Thursday, October 5, 2017

What Would I Do if an Assailant Threatened my Daughters? (7 of 7)


This is the last post in seven-part series called "A Pragmatic Case for Pacifism." For a link to the table of contents for the entire series, click here.

It’s been a long time since my last post, partially because there has been so much going on in my life in the past few months. Most significantly, my wife gave birth to our second daughter two weeks ago. Our baby is beautiful, and it has been a pleasure for me to see my oldest daughter – who is now 2 years old – get a long so well with her sister. There is nothing in this world more precious than children.

This has gotten me thinking about the most common question that is posed to pacifists, which I would like to address as the last post in this series: “What would you do if a violent person threatened someone you loved and you had to kill them to stop them?” This is the concern that keeps many people – who are sympathetic to the theories and mindset of nonviolence – from crossing the line and becoming full-fledged pacifists. They may agree with everything I have written in the previous six posts. They may believe that we should abstain from violence 99.999% of the time. However, so long as the possibility exists that a violent person could threaten someone they love and that killing them could prevent it from happening, they aren’t willing to relinquish their right to kill if that which they love most is under threat And, as a result, they don’t feel like they can ask other people or nations to relinquish their right to kill when they things they love are under threat. Now, I can’t and won’t deny that the possibility that killing could save an “innocent” life [E1] – however slight – does exist. And how do I answer the question, when it is posed to me? What would I do if a violent person threatened the lives of my daughters, and I knew that the only way that I could save my daughters was to kill the assailant?

I would kill the assailant.

That’s not the answer you were expecting, was it? I was supposed to say, “No, I wouldn’t kill them even then.” But I can’t say that, because – as much as I value and believe in pacifism, as much as nonviolence seems like the most ethical and best way to live – I value my daughters more. I would not put my own need to "hold to some moral principle" above their lives. And that is essentially what the question is trying to suggest that pacifists must do. It asks people, “If you want to be a pacifist, then you have to love nonviolence more than you love anyone or anything else. Are you willing to put this ideal above everything else you care about?” Of course you’re not willing to do that. Neither am I.

But that in no way undermines my absolute commitment to nonviolence. Although it appears that I’m cheating, that I’m trying to make an exception to nonviolence and still call myself a pacifist, I’m actually not.  I can answer, “Yes, I would kill” to that question and still be a pacifist because it is a fallacious question. It contains a false assumption about the world: namely, that there would ever be a situation in which I could know with a high degree of certainty what the outcome of my actions and the actions of others will be. [E2] To be more precise, it actually makes three assumptions: (1) that my attempt to kill the assailant will succeed in saving my daughters; (2) that I can know what the assailant would do to my daughters if I didn’t intervene; and (3) that this is the only thing I could do to save my daughters. But I can’t know any of these things, for they require a person to know both what will happen and what “would have happened.” Therefore, I can answer “yes” and still be a pacifist because I believe very confidently that the scenario posed in this question will never occur.

Maybe an analogy would be helpful here. If you read my blog, then you know I am a Christian, but that doesn’t mean I believe that everything Christians say and do is right. For example, I recognize that Christians sometimes create arguments against atheism that are fallacious and even manipulative. Imagine that a Christian were to ask an atheist, “If you knew that the only way that you could save your loved ones was to pray to God, would you do it?” that would qualify as a fallacious and manipulative question. It’s framed to make the atheist look bad either way. For if they say, “No, they wouldn’t pray” then it appears that their hatred of religion outweighs the love they feel for their families. But if they say, “Yes, I would pray,” then the Christian would be tempted to declare that, in their heart of hearts, they really do believe in God. But neither of these implications is true. The atheist can simply reject the premise that anyone could ever know that praying would save someone and explain that this is why she doesn’t pray. Similarly, the pacifist can simply reject the premise that anyone could ever know that killing would save someone and explain that this is why she doesn’t kill.

 Now, you may be thinking, “Fine – you can’t know with certainty that killing an assailant would save your daughters, but even if you believed there was a reasonable chance that it could, shouldn’t you do it?” Before we answer that, let’s consider the three specific assumptions built into this question to see how reasonable it is to kill someone in order to save someone else.

(1) How confident can we be that our attempt to kill the assailant would succeed in saving the person we love? That depends significantly on who we are and what the circumstances are. In my case personally, as someone who is not very physically imposing and who has never fired a gun in my life, it would be very unwise for me to assume that my attempt to kill an assailant would work. It is more than likely that I could fire a gun and miss, attack the assailant and fail, and by doing so, put my daughters in greater danger than they were in before.

Now, this may seem pretty obvious to those who know me, but in actuality, it is quite hard for me to admit. Like most men and many women in the United States, I have been conditioned to view myself as a superhero who hasn’t blossomed yet. [E3] I want to believe that – if I were put in the right set of circumstances – I could figure out a way to defeat evil with a combination of my skills and wit. [E4]  I have had to make an effort to face my own limitations, even though in my case it should be pretty obvious that I have them. Now some of you may be better equipped than me to take on an assailant, but I would argue that this “conditioning” causes all of us to overestimate our chances of success, to fail to see how much could go wrong in a John-Wayne style rescue. Even in the best-case scenario, where a trained combat vet discovers an assailant threatening their family without being noticed, there is still a small but significant chance that the attempted rescue could fail and make things worse.

(2) How confident can we be that an assailant will kill if we don’t intervene? Again, that depends on the context. Let’s go back to this image of a masked assailant pointing a gun at my children. If I ever faced that scenario (and I pray I never will!), then my paternal instincts would certainly kick in to tell me that they are in mortal danger. But that may or may not be true. Yes, it is possible that the masked robber is a sociopath who is willing to kill children. It’s also possible that he hoped to break in silently and stumbled across them by accident, or that he was desperate and hoped the bluff of holding a hostage would be enough to get him what he needs, or that he himself thought he was ready to kill but he finds himself faltering when faced with the actual situation.

So it’s quite possible – in fact I would argue “more than likely” – that an assailant pointing a gun at my family does not intend to kill them but is looking for a way out. However, if I attempted to fight or kill that person and fail, it could startle him or push him over the edge and inspire him to go through with it. So, if I am being a responsible dad and am not just indulging in my instinctive fears and my inflated self-image as a would-be superhero, then I would assess the situation, determine how likely it was that the person intends to kill and how likely it is that my attempt to kill him would work. I believe that in majority of real cases where people are at gunpoint, the safest and most logical option is not to attack. However, I will concede that there are still a few circumstances in which attempting to kill the assailant seems like it would work and it reasonably could save lives. An active shooter situation is probably the best real-world example of this. What about then? Before answering, let’s evaluate the last assumption: that killing the assailant is the only thing that could work.

(3) How confident can we be that nothing other than violence would work? In strictly philosophical terms, we can’t be confident about this at all. There is no way that a human being could conceive of every alternative possibility to violence at the moment he or she realizes that their family is threatened and conclude that – out of all of them – violence is the best option. No, in the heat of the moment, our flight or fight instinct kicks in and tells us that there are only two options: kill or get away. But there are always more. You could distract an assailant so that your children could get away. You could bribe them. You could film them or shame them or appeal to their humanity. You could reason with them about the consequences or jump in front of your children to shield them with your body.

None of these are guaranteed to work. All of them could fail – just like attempted to kill the assailant could fail. Of course, you can increase your chances of succeeding by preparing for such a situation ahead of time. If you go to the shooting range every week, then it increases your chances of stopping an assailant by killing him/her. Similarly, if you engage in de-escalation training, it increases your chances of stopping an assailant by talking to him/her. And we should do this. Everyone should invest some time in protecting their loved ones. But the question is – how will we invest? How will we work toward safety and security? And I choose to invest in nonviolence.

Why not both? Why not do the de-escalation training and hold on to a gun as a “last resort”? Because there is no such thing as a last resort in those kinds of situations. Or to put it more accurately, every choice is a last resort. If you try to negotiate with someone, you give up your opportunity to attack them by stealth. If you throw your body in front your children, you made your move, and now it’s the assailant’s turn to make hers. Similarly, if you attempt to kill someone, you blow your chances at peaceful negotiation. If we really want to be prepared to engage evil, then we have to commit to a type of response, we have to condition ourselves to react in emotional moments in a specific way. And the way that I have chosen to protect my family is the way of nonviolence.

Conclusion

So you see, pacifism is not an unrealistic ideal that people are expected to adhere to at the cost of everyone and everything they love. It is not a way of avoiding conflict or “doing nothing” in the face of evil. It is a choice to engage with evil in a particular way, the way that Jesus introduced to the world nearly 2,000 years ago. So what would I do if a violent person threatened my daughters? I would use all of my training and every resource at my disposal to try to rescue them nonviolently, which I believe is the safest and most practical response.


***

End Notes

[E1] I put innocent in quotation marks because I realize that it is problematic to define people as “guilty” or “innocent” in general, because that suggests that some are deserving of death and others are not. However, it is fair to describe that people are guilty or innocent of particular actions or in particular circumstances, and this is a shorthanded way of conveying this.

[E2] I discovered this assumption from reading John Howard Yoder’s insightful book, What Would You Do? Yoder actually identifies several other assumptions as well, but I highlighted the ones I believe are the most important.

[E3] It’s worth noting that this question is usually directed at men, and part of the reason it is so potent in our culture is that it often appeals to implicit concepts of masculinity. “What would you do if your mother, wife, or daughter was threatened? Would you be man enough to save them?” I suspect that we often claim violence is necessary because we believe that violence is the most honorable response. When a man learns that an important female in his life has been sexually violated, for example, he is supposed to physically threaten the assailant – whether or not that is actually helpful for the victim. Men, we have to acknowledge that this influences the way we think about this issue if we want to actually help the people whom we love feel and be safer.

[E4] – I wonder how much this irrational instinct that we are somehow exceptional convinces people to go to war. Everyone who goes to war knows that people die, but I suspect many people think, “Yes, but it won’t be me. I am smarter, stronger, or better than the average fighter.”

I am speaking outside of my experience here, so I am open to correction, but my impression is that part of the pain that people experience when they return from war is that this illusion has been crushed. They realize that they survived not primarily because they were “superior” or somehow deserving, but because they got lucky. None of us – even our greatest military heroes – can guarantee victory or even survival in a mortal struggle.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

10 Nonviolent Options for Dealing with Violent People (6 of 7)


This is the sixth post in seven-part series called "A Pragmatic Case for Pacifism." For a link to the table of contents for the entire series, click here.

It’s been a few months since my last post in this pacifism series. If you recall, I had been arguing that violent solutions are not effective at bringing about positive change and that violence is not as powerful as most of us assume. I stand behind those posts, but I have always been annoyed with people who criticize the way things are without offering any constructive suggestions of how things could be done differently. [E1] Consequently, since I have been audacious enough to criticize the use of violence, even for good causes, I feel that it is my responsibility to offer some alternative ways that we could address some of the major challenges in the world. Specifically, I am going to focus in this post on how to deal with violent aggressors – people like terrorists, psychopaths, and tyrants who inflict violence on others. But before I get started, I need to be very clear about what I am not trying to accomplish in this post.

DISCLAIMERS:

First, I want to be clear that this is not a list of “10 things you can do that will stop violence in any situation.” This is not a step-by-step handbook that promises a positive result at the end, nor is it a comprehensive list of all the options that pacifists have at their disposal. [E2] My goal here is much less ambitious: I am simply trying to help my readers think about other ways that they could respond to violence, even in its most terrifying forms. When we are threatened, we tend resort to extreme, either-or thinking: fight or flight, either match force with equal force or run away and cower. Neither of these are acceptable responses for the pacifist. Therefore, by putting other options on the table, I hope to help us break out of that binary way of thinking, not necessarily recommend any of these specific responses. [E3]

Second, I want to be clear that these methods must be used selectively, based on the specific situation. For example, although it can be very effective for people living under an oppressive regime to use method #5 – expose their evil – against that dictator, it would be unsafe and unwise to ask a person in an abusive relationship to use that same method against their abuser. Remember, these are options, not absolute rules or principles that should be applied in any situation. At the end of the day, it’s the people who are actually facing violence who must decide what the most prudent and appropriate response is.

10 Nonviolent Options

1) Disarm Them

The most violent people in our world – psychopaths, terrorists, tyrants, and the like – use weapons in order to inflict violence on a massive scale. Without these weapons, they aren’t all that intimidating, and their ability to harm others is rather limited. [E4] So one pacifist response to violent aggression is simply to ruin or remove their weapons.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Wait… isn’t that violent? [E5] Not necessarily. Disarming people can come in many forms. It can be sneaky or subversive, by hiding weapons from someone or providing them with weapons that are defective, which is one of the tactics Oskar Schindler used to oppose the Nazis. It can be done through persuasion and compassion, in the mode of Antoinette Tuff, a hero who in recent years stopped a school shooter. There are even times when physically removing a weapon from someone’s hands falls within the bounds of nonviolence. In any case, disarming an attacker in the midst of an imminent attack is something that both pacifists and non-pacifists can agree upon as a goal.

2) Cut Off their Resources

Now let’s take a step back and think about this a little more broadly, can we? In addition to the weapons in their hands, violent aggressors depend on a large network of social support in order to carry out acts of violence. They need information about the people they intend to attack. They need a place to hide or a means of getting away with the act. They need food, water, clothing, shelter, and all of the other goods that all humans need to survive. And most likely, they depend on propaganda or some kind of moral support that encourages them to go through with their violent act, etc. A systematic approach to rooting out violence involves finding where all of these sources of support are coming from and cutting them off.

This option is especially useful in dealing with tyrants. Tyrants depend on large social apparatuses to control their populations: they need large companies to manufacture their weapons, farmers to feed their militias, media specialists to propagate their narrative, etc. Once a population realizes that tyrants actually depend on their complicity in order to rule, they can weaken and eventually overthrow the tyranny by refusing to cooperate. This is by no means easy, but it can be done, no matter how evil the tyranny is. [E6]

3) Coordinate Resistance

Consequently, the most important resource for dealing with aggressors is coordination. This may take the form of taking shifts in a neighborhood watch, or of organizing a political resistance that undermines the authority of a dictator, or of sharing information with each other via Amber Alerts, or of international cooperation, etc. Groups like ISIS that wreak havoc in the world today depend on division for their success. To whatever extent cooperation and coordination is possible, those who want to stop violence from spreading should engage in it.

4) Avoid and Endure

But let’s go back to the immediate threat that people face when a man with a gun and violent intent is approaching them. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to run away. Running away can be an instinctive response that emerges from fear, but it doesn’t have to be. It can also be strategic. When dealing with violent aggressors, it’s best to engage and/or confront them when they are least prepared, not when they have come ready to attack you. Thus, you may run away so that you can deal with them again when you are more prepared.

Military strategists are well aware that this is a constructive rather than cowardly tactic, and they make use of it as well. For example, during the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army did not have the military technology to defeat the British in a head-on battle, but they wore the British army by them to chase the Continental Army through the woods over the course of several winters. Their running away was paired with endurance: the conviction that they could outlast them in this battle for endurance.

5) Expose their Evil

In many situations, the best way to deter a potential killer is not with a gun but with a camera. Most people – including psychopaths and dictators – don’t want their deeds to exposed. If they are exposed for being irrationally or excessively violent, even their friends and allies will be reluctant to trust them. Furthermore, evidence of their action could get them convicted in a court or could galvanize communities to work together against them. This is why groups like the United Nations or Christian Peacemaker Teams often send witnesses to corrupt and violent societies. Like cameras, witnesses threaten to expose those who commit evil. Consequently, one of the best things to do in response to many threats is to observe what is happening a safe distance.

6) Expose their Weakness

This is a method that should be reserved for special circumstances. However, in the right setting, this can end the reign of violence, either through an individual or a regime: expose their weakness. Remember, people who use violence to control others depend on the threat of violence to manipulate them. Sometimes, they can carry that threat out, but if often times, bullies and dictators claim to have more power to inflict harm than they actually do. If you get to a point where you can call the bluff, where you can call a bully or dictator out either because you can “take the hit” or because you are convinced that they won’t follow through, that risky move could destroy the threat at its core: the ability to intimidate. [E7]

7) Undermine their Objectives

Most of the time, people who perpetrate violence do so in order to get something out of their victims. If you can figure out what this and make it clear that the perpetrator won’t get it, you have a good chance of demotivating them completely. For example, you may choose not to carry around money, so that people won’t have anything to steal from you. Or you may choose never to know the information that people would want to torture you in order to acquire. This can be extremely for individuals facing aggression, but it is powerful for communities that act in solidarity. If it becomes known that a community doesn’t negotiate with terrorists or in other ways, doesn’t give attackers the satisfaction they want, they’ll eventually learn that their threats are pointless.

8) Offer Nonviolent Resolutions

The vast majority of people who commit acts of violence don’t do it out of the sheer pleasure of hurting others. Instead, there is a deeper pain or desire that is driving the violence, and pacifists should always try to understand what this is before deciding how to respond. As Americans, we are surprisingly bad at this. We write our enemies off as “bad people” who act violently because it is inherent to their nature or religion or whatever, and pre-emptively eliminate the possibility of finding other solutions. But a pacifist should always seek to understand, for in doing so they may be able to come up with a solution for meeting the attacker’s needs that doesn’t compromise anyone’s integrity.

Listen to me carefully: I’m not suggesting that all people who commit violence are tragically misunderstood, and that aggressors will listen calmly to alternative proposals and say, “Why yes! I’m so glad you suggested that!” However, this method can be combined with other methods to compel aggressors to take nonviolent paths. For example, if we make it exhausting for them to achieve their goals through #4 and we undermine their objectives through #7, they may be open to considering alternative solutions.

9) Exploit their Paranoia and Exhaustion

The truth is that those who live by the sword have a heavy burden to carry. They know that people cooperate with them only to the extent that they fear them, so they always have to be looking over their shoulders They always have to stay at the top of their game. They must always remain suspicious even of their friends and allies, knowing they could at any moment go from watching their back to stabbing it. In short, the life of violence is exhausting.

There are several ways for pacifists to “exploit” this. When a dictator gets too paranoid, pacifists can reach out to their generals and bodyguards, urging them to defect by pointing out that they could become the victims of their leader’s paranoia. Or you can appeal to the aggressors themselves: even terrorists and members of hate groups have been known to turn themselves in out of exhaustion. Who are they most likely to turn to? Pacifists whom they know will not kill them out of retribution for their former lifestyles.

10) Humanize their Victims

I have avoided listing this option until the very end. I didn’t want to say it before, because it would feed into the stereotype that pacifists are naïve moralists who believe we can appeal to the hearts of even the most violent aggressors and convince them not to hurt their victims. We are well aware that in most cases, you can’t say a flowery speech or make a heartfelt appeal that would turn someone away from violence. That being said, we would be naïve to ignore the fact that human appeal is and can be a powerful tool for undermining violence.

Human beings have a deep instinct that tells us that we shouldn’t kill other humans. [E8] Professional and guerilla militaries around the world know this, and so they train their warriors not to think of their victims as human beings, but as foreigners, infidels, monsters, or “bad guys.” Propaganda is essential to creating a violent force, because our instinct not to kill other humans is so strong that it can inhibit our actions, even in the most intense of circumstances. [E9] Therefore, one of the most powerful tools for undermining violence is to humanize victims: to create friendships across enemy lines, to tell stories of love and family to our enemies, to force the perpetrators of violence to see what they are doing to people, etc. This has been known to deter rapists, to convert terrorist, and to cause the military leaders of dictatorships to back down or defect. It isn’t the only option pacifists have at our disposal, but it should not be ignored either.

Conclusion

So there you have it: a list of ten nonviolent ways to oppose even the most violent of aggressors without getting caught in the web of violence yourself. Can I guarantee that some combination of these tools could stop any possible threat? No, I can’t. But remember, gun owners, police officers, and military generals can’t guarantee that their methods will work to stop evil either. We all have to do the best we can with what we’ve got. But when we consider how ineffective violence is in the long-run, how it produces short-term results but almost always backfires, and when we consider how many other options there are for opposing evil – options which could be just as powerful if we really invested in them – then being a pacifist doesn’t seem so idealistic after all.


***

Endnotes

[E1] It is appropriate to criticize words or actions that are harmful, even when you don’t have a better alternative of how to accomplish whatever goal those actions were set out to accomplish. However, we should always be moving toward solutions-based thinking.

[E2] In his influential book From Dictatorship to Democracy, Gene Sharp offers a list of 198 methods of nonviolent action that people who want to engage in nonviolent resistance to dictators can consider. I wouldn’t personally endorse every method on that list, but I mention it just to give you a sense of how much I am really just skimming the surface on nonviolent thinking.

[E3] Part of the reason that I have to say this is because many of you will immediately think, “Well that wouldn’t work” in response to many of these suggestions. That skepticism is understandable, but it becomes obnoxious when it is followed by a series of “What if” critiques. “What if the attacker is a martial arts master? What if they manufacture their own weapons from scratch? What if they feed off of the negative pressure put on them?” etc. Pacifists know that we can never win a debate in which we have to explain how pacifism can defeat a hypothetical villain who evolves to adapt to every proposal we make. Consequently, I am not going to defend any of these suggestions against hypothetical criticisms, but I would be happy to discuss or analyzes cases in which they have succeed or failed in actual situations, or in situations in which people are trying to decide whether to use them.

[E4] Compared to other species, human bodies aren’t all that intimidating. We don’t have sharp teeth or claws, scales or skin that protects us from attacks, or the ability to spray poison at the things that threaten us. What has made us powerful (and threatening) as a species is our ability to make tools and our ability to communicate. Despite the fact that there are some 7’ tall muscle men who have learned martial arts, it is ultimately our tools (weapons) and communication (with allies) that makes people threatening today.

[E5] My pacifist friends might be surprised that I start by recommending “disarming” someone, which has a ring of violence to it, instead of the methods we are really passionate about: communicating, compromising, educating, addressing the systemic injustices that spark violence in the first place, etc. In response, I’d like to say that this is a pedagogical choice. People who oppose pacifism are usually fixated on how to respond in the immediate situation, with less interest in the long term. And – to be fair – pacifists aren’t always very good about responding to concerns about how to respond to immediate threats.

There are exceptions, though. For this one, I was inspired to some degree by an interesting development in the Mennonite Church – something called “Mennonite Martial Arts.” Ultimately, its advocates have argued that 90% of martial arts is not about violence but empowerment, and that there are ways to learn how to protect yourself without throwing a punch at the end.

[E6] For more on this, I’d recommend the book From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp.

[E7] By the way, this is one way for Christians to think about the atonement. Christ defeated the powers of evil in this world by offering himself to them, letting them “do their worst,” and proving them to be impotent in the face of the power of God. Consider Colossians 2:15, “[Christ] disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”

[E8] Yes, there are exceptions like psychopaths and sociopaths. In these very rare cases, it would be pointless to use the “Humanize their Victims” method and we must rely instead on others.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

How to Actually Make a Difference


Once again, I have to apologize for not being a faithful blogger. Six months ago, I was working on a series on pacifism, and then life happened... I haven't had a chance to get back to blogging until now. I intend to pick that pacifism series back up in the next few days. But before that, I want to address an issue that is a little more timely and in some ways overshadows it [E1]: how do you make a difference in the world?

Of course, there are many ways to make a difference, [E2] but I am asking specifically how you can fight against the deep, systemic problems in our society, such as racism, inequality, and the climate crisis. Despite the fact that many people agree that these – along with other issues – are major problems, we can’t seem to uproot them. Part of the problem is that we don’t know how to uproot them. Whenever we try to make a difference, there are people who argue that our efforts are pointless, ineffective, and naïve.

For example, SNL recently did a sketch making fun of people who share articles on Facebook and count it as activism. [E3] Fair enough, but it raises the question, what would SNL prefer for those people to be doing? Perhaps the answer is to have them “hit the streets.” We have all been inspired by the protests and marches of the Civil Rights era, so perhaps that is what real activism looks like. [E4] But marching has been done so often over so many issues in the last year, that some argue that it has become nothing more than an act of self-expression. [E5] So what’s a better alternative: should we write our legislators? Nah, in most cases the letters don’t even reach them. [E6] Perhaps the key is voting, so that you can put people in office who listen to you? But there are several people out there who claim that your vote doesn’t matter. [E7] So where does that leave us? What can we do that would actually make a difference?

The problem with that question is that it gets us looking for a single deed that we can do that will make a difference, an activity that you participate in, after which you can step back and say, “Wow, I changed the world!” [E8] But the reality is that society is complex, and in order to change it, we have to be willing to engage in complex ways. That’s not to say that it’s impossible, but I would argue that there are five key elements to really making a difference. If we just do one or two of them in isolation, they won’t be effective at bringing about change, but when combined, they almost certainly make an impact.


1) We Must Change Our Thinking

Beliefs matter. The way that we think about issues shapes the way that we respond to them. As long as people continue to believe various myths about society – for example, that wages are low in the United States because immigrants are taking “American” jobs or that African-Americans are imprisoned at a higher rate than whites because they are more prone to criminality – as long as these kinds of myths exist, nothing will change. So we have to do the work of educating ourselves, of unlearning destructive myths that we have internalized and of learning new ways to think about the world. This comes from reading books and articles, listening to people who are marginalized, engaging in difficult conversations, and carefully studying and fact-checking controversial claims.

In Isolation: As is true for all of these strategies, there is a danger in changing our thinking if it is done in isolation from these other actions: that thinking might become a substitute for speaking and acting. There are some people who feel that they can’t engage social issues until they “have it all figured out first,” but the problem is that they never get to the point where they feel satisfied enough with their knowledge to act. You have to learn as you go, doing this alongside of the other steps that are necessary to bring about change. [E9]

2) We Must Change Our Lifestyles

Progressives have a tendency to blame elites for all of the problems we have in our society. They point the finger at corrupt politicians and business executives who put profits over people, etc. Certainly, elites bear a disproportionate amount of responsibility, but their power depends entirely on the complicity of the everyday choices that average Americans make every day. If we really want to make a difference, we have to be willing to make that difference in our own lives: such as refusing to buy products that may have been produced by forced labor, avoiding the kind of wastefulness that ruins the environment, paying attention to our own prejudice and correcting our tendencies to discriminate, etc. We must be willing to live into the new realities we are demanding. We must be the change we want to see in the world. [E10]


In Isolation: Conservatives have a tendency to argue that personal changes by themselves should bring about change, and that if we want to address climate change or income inequality, we should do it solely within the boundaries of the free market. But this reasoning fails to understand how powerful forces in society influence individual decisions, often coercing them to make choices that are destructive to everyone. Tackling big issues shouldn’t be an “either-or” between personal changes and public advocacy but a “both-and.”

3) We Must Speak Up

The myths and narratives that justify injustice flow through society like blood flows through the veins. They are the default mode of thinking. Systems and institutions have been built around them. Most people accept them without thinking. In order to make any kind of difference, you have to speak out against them. You have to find platforms on which you can be heard and be willing to ruffle some feathers. This is where marches and protests can be really valuable. Protesting, when done correctly, is a way of calling attention to an injustice. The best protests are those that expose the evils they are fighting against. [E11] But “speaking up” takes other forms as well. It can come in the form of Facebook posts or personal conversations with friends and loved ones. Whatever gets the message out there, whatever challenges the dominant narrative, is worth saying and doing.

In Isolation: When speaking up is not rooted in fresh thinking and when it is not followed by action, then it becomes background noise. Anyone who speaks up in any form will be called to account for their own integrity, so it’s essential to be connected in other ways as well.

4) We Must Organize

In order to move from speaking to acting, you have to work together with other people. Politicians and business executives have neither the time nor the interest in listening to every single complaint, but once you reach a critical mass of people who all agree that a certain change is needed, then they have to pay attention. How do you do this? You organize. You find out who else is working for change in your community, and you brainstorm together about what you can do. This is hard work. It requires the initiative to go out in find people whom you didn’t know or work with before. It requires the commitment of meeting together and working out a plan. It requires compromise in order to honor everyone’s values. But if you do this work, then you’ll find yourself emboldened to take on the powers that be, now that you are not just an individual but part of a community.

In Isolation: Done in isolation, organizing will naturally draw people into the grooves that are already dug deeply in our society. In the United States, our two-party system really pressures people to buy into either-or thinking: there’s a liberal way and a conservative way, you’re a Republican or a Democrat. And if we fall into that, we won’t change the system. We’ll end up reinforcing it. We need to change our thinking, change our lifestyles, and engage new voices that are speaking out to bring about real and substantive change.

5) We Must Follow Through

If you do the work of organizing, a plan of action will naturally emerge. New policies will be proposed, new responsibilities will be assigned, and everyone’s help will be needed. This can be very exciting – at first. But it’s hard to keep up the momentum over time. It takes discipline to follow through on what you agreed to do, but this is the final step in bringing about change.

In Isolation: There are people who are very good about following through because they have developed habits: they always vote, they always contact their representatives, they always engage in certain ways, etc. But the system is clever enough that it can co-opt any of our habits and use it for its own good if we are not vigilant. For example, if you always vote for the Democratic or Republican candidate at every election, then there is no accountability for that person. Candidates will eventually start running under those labels without honoring the principles of those parties because they know they have your unquestioning support. Without the other four elements, even your political faithfulness can be undermined.

In Conclusion…

Any one of these strategies, when done in isolation, is not likely to make a dent in the system. But when these five elements are combined, then you will make a difference. Guaranteed. You may not win every political battle, but even in losing, your actions make ripples: you push the conversation in the right direction, set boundaries for how far destructive forces can go, and create precedents that pave the way for future generations to finish the work. So if someone tries to tell you that something you are doing is a waste of time, respond by saying this: “If this was all I was doing, then you would be right. My words and actions by themselves are as light as a straw. But when combined with all of the other ways I am engaging, this very act could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.


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End Notes

[E1] It has been hard for me to talk about nonviolence in the Trump era, not because I have stopped believing in it, but because it is a negation of action, an insistence not to be violent, at a time when action of some kind is needed. So I felt compelled to write this article first, as a way of jumping back into the conversations.

[E2] In a broader sense, nearly everything we do makes a difference. If you make someone smile or hurt their feelings, if you paint a picture or watch a YouTube video, if you work hard and make innovations or stay at home and live as simply as possible, all of these have impacts on our society. But these aren’t kind of actions that change the rules of the game, the fault lines along which we all live our lives.

[E4] This is a largely result of public education. Due to the emphasis that many schools place on Black History Month, students get a very small dose of black history, which usually focuses on a few key themes such as the freedom riders, Martin Luther King Jr., sit-ins, and the March on Washington. That’s better than nothing, but rarely do public schools spend time studying these changes extensively (in the way that we study the Revolutionary War, for example), and this results in an understanding of activism that is superficial at best. That’s how you get things like the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad: with a superficial image of activism. If you look more carefully, you’ll find that all five of the elements I list here were brilliantly engaged by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, along with several other groups that don’t get as much attention in public schools.

[E5] Here is one of several recent criticisms of the Women’s March: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/womens-march-washington-pointless-protest-middle-class-feminists-1599470 I tend to sympathize with this article, but I wouldn’t put all marches in the same light. The Black Lives Matter marches have been specific, focused on a certain goal, and paired with specific policy objectives (https://www.joincampaignzero.org/#vision). This has been, in my opinion, a very effective and appropriate use of protest. On the opposite extreme, the protest at UC-Berkeley against Milo Yiannopoulos was counter-productive, as it ended up expanding his platform. The point: protests must be connected to a bigger response if they are intended to be effective rather than therapeutic. 


[E7] http://www.vox.com/2014/11/4/7156149/voting-case-against-political-scientis  I have some nuanced ideas about voting myself, but not quite along these lines. I’ll save that for another time.

[E8] Let me qualify this: Whenever you participate in a political activity that is orchestrated by some group, that group will do everything in its power to make you feel like you did something that mattered. If you voted, you get to wear a sticker. If you attended a rally, the leaders will credit you with a policy change, etc. There’s some value to celebrating these things as minor victories, but take it with a grain of salt when people tell you that any single act changed the world.

[E9] Or, on the opposite extreme, there are people who feel “enlightened” after they have read a few books or articles, and they begin claiming that they are “allies” or advocates of justice just because their views have changed. Although this is the opposite of always needing more information in some ways, they both share the same mistake: they let preoccupation with thought substitute for meaningful action.

[E10] That last line came from Gandhi, not me.

[E11] This reveals one of the differences between the Civil Rights protest and modern attempts to imitate them. Sit-ins were a particularly effective tool because they exposed how hateful those policies were. People could argue that they were just about business rights or a separate but equal segregation until they saw crowds attacking people or police forcibly removing people from doing nothing more but sitting down. The power in that was that it exposed evil. I’m not convinced that the die-ins that some people do today, which were modeled after sit-ins, have the same effect. They are a dramatic gesture, but they don’t necessarily reveal or expose anything about the people whom they are targeting. (Feel free to push back on this.)