Transform the System: A Work in Progress

3: A New Mission

Would a transformed society have a new mission?
If so, what should it be?

Society needs an agreed-on mission to maintain stability. Otherwise the social fabric tears apart. In the Preamble to its Constitution, the United States declares:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.[1]

That’s a good statement, but it applies only to the government. A new purpose for society-as-a-whole could help us overcome our weaknesses, enhance our strengths, live up to our ideals more fully, and add to our valuable traditions. Toward that end this draft declaration suggests that Americans adopt the following mission:

To help transform our nation into a compassionate community dedicated to the common good of all humanity, our own people, the environment, and life itself.

If residents of other countries adopt the same mission for their country, our nations will be better able to cooperate, serve that shared purpose, and help transform the System.

To nurture compassionate communities, we must commit to self-development, which depends on communal support. Even hermits need community. The Lone Ranger is a myth. Strong individuals need strong communities, and strong communities need strong individuals. Even if we become more self-reliant as we mature, we still rely on others. Companionship, physical sustenance, and moral support continue to be important. Americans often try to deny it, but individuals are interdependent — entangled in multiple webs, social and environmental.

In addition to their individual identity, humans hold multiple other identities, such as a member of a family, community, city, state, and nation. When we go deep within, however, we connect with the foundation of all life and experience what we have in common with all humanity. We identify as members of the human family. In doing so, we don’t totally drop the multiple roles society has embedded in us, but we don’t concede the last word to society. We don’t reduce ourselves or others to labels. At least from time to time, we can:

●      Recognize our shared humanity and create new identities.
●      Affirm that we’re human, good enough, and can still be better.
●      Are true to who we really are and liberate our inner hunter-gatherer.
●      Remember that everyone is a victim of the System.
●      Commit to transform the System, as well as more fully realize our potential as individuals.
●      Aim to reform the structure and character of our social system and make our society and ourselves more caring, just and democratic.
●      Love ourselves as we love others.
●      Avoid both selfishness and self-sacrifice.

We can recognize universal human needs and accept our moral obligation to attend to those needs. As Simone Weil declared, “There is something sacred in every human being, but it is not their person. It is this human being; no more and no less.”[2]

Being grounded in the universal life force helps us trust that Life will take care of herself. Fear’s valuable when the perceived threat is real. But irrational fear is deadly. We need to measure threats accurately and know who we can trust and how we can trust them.

Irrational trust, however, is blind romanticism. Rational trust, on the other hand, enables us to appreciate non-material or spiritual realities, be in harmony with nature, and be awestruck by beauty when we encounter it. We’re motivated by a desire to relieve suffering and work with others to reduce injustice. We accept the restrained use of police power to hold back those who want to violate the rights of others. We accept legitimate authority that controls excessive chaos by imposing some degree of order. We accept taxation. We accept the need for a division of labor that delegates to certain individuals the responsibility and power to make certain decisions in a compassionate manner, while maximizing collaboration.

Rational trust leads to:

  • acceptance of others as individuals with equal essential worth;
  • a sense of community with all humanity;
  • collaboration with partners;
  • relating to others fully and mutually;
  • trying to understand and improve the world, and;
  • a determination to control the alpha-male instinct to dominate that we inherited from our ape ancestors.

A balance that integrates rational trust and rational fear leads to a higher, more evolved unity. It involves compassionate power with, not power over. Maintaining that balance requires critical self-examination.

The comic strip character Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and it is us.”[3] He had a point. Each of us shares responsibility for the state of the world. To deal with rankism, we must change ourselves as well as society.

Claudia Horwitz wrote:

Have we given in to the darker side of our nature in some unconscious way that we’re not totally aware of? Have we been complicit? Do we really want to do that?... There are ancestral, cultural, and political legacies that survive and thrive because they’re not interrupted with some kind of searing reflective lens.[4]

Most Americans would like to be less judgmental and more compassionate. They’d like to love their “enemies.” They want to engage with others as equals. They know that trying to relieve suffering can be rewarding. When they think deeply about it, Americans realize:

● The individual and the community are interwoven. What affects one individual affects every individual.
● What serves the individual serves the community, and what serves the community serves the individual.
● The Earth is a spaceship and yes, all humanity is in this together.
● There’s no irreconcilable conflict between self-interest and community-interest, though there’s often a tension.

Building an effective compassionate, transformative movement will require activists to liberate those innate instincts.

For various reasons, however, most people are not committed to ongoing self-improvement. Instead, they reflect one or more of the following characteristics. They:

● Fail to acknowledge mistakes and resolve not to repeat them.
● Aren’t ready to pay the price required for self-development.

● Seem to believe they pretty much have it all together, have matured as much as they can, and are coping well enough.
● Are afraid to fail.
● Believe that being widely recognized as very successful is terribly important.
● Are rooted in an identity that is based on how well they climb social ladders.
● Proceed with lives of quiet or not-so-quiet desperation.
● Find a comfort zone and choose to stick with it.
● Submit to some people, dominate others, and relate to few as equals.
● Respect members of their “tribe” and demean “the other,” which gives their life some meaning.
● Follow leaders because when they do so they have fewer decisions to make.
● Since prospects for success are often dim and challenging top-down structures can cause conflict, lead to frustrating failure, or subject rebels to punishment, they choose to avoid the bother.

The reluctance to engage in self-improvement is even more true of political activists who focus on the outer world. The pressure to stop injustice and relieve suffering is enormous. Taking a break to engage in self-examination can seem like self-indulgent navel-gazing; there’s no time to waste. The prevailing attitude is: “We have the answer. Join us, and we’ll impose it on those who don’t understand.”

But that outer-focused activism reinforces the System, which many activists say they want to reform. The extreme focus on measurable, written policies reinforces materialism, the belief that only physical factors matter. And focusing on crushing enemies helps to divide and conquer. Potential recruits are turned off by preaching, strident speeches, fear-mongering, scapegoating, ad hominem attacks, hate, uncontrolled anger, verbal violence that nurtures physical violence, and the failure to engage others in problem-solving collaboration, negotiation and compromise. Overcoming those tendencies isn’t easy.

The first step is to commit, really commit, to serve the common good of all humanity as well as one’s own people, the environment, and life itself — as affirmed in the proposed mission statement. A commitment to that mission requires a dedication to self-improvement. Constantly remind yourself: I am not the point. The local is global. The global is local. The personal is political. The political is personal. Connect the dots. Plant seeds. Understand and describe your efforts as one step toward global transformation. Place your work within the context of the Big Picture. Stay focused on the mission. Transforming the world into a compassionate community of individuals who respect one another will require widespread, ongoing self-development, egalitarianism, collaborative leadership, and love.

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Compassionate activists follow reality wherever it leads them. Pragmatic idealists, they judge an action by its results, by whether it relieves suffering, not whether it serves some abstract cause. They avoid ideology, visionary theorizing that worships abstractions divorced from reality.

Ideologues idolize certain words as if they hold magical powers. They automatically oppose, or support, a proposal based not on its practical impact, but on whether it advances their ideology.

For example, ideologues may oppose or support a proposal simply on whether or not it enhances the role of “the government.” They want to “make a point.” Those who are “anti-government” may oppose legislation to discourage similar legislation in the future, thereby preventing a potential “slippery slope.” And those who are “pro-government” may support the same legislation to build momentum for the government. Neither side really evaluates the merits of each case.

Another example are capitalists who say a “free market” uninhibited by any governmental interference would produce enormous prosperity. But there never has been a totally free market and there never will be. Governments have always boosted certain interests over others, and they always will, as they should. And large corporations have undermined free markets by creating monopolies. Only the government can bust up monopolies.

The notion of the self-made businessman is nonsense. Without relying on the history of accumulated knowledge developed by others, the backing of the government, other forms of social support, and (usually) good luck, successful entrepreneurs couldn’t accomplish anything. Yet society gives credit to those who rise to the top and blame those who do not. Special contempt is reserved for those at the bottom. Victims of natural disasters receive aid, but victims of our ongoing social disaster aren’t offered living-wage job opportunities. Nevertheless, some people automatically oppose any government “interference.” They always want to make their abstract point, rather than address concrete pros and cons. They are ideologues.

Likewise, “anti-capitalists” typically don’t explain how they would abolish capitalism. Post-capitalism, would a family be able to open a corner grocery and set its own prices? Would another David Packard be able to start a new business in his garage and grow it into a billion-dollar company? Would worker-owned cooperatives be able to borrow capital from banks and set prices on their products? Would cab drivers be private workers? Would remarkably successful authors and musicians be able to sell an unlimited number of their products? Would we keep the stock market? The abolition of capitalism could lead to a No answer on all those questions, yet most anti-capitalists attack capitalism without answering such questions. The word “capitalism” serves as an anti-icon they demonize in their use of empty, abstract rhetoric. Those anti-capitalists are also ideologues.

Any modern economy is sure to be a mixed economy, a blend of private enterprise, publicly owned services, and government regulation. The question is what kind of mix there will be — where to employ one method and where to employ another, and how. Ideology doesn’t answer that question.

There are many other ideologues, all of them recognizable by their use of absolute language and black-and-white thinking. Examples include:

● Those who oppose, or support, abortion in all circumstances.
● Those who oppose all economic growth, even if it involves only renewable products and green energy.
● Those who will only support single-payer health insurance, which is but one path to universal coverage.
● Democrats who always refuse to collaborate with Republicans, and vice versa.
● Those who oppose any incremental legislative victories because such reforms supposedly always reinforce the System.
● Those who oppose any tax increase.
● Those who oppose all foreign aid.

With all these groups, the pattern is consistent. Ideologues lock into an idea that is represented by a word or phrase, and they worship those words like a religious icon or doctrine that is repeated like a broken record. As a result, they have little regard for the complexities of reality or any willingness to evaluate options.

The mission statement for our society proposed here aims to avoid those ideological traps by only affirming fundamental values and key principles and leaving it to a genuine democratic process to concretely implement those values and principles. Cultivating compassionate community requires that kind of free-wheeling, open-ended process.

The System deeply embeds counter-productive habits, values, and personality traits. Subject to relentless dehumanization, we’re inflamed by reality-distorting fears that reinforce the System with top-down domination.

But the System is torn. It also includes some bottom-up democracy, and especially in our private lives and small communities, Americans have sustained trust, love and cooperation. The mission statement proposed here aims to suppress the System’s tendency toward top-down power so that feature will operate only when really needed. Then we can move toward transforming our nation into a compassionate community dedicated to the common good of all humanity, our own people, the environment, and life itself.

NEXT: A Transformed Society

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NOTES:

[1] Retrieved from http://constitutionus.com/.

[2] “What We Owe to Others: Simone Weil’s Radical Reminder, The New York Times, Feb 20, 2018.

[3] Retrieved from https://incommunion.org/wp-content/uploads/2005/04/Pogo.jpg?w=240.

[4] Retrieved from https://apomm.net/2017/02/14/claudia-horwitz/

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