Give Us This Day Our Daily Outrage


I find the psychological whiplash of the news cycle exhausting and depressing these days. Yet, the worst part is not every new facet of the problems we face, but instead the constant demand for my emotional energy. “You’ll be horrified by this tweet” one headline promises. “The Trump nominee no one is talking about” blares an e-mail subject line. “Step up to protect migrant workers – call your senators NOW” insists a Facebook post. “New Russia revelations demand action!” orders a call to sign someone’s petition.

They’re not wrong, exactly—but it is too much. No one can do all these things. No one can spare the emotion to treat each of these with the gravity they deserve. And, perhaps most insidiously, the outrage is baked in. These things feed our anger, but they also assume it. Even well-intentioned organizations are using instant fury as their primary messaging strategy. It works, and yet along the way it sends an accidental message: anger is the only real way to respond.

Continue reading

Hypocrisy is Easy

two-ways_vaisamuelyooCan you believe what the other side said this week? They’re such hypocrites—they say one thing when it applies to everyone else, and another thing entirely when it applies to them. It makes me so mad when people don’t hold to their own fundamental principals—I think the best response would be to create a snarky meme showing that and share it widely, divorced from the original context.

Well, sometimes I think that. Sometimes I just see the snarky meme from someone else and get that little rush of agreement. You know the one: the one that makes you feel good about being right, and just, and having enemies. And not just any enemies—the best enemies. They go out of their way to be spineless fools whose simpering evilness is so clear in their fundamental lack of a coherent worldview that it would be foolish to even listen to them.


So bear with me for a minute here.

Continue reading

We’re Doomed, So Resist

flag_viaevechanWhen a man shows us how cowardly, ignorant, and petty he is, we should believe him. We should not expect him to change. We should not expect him to become better. We should not expect him to stop being a bully when he is given power in addition to a bully pulpit. This man has shown us who he is, and he will be exactly the same for the next four years—but with power to remake the country with his actions and not just his words.

He has muzzled scientists and set in motion actions that, without exaggeration, will drive climate change from manageable disaster to runaway cataclysm. And he denies it exists. He has taken action to attack Americans, to strip us of our rights, and to expel us from the country. And he denies we deserve otherwise. He has decreed the building of an edifice of exclusion, and denied that we will pay the price.

And he has whined and complained about the depth of opposition to his dictatorial ambitions. Like any coward, he only knows how to silence those who critique him. A leader would strive to be better; this man strives for nothing.

Has it only been a week? There are so many more to come. The temptation to look away is strong—but despair, especially, we must resist.

Continue reading

Yes and Also…

keySimplicity is an enduringly attractive ideal. The clarification of mind and idea brings with it a singularity of focus and purpose, a drive to act, and a knowledge of what is right. To boil down a problem to its essence gives us confidence that we understand, and the ability the reason, we think, more adroitly. Nodding our heads, we proclaim that we understand—yes, now, finally, we do.

We do not.

Simplicity is a great boon when problems are complicated by our own confusion and misperception. But simplicity is a dangerous canard when the problems we face are complex, multi-faceted, and refuse to yield to silver bullets.

There is no one solution. In acknowledging that, we bring down upon ourselves a deep despair, a feeling of something so large as to be intractable, and a fear that we will never gain its measure. Yet that is the true state of things, and as we look upon destruction (that we did not stop) born of ignorance (our own), the allure of simple answers can and must be resisted.

Continue reading

What’s Next?

whatsnextAmerica needs a new coalition. I know this, because I see Americans marching in the streets, justifiably afraid that this country is not safe for them any longer. I know this because the same people who deride those protesters were, themselves, just a few days ago, talking about grabbing their guns and fighting a rigged election. I know this because a whole lot of people felt they had no one but Trump to address their struggles. I know this because we are a Democracy, and instead of running a candidate in either party who could energize the country, we ran candidates who pit us against one another. Sure, some of us feel like one of those was incredibly far above the other. But we’re tied with the people who thought the same about the other one. We have different value sets.

So I know we need a coalition that isn’t just one side. It’s hard to say that right now, when it feels like so many of us have been betrayed and continue to be hated. It’s hard, but it’s unambiguously true. Half the electorate said so.

So I ask myself, what’s next? This is a democracy. This is the president we voted for. Yes, only barely, but that doesn’t matter. Yes, I am angry that someone who espouses hate for so many of my fellow Americans is now our chosen leader, but he is. What’s next?

Some on the left will riot and declaim Trump. Some on the right will gloat and declaim the left. As they always have. More so now, but Trump is not a normal candidate—he is the most disliked president-elect in history, even by those who voted for him. And he has gone out of his way to make many of us feel we are not welcome. So let’s start there, and here’s what I’m going to do. And I invite you to join me.

Continue reading

Systemic Choices

CoalVWind_viaDisseminationsThere is an acceptable narrative about social change: that individual choices are the starting point, and that those choices add up, and that if enough people make those choices, change happens. That is a very attractive narrative, because it says that my choices matter. It says that what I do is part of a grand democratic society where, if my choices have majority support, the system will improve. It says that if I use reusable shopping bags, and I buy an electric car, I am making an impact.

That narrative is also, I think, wrong. Or, at least misleading.

It isn’t wrong in the sense that I am not making an impact—I am, albeit a small one. It also isn’t wrong in the sense that our choices don’t add up—they do, and if we all decide to drive electric cars, that will make a pretty noticeable impact.

As I see it, that narrative is wrong because it pretends that individual choices and systemic choices are the same, and they absolutely are not.

Continue reading

The Longest Levers

It’s hard to figure out the best ways to effect change. There is no shortage of causes, and no shortage of causes I agree with, but on closer inspection, the strategic elements of many of those causes are lacking. Not everyone needs a clear strategy to motivate them, but, for me, the absence of strategy looks too much like the absence of effectiveness.

So I spend a lot of time thinking about leverage, and where it makes sense to focus my limited time. I haven’t found the best places, but, through lots of discussion, I have ended up with a useful way to think about it:


The basic form is just the society I want is juxtaposed with the society I have. There are points of overlap: things that are functional in both societies that I should happily support. There are also points of divergence: things that do not exist yet, but which I would like, and things that do exist now but which directly conflict with the society I want. Finally, there are two different classes of idea: core issues and structures, and emergent effects.

Continue reading

Replacing Old Ideas

Frame_viaRebeccaSiegelThere is a free-floating sense in some activist communities that the most powerful and compelling thing one can do is to stop something. Certainly it has emotional impact and allays a creeping sense of powerlessness. And we prove the case, or perhaps only justify it, with iconic images of marches and rallies and a man standing in front of a line of tanks. Compelling though it is, I think the ideas of stopping things appeals a bit too rashly to emotion. It encourages us to measure change by its impact on ourselves rather than its impact on others. So, important work though it be, I think merely stopping things is too narrow a focus.

When I realized that ideas, even those that are bizarre and divorced from evidence, have functional value, it changed my conception of how those ideas fit into the bigger picture. If ideas meet structural needs for individuals, groups, and societies, simply attacking those ideas will not do. If by some chance you succeed against in defeating a bad idea, there remains a void to be filled in the social and ideological structure.

Unsurprisingly, people do not like it when you take away something they were using and offer nothing in return. Often the people using that structure will just defend the idea, regardless of its value, to maintain the whole. Quite probably they’ll resent you. And maybe they’ll find an idea that’s even worse and grab ahold of it to fill the empty slot.

Thus, I think it is not enough to understand the failures of an idea—we must also understand it’s uses and value for those who hold it, and make sure whatever idea we offer in replacement does those things as well or better.

Continue reading

The Feedback in the System

FireI’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to give feedback. It’s always been a topic of interest for me, since I grew up feeling, and still feel, pretty awkward in unstructured social situations. I appreciate and understand it much better now, because giving feedback has been a big part of my professional life, in Outdoor Leadership, in Wilderness Therapy, in Education, in Writing Support—and in activism. I come to all of those places with lessons from the others. I come to all of those places trying not to repeat mistakes I’ve made in the others. And I see lots of other people giving feedback around me, and sometimes making mistakes I’ve made myself.

The easy mistake is to go straight for the constructive feedback, and to actually be providing criticism when you think you’re being constructive. In some activist communities especially, I feel we’ve lost a lot of the constructive approach. Emotions run high, people put their identities on the line, and slights real and imagined draw quick, acerbic denouncement. Maybe it’s because we’re often online now, speaking publicly to people we only sort of know. Maybe it’s something else. Whatever it is, I feel like my progressive community tends to abandon the middle ground and claim the high ground instead.

I think we need a habit of giving each other feedback, but in a way that improves our community instead of a way that excises things we don’t like. Feedback, I think, should not be battlefield surgery.

Continue reading

Well-Intentioned People and Activist Communities

group_via_AstridWestvangDespite being someone who cares deeply about community and social justice, I often find myself taking a position on the fringes of social justice communities. I do want to change things around me, but I sometimes find some of the people I encounter in those communities… exhausting.

I’ve never quite put the reasons for that into words, but recently I was discussing “good people” with my closest friend, who is a bit closer to some of these communities than I am. In our discussion, we identified some of the prototypical people involved, and it led me to realize that the reason social justice communities sometimes exhaust me is that, despite sharing some of my values, they usually contain, mixed in with the people I admire, some flawed roles that I find very difficult to work with—and to avoid becoming.

Our imperfect list of well-intentioned people includes:

#1 – The Young Idealist. These are people who get fired up by lots of things, but still hold out hope for quicker fixes and simpler problems. They haven’t yet reached a sobering awareness of the interconnectedness of systemic problems, the grinding slowness of societal change, or the difficulty of actually changing people’s minds. Young Idealists may not actually be young, just young in their activism or young in their approach to a given problem. Their energy is great, but their strategy is often lacking.

#2 – The Lifestyle Rebel. These people fly off the handle at the slightest hint of injustice, but mostly their tactics are ineffective, their reasoning is emotional, and passing judgment is their go-to response to things and people. They may latch on to One Right Way to be or think, and then harshly criticize anyone who disagrees. When they are focused on a cause, nothing you can do in support will be Enough, and they will suck away all your energy if you let them—but they’ll shortly be moving on to something else.

#3 – The Stoic. These are people who believe abstractly in improving society, but it doesn’t sway their behavior one way or another outside of a group. They will agree with you on most any issue of injustice, but their interest takes a back seat to the other concerns of their lives.

#4 – The Hypocrite. These terribly frustrating people only care because they think other people care, and they are only around for the feel-good points of being involved. They are mainly invested in their own self-image, so they mostly manage lip service while being quick to call out others for not trying hard enough.

#5 – The Martyr. These people care very much, work very hard, and really want to make change, but they also view change as a Sacred Calling. The change they seek is more important than their own well being, although they do have the foresight to tell others not to make the same mistake. Martyrs nevertheless throw themselves wholeheartedly into their efforts, self-care be damned. Very few can maintain their energy, though, and they may become:

#5b – The Grudging Idealist. These are people who still care because caring is a part of their identity, and still want to make change, but have been worn down. They still follow their ideals, but have begun to resent them and feel trapped by their own values. They are beginning to think people, on the whole, are not worth saving.

#6 – The Leader. These people care deeply, but they know their limits. Within their limits they are passionate about what they want to change. For them, making change is a Civic Duty, not a Sacred Calling. Because their passion is real and focused, they bring other people along with them. They will support people outside their realm, but take for granted that that is not their primary work.

#7 – The Moral Compass. These are people who do lead on occasion, especially with friends and colleagues and by example, but mostly they invest their morality in their work and lives and relationships. They choose careers that they personally value and that they believe have objective value. They put their time and energy into doing those well and making change wherever possible. They notice and care about the things they aren’t doing, and it may bother them sometimes, but it doesn’t make them spin; they measure their personal value by what they do, not but what they don’t have time or energy for.

There are possibly more, but these seem the broad strokes to me. My ideal community would contain no Lifestyle Rebels or Hypocrites, but I think there is a role for all the others. Young Idealists and Martyrs provide the energy for change, Stoics provide steady support, and even the Grudging Idealist provides a realist check on the ambitions of a group too weighted towards naiveté. I think, though, that the balance lies with the last two. Leaders overtly steer a group, and Moral Compasses do the internal legwork of keeping course.

I think I have omitted something from the discussion, though, which is how to get people to change roles. An effective community of activists aims to change minds outside their group, but I am more and more convinced that they must equally change minds within. Some number of the more negative roles may be inevitable, in which case redirecting those individuals becomes essential to the effectiveness of the whole.

Unfortunately, when it comes to this last, I have no solution. So there this discussion must rest, until the insight of others reawakens it.