As usual, I get on the internet, get distracted, click on click bait I hope is at least informative and uplifting, and I don’t get very far before some really stupid and mean (and bonus points for ironic) behavior smacks me in the face as a bystander with a big fat ball o’ bullshit. This is why we can’t have nice things, and why I don’t get on the internet much. Enjoy the rant. For your convenience, it has both short and long versions. The short version is complementary to rather than an abstract of the long. So join me, will you, for a fun-filled fifteen minutes of puns, novel abbreviations, colorful language and ample sarcasm? And maybe an interesting point or two.
The short: Toxic leaders
Here’s a brief summary of what I’m about to rant about. Jack Spirko is some sort of minor celebrity in permaculture circles, I guess (ooh, I know, right?). He did a blog post and a podcast, in which he basically describes unschooling without calling it that. Then PRI distributed it. Then this happened…[paraphrased for brevity]
Jack Spirko: Ten tips on how to raise resilient kids in a world full of wussies [note: basically, ten principles of unschooling]
Woman 1: Nice tips. I’d like to share them if you please use a different word than “wussy,” since it refers to female genitalia.
Jack to woman 1: Your parents raised you to be a wussy. Learn to control your emotions.
Jack’s Deep Green Mini-Me’s to woman 1: Here’s my overwrought rationalization on how you are what’s wrong with permaculture. I’m basing all of it on the untested negative assumption that you’re just combing the internet for things to complain about to be a PC police troll.
Woman 2: I felt triggered when he said it, too.
Jack to woman 2: You’re a wussy. Plus I got my wife to agree with me and she told me to tell you she thinks you’re an idiot and so is anyone who has a problem with the word wussy, so there.
Woman 3: Whoa. I appreciate the original post, and also find the word “wussy” problematic. I’d like to engage you in good faith to discuss some of the dynamics occurring here. First off, some background: wussy is a portmanteau of “wimp” and “pussy” coined by a jerk in the popular movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” and many women from my era have a really negative relationship with that word, even if it has lost some of its offensive meaning with young whippersnappers. Second, that word is also used to control and bully men. Third, we need more respectful dialog. There’s no need to respond with such hostility, and this is a learning opportunity for social permaculture.
Jack: So basically, you’re a wussy.
HOLY SHIT. I don’t care who you think you are, Mr. Spear and Co. Either treat people with basic respect, or get the fuck out of the public sphere of discourse, because your behavior is stupid and counterproductive and toxic and immature. It hurts people, and no matter what you think you have to offer, and what you actually have to offer, it ain’t worth it. You, like all of us, are completely replaceable. And somewhere, there is someone who knows more than you, and who does what you do, but does it better. And in the process, they treat people with respect, and model emotional and social maturity. Especially in disagreements. Hell, they even understand the difference between observation and premature (let alone baseless knee-jerk negative) interpretations, and they use this capacity to observe to learn from this experience and build greater understanding rather than perpetuate the shitty status quo. Such people respond to these situations by a. doing nothing (this is the easiest and least costly), oro b. learning more about the context they’ve suddenly helped create, which includes accepting feedback (sound familiar? It’s a permaculture principle or something) and c. interacting appropriately based on this new knowledge and feedback about their context.
Maybe you’re capable of taking your own advice to “admit to and learning from your failure” so you can grow and become more resilient and do better next time around. If all you can manage is ironic and hypocritical ad-hominems when someone dares to <gasp> provide a marginal or diverse perspective (another principle), you can take your fragile fevered ego elsewhere, because you’re just acting like any other establishment tool. The permaculture (and any) movement is better off without this sort of shit.
ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE MIC DROP
<ranty ethan exits stage left, a more calm and collected ethan enters stage right, and picks up the mic>
Would you believe me if I said I actually wrote the short-version rant last? I even edited out some f-bombs (mostly for clarity, though I do lament the loss of alliteration). Anyway, here’s a more detailed analysis including exciting things like male privilege and rape culture, culminating in social permaculture principles at the end. Because I just know you’ll read straight through to the end, won’t ya?
The Long Version: Deep Green Bullshit
(does that still sound ranty?)
A masculine-type “survival-prepper” with a foot in the world of permaculture recently posted on how to raise resilient children in a world full of “wussies.” He made ten great points, such as let them have adventures, teach them to interact safely with dangerous tools / equipment, let them fail or get hurt, reward them for trying, incentivize self-directed learning, make them take responsibility for their own emotions and behaviors, etc. He basically co-opted unschooling without reference to that practice and boiled it down to ten key points (the apparent lack of reference to unschooling a separate issue that needs addressing).
Then a woman who liked the article voiced concern about the use of the word “wuss,” and asked if that word could change due to its reference to female anatomy. Then SHTF, which is prepper-speak for SNAFU, which is military speak for fuuuck, why these dicks be trippin’? A few women said, “meh, doesn’t bother me.” The administrator had a somewhat-thoughtful dialog with the woman, and refused to edit the article and rejected the “obsolete” meaning of the word. Several men — including the original poster — jumped down the woman’s throat, accusing her of being wrong (wussy doesn’t relate to pussy, apparently she’s just another hysterical woman!), and then they ironically called her a “wussy” representing “everything that’s wrong” with today’s society as already discussed in the original post. Wowsa.
Another woman openly said she felt triggered where and how the original poster said “wussy” in his podcast. More men jumped down her throat. The original poster started handing out the word “wuss” like bite-sized candy at a Halloween party. He said all woman were wrong because his wife agreed with him (wow, his wife can speak for all woman?). A few mini-me men worked overtime to rationalize the womens’ “irrational” behavior. One commenter accused women of “combing the internet looking for things that offend them.” HA! <sarcasm>Yeah, that’s a rrreeeall parsimonious interpretation of available data, dude…</sarcasm>
A third, brave woman tried to mediate and explain how the original woman was technically correct. Ironically, on an etymological level, the original woman was right: “wuss” comes from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, where the main character calls meek men “wussies — a combination of wimp and pussy.” It’s an insult that objectifies and weaponizes the female anatomy to target and pathologize “abnormal” male behavior. And it has been used since then to confine men into narrow and rigid patriarchal gender roles, and contributes to the social destruction of women’s personhood in the process.
But no one wanted to learn or accept that fact. Ironically, we ended up with a bunch of adults — including the original poster — acting exactly like the immature, whiny little children the original post was supposed to help prevent. I had had enough of this Deep Green Bullshit, so ironically, I stepped my foot smack-dab in the middle of it. SPLAT. Time to get our social permaculture on. That’s not shit hitting the fan, by the way. It’s compost. At least, for those of us who actually leverage permaculture, it is.
Permaculture deals in appropriate technologies: it’s both a toolkit of patterns as well as a when, where, how, what sort of guide. What makes something appropriate is “context.” We can’t understand context without observation, and we can’t observe effectively unless we understand the difference between observation and interpretation. You simply can’t use permaculture effectively as a design tool if you can’t understand and operationalize this distinction. An observation is an acknowledgement of an event or circumstance — the “what.” An interpretation is an assumption or assertion about meaning, or the “why.” It’s an observation to say, “whoa, that person asked me to change the language I used.” It’s an interpretation to say, “that person doesn’t have a good reason to be upset [how do you know???] and therefore is just going out of her way to harass me and is a wussy.”
Here are some things I observed in this situation: I observed a lot of people taking offense at a few people’s expression of hurt over the use of language. I observed people who posture as permaculture experts demonstrate that they have no fucking clue about the difference between observation and interpretation, and, perhaps more destructively, they don’t seem to much care about social or personal context.
I also generally observe that most women I have ever met necessarily spend a lot of their time and energy fighting for their fundamental safety and bodily integrity, let alone their status as people deserving of consideration and respect. Which appears to make some of them a bit more sensitive to things that never end up on most men’s radars, because those things have been used as a weapon against them (often but not always by men). If, for example, you were made to watch while someone bashed your dog’s head in with a hammer, you will probably have a very different, difficult, and complex relationship with hammers for the rest of your life, yeah? You might jump a bit if another guy whips out a hammer in front of you or Fido v.2.0 for whatever reason. It becomes a part of your personal context. And what seems appropriate for one person often feels inappropriate for another. Hence, the difficulty of repairing the tattered remnants of our social fabric — our ability to relate directly to one-another. It means weaving together and synthesizing our contexts through observation-based acceptance, learning, bonding, not dominating, homogenizing or marginalizing unique contexts or the diversities emerging from them.
So when I see someone who claims to be a “deep green permaculture” expert ironically going out of his way to create a complicated victim-blaming rationalization from a baseless interpretation that a woman is “going out of her way” to be a pain in his ass, to accuse her of exemplifying “what’s wrong with permaculture,” it irks me on several levels. It’s ironic, it’s misleading. It’s patronizing and ignorant. It is teaching people through structure and process that permaculture is something that it’s not. Permaculture is not polycultures. It’s not swales. It’s not greywater systems. It’s not forest gardens. It’s not humanure composting. It’s bigger than all that. It’s about whether when and how those sorts of things (patterns) fit together into a diverse, self-supporting and (contextually) appropriate or homogenous dysfunctional whole. Due to the need to understand context, permaculture is more about listening than lecturing. <Note I am aware of the irony here, which is why this post is a rant instead of a lecture. Yeah?>
We can say the same for people in the social fabric. Social dysfunction is the bedrock of authoritarian control. Divide and conquer. People do not need to apologize for their unique contexts — that only leads to dysfunctional homogeneity. Rather, we need to do a better job of understanding diverse, unique contexts through observation, listening and acceptance of feedback, valuing diversity and marginal experiences and perspectives, and other various permaculture principles that have already been spelled out very clearly for us.
Personal context is not all relative. In a patriarchy, men’s personal context differs from women’s based on ignorance of women’s experience, whereas women in my experience often have a pretty good understanding of (and sympathy for) the challenges men face in the same society. Women are often in listening and caregiving roles, already. However, men have a lot of listening and learning to do to similarly understand the challenges women and other gender/sexual minorities face. We can say the same for any position of race, class, etc privilege. But those opportunities do not arise until we challenge the system of privilege that allows (wealthy white straight) men, etc to sneak through life requiring everyone to know about and meet their needs without requiring the same of them. When we challenge the privilege, the need to listen and learn arises.
Unfortunately, I also regularly observe men throwing hissy-fits when someone dares to suggest that something they did inadvertantly caused someone harm, because it attacks social privilege, which results in very real pain and even fear and panic — fight or flight responses where men with underdeveloped social and emotional capacities are supposed to “use our words not actions.” It begins to unravel a lie of social inequity. It upsets and destabilizes the status quo. I have seen the context of unchecked male privilege (ref. hidden cost of patriarchy) do far more damage to movements than any other form of baggage, precisely because it so effectively maintains the status quo: a bunch of people trying to get a leg up over one-another through conflict and domination, rather than lifting each-other up through cooperation. And it reproduces the very thing that so many of these men claim to oppose: social control. Simply put, we can’t have social permaculture (or other nice things) unless we address social privilege and power differences.
Ironically, everyone in this situation has legitimate points, based on their personal contexts. The word-in-question genuinely offends some people. And some guys are genuinely (albeit ironically) concerned about authoritarianism and PC bullying in the movement (and I want to note that here we are talking about the equivalent of male temper tantrums in response to someone calling them on their rhetorical manspreading while real people are dying from situations that permaculture can help prevent). At some point, if we want to escape this mess, then someone’s gotta abandon their ego, recognize the learning opportunity and bridge the gap to develop greater mutual understanding, grow and move on.
I see men and masculinities regularly block, stymy and undermine this process. We most need men at the table precisely because we generally lack their participation the most. Or if you aren’t going to be at the table because you have “more important things to do,” don’t throw a hissy fit when those of us who have been working on this equally important but often devalued problem concerning the fundamental integrity of our social fabric graciously try to catch you up to speed. Unfortunately, when (straight wealthy white) men do finally come around, usually the last to the table, they often get praised as “leaders getting things done” while the people (e.g., blue collar, women, racial or gender minorities) who worked for years to make this situation happen get ignored or chastized for the “problems” they caused (i.e., they rocked the boat and provoked hissy fits amongst men that eventually set the table for this very discussion, thankyouverymuch).
Social Permaculture Principles
Without exception, the first swales, the first rocket stoves, the first graywater systems all look, feel, sound, even smell clunky, funky and awkward. The first designs have high rates of failure and low marginal success. But more important, we keep trying, keep observing, accept feedback, and find things that work in the diverse margins. And when we keep working with them, the context-appropriate designs evolve increasing levels of sophistication. We can say the same for appropriate social technologies — they are going to feel weird and have high initial rates of failure (anyone who has uttered an “I feel” statement knows this). But more importantly, they will work. And get easier and less awkward and even more fun with time. Unfortunately, I have encountered many people — mostly men and masculine types — who would rather work with little no appropriate social capacity and depend heavily on male privilege and entitlement than brave the clunky, funky awkward process of exploring emergent appropriate social technologies that might challenge, upset or transform the status quo. And this creates a socially-toxic situation, far more fundamental than anyone expressing or explaining feelings of hurt or asking someone to modify objectifying language. That’s one of the ironies of this situation: the original use of the word and the request weren’t big deals. The immature and hurtful response to it turned it all into one big stinking vat o’ anaerobic humanure. If we can’t get it together in good faith and hash things out ourselves, then the authorities will gladly keep intervening in and controlling our lives for us.
Without further ado, I offer an incomplete early list of awkward appropriate technologies (some are patterns with appropriate contexts, some more universal principles) for social permaculture:
- Observation vs interpretation: strive to thoroughly understand context before you interpret what it means; allow interpretations to emerge from prolific observation vs imposing interpretations on scarce or anemic (sometimes even non-existent or imagined) observations. Accept and use feedback. Value diversity and the marginal…Crikees, I’m just parroting the standard permaculture repertoire here! I’ll do better, I promise…
- Describe the behavior, not the person. Smart people sometimes do stupid things. Caring people sometimes say or do mean things. Focus on the behaviors, not the person. This helps with both giving and receiving feedback. Jack acted like a jerk. Jack is not (necessarily) a jerk. That (often) involves too much interpretation to be helpful, and it boxes people into a static identity.
- Prioritize impact over intentions. I often see people of privilege hide behind intentions to avoid accountability for the actual impact of their actions. Their logic goes, “Well, I didn’t mean to hurt you, so I have nothing to apologize for and nothing to change, and therefore will probably hurt you again in the future as I keep doing what I do. Get used to it. Ignore my impact and focus on my intent.” What a consummate mindfuck. Imagine if we applied that twisted logic to landscape design! At the end of the day, only impact matters. If someone truly intends to do no harm, they will willingly and openly seek feedback and re-evaluate their actions.
- Trust early and trust often, until someone or something gives you good reason not to. Strategic vulnerability breaks the ice, gives others opportunity to reciprocate, creates connection and also protects the vulnerable by giving early warning when people can’t be trusted further, before we accidentally trust them with something that really matters.
- Stay with and trust observations more, and question and table interpretations to bring them into balance. Observations in a design process are like the primary producers and the soil life of an ecosystem: they need to exist in far greater numbers and diversities in order to reliably support life higher on the trophic chain (consumers; interpretations). Identify and verify the accuracy of any interpretations before using them as a basis for further interaction. This allows us to explore a much greater diversity of accurate and relevant interpretations, which expands both toolkit and design possibilities. It also makes it easier to identify inappropriate decisions, behaviors, etc.
- Recently, an argument between the virtues of “calling out” behavior (not people) vs “calling in” (people, not behavior) has emerged in “social justice” circles. Following and rationalizing the advice of a very thoughtful friend: It’s not either. It’s both. Permaculture teaches us that each has its appropriate context. We need the accountability of calling out people on their bullshit behavior and harmful impacts, and people need to learn to accept feedback (sound familiar?). Likewise, we need to call each-other in to talk with and listen to each-other more and better understand what people mean. A lot of room for miscommunication and misinterpretation exists, especially among people who (mistakenly) believe they speak the “same language.” Even amongst long-term committed trusting relationships, let alone strangers interacting on the intertubes. Clearly, “wussy” means different things to different people. Had the original poster the courage to take his own advice, he could have simply called in the women to ask, “what do you mean?” and listened and observed and learned about their context, and in doing so expanded his appropriate social technology toolkit. He may have found a better word to describe what he means in the process, gotten wider distribution for his piece (pun intended). Instead, he chose an immediate, unnecessary combative response and interpretive frame, and so lost an opportunity. The appropriate response to a call-out is often a call-in, which involves a lot of active listening — a synonym for careful observation. Without thoughtful, protracted observation-based interactions, we quickly fill that empty space with negative, toxic baggage.
- Work with what you got (obtain a yield?): Most of us have plenty of knowledge and social resources. Rather than spending time interacting with strangers on the interhive, evaluate and prioritize your existing real-world relationships. Which ones seem appropriate to your context? Which ones can you work on to strengthen and improve? What can we do to better optimize our existing tools and relationships and context? If we are the average of our five deepest relationships, let’s make sure those relationships really count for something. Rather than complain about what we don’t have, how can we better engage and proceed with what we do have? The problem is the solution: Why didn’t the original poster ask the women, “What word do you suggest I use instead of wussy?” He could have outsourced the problem to them to find a solution and built trust and goodwill in the process. If he had deigned to apply permaculture to his social interactions. Which he did not. Instead, he tried to impose his “solution.” That’s a big no-no in permaculture design process. Someone who values the content could likewise still share it with a caveat and educational opportunity explaining the irony of the use of “wussy” and Jack’s immature reactivity.
- Hold clear, firm boundaries against harmful behaviors and impacts, regardless of intent. Likewise, clearly, accurately and honestly state your needs. Doing so, along with strategic vulnerability, allows social cohorts to emerge and self-select, without imposition. Every social cohort will have a shit sandwich, and it becomes easier to determine whether and what you want to stomach. I personally don’t like drum circles and dancing earthmuffins and holding hands and stuff. Don’t assume you can change others’ contexts to meet your needs if they don’t already, or aren’t already heading in that general direction.
- Focus on process (how), not product (what). Reward honest, effective, hard work, not some magical definition of perfection. Let go of perfection. It’s not whether someone sticks it out, but how. Not whether they talk, but how. Not whether they listen, but how. Not whether we fight, but how. Disagreements will happen. People will get hurt. When we observe vs interpret, listen actively, accept feedback, talk honestly, focus on impact and behavior vs intent, etc on the frontend, we will learn to fight well and acheive effective results in shorter time with less inputs and fewer ouchies on the backend (pun probably intended). A lot like doing the design work up front. Make your mistakes on paper.
Many other practices and principles around land care permaculture already apply: accept feedback, value diversity and the marginal, the problem is the solution, work from patterns to details, etc. We just need to start manifesting them in our social interactions. Easier said than done, especially when we still, generally, suck so much at more rudimentary applications on land. I still see many so-callled “permaculturalists” whose idea of “permaculture” involves a cookie-cutter inappropriate imposition of patterns and technologies onto a largely-unexamined context, as if the patterns themselves had some intrinsic magical power to solve problems and make our lives better. A lot like calling people who disagree with you “wussies.” I suppose if all you have is a hammer…
Our egos still often result in rejection of very clear feedback, and likewise prevent accurate, relevant and timely observation. But our social and ecological capacities mirror one another. As we get better with one, we will get better with the other. Likewise, anything that stalls or undermines progress on one will do the same with the other. Social and ecological relationships are so intrinsically-tied together. Social permaculture and tedious (or fun??!! anyone…?) discussions of privilege aren’t a distraction from caring for land and people. They’re an intrinsic part of it. As time goes on, I see less and less difference between how we relate to the land and how we relate to other humans (or animals) in the landscape. People who expect the earth to comply with their narrow ideas of how it should behave often leverage the same approach with others. And then throw hissy fits when, gee, it doesn’t seem to work.
Unique contexts create diversities of perspective and proficiencies. When we help these diversities emerge and co-exist instead of suppressing them, they can create truly-resilient cooperative social systems based on strong horizontal ties resistant to social control and authoritarianism. Conversely, when we demonize and discourage unique contexts and reject feedback, it creates homogenous social dysfunction that forms the basis for authoritarian regimes and ecological slavery, which arises both from lack of diversity as well as an increase in the compulsory work needed to maintain the system. As a result, everyone spends much more energy spinning their wheels in the muck, getting nowhere and feeling worse for the wear. Sound familiar?? It sure does to me. Relationships with land or with people (human and otherwise), it’s all hard damned work up front, and it’s totally worth it for the rewards we all reap.
In conclusion, here’s a two sentence summary that no one will ever read because no one ever read this far anyway (I don’t care, I wrote this mostly for myself anyway): Observation and active listening mandatory. Interpretive dance optional.
LONGWINDED ANALYSIS MIC DROP (is this thing on?)
End(stagecapitalism)note: I really mostly want this post to become a cult classic and most-remembered for coining the two onomatopoetic abbreviations, ZAMD and LAMD.