren’t intentionally sexist, misogynistic, racist, ableist, and so on.

But that doesn’t change the harmful impact of their actions.

Often, when well-meaning people are confronted with abuse of privilege, they often get defensive because the reality of their actions challenges the person they’ve imagined themselves to be.

However, living in a society built on the oppression and marginalization of non-white, non-male, disabled bodies inevitably causes us to internalize oppressive behavior.

That doesn’t mean that we aren’t good people. It just means we have a responsibility to be self-aware.

Unlearning oppressive behaviors via self-awareness is a lifelong process, but that doesn’t mean that one has to wait a lifetime to stop causing harm.

4. Passive patience both maintains the status quo and is coercive.

Most of my life, I’ve heard the term patience both used against me, and other women of color, in a way that mimics gaslighting.

Women of color are asked to be patient when institutions inadvertently acknowledge their lack of diversity, let alone inclusion. Yet, support for our efforts to create a more welcoming, intercultural, and anti-oppressive social climate are either subpar or non-existent.

And in the case of Black women specifically, we often begin to doubt our own experiences and develop Black Superwoman complex in a search for the strength to develop more (passive) patience, to withstand affliction from another person.

When we complain about the pain we experience as marginalized folks, or walk away because we’ve had enough, we’re told that we just aren’t patient enough, that we need to wait a little while longer until things change.

We’re made to feel as if our inability to passively sit with suffering is the root of the problem, not an institution’s unwillingness to work to change hurtful and oppressive conditions.

While it’s true that one or both parties may have to deal with hurt feelings and unprocessed trauma, it’s important to recognize that privilege requires an oppressor to carry greater responsibility in the effort of reconciliation.

Marginalized folks desire safety and healing like all beings. However, oppression often puts the onus on us to carry our own generational trauma while carrying the burden of our oppressors emotional discomfort and/or complacency.

Any model of patience that treats those being harmed like props by insisting that the person(s) experiencing harm remain silent is passive – and violent.

5. Passive patience demands self-sacrifice and martyrship.

Passive patience requires that the oppressed use our physical, mental, and emotional energies as fertilizer for their dreams.

In other words, it requires the oppressed to place our full center in causes, institutions, and actions that don’t value us enough to listen when we’re hurting.

For example, to insist that women of color and/or trans women participate in a march that actively excludes them for the sake of able, cis, white women is messed up.

Now, I want to state that I have privilege in some areas and am marginalized in others. I’m marginalized as a queer, neurodivergent, Black woman, but my educational background, lighter skin, American citizenship, and able body give me privilege.

However, I notice most often that passive patience is demanded of me when my emotional labor is expected in the education of well-intentioned folks who would rather debate my humanity as opposed to listen when I explain why something is hurtful.

Having a conversation with a person who’s contributing to my suffering requires energy, especially when the person is unwilling to accept my truth.

It’s very uncomfortable for many of us to sit with our own ability to cause harm, especially unintentional harm. Yet, marginalized folks are expected to do this labor, despite the emotional ramifications to ourselves.

We’re expected to engage. We’re expected to be passively patient while our oppressors work through their own processes.

6. Active patience is an active commitment toward change.

As mentioned earlier, passive patience is coercive.

Instead of relying on mutual agreement towards a common goal, it demands the participation of those being harmed for the benefit of the oppressor.

However, active patience is not coercive.

Everyone involved uses their agency to agree on a goal. And when everyone agrees, all parties can move toward a common goal. Everyone can actively move toward change.

7. Active patience respects the autonomy of each being involved.

Often, the comfort of an oppressor is privileged over oppressed folk’s need for safety.

For example, when Native women complained about the appropriation of their culture(s) and the erasure of their histories by white folks during the Women’s March, an actively patient ally would have not only engaged in active listening, but would have sat with their pain.

They would’ve sat with the discomfort of their own complicity in another person’s degradation and began searching for ways to minimize the direct harm they caused in that moment while committing to strive towards larger structural changes in the future.

They would’ve asked questions to understand the concerns of the oppressed as opposed to silencing them.

In short, they would’ve respected their voices and perspectives as autonomous beings as opposed to reducing them to stereotypes, treating them like props.

8. Active patience isn’t perfection.

So, I’ve laid a lot out here, and it probably sounds like active patience leaves no room for fuck-ups. But never fear.

We’re human, which means that fuck-ups are expected.

There will often be setbacks on the path of healing and change. But active patience doesn’t allow setbacks to turn into complacency.

Just because something is hard and/or we struggle to “get it right” doesn’t mean we give up on the pursuit, especially when it leads to justice and healing for another person.

Active patience continues growing and shifting, collectively.

9. Active patience doesn’t guarantee lack of conflict.

Conflict is inevitable, even in the healthiest, most nourishing relationships.

However, we aren’t talking about healthy relationships. We’re talking about fucked up dynamics between privileged and marginalized communities. So, conflict is expected.

Marginalized folks desire safety and healing like all beings. As I mentioned earlier, oppression often puts the onus on us to carry our own generational trauma while carrying the burden of our oppressors emotional discomfort and/or complacency.

Living in colonized cultures come with a lot of biases, wounds, and assumptions.

When conflict occurs, one or both parties may have to deal with hurt feelings and unprocessed trauma, but it’s important to recognize that privilege requires an oppressor to carry greater responsibility in the effort of reconciliation.

For example, a white person may be offended when a Black person calls their actions racist because that wasn’t their intent.

Conflict itself is a healthy aspect of any relationship, but there’s a difference between conflict, abuse, and oppression. We need conflict to grow and learn. It can be used to guide us, and facilitate connection.

Active patience recognizes that there will be conflict, but it uses conflict as an opportunity to reevaluate and adapt.

10. Active patience doesn’t settle for ‘good enough.’

Active patience accepts setbacks as something that happens on the way to change, but it doesn’t settle with “good enough.”

It doesn’t give up on the pursuit of healing and progress but adapts.

If Hillary Clinton had won the election, rejoicing over her victory would have been settling for “good enough,” given her history of racist statements and ideologies.

Settling for microaggressions over overt discrimination, opting for mildly offensive as opposed to in-your-face offensive, doesn’t address the root of the issue.

Rather, it allows us to ignore underlying causes and settle for “good enough.”

Cultivating active patience in a society that doesn’t promote accountability is hard. Active patience requires trust, and it understands the difference between forgiveness and a pardon.

Trust requires being present to the experience(s) of oneself and of others. It requires being honest and non-judgmental.

It’s difficult to expect any form of patience from marginalized folks when trust is fraught through centuries of oppression, decades of inaction, and silence around our pain.

Without trust, active patience is impossible. And without active patience, we perpetuate oppressive systems thru passive patience.

Not many privileged folks are willing to take on the challenge of establishing trust with marginalized people because it’s inconvenient. It requires extensive personal and structural changes, and in many cases the total uproot of one’s way of being.

It’s important, then, to ask yourself: Does your commitment to justice override your desire for comfort?

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3 May 2017. Sharing stories in a broken culture

Respectful relationships are a prior condition for persuasion.

Credit: Shutterstock. All rights reserved.

In late-April 2017 the French Presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron stunned supporters of Marine Le Pen, his opponent, by directly engaging with them on a picket line. Macron handed the microphone to union members whilst arguing that closing borders would do nothing positive for the economy, and might well harm it.

This was a rare act of engagement in western politics, where debates are characterised by the frothing of deeply divided sides. If Macron’s argument had been transmitted indirectly via the media it would probably have fallen on deaf ears, dismissed as more ‘fake news’ or standard ‘liberal bias.’ But he managed to create a relationship with people directly who he knew might disagree with him, and this direct engagement made all the difference. Physical presence has a power that goes beyond any argument. By showing that he was ready to listen, Macron also helped to diffuse his opposition. The crowd quietened and a dialogue began.

The gatekeeper of our intellect—the emotional limbic system—relies on relationship. No matter how potent the arguments, that system won’t allow more information to be processed rationally by the ‘higher’ faculties of the brain if there is no emotional connection. That means that respectful relationships are a prior condition for persuasion—a point that is lost in much current political campaigning, still more in the nightly ridicule of President Trump and his supporters by comedians on late night television shows in the USA.

The polarised cultures of Western democracy alienate one other not just through what they say, but also by how they live. These divisions are having a crucial effect on how we address issues of migration, welfare and trade. The problem is that both sides are so busy trying to fix the other that no genuine communication is taking place.

The blogger Andrés Miguel Rondón offers Venezuela’s experience as a prescription for healing this situation. It took liberals there years to realise that they themselves had become de-humanised, while in the mindset of those who saw ex-President Hugo Chavez as a champion, all talk of justice and freedom of the press fell on deaf ears because it seemed to come from an alien group.

When two sides of an argument are so entrenched, a simple exchange of facts no longer produces any forward movement. The clash is not one of opinions but of radically-different worldviews. A worldview is an emotional commitment to certain attitudes and beliefs. Most of us spend our entire lives accumulating evidence to justify a worldview. Our lives and actions then seek to express it. “We tend not to see our worldview as a perspective” says researcher Annick de Witt, “We see it as truth.”

The fundamentals of our own worldviews are no less shaky than those of the opposition, but our respective commitments run very deep. Long-time Greenpeace activist and storyteller Brian Fitzgerald puts it another way: “What is being expressed might seem crazy, but the feeling it expresses is a true experience for that person.” We may deny or reject what we see as a nonsensical argument, but in doing so we are denying what someone else experiences as truth. It’s this dynamic that feeds mutual alienation.

So what does it take to reach across our different worldviews?

First, “it takes a lot of humility” says de Witt, “We need to be willing to explore the limitations of our own worldview.” But this is a step, she admits, that few of us seem willing to take. The theatre director Peter Brook puts it like this: “hold on tightly, let go lightly.” “For a point of view to be of any use at all,” he says, “one must commit oneself totally to it, one must defend it to the very death. Yet at the same time, there is an inner voice that murmurs: ‘Don’t take it too seriously.’” It would be wonderful if more of us were willing to commit to our values, but even more powerful if we had the grace to let go. Only then could we find more common ground.

Secondly, the stories that shape our worldviews are very powerful. In the information age it’s tempting to think of the whole world as a story. If the world is a story then the perfect world is only a story away. We need only spin a message, an advert or campaign to bring about successful change.

We all know of indigenous tribes whose worlds are shaped by the stories that they’ve heard, so we believe our own storytelling will shape society too. The trouble is that the kind of stories that are told in such societies are part of a network of mythology—not media to be consumed but realities that are lived. Such stories aren’t just heard; they are enacted through ritual. Listeners become participants in ways that shape and sharpen their psyche. They don’t simply receive information; they learn new ways of seeing and being in the world. Their intuition is moulded so that they know how to act.

It will take the work of centuries to restore our present-day cultures to anything like that level of dignity and imagination. However, we can draw one vital lesson: what we are looking for is not a story but a ritual. By creating experiences that embody the world we want to live in, we allow others to participate and create their own meaning.

“It took our leaders ten years to figure out they needed to actually go to the slums and to the countryside” says Rondón, “And not for a speech, or a rally, but for game of dominoes or to dance salsa – to show they were Venezuelans too, that they had tumbao and could hit a baseball, could tell a joke that landed.”

To see how these different elements combine—relationship, humility and ritual—here’s a recent example that comes from Italy.  In 2016, a group called GoDeep! hit the streets of Grottaglie in Puglia to explore—and potentially transform—local attitudes towards migration from North Africa.

At the heart of the process was what they call the ‘appreciative gaze,’ an attitude similar to the unconditional positive regard that was practiced by the psychotherapist Carl Rogers. Rather than arriving with pre-set judgements on what needed to be changed, the group spoke to local people on their own terms. Sometimes this meant receiving openly racist abuse, but gradually ties with the community were forged.

At the end of the enquiry, a celebration of diversity was held in which both local culture and the cultures of the new arrivals were included. Those seen as ‘the other’—in this case migrants and liberal activists from GoDeep!—steadily became more of an ‘us.’ By starting with direct contact and open conversation with local people, the group established a relationship. This relationship then served to create an experience that told a deeper story of unity than words alone could tell. This story of unity was then ritualised in celebration.

First-hand experiences of this kind create more information, conversation and connections than conventional media campaigns, and they help to reduce the likelihood of judgmental behaviour and artificial separation. “In a few days we created the possibility for people from diverse backgrounds to take ownership of their local space” says Niels Koldewijn, a GoDeep! participant and the director of Elos Foundation. “It generated recognition for migrants from the locals, and importantly, migrants for locals as well.”

This approach might not be enough to persuade political hardliners, but it can help to create the right conditions for those who are ready to make a jump across the lines of difference. As one of Hannah Arendt’s favourite poems from Walter Benjamin puts it:

“…the soft water’s movement will
defy the strongest stone in time.
The hard ones, you see, are more easily undermined.”

We could imagine a wave of ritual actions similar to GoDeep! taking place worldwide, each one a potent demonstration of the open, tolerant world we want to create. Enacting unity through public works, participatory theatre and even cups of tea would mean that we’re not just telling a story but creating it together—and doing so in ways where everyone’s invited.

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1 May 2017. When meditation isn’t enough

For someone with a traumatized nervous system, sitting in silence isn’t always the right response.

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

I like to say that India changed my life twice. The first time I was 24. An English major at the University of California, Berkeley, I’d turned down a job offer from McKinsey Consulting in my senior year—I want to change the world, I said, and make music. But a few years of doggy-paddling at nonprofits and singing in cafes on weekends left me confused and disillusioned. Academically I’d been an excessive over-achiever, sure that life was preparing me for big things. This couldn’t be it, could it—my days governed by the geopolitics of cubicles and office gossip, with a brief respite for actual living? I was depressed, and needed something drastic to test my mettle. So I decided to travel around India alone. I couldn’t say why, exactly. Only that the place drew me, and powerfully. 

I crammed what I needed into a backpack and spent five happy months traveling and freelance writing my way across the subcontinent. Two months in, I found myself in muted overwhelm, desperate for reprieve. In the ancient city of Rishikesh, famous to westerners as the place where the Beatles met their Maharishi, I saw a flyer for a vipassana (or insight) meditation retreat. I took a taxi straight to the ashram, located on the Ganges four miles outside of the city and approximately 700 from Bodhgaya—where the Buddha attained enlightenment. 

For ten days I sat in silence and stillness, ate vegetable mush for dinner, and focused on my breath. It wasn’t long before strange and beautiful things began to happen. Insights alighted like doves, one after the other. I saw, for example, that I had never loved myself unconditionally—only in reward for achievements. I saw that I was angry and scared, and that these things could, given loving attention, shift. I sat on the ashram roof and held debriefs with God. I found a quiet spot upriver and sang and danced. I was happy, and free. 

On leaving, I committed to meditating every day. When I returned from India, I had a sense of purpose. I spent the next seven years organizing, singing in, and writing about the global justice movement, with regular times-out to attend vipassana meditation retreats. I applied my intemperate drive to rigorously and exhaustingly striving to transform the world and myself.  Meaning had returned to life.

The second time I visited the subcontinent I was 33. I had just completed my Masters in Fine Arts in Fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and I’d received a Fulbright Scholarship to work on a novel in Varanasi, where I’d spent a week nine years earlier. Varanasi is also a holy city on the Ganges. According to the scriptures, death here puts an end to the harrowing cycle of samsara, or reincarnation, and brings about total liberation. But modernity, in the form of rampant urban growth, has not been kind to the place: the streets are filled with barely-moving traffic, the sidewalks with crowds of people.

After a couple of weeks, strange things again began to happen. This time, however, they were different. I found myself assailed by a rising tide of anxiety. There had been some strong prior hints, but in Varanasi I careened right off the cliff I’d unwittingly been skirting. My stomach—which had survived the on-the-cheap vagaries of five continents—fell apart, and two courses of antibiotics couldn’t put it back together again. I found a lump in my breast. I couldn’t find an apartment. The fear just kept growing. I stopped sleeping and fell into a hole the likes of which I’d never suspected existed inside me.  

“I don’t know what’s happening,” I said over the phone to the Fulbright director in Delhi. “This is so… weird. I meditate every day. And I’ve done, like, a whole month on silent retreat. I know my mind.” That month, spent at the Insight Meditation Society three years earlier, had not been easy.  I’d say a full three weeks of it had been hell—but it was, in hindsight, the second circle kind of hell. This was the more like the ninth. He made soothing noises and suggested I see a therapist.

Over the following weeks I began to see the deep fracture in my life: most of my days had been dominated by drive and adrenaline, while I tended to the spirit by slamming on the brakes for compensatory periods of silence and stillness. I have an Indian friend who views meditation retreats as a kind of penance. Here in the west, we rush about achieving and consuming, she says, and then we go meditate to expiate our sins. As an activist, I may have been offering a radical critique of consumer culture, but I certainly wasn’t immune to its hyperactivity. 

The inability to rest—the constant running, pushing and achieving—were a culturally-applauded sublimation of the fear and rage I wrestled with on retreat, and they took their physiological toll in the form of adrenal exhaustion. The fracture in my life was no more than a mirror of the fracture in my psyche, which had its roots, as I began to see, in events that had happened many years earlier.

In the end, I cut my Fulbright short and returned from India to navigate my way through a breakdown. It wasn’t pretty. It felt as if everything good inside me had been tossed on one of Varanasi’s funeral pyres—my creativity, confidence, and capacity for happiness. Who was this petrified, tortured woman, this ghost of my former self? For months, I was so exhausted that getting dressed felt onerous. I had to scrape together all of my courage to go to the grocery store. I attended a few week-long retreats that were more or less extended encounters with unabated terror and self-loathing. And the five years since my return have resembled a drunken waltz: fall down and get back up, again and again, the falls growing gradually less paralyzing as I learned how to fall and how to relax both my body and my expectations. 

I don’t blame meditation for any of this. Indeed, it was a huge support in numerous ways, not least of which was the ingrained mental refrain to focus on the oatmeal on the stove, the fluttering leaves, or the breath in my belly—on what was present and actual rather than the fireball in my chest. And meditating alongside the terror certainly gave me some significant, if unasked-for, experience of my own mettle. Nonetheless, ultimately it wasn’t enough to watch the madness, to greet it with awareness or even metta (loving kindness). 

There has been much discussion in the media lately about the limits, and even the dangers, of mindfulness. There are stories of meditation inducing confusion and panic attacks, and of retreat experiences leading to depression and psychotic episodes. While these stories of psychological incapacitation are rare they do raise important questions. Western culture has bought selectively into Eastern practice—there are currently 700 mindfulness apps available and counting. So what to make of this reputed dark side?  Does meditation have ominous powers?

Drawing from my own experience, I say no. Meditation does not wield dark esoteric powers, but rather draws away the veils covering existing darkness in our own psyches. These veils usually exist for good reason: they are the psyche’s brilliantly inventive answer to violation. Depending on one’s history, meditation may be an insufficient response. Or it may be the wrong medicine entirely.

There’s an oft-repeated story of the Dalai Lama’s first visit to the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts in 1979.  In a meeting with western Buddhist teachers, he was asked about the phenomenon of self-hatred.  Despite his translator’s efforts, he was baffled by the term. Buddhism has adapted to numerous cultures over 2,600 years, but in the west it’s only in its second generation—barely pubescent. It is still molding itself to the western mind. Western teachers are currently negotiating how to teach an integrative practice, one that incorporates communication and diversity, social justice and relationships.

And western Buddhists are just beginning to grapple with contemporary understandings of trauma—not only the shock of individual experiences of war and abuse, but also the injuries of collective oppressions such as racism and homophobia. Suffice it to say that for any individual with a traumatized nervous system, sitting in silence and focusing attention on the body is not always the right response. In eliminating or minimizing external inputs, unconscious material rises to the fore. This is precisely why meditation is such a powerfully healing practice—and also why it can trigger a traumatic reaction. If meditation is a response to trauma, then it requires a very skillful teacher.

As for me, while I am grateful for meditation, it wasn’t enough. I feel fortunate to have found other tools to help pry aside the darkness and expose what lay even deeper than the fear and pain: an original sense of joy, a spontaneous creativity, an integrated presence. I didn’t want my dark night of the soul, and the truth is I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. But on stumbling my vertiginous way out I discovered myself happier than I’d ever been. The breaking, I’ve come to see, was a crucial part of the healing—the psyche’s radical stab in the direction of wholeness; a death in service of rebirth. 

A friend recently suggested that I may have been better off never meditating or journeying to India. I disagree. Yes, I may have stayed stable—but I would still have been driven by what lay buried in my unconscious. Breakdown forced me to face it. I had no choice: I had to relinquish control. And perhaps that’s where the greatest transformation is born.

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28 April 2017. What does it take for activists to get your attention?

We need campaigns that educate media consumers on how they are manipulated.

This article was first published by Waging Nonviolence.

Members of Puente Arizona pray together as they put their bodies on the line to block access to a rally for Donald Trump in 2016. Credit: WNV/Twitter/Puente Arizona. Some rights reserved.

For major protests today, it is standard to have a media strategy. For example, there can be individuals assigned to media liaison. The location and timing of an action can be chosen with an eye toward media schedules. Some actions are designed specifically to attract media attention.

However, there are many factors that complicate activist efforts to reach the mass media. Major outlets choose what to report based on news values such as conflict, prominence and proximity. A politician will be quoted rather than an activist, and a scuffle at a rally will be reported rather than what the protest is actually about.

Activists can try to sidestep the mass media by using social media. Another option is simply to not worry so much about media coverage and focus on making actions meaningful for participants. After all, protesters are part of the audience.

There is lots of practical advice on how to send the protest message, and it is definitely worth understanding media dynamics and taking them into account. However, protesters will nearly always be at a disadvantage when trying to compete with dominant groups. A useful perspective for understanding this challenge is provided by Tim Wu in his engaging book “The Attention Merchants.”

Capturing attention

Wu tells the story of media in an original way, as a struggle to capture the attention of audiences. What you pay attention to is the foundation of your reality. It is what you think about, and it shapes your behavior. According to Wu, the history of media is an evolving effort by governments and corporations to capture the attention of audiences.

Wu starts with the first newspapers. They were sober, expensive and not widely read. Then a U.S. entrepreneur had the idea of running advertisements, lowering the price and increasing circulation by running stories of scandal. The result was hugely popular. More people read newspapers. Their attention was captured by lower quality reporting and then directed to ads.

This same pattern was repeated with each new media form. It’s hard to believe today that when radio was introduced in the United States in the 1920s, it was thought improper to broadcast ads that would be played in people’s homes, which were considered private domains. But then a popular program, Amos ’n’ Andy, began airing ads, breaking the barrier of politeness.

Governments also used media to their ends. The British and U.S. governments pioneered the use of propaganda during World War I to promote patriotism and recruitment into the army. The Nazis in Germany learned from this when developing their own propaganda.

However, it wasn’t only governments that learned from the success of World War I propaganda. Advertisers adopted some of the same techniques.

Wu tells of wave after wave of new attention-gathering media, including television, desktop computers, video games and smartphones. In every case, advertisers have shaped content and use, with the trend being to degrade the content to attract audiences and reduce costs. For example, it is expensive to produce quality television, and some producers came up with the idea of having unpaid actors. Reality TV was born, and it was a great hit.

From the point of view of activists, the dilemma is that nearly every media form is captured by advertisers, who are highly sophisticated in designing ways to entice viewers. Today, they have invaded the most intimate parts of people’s lives via the smartphone. When you use Google or browse the web, the ads follow. On many sites, there is “click-bait”: intriguing stories with headlines designed to increase the likelihood that you will click on them and read further, including the associated ads.

In this marketplace built around attention capture, activists operate at a severe disadvantage. They may be perceived as just one more group competing for attention, but without a multi-billion-dollar enterprise to back up their efforts. Media entrepreneurs and advertisers can hire the best psychology, media studies and marketing students to figure out ways to promote their interests. Their efforts are most effective when audiences are influenced without even thinking about it. Many ads are designed to sidestep rational assessment.

This picture would be relentlessly depressing except for one countervailing process. After a new media form captures widespread attention, usually there is a popular backlash as consumers instinctively resist the exploitation of their time and interest. So, periodically, there have been efforts to push back against saturation advertising. In the 1800s, billboards and other public advertising took over cities such as Paris. This eventually led to protests and to laws restricting such advertising.

Recent types of resistance are the use of ad blockers on smartphones and the popularity of Netflix, where viewers binge on several episodes or even entire series in marathon sittings without watching a single ad.

Activists are, for the most part, small players in the struggle for attention. They seldom can afford high-profile ads, and mass media coverage usually lacks an in-depth treatment of issues. Relying on social media means competing with vast numbers of other messages.

Another problem is that most people do not understand how they are influenced by media. They think ads influence other people, but not themselves.

What to do?

One response to this situation is to figure out ways for helping more people to become knowledgeable about the operation of the media and the activities of the attention merchants. Organizers could add segments on media dynamics to sessions on nonviolence training. But more is needed, beyond the ranks of activists.

More broadly, to make a difference in the long run, we need campaigns to educate media consumers about how they are being manipulated and having their attention sold to advertisers. Fostering a movement to run such campaigns is a huge challenge.

In the meantime, individuals can try to resist attention merchants on their own. However, collective action is more promising. Members of groups can support each other in turning off intrusive media inputs, installing blockers or refocusing attention on sources to achieve long-term goals.

How this might be done is a work in progress. So far, attention merchants have taken most of the initiatives, with audiences either welcoming or resisting their offerings. Activists usually try to compete for people’s attention, but do this at a severe disadvantage in skills and resources. This is why they should consider joining a struggle at the receiving end. The goal: developing people’s understanding of attention-capture techniques and building their capacity to resist and redirect their attention.

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26 April 2017. Why stories matter

Stories cultivate the frequently forgotten yet uniquely human traits that build solidarity.

Credit: Flickr/Zenonas Meskauskas. Some rights reserved.

I’m sitting at the window of a cafe in Notting Hill Gate in London, looking out at the passing machines and global signage. A man across the street dips into a rubbish bin, rescues an unopened plastic bottle of milk from deep inside and squeezes it into one of four over-full plastic bags, before pushing on to the next bin at a steady clip.

The bins hold valuable assets to the cognoscenti, but they have to be quick to get the good stuff that people outside the circle absently throw away: a packet of cigarettes from someone who made the snap decision to quit, perhaps, a bag of blueberry muffins past their sell-by date, or an unfinished can of beer.

Between Pizza Express and Prontaprint the same man excavates a second bin, extending the full length of his arm to the bottom and lifting something out. I’m eager to know what it is. There’s a discerning look in his eye as he weighs in his mind whether or not it’s collectable, before deciding to let gravity reclaim the mystery object. Perhaps someone further along will assess its market value differently.

Soon afterwards, a woman of indeterminate age determinedly tries her luck in the first rubbish bin, and then quickly moves along to the second.  She picks out a bunch of withered flowers tied together with a ribbon—evidently something the first bin-searcher considered worthless—and cradles them in the crook of her arm, before walking on a little more slowly than before, perhaps plunged in thought with her petals or simply keeping a safe distance from her predecessor. Bin scavenging must be fraught with such dangers and demands.

Just like most other jobs, time is the enemy. Those on the hunt are in competition with each other, but they’re also racing against the clock to beat the men in yellow jackets from the local council whose job it is to empty the bins into the mouths of their guzzling trucks. Scavengers are caught in a unity of opposites, simultaneously inside and outside the mainstream world: subjected to regular routes and routines but only in order to sustain life in a sleeping bag.

How did they get here? Relieved of wages and possessions, anyone can join their club. Admission is not restricted to addicts or the mentally ill. In times of economic austerity and insecurity the distance from the cliff’s edge to the bottom may be large even for those on an average salary, but the descent can be rapid.

The woman with dead flowers in her arms wasn't born on the street, I assume. Perhaps the sun was shining brightly for her as she sang her lungs out in class, a beam of sunlight on her desk, with pens and pencils inside along with a jotter with her name on it, a skipping rope, and a treasured note from an early love interest. I see her running around the yard with other children at playtime, using up some of that excess energy, laughing and giggling, hearing other children call to her. Now she has her head in a rubbish bin near Prontaprint and is all-but invisible.

What about the man who walked past my café window? Obviously at some point his life had changed. Maybe it was sudden, but it could have been gradual, losing his grip finger by finger until he was unable to cling to the ledge any longer, and was forced to fall. People don’t give up the fight easily though. I once met a family in Walsall in the English Midlands who were pulling up the floorboards in their upstairs bedroom to burn for fuel, so I helped them to break up the floor of their life raft. That night I had been standing on the street opposite their house in relentless rain, trying to hitch a lift back to the motorway. They called me over and invited me in to dry off and warm up by a roaring fire, and for the next few hours husband and wife cheerfully competed to tell me stories of better times, while their son was the colour of death.

I met them on a miserable trip that started and finished in freezing rain. Almost as soon as I arrived in London I turned around and headed home to Scotland, unsure of why I had set out in the first place. On my way back the day started off bad and steadily got worse. It was dim from dawn, and lifts from motorists were few and far between. Somewhere on the bleak A1 I found myself stranded, numb with cold and wet. At one point the situation was so bad that I stood in the middle of the road to stop a car, but the driver only took me for half a mile. Back on the verge a man who looked like a tramp emerged from behind me wearing several coats and a beaming smile—an instantly friendly and overwhelmingly sociable Glaswegian. My heart sank.

To my eternal shame, I didn’t want to be burdened with someone who might reduce my chances of a motorist stopping even further. But the ice broke, and we walked on together for a fair stretch of road. I got so caught up in conversation with him that until he asked me, I had quite forgotten that I was hungry. Starving in fact, I told him, and immediately he produced some foil-wrapped sandwiches from out of the deep pockets of one of his overcoats.

Being a vegetarian, I gave him back the contents of the sandwiches and just ate the buttered white bread. His face darkened; I didn’t know real hunger, he said. But in less than a minute he was back to his cheerful self, giving me advice on everything from the Scottish history they don’t tell you in school to how to find out if a rabbit’s at home using a twig, and the best way to find a sandwich: look for the back door of a hospital kitchen, since the people who work there are always willing to help.

After an hour or two I reminded myself that my companion was a hitch-hiker’s hindrance and declared that we should go our separate ways in order to increase the chances of a lift.  He thought I considered him beneath me; I could read him reading me, and I suppose he was right, but he resumed his smile and emphasized that we should stay together. If it came to it, he said, he knew ways of surviving a bad run on the motorway, but I was emphatic, and quickly walked ahead.

In the hour that followed, darkness descended and with it despair. I couldn’t see where I was walking along the grass verge, and frequently slipped. The rain fell more heavily, and I was soaked through, shivering and weak. Then hope in the form of some distant car headlights shone through the pelting rain, and I stuck out my thumb from the edge of the road. The car sprayed me as it passed and showed no signs of stopping, but then quite suddenly it pulled into the verge ahead and I ran towards the lights as fast as I could.

I pulled open the door and climbed into the front seat, thanking the driver profusely for saving my life. He turned the wheel to pull back on to the road. “No need to thank me,” he said, “it was this guy who insisted I stop,” indicating the tramp with his thumb, who, with a big smile on his face, was already sitting in the back seat of the car.

Ok, so what’s point of this story, you might ask? The brain is wired for metaphor. It provides a quick route to comprehension, but also a trigger to the brain's sensory areas—an action that helps to deepen our understanding through feeling. Storytelling, recognised in every society as a way of making sense of cultural roots or social reality, is an elaborate form of metaphor, and memoir is its masterpiece: life stories enable us to share insights and enhance mutual understanding in a social, political, psychological and spiritual sense. Memoir is revolutionary precisely because, when shared, it’s a way towards the truth.

We don’t become any less by sharing. Stories are part of the fabric of who we are, but only in sharing our life experiences do we develop a sense of self. After all, individuals are necessarily social. In my story, the man I met on the motorway had little when seen from the perspective of materialistic culture, but he had gifts to give and gave them gladly despite my selfish disregard: empathy, altruism, joy and sacrifice—all the stuff that makes us human. He may also have saved my life. Stories cultivate the frequently forgotten yet uniquely human traits that are crucial in building solidarity.

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