Psychologically smart activism for creatively maladjusted citizens

So, after writing my previous post on Martin Luther King Jr, I googled the phrase “creatively maladjusted” and found my way to this interesting talk [pdf version here] by Steve Chase, director of Aintoch Universuty New England’s Environmental Advocacy and Organising Program.

His talk is addressed to psychologists on the subject of how psychology could move beyond a focus on “correcting” individuals, merely helping them adjust to an oppressive reality, towards one empowering them to participate in community activism to correct that reality itself, and also how psychology could inform strategies for activists to better “recruit” such community members. Chase goes through some interesting examples of this, what he terms as “psychologically smart activism”. He advises that activists take some time to get to know a person, to see if their personal agenda can be related to the activist’s agenda in terms that the potential “recruit” will be able to engage with, rather than the activist merely delivering a pre-prepared “sermon”.

Chase also points out some common traps those inclined towards activism may potentially fall into, for example “the perfect standard”. To illustrate this “trap” in his talk, the following passage from Paul Rogat Loeb’s book Soul of a Citizen is quoted:

“Many of us have developed what I call the perfect standard: Before we will allow ourselves to take action on an issue, we must be convinced not only that the issue is the world’s most important, but that we have perfect understanding of it, perfect moral consistency in our character, and that we will be able to express our views with perfect eloquence… Whatever the issue, whatever the approach, we never feel we have enough knowledge or standing. If we do speak out, someone might challenge us, might find an error in our thinking or an inconsistency – what they might call a hypocrisy – in our lives.”

Martin Luther King Jr is actually an example of somebody who didn’t meet the above “perfect standard”, instead coming to activism somewhat reluctantly and inexpertly at first. Chase tells this interesting story in some detail – once again, I encourage you to watch or read his talk in its entirety.

I also read a semi-recent Guardian interview with Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, who has an important link back to Martin Luther King Jr – as a Vietnamese spiritual leader visiting America on a peace mission in 1966, he was instrumental in persuading Dr King to take a stand against the American government’s war in Vietnam. Dr King nominated Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize the following year. In his Guardian interview, Thich Nhat Hanh explores similar ideas to Steve Chase; for example, that to be an effective voice of dissent requires a certain psychological foundation:

“Without collective awakening the catastrophe will come. Civilisations have been destroyed many times and this civilisation is no different. It can be destroyed. We can think of time in terms of millions of years and life will resume little by little. The cosmos operates for us very urgently, but geological time is different.

If you meditate on that, you will not go crazy. You accept that this civilisation could be abolished and life will begin later on after a few thousand years because that is something that has happened in the history of this planet. When you have peace in yourself and accept, then you are calm enough to do something, but if you are carried by despair there is no hope.

It’s like the person who is struck with cancer or Aids and they learn they have been given one year or six months to live. They suffer very much and fight. But if they come to accept that they will die and they prepare to live every day peacefully and they enjoy every moment, the situation may change and the illness may go away. That has happened to many people.”

I tried combining the pair’s insights to write down my own personal set of rules for “psychologically smart activism for creatively maladjusted citizens” and came up with the three rules below. Here they are, followed by some explanation of why each is important for me:

  • Accept that the human race may not survive for very much longer.
  • Accept that nothing you can do as an individual will ever be enough to change this – don’t beat yourself up about it!
  • From a state of sufficient (i.e. not “perfect”) acceptance, proceed with the desire to gain awareness ones-self and to help others gain awareness and to take positive actions to regain control of ones life and to help other regain control over their own lives.

The first two points relate to acceptance. For me, this would be a key foundation to any future activism. Noting the warning quoted earlier from Soul of a Citizen, I wouldn’t demand of myself a “perfect standard” of acceptance – merely a standard sufficient for a balanced approach to activist conversations, since to have a desperate need, a compulsion (a craving as a Buddhist might say!), to change people’s minds and actions would for me be bad, since I would then be acting out of my own anxieties and fears over the future of our species, not out of a desire to help people.

You can’t single-handedly “save civilisation” (and so I would begin by accepting that it might not be saved), but you can seek to engage mindfully with your circle of friends, colleagues and family. You can’t force your own insights on others, they will have to get there by themselves, though you may point to a possible path for them to walk. This way takes time, which we potentially don’t have very much of, but there is no other way, there is no shortcut to individual enlightenment – it is a light that must come from within each of us, we cannot merely follow the light of another. Later in his interview, Thich Nhat Hanh says “One Buddha is not enough, we need to have many Buddhas.”

My third and final point relates to how to best harvest whatever state of acceptance is cultivated. It’s important to me that activists do not merely deliver sermons, with the idea that they have the answers. Perhaps you “know” that you’re trying for a system that’s in everybody’s best interests, but your audience doesn’t know this (also, you might be wrong!). If you’ve really understood why your agenda is your agenda, relating it to an audiences’ specific circumstances should be possible. I think our social problems have a few common causes. If you think you’ve understood underlying causes but aren’t sure how to communicate their implications to others, you need practice [this is where I feel I’m at now]. If you can’t understand how people’s specific problems are related to these underlying causes, you need to understand underlying causes better! So read more books, spend more time reflecting alone, talk with people you consider to be more enlightened than yourself.

Today I am continuing to work on points 1 and 2, on my own acceptance, and tentatively beginning an attempt to achieve point 3, to develop a greater awareness and self-reliance in myself and thus inspire it in others through my own example and in cultivating relationships based on an acceptance of humanities potential failures, “come what may”, not on my personal fears. In short, I’m going to try and mature into a “psychologically smart” and “creatively maladjusted” individual and activist. I’ll update at some point in the future on how my journey goes 🙂

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~ by freedomthistime on July 15, 2011.

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