Whenever the state yields to a smaller, less powerful group, we are tempted to cry “victory.” And this is what many of us are doing now that the state has declined to permit the current route for the Dakota Access Pipeline. To some extent, it is a victory; it is, at least, a short respite in a conflict that has been escalating for months. So, in this moment to breathe, I think it worthwhile to discuss what this moment tells us about violence and the use of force.
The use of force is held in monopoly by the state and by the powerful. Where the powerful conflict with the state, the use of force is accepted on both sides and moderated by the state. Where the interests of the powerful and the state overlap, their use of force is ignored. Where the weak and the powerful conflict, the use of force by the powerful is ignored, and the use of force by the weak is considered heinous.
Consider another case: we claim, in our constitution, that the right to bear arms is a right of all people, yet the constitution was written for white men. If you are a black man, your supposed right to bear arms is supplanted by the state’s right to kill you for doing so. And even if you are a sovereign nation, like the Standing Rock Sioux, your right to the most basic exercise of force (in this case, non-violent blockade is treated as a use of force) is supplanted by the state’s right to use force against you.
So I would like to consider, for a moment, what a temporary victory like this costs in our society.
Simplicity 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.
Political correctness is one of those things that conservatives love to hate. Understandably; there are few areas where people can indulge in righteous disdain and still maintain broad support (instead of just looking like jerks). And why not? There aren’t many people, I think, who enjoy being on the receiving end of the language police. It’s understandably infuriating to be told that you said whatever you said the wrong way, even though your meaning was obviously clear.
Liberals tend to dislike the label “political correctness.” But that doesn’t stop them from patrolling the boundaries of acceptable language and bending over backwards to avoid including offensive words in everyday life. And why not? There are histories of oppression baked into our language, just as they are baked into every other part of our society. Language often contains fossilized prejudice, and we do well to root it out.
Where these two views conflict, I think, is in their understanding of what we’re supposed to be fixing. For liberals, changing language isn’t the ostensible goal—it’s a marker for change in attitudes. But for conservatives, the narrative of political correctness is the opposite—that changing language is just about framing your attitude in a different way. Continue reading →
At the end of each month I compile links to articles I found thought-provoking over that month, categorized with pull-quotes for your perusal and edification. Each of these is a story that made me stop and think, and hopefully one or two of them will do the same for you. Continue reading →
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.
There 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.
For someone who takes a lot of interest in the structures that underlie societies, I have to confess that it took a long time for me to realize that ideas and structures are not distinct. I spent a lot of energy being frustrated by things that, to me, seemed wrong and unconscionable. In many ways I still do, but I’ve also found a better framing to help me understand how bad ideas persist.
Ten years ago, I would have said that bad ideas are a result of greed, corruption, lack of empathy, or intolerance. For example, why do people constantly argue about getting rid of social programs, alias lazy welfare queens? Easy—they’re greedy and unempathetic and don’t care about anyone but themselves and their friends. If they stopped to think for one second about other people, they’d realize that the problems are structures, not people.
I think it took far too long for me to realize the double standard of that statement.
I was asked this question in 2005 while riding a bus through China. The bus trip was one leg of a journey to the oasis town of Dunhuang in the Gobi Desert, and we had been passing through a desolate rocky landscape punctuated by both abandoned structures and new construction. The striking juxtaposition of society ancient and new left me feeling like a tightrope walker between eras.
Feeling the precariousness of modernity, a professor and I had fallen into a discussion of social change across societies. We were in the process of considering such well-known historical figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Susan B. Anthony, but the discussion had shifted into the question of how these heroes of our society became heroes in the first place. At that question, though, I had to pause. I could not help feeling that there was something wrong with our framing—that it ought not to be about how some individuals became heroes of social change so much as about the context for the change itself. Mythological heroes are people with power and vision beyond the average person, people who do for a society what society cannot do for itself.
I thought then, as I do now, that the reality of a hero is something quite different.
I’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.