Transform the System: A Work in Progress

Conclusion  

This draft declaration is based on the belief that humanity needs to build massive, grassroots movements dedicated to transforming our world into a compassionate community in which each nation is dedicated to the common good of all humanity, its own people, the environment, and life itself. With this approach, each nation can focus on its own needs in a way that is harmonious with the needs of other nations and the planet. We can restore the balance between trust and fear.

Addressing the root causes of needless suffering is made easier if we concentrate on winnable demands that already have majority support and move in the direction of that long-term goal. Achieving such goals can contribute to evolutionary revolution.

Building that movement will require unlearning many aspects of our social conditioning. We can do that more fully if we discuss our efforts with a small group of like-minded individuals who share the same commitment to global, systemic transformation.

To move in that direction, identifying strongly as a member of the human family is an urgent necessity. No task is more important. Adopting a world-centric perspective that affirms the inherent worth of all humans is critical. Doing so will help us treat each other with respect.

We aren’t merely an individual. We hold many other identities, such as a member of a family, race, gender, class, or nation. We may also identify with a religion, community organization, political party, or other voluntary association. We need not drop those identities. But they aren’t separate. They’re woven into one fabric. At our core we are essentially a human being.

If membership in a tribe becomes overwhelming, we forget our shared humanity. Self-interest and tribal interest merge, and tribal membership stands over against another tribe. Trying to better understand the opponent as a fellow human is beside the point: defeating “the enemy.” Revenge is key. Scapegoating is routine. Any way to win is justified. The only solution is to impose one’s will. One’s own issue becomes the only one that matters. Tribal leaders can do anything; their tribe follows regardless.

Nonviolent demonstrations that create brief inconvenience can be effective, especially if they focus on winnable demands. Outside forces can take stronger stands than do inside decision-makers. Different people play different roles. Heat is often needed to place an issue on the table. There is a difference between right and wrong. Militant demands for justice are needed.

But both forces, inside and outside, need to understand each other’s motives without trying to totally discredit the other. We can be righteous without being-self-righteous. We can remember that no one individual or group holds all the answers. We can be willing to discuss, negotiate, and compromise, while remaining open to reconciliation.

“Any means necessary” is immoral and does not work. There are limits to what methods are justified. Moreover, crossing that ethical line can be counter-productive. Most people desire order for understandable reasons. We need to respect the desire to avoid chaos. Hurting others is no way to gain support.

And we need to avoid demonizing our opponents. We can criticize their actions without denying their humanity, condemning them as worthless. To dehumanize is no way to fight dehumanization.

We must overcome our selfish, competitive individualism and rebuild the compassionate cooperation that enabled humans to evolve beyond our ape ancestors. We must continue to domesticate ourselves and nurture trust and cooperation — characteristics that were bred into our DNA by 200,000 years of human evolution as hunter-gatherers suppressed their “alpha male” tendencies to bully and dominate.

Every religion has included a form of the Golden Rule. Our Declaration of Independence affirmed that everyone is created equal. The United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[1] When he landed on the moon, Neil Armstrong declared, “That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."[2] Disaster relief efforts reflect enormous compassion for strangers in distant lands.

One group competing against another is one way to induce a sense of community that transcends the ego. But it is not the only way. Immersion in nature and religious experiences with music, dancing, and worship, for example, do not involve competition. As we humans continue to evolve, we can cultivate a stronger commitment to those universal moral rules that guide us to treat all humans with compassion.[3] The universal threat posed by climate change could reinforce that kind of co-evolution between culture and biology. The need to unite and affirm our common humanity becomes clearer daily.

We must always ask: Do I love others as I love myself? Do I love my “enemies”? Am I avoiding both selfishness and self-sacrifice? Am I treating others as I want to be treated? Can my nation, my community, and I hold firmly to our beliefs without demanding that your nation, your community, and you affirm the same beliefs? If I am a white Christian, must I demand that the United States be a white Christian nation? To defend my nation, must I insist that America dominate the world? Or is peaceful cooperation between countries possible? Can all humans seek to transform their nation into a compassionate community? Can all my identities thrive at the same time? Can it be both/and? Can win-win work? Can I benefit when you benefit? Or is life zero-sum? If you win, must I lose?

The Internet makes compassionate global community more possible than ever. To move in that direction, we Americans must set a positive example. America originally committed herself to “promote the general welfare.” “Barn raising” symbolized the American spirit. Responses to natural catastrophes bring out our higher angels.

But most of us tell our children to “get ahead” of the competition, climb social ladders, look down on those below, and “you can be whatever they want to be.” We preach “what’s in it for me?” and “it’s all about me (and my family).” Many men still declare “Father knows best,” “Someone must always be in charge,” and “I am the King around here, so don’t forget it!” White politicians tell poor whites, “You got more than the blacks, you’re better than them.”[4] People avoid their own responsibility, ignore the power of the System, and scapegoat enemies with hate-filled rhetoric — rather than mobilize a broad-based supermajority behind a positive vision to improve living conditions. And as America spreads its selfish individualism throughout the world, it inflames tribal divisions elsewhere.

All that conditioning makes it difficult for Americans to relate to one another as individuals with equal rights and equal essential value. We spend most of our time dominating or submitting, which becomes a habit. When the situation calls for forming equal partnerships, it’s often not easy, even when everyone wants it. That reality calls us to commit to self-improvement: to become better human beings.

But if we try to dictate specific answers, we undermine liberty and self-determination and encourage people to escape personal responsibility by automatically submitting to power, whether legitimate or not. How to implement those communal principles needs to be a personal decision. Individuals are responsible for their own answer. We can live the way we want others to live while accepting their right to do the same. We can ask others, “How do you want to be a better person?” without pressing them to live the way we want them to live. We can share our ideas while leaving it to others to answer that question for themselves.

That’s the approach this draft declaration has tried to take. It suggests answers to key questions, not as the final word but as food for thought, trusting that by thinking together we can develop better answers.

The assumption here is that infants and toddlers reveal human nature. They are naturally curious, caring, joyous, awestruck. The pursuit of truth, justice, and beauty strikes at the heart of what it means to be human. We are innately prone to be egalitarian, spiritual, compassionate, playful. The Golden Rule, which has basically been affirmed by every culture, captures a basic human truth: we want to treat others as we want to be treated. And we want to relieve suffering, which leads us to want to correct the causes of that suffering when we can.

That goal requires us to learn how to communicate respectfully when we disagree. We can embrace the best “conservative” values as well as the best “liberal” values. Contrary to “do your own thing” individualism, we can affirm loyalty to community and family. Contrary to “whatever’s right” relativism, we can affirm that there is a difference between right and wrong. Contrary to those who say truth is relative, we can declare it’s possible to know what’s true. Contrary to those who always reject authority, we can accept the need for legitimate power. Contrary to “what’s in it for me” selfishness, we can be concerned about all life. Contrary to those who look down on and feel superior to others, we can highlight what all humanity shares. Contrary to indifference to suffering, we can call for fairness to all humans and the protection of the environment. Contrary to those who crave chaos to help the System collapse, we can call for order rooted in justice. Contrary to those who aim to destroy or weaken the government, we can seek true democracy. That’s the foundation on which this draft declaration is based.

This perspective is holistic. It addresses the whole person, including social ties, and the whole world. It aims to change the whole System. Liberating our inner hunter-gatherer, dissolving the System’s conditioning, and building a powerful grassroots movement to transform the System will be no easy matter. The following steps can help.

Naming the System weakens it. We’re immersed in a self-perpetuating global system with interwoven elements that reinforce one another. Those elements are our institutions, our culture, and ourselves as individuals. The System’s driving force is the effort by individuals to gain more status, wealth, and power over others. By climbing social ladders, both ordinary people and elites build up their sense of self-worth and look down on those below, who they generally consider to be inferior. Relationships based on equality and mutual respect are rare. We learn to dominate or submit, which is the norm. Facing those realities makes it easier to change them, but that’s only the first step.

Holistic communities engage the whole person and address weaknesses. To transform the System nation by nation, we must change ourselves. Small, supportive groups of individuals who share the same commitment can serve as social greenhouses that help their members become less self-centered, fearful, hateful, dishonest, competitive, judgmental, and hungry for power and status — and become more caring, trusting, joyous, honest, cooperative, accepting, and able to collaborate with others as individuals of equal worth. With individuals defining their own goals, we can become better human beings within healthy communities that cultivate authentic lives. For that growth to flourish, however, society-as-a-whole, the System, must change as well.

Seeing the whole system involves many-sided awareness. We can avoid getting stuck in ideology. We can be pragmatic idealists. We can make a difference and enjoy life. We can change the world and be the change. Families can care for their community and their children. Businesses can care for the public interest and their bottom line. Activist organizations can unite in coalitions and build their own organizations. Elected officials can use their office as an organizing tool and get re-elected. Nations can cooperate with other nations and take care of their own interests. It’s both/and, not either/or. It’s a matter of balance. If we all benefit, we all benefit.

Structure matters. A massive grassroots movement to promote democracy needs to be democratic, from the bottom up, without being bureaucratic. Small units can better give each member a voice, but even small units need to take care to avoid top-down domination by one or more members. Seeking consensus while relying on a super-majority when necessary can guard against both descending to the “lowest common denominator” and the tyranny of the minority by the majority. Local units can select representatives to regional units, who can select representatives to national bodies. Local units can be self-governing so long as they conform to national policies. A network of small support groups that embrace the same principles and use the same format to conduct meetings — like twelve-step groups do — would enable all participants to feel part of the same community, which would enrich the experience.

The most promising course to global transformation is evolutionary revolution: steady reforms that move in the direction of an agreed-on mission. Relying on the System to collapse so we can build on the ruins is an unreliable strategy that would accept widespread suffering. The future is unpredictable. The System may muddle through. Planning to destroy the system with a sudden forceful revolution is also unreliable, especially if it’s violent. No violent revolution has worked; the victors have reproduced prior patterns of domination. Building on what we have and reforming it steadily with support from majorities of people holds more promise. No victory is final. By establishing a strong commitment to that never-ending struggle, we can avoid the risk that the System will co-opt reforms and undermine ongoing revolution.

Universal economic security is essential to systemic transformation. A compassionate society must assure that everyone has a decent opportunity to meet their basic needs. In the United States, a guaranteed living-wage job opportunity would be a key method to achieve that goal. It would give everyone a better chance to fulfill their potential and contribute to society. Those who want to climb a social ladder still could, but they wouldn’t have to do so to avoid poverty. No child should have to grow up poor because their parents can’t find a living-wage job. So long as some children have economic security and others do not, they’re not equal. A plurality of Americans supports a federal jobs guarantee. A new federal bureaucracy would not be necessary. We could rely on federal revenue sharing to local governments to steadily increase funding for public-service, living-wage jobs until those jobs go begging due to lack of applicants. In developing countries, other methods might be needed to provide economic security in a way that reflects the prevailing standard of living in the local community. But there too, given the political will, steady progress to meet basic human needs can be achieved.

Efforts to transform the System need to be intentional and that intention needs to be written. Organizations adopt a mission statement and other written policies to focus their work. Married couples adopt wedding vows to guide their relationships. Systemic transformation projects also need to clarify their goals. Such affirmations help people hold one another accountable to their commitment.

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One way to proceed would be for a diverse organizing committee to initiate one or more of the projects suggested in this draft declaration. Each project member could endorse the same pledge, such as:

Transform the System Pledge

 

  • I will help transform my nation into a compassionate community dedicated to the common good of all humanity, our own people, the environment, and life itself.
  • I will participate in a mutual support team whose members will, at least once a month, open their meetings with a minute or two of silence and then reply to this question: “What’s happening with your personal and political change efforts?”
  • My team will affiliate with [name of project] whose members also sign this pledge.

That approach would define “political” as “efforts to help change public policy.” Those teams would presumably engage in other mutual support activities as well, but they would all use that same simple method at least once a month to open their meetings. That common embrace of the same mission and method would provide all team members with a shared experience that could nurture a sense of community. By doing so openly, they would encourage others to join the network. On occasion, regional, national, and global gatherings could enable members to inspire one another, publicize their efforts, and recruit more people to join the network.

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Many people are engaged in personal or spiritual transformation, but most of them do not engage in political action with their colleagues. Separately, many people who engage in political action only support each other in their self-development efforts informally — they rarely collectively, openly support each other in those efforts.

The premise of this draft declaration is that many people in both groups — those who focus on the personal and those who focus on the political — could benefit by openly, consciously, and to some degree formally integrating their personal and political change efforts.

Some change agents are working on that kind of holistic, social transformation. But most of those efforts are led by professionals who work with full-time professional staff. One motive behind this draft declaration is to bring some of what those people have learned out into the public and encourage the development of a simple tool, within the framework of a shared core principle (as Alcoholics Anonymous did) that could spread widely and quickly. Doing so could help those activists increase their effectiveness. And it could encourage those who are inactive to become active.

Those needs seem urgent. This approach may be an idea whose time has come.

Or perhaps some other mutual support method would be more effective. If you’re so inclined, please gather with three or more trusted friends, experiment with one or more ways to provide mutual support for your personal and political efforts and post a report about how it goes on TransformTheSystem.org. Or let us know of some such method already being employed.

The bottom line is: develop an easy-to-learn method that individuals could use to support one another in their self-development and their political action — a method that could scale up, spread quickly, and enable those who use it to identify as a member of the same community. Experimenting with such a model might prove to be like sticking a toe in the water. Those who do may jump in, pay the price James Baldwin talked about, become better human beings, and begin trusting one another more.

The paths to systemic transformation are many. The support method presented here is only one possibility. But it seems that an explicit, conscious commitment would help many people deepen their self-development and increase their political effectiveness.

While writing this draft declaration, I’ve experimented some with the method proposed here. The results were promising. If others experiment with other methods, or report on a similar ongoing project, we can compare notes and perhaps agree on the best way forward.

Consider meeting with a few friends to report on your personal and political change efforts. If you aren’t sure how to proceed, share that uncertainty and brainstorm possibilities.

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Please consider contributing to this effort in one of the following ways:

 

  • purchase a few copies of Transform the System: A Work in Progress on Amazon and give them to people who may be interested;
  • visit TransformTheSystem.org and post comments at the end of each chapter;
  • spread the word about this project.

Soon I’ll convene a workshop to evaluate this work-in-progress and agree on feedback. A report on comments posted on the website will be presented to workshop participants. Everyone who comments on the website and leaves their email address will be invited (email addresses will not be viewable or sold).

Other opportunities to collaborate may emerge as well. As I incorporate feedback and make new discoveries, I may update this declaration and post the latest version on the website.

For more info, see TransformTheSystem.org. Later, one possibility will be to find a publisher for an anthology with a revision to this declaration and essays written by others responding to the same question addressed here: What is “the system” and how should we change it?

This draft offers an answer to that question as food-for-thought, not the final word. Perhaps respondents will suggest major improvements to this approach. Perhaps others will start from scratch with a much different answer.

Time will tell, but the more we who are moving in the same direction support each other, the better our odds to help transform the System. Our chances are unknown. We can only do what we can do. Why not try?

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NOTES:

[1] Retrieved from http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/.

[2] Retrieved from https://www.space.com/17307-neil-armstrong-one-small-step-quote.html.

[3] Haidt, J., The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, 2012, 251.

[4] Dylan, Bob, "Only a Pawn in their Game."

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