Transform the System: A Work in Progress

5: Evolutionary Revolution

How can we activists improve how we operate?
How can we overcome divisions, such as those shaped
by race, class, and gender? What strategies will help us succeed?

Majorities of the American people agree on many proposed changes in national policy that would move us toward a more compassionate society.[1] Massive, united, grassroots movements that push for those changes could help establish those policies. To be successful in that effort, compassionate Americans need to reach out beyond their comfort zone, help turn majorities into super-majorities, and inspire passive supporters to become active supporters.

To build that power, we activists need to improve how we treat each other, how we communicate with those who disagree, how we recruit supporters, and how we decide on a course of action. Too often, we neglect self-examination, are judgmental toward others and ourselves, and fail to operate democratically. Those habits undermine our effectiveness.

If we listen to our conscience and love all humanity, we can help each other become better, more engaged, more moral human beings. We can change what we can and accept what we cannot change or escape, while waiting for another day when new circumstances create opportunities for more change, recognizing we’ll never change certain aspects of reality. Admitting mistakes and apologizing for them can help us set aside divisive habits such as arrogance, egotism, dogmatism, individualism, bias, and the lust for power over others.

If we’re determined and support one another, we can help transform America. If other countries do the same, we can create a more peaceful world and save the planet as a place fit for human life.

To transform this nation into a compassionate community, we Americans will have to constantly measure ourselves by the standards set by Charter for Compassion: Do our actions avoid both selfishness and self-sacrifice? Do they serve me and my neighbor? Do they serve my nation and all humanity? Does my company serve the public interest as well as earn a profit? Is my activist organization too concerned with building its own power, rather than forming coalitions to build people power? Am I too concerned with myself, my family, and my community? Am I giving to receive, or are my gifts authentic? Am I being self-indulgent, or am I taking care of myself to avoid burnout?

Answering those questions requires difficult, honest self-examination and the willingness to see reality from multiple perspectives. Most of all it requires humility: the ability to empathize with and understand others, to be righteous without being self-righteous, to make judgments without being judgmental, to live the way you want others to live while accepting that they need to do the same.

I hardly know why I do what I do, much why others do what they do. But one thing is clear: the real reasons for our actions are often deep, gut-level reactions and intuitions, and our intellectual explanations are rationalizations. When that’s the case, arguments about ideas can be fruitless. Instead, before we can have a real conversation, we need to first find common ground, acknowledge shared underlying values, and establish mutual respect and trust.

In politics, analyzing the pros and cons of policy alternatives can be an endless merry-go-round. As partisanship has intensified, each tribe seeks to crush the other. They mobilize their troops by launching personal attacks and provoking fear, aided and abetted by the mainstream media that profit from “crossfire” debates and partisan conflict. They don’t really try to understand their opponents or why they find certain arguments persuasive. Instead they set up straw men to attack and manipulate people by provoking fear.

But neuroscientists are confirming that humans react with less fear when they’re reminded that they’re loved or could be loved.[2] Performers and athletes learn to transcend fear by accepting it. During natural disasters and other emergencies people often display remarkable daring. Soldiers in battle report that solidarity with and compassion for their comrades motivate them to persist. Courage, caring and calm are contagious. We need not be victims of fear. The same applies to anger, which doesn’t necessarily lead to hate. Being compassionate with one another helps us manage both fear and anger.

Many if not most Democrats don’t acknowledge that Trump supporters are only one-third of the population with understandable reasons for resentment and anger. The System’s top-level administrators have long disrespected them and disregarded their legitimate needs. Key examples are towns and cities that witness their young people move away in droves as their economies dry up. The Establishment, despite its rhetoric, seems not to care.

Democrats shouldn’t even condemn as less than human those Trump supporters who are die-hard racists. Most people are prejudiced to some degree. That prejudice is easily inflamed. And many full-blown racists are in many respects decent human beings who’ve been duped and manipulated by those who divide and conquer.

In a similar vein, many if not most Republicans fail to acknowledge that black and brown people are a relatively powerless minority who are resentful and angry for understandable reasons. Police officers often disrespect people of color, abuse them, and lock them up more frequently than they do whites for the same crime. And some officers kill them for no good reason. Moreover, it’s been proven that many Americans unfairly discriminate against people of color and don’t actively support efforts to correct that injustice. Instead, they scapegoat people of color and overlook the fact that we could all do much better if the top one percent didn’t take twenty percent of the nation’s annual income and one-third of the nation’s wealth.

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We’ll likely never build community with large numbers of rabid racists who have nothing but contempt for people of color. But we can build bridges with some. One powerful example is the black man at a demonstration who approached a neo-Nazi whose shirt was covered with swastikas, calmly asked him for a hug, and then asked, “Why do you hate me?” His response was “I don’t know.” The encounter may have opened a door.

Connecting with those whose racism is less rabid is more likely. A similar dilemma applies to urban elites who have nothing but contempt for rural “riff raff.” We need to dissolve their prejudice as well.

If we want to build powerful grassroots movements, we need as much support as we can get. We need to keep the door open to everyone, including rural racists and arrogant cosmopolitans. Even if our top priority is solidifying community with those who are easiest to recruit, some effort can be devoted to reaching beyond the choir. We can learn from others and we usually don’t know beforehand when an alliance might form.

If we more fully love ourselves and our opponents, we’ll more likely find common ground and reconciliation. Even when others do horrible things, we can hate the sin but not the sinner. Without excusing misdeeds or demonizing, we can look for ways to unite and fight for universal policies that benefit all working people, white, black, and brown, rural and urban, from all income levels (as well as policies that target specific disinherited populations). Those victories will nourish compassion, erode the frustrations that engender hate, and build up our opponents’ positive qualities. 

At the same time, we can directly engage those who fear that black and brown people will take their jobs, discuss their fears, and address how their needs can be fulfilled without oppressing others. “When you win, I must lose” is a myth. We can both win. In fact, win-win is the only way to really win.

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We can help one another become more fully human by cultivating proactive, compassionate, nonviolent communities whose members refuse to scapegoat. “You hurt my feelings” is one example of scapegoating. Hurt feelings don’t result from a single cause. In those situations, many factors are at play, including our own responsibility for feeling hurt. I filter others’ words and actions with my thinking. How I interpret that behavior is key, as is the mood I’m in. Sometimes a statement or action may get under my skin. At other times, it’s like water off a duck’s back and I say to myself, “That’s his problem.”

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me” is an old African-American folk adage that holds wisdom. It was first recorded in print in 1862 in a publication of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.[3] Drawing on that tradition, the great African-American theologian, Howard Thurman, a mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:

...Anyone who permits another to determine the quality of his inner life gives into the hands of the other the key to his destiny. If a man knows precisely what he can do to you or what epithet he can hurl against you in order to make you lose your temper, your equilibrium, then he can always keep you under subjection.[4]

The Dalai Lama said:

You have to think: Why did this happen? This person is not your enemy from birth…. You see that this person’s actions are due to their own destructive emotions. You can develop a sense of concern, compassion, even feel sorry for their pain and suffering.[5]

Rather than say, “You hurt me,” it’s more constructive to say, “When you said X, I felt Y.” With that language, the focus is on the action, not the person. “You hurt me” can be seen as a personal attack, an ad hominem challenge to the other at her core. That phrase can make the exchange more heated and lead to a reciprocal, escalating blame game in which each party accuses the other. In the end, such altercations often degenerate into name-calling.

One result of those blame games is personal defensiveness. People become less likely to speak honestly, because they’re afraid they will “cause harm” or be accused of causing harm. That fear gives power to people who are prone to level the charge “You hurt me.” Accusers can manipulate others by sending them on guilt trips. And when “defendants” plead not guilty, “prosecutors” often punish, shun, or excommunicate them. As a result, former allies are frequently splintered off. In many cases, potential allies, faced with the threat of such harsh judgments, choose to preemptively withdraw from political engagement and operate in a safer, apolitical environment — causing still more splintering.  

Society should discourage cruel words and hate speech that lead to hurt feelings and hold people accountable for the consequences of their actions, especially when they violate the law. But when cruel words contribute to hurt feelings, we shouldn’t dehumanize those who use those words. Experience shows that when we do, they tend to double-down on their toxic attacks. Name-calling becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Rather than publicly “call out” associates with harsh judgments, we can instead, with compassionate criticisms, “call in” by inviting others to avoid similar mistakes in the future and join with us to move forward.

A kind response to cruel words can be placed within the framework of transforming the System and pointing out that the real problem is the System. That approach avoids placing excessive blame on individuals, which reinforces individualism. It makes no sense to demonize any individual or look for a Savior. We can humbly refrain from exaggerating our own responsibility and lift a burden from our shoulders by not trying to be a Savior ourselves. If we Americans cultivate such changes in our attitudes and values, we’ll be better able to build a unified grassroots movement strong enough to make major changes in our culture and institutions.

To build massive unity, we need to overcome those tendencies. By recovering our deep human capacity for compassion, we can expose the System’s hypocrisy, advance collaboration, make clear that selfish gain at the expense of others is immoral, and insist that society live up to its highest ideals. We can use the System’s own ideals to transform the System into a force that empowers everyone to live the life they want to live.

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We can grow small bands of trusted allies who create social greenhouses that serve as models for the society we seek. Such groups can help their members learn to respect one another as individuals of equal worth, liberate their inner hunter-gatherer, stop being mean to each other, and realize their spiritual potential. Activist organizations, with intention, can help their members support one another in their open-ended, self-defined personal growth, rather than leaving it to natural human support (which happens less frequently these days).

Even if you don’t call yourself “religious” or “spiritual,” chances are you appreciate many nonmaterial realities — such as love, beauty, and the human mind. If you do, I consider you spiritual. Those nonmaterial realities prompt people to use terms like spirit, soul, God, life force, Ground of Being, and Higher Power. Flesh is always enspirited and spirit is always enfleshed. We are whole. Nonmaterial and material realities are equally important.

The most important truths can’t be captured by words. They’re preverbal. That’s why we need poets, painters, musicians and other artists to help get in touch with those realities that leave us speechless, awestruck, overwhelmed. When we’re lucky, we tap our intuition, learn from our dreams, and otherwise allow our unconscious to express itself, like when writers feel they’re a conduit for a voice from beyond. Maybe that’s why Jesus said, “Become like little children.” [6]

Systemic reform involves spiritual growth as well as material changes. You can’t touch a system. Systems consist of the relationships between the individual elements that compose the System. Such relationships are nonmaterial. They’re the space between the elements of the system. These realities are not concrete. They have no boundaries and can’t be measured. The System is not a machine ruled by cause-and-effect.

Those issues relate to politics. Activists tend to place too much emphasis on the written word, public policies, actions in the material world, and, usually, measurable results. Concrete victories are important, but no one victory is worth using any means to achieve it.

Neither is any one victory worth intentional self-sacrifice. At times we may risk our life or lose it. And others may believe we’ve sacrificed the good life, when in fact we’ve gained profound satisfaction in hard, meaningful work. Nevertheless, if activists take care of themselves for the long haul, we can better become the change we seek, love ourselves as we love others, avoid burnout, and improve our ability to be effective.

The process is as important as the product. The spiritual is as important as the material. In the silence of our solitude and with trusted allies, we can acknowledge our mistakes and resolve not to repeat them. And day-by-day, in our neighborhoods, on the streets of our towns, in elevators, and wherever we go, we can make eye contact, smile, nod, and in some way, say, “Hello in there, fellow human being.” Bit by bit, we can humanize the world.

Ideally, reforms we enact will establish new structures that establish lasting improvements and shift the balance of power. But we shouldn’t forget that, sometimes, band-aids are also useful to alleviate suffering. In any case, we can make it clear to everyone that no one victory is final. We’ll never achieve Utopia. With that understanding, we can avoid allowing minor reforms to reinforce the System by giving the impression that those reforms are sufficient.

Absent a broader, long-term context, single-issue projects reinforce individualism and buttress the notion that only separate organizations are feasible. Activists need not always talk about their overarching long-term mission. Social service agencies can help individuals cope. Innovators can build new models like farmers’ markets. Neighborhood associations can fight for STOP signs. Families can focus on their children. At the same time, those efforts can operate within the context of a long-term, transformative mission.

By being explicit about an underlying commitment to systemic reform, such efforts can increase awareness, plant seeds, and nudge people toward helping to build a transformative movement that includes concrete political action to improve national policies. Waiting rooms can have transformative literature on the coffee tables and transformative art on the walls. Organizational brochures can mention the underlying mission. Social-service agencies can distribute literature discussing political actions. Psychotherapists can nurture deeper purposes and insights.

Without a shared, broader commitment to a long-term mission, change efforts are more likely to stay fragmented. Individuals and organizations are more likely to stay excessively concerned with their own self-interest. With a compelling vision and contagious joy, however, we can attract others to join us, help one another sharpen our thinking, become better human beings, and act to improve public policies, especially national policies that are the source of so many of our local problems, such as homelessness.

Eventually we can end up with a transformed society, one that is fundamentally and comprehensively new. But we can’t force it or predict it. As the Bhagavad Gita says, “The work is yours, but not the fruits thereof.”[7] All we can do is improve the world, person by person, community by community, institution by institution, all at the same time, step by step, day by day, minute by minute — and see how it goes

As we build momentum with progress, new possibilities may enable majority support to form behind proposals previously considered unrealistic and we may experience never-ending evolutionary revolution.

NEXT: Leadership

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NOTES:

[1] "5 'Radical' Bernie Sanders Ideas Many Americans Strongly Support," Alternet, July 5, 2015.

[2] "Outsmarting Our Primitive Responses to Fear," The New York Times, Oct 26, 2017.

[3] Wikipedia, “Sticks and Stones,” Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sticks_and_Stones.

[4] Thurman, Howard, Jesus and the Disinherited, 28.

[5] Tutu, Desmond and 14th Dalai Lama, The Book of Joy.

[6] Retrieved from https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+18:2-4.

[7] Kahane, Collaborating with the Enemy, 96.

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