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Billy King


Nonviolence News



These are regular editorials produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent News.

Editorial 242: September 2016

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

Humility, arrogance and life

Politics, be it peace politics or any other kind of politics, is part of life. Admittedly it is seen as a specialised part of life but it is also a part that some people think they can avoid when the very food we eat, the way we travel, our work, and our leisure time is all part of 'politics'. In defining politics Wikipedia has "Politics (from the Greek.... indicating "of, for, or relating to citizens") is the process of making decisions applying to all members of a group" which is more of what we would define politics than another definition (Cambridge Dictionary online) "the \o "activities" activities of the government, members of law-making organizations, or people who try to influence the way a country is governed." The latter is not just party politics but governmental politics; the former is life lived in society, who gets to make decisions and how they are made.

What we buy is obviously a 'political' statement; in choosing one product over another, or to buy it at all, we are making a statement that we consider certain practices acceptable or tolerable. What we are prepared to work at is also political (e.g. concerning dependency on or involvement with fossil fuels, encouragement of obesity through sugary and fast foods, as well as arms industry involvement, to name a few obvious questions). Even our leisure time has political aspects to it. You might call all of this covert politics – it is life.

Our approaches to life carry over to our overtly political involvements, where we are making a clearer statement about what we believe in and what kind of world we want to see. How we do this in a society where vested interests want to distract people with bread and circuses (consumer goods and television as examples) is an important question. Standing up (or indeed, sitting down) and being counted is vital but doing it in a way which conscientises and challenges people is a key element, otherwise we risk the brand of mutant exceptionalism ("There go those silly militant tree-huggers again" rather than "These people are making an important statement about the future of life on earth").

Finding the right tone to communicate with people is an essential part of this task. It is of course possible that nothing we say and nothing we do will communicate with people. But if we do not at least try to find the right tone then we are wasting our time. We need to be confident in our message but not arrogant; arrogance is an immediate turn off. Arrogance looks like total dismissal of other people, their beliefs, and the pressures of life which they endure. But being overly humble can also be a turn off and look weak. Nonviolence is about unarmed strength but it is also about respect and we cannot hold other people in respect at the same time as holding them in contempt. We do not have to agree with people's political or other views to hold them in respect.

And so we need self aware self confidence, an awareness of how we interact with other people and a confidence based on our beliefs which is prepared to be open and questioning. None of it is easy. It does however become easier with practice but we have to be always thinking and analysing. One of the messages of the Saul Alinsky style of organising (and others) is to treat events as theatre, as performance; that 'performance' needs to true to ourselves and fully in accord with our beliefs and approach to life but, being done in public, it needs to be done in a way which communicates our message both in content and form. The medium is part of the message but underneath it has to be in accord with our beliefs.

Building a movement, changing perceptions, being effective in our work for change – these are all slow and painstaking tasks which cannot be rushed. Of course there can be upsurges in support, sudden growth in a movement, times when we are carried along by popular will; but the preparation is done a long time before or if it has not been done then big problems may emerge.

Achieving short term gains towards long term goals is also important. We need to see we are indeed achieving things and, while it is often impossible to gauge progress, there are certain tasks and projects which can be seen and evaluated as successful (or if not then evaluated for learning towards the next time).

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

The Nature of Normal

The science debate is over in regard to whether or not humankind is responsible for global warming. Painstaking research shows beyond doubt that human behaviour has led to the heating of the atmosphere and we have to accept that global warming deniers such as US presidential candidate Donald Trump and DUP MP Sammy Wilson will never be convinced otherwise. People often deny the validity of evidence in order to avoid the collapse of their worldview and integrated sense of identity. As deep rooted change often necessitates jettisoning long nurtured and deeply ingrained values, beliefs and behaviour, especially those that confer status and provide comfort and convenience, it is no easy matter. For many change is unachievable. As Erich Fromm said "it is the tragic fate of most individuals to die before they are born." (The Sane Society, 1955)

People also live with denial in order to feel part of the herd. As herd animals we want to feel we belong and if this means owning what others own and doing what others do then we will follow suit. Buying what is lauded, including holidays in distant places, is one of the factors that lie behind the economic success of major corporations and the desecration of nonhuman nature.

Destructive and wasteful consumption – the economic basis of society - is applauded. By way of illustration, society attributes esteem to high energy consumers rather than those who have a Mahatma Gandhi life-style (1869-1948). People who wilfully live a simply life, who live a peasant-like existence of growing most of the food they eat, using a bicycle rather than a car, wearing clothes that have decades of use, mending and re-using are at best considered eccentric. As people who are self-sufficient do little to oil the consumer economy they are derided and there is no more effective way to get people to behave in a desired way than derision.

The impediment to drastically reducing our consumption of fossil fuels and paving the planet with crop plantations and concrete is not technical and organisational know-how but cultural norms. Movements for social change might be more effective if they grasped that our inclination to be normal can be used to help bring about a fair and ecologically sustainable society.

The nature of normal is in large part determined by government and the mass media. The power of governments to define normal is clearly demonstrated during times of national emergency. During the First and Second World Wars the UK and the US governments were able to persuade people to consume less through a mixture of public messages and penalties and got millions of young men to act against their fear of being maimed or killed to enlist in the armed services. The emotional arm-twister, as posters of the time show, is that men would have been considered cowards if they did not fight, an anathema to young men almost everywhere. (The Ulster Museum in Belfast has a sample of these posters on display.)

Both countries allowed for the option of conscientious objection. In the UK the 1916 Conscription Act contained a conscientious objection clause. In spite of this only 16,000 men availed of it. One might deduce from this that the persuasive power of been considered normal is such that most people would rather face injury and death than be thought different from the norm. Without doubt in both wars many fought and supported the war effort for reasons of collective defence but the fear of social exclusion and detestation if they did not was a potent motivator.

The mass media exercises enormous influence in determining what is normal. Celebrities play an important role. Among them are bloggers who sell brand name products as part of a how to look and take care of oneself package and model what it means to belong to a particular age group. The majority of mass audience films and music endorse our fossil-fuel society and the values, behaviour and structures that support it.

The primary actor in defining normal is government who set the legislative framework of how society functions and control of the treasury, schools and other state agencies enable them to do it. Julene Blair, author of The Ogallala Road (2014) reads the political situation correctly when she said to an audience of US farmers: "It asks too much of the farmer to regulate himself. It's not the farmer's job to decide about the aquifer, it's the government's job." (National Geographic, August 2016) It's the government's job to govern and the universal expectation is that they do it fairly.

Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything, (2014), points out that the key to persuading people to make personal sacrifices for the common good is that they are seen as fair and apply across the social strata. Put simply, trying to persuade or compel the least well off to do without in the interests of realising an ecologically sustainable society won't work while the wealthy have the means to avoid compromising their lifestyle.

The cultural challenge is to define the basic trait of normal as fairness. Fairness is cool, meaning it is good. It is something people feel comfortable about and will make sacrifices for. Fairness is inclusive and resonates with our herd instinct. An important scientific observation is that people know what is and isn't fair, even children as young as two. This is something Prime Minister David Cameron over-looked when he proffered the idea that 'we are all in it together' in order to encourage those who find it difficult to make ends meet accept his austerity measures.

With fairness comes transparency and honesty. These values work, they unify. As members of the herd we can help define the nature of normal. We can do this in innumerable ways such as by purchasing Fairtrade products, lowering our consumption of fossil fuels and doing voluntary work.

Copyright INNATE 2021