Trump, social institutions and the bystander effect

February 26, 2017

This is a strategic framework for surviving or even progressing in the midst of repressive political regimes, focusing on bystander organizing.

Overview

My partner is currently helping someone apply for US citizenship.  I can imagine that process feels pretty harrowing normally, let alone in today’s climate, with a xenophobic predator in chief at the figurative head of the government.  Trump has already threatened to pull federal funding from cities who act as sanctuaries for the people he intends to persecute.

Our society has a lot of active xenophobes and misogynists.  Such people worked hard to elect someone like Trump in the first place.  They have already started acting more boldly.  A lot of xenophobes and misogynists work in public and private institutions, which magnifies their potential destructive influence.  They may start to feel empowered with a mandate from above in what people perceive as the “highest political office of the nation” (more accurately it is a symbolic position that has as much power as we delegate to or allow it).  The xenophobes and misogynists are coming out of the woodwork.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  It’s a form of social and cultural honesty manifesting itself.  We know who — and what — we are working with.  They don’t have to hide.  They don’t police themselves and hide behind political correctness, because the social norms have changed.  We know how bad things truly are, and how much work we have to do to create a democratic culture of love, courage and respect.

However, the shift in the balance of power also means that many otherwise-non-misogynist and non-xenophobic people will start to silence themselves and passively “go along” with whatever tendencies emerge.  As the xenophobes and misogynists emerge and many other, competing value systems go into hiding, a progressive institution can seem to shift rather abruptly to a regressive and repressive institution, seemingly-overnight.  This happens first through a collective change in social affect, where xenophobia and misogyny become dominant norms.  Shifts in norms then create a silence amongst a passive majority, or even draw them into compliance as they seek to maintain social harmony.   Then actual shifts in policies, rules and directives occur, further marginalizing and mitigating the remaining people who refuse to remain silent.

This shift can do lots of damage.  We can prevent that damage.

Bystander Organizing

The remaining people who refuse to remain silent have the simple, albeit very difficult, task to slow, stop and even reverse these institutional shifts through strategic action.  Whether and how such people act in this shifting climate will determine in large part the extent and quality of the damage that the xenophobes and misogynists are able to do with their growing institutional power.  Strategically, we can act to limit the damage, viewing this as a “temporary shift in climate” while ignoring its roots in our culture. We can call this the “Tough out the four years” strategy.  It is a strategy that both assumes and facilitates failure.  More fundamentally, we can work to awaken and activate bystanders from their state of passive silence and compliance.  The more proactive we are with this, the easier our task of limiting damage and holding a line against authoritarian regression will become.  The longer we wait, the harder the task will become, up to the point of becoming impossible.

Bystander activation itself becomes much more effective through a strategic process of triage.  We can call strategically-focused bystander activation “bystander organizing.”  We target and activate those most sensitive and courageous first (before we get bound, gagged and dragged off to the gallows), and then use our growing numbers to increasingly activate others in turn and normalize a culture, first of resistance, and then prevention.  When bystander activation and organizing occurs promptly, an institution can effectively hold a line against social regression, or even continue progress making — even leaps and bounds of progress (albeit in the midst of a lot more conflict) — during an authoritarian regime.

Isolated institutions, when transparent and public about their activation, can in turn inspire and agitate others, transforming pockets of resistance to a unified solidarity network.  So anyone in a position of public or private institutional influence can use their institutional power responsibly, act strategically.  We have work to do to make this land more just, more free, more inclusive.  We have people (such as xenophobes and misogynists) to identify and hold to account, including, but not anywhere-near limited to, the new predator-in-chief.  Including friends, family and coworkers.  Our bosses and employees.  Trump emerged from US mainstream culture.  Until we change the culture, the threat he symbolizes will remain:  his supporters, those who comply, and those who consider him an alien rather than emergent threat.

Indicators of Institutional Shifts

Indicators of shifts in institutional culture include both informal and formal factors, such as memos, new “policies,” personnel behavior, and enforcement of accountability for professional, ethical behavior, and institutional mission or focus.  Examples of shifts in sexism include increased harassment of women, male coworkers or employees behaving in oppositional or defiant ways to female coworkers or bosses (which can include more gender-based “jokes” about female authority), and bosses silencing or exploiting female employees.  Gender minorities may also receive similar treatment.  Similarly racist or classist behaviors may start to occur.

The adoption of discriminatory policies (let alone behaviors and attitudes), even when technically-illegal or unconstitutional, may appear (or actually) have the support of the President of the US.  Such policies can focus inward, on the management of the institution itself (e.g., stripping female employees of paid maternity leave, or claiming to “recognize white genocide” or “reverse racism” or “reverse sexism” as a real issue requiring affirmative action or equal opportunity or “increased accountability”).  Likewise, such policies can project outward, toward the people whom the institution should ostensibly serve (such as in the administration of health care or insurance, or work training and placement programs, or with immigrants applying for US citizenship).

Initial shifts can occur more subtly, with a “testing of the waters,” occurring through increased frequency of racially- or sexually-charged “joking,” a vanguard of indicator and agent of shifting cultural norms.  These initial shifts can easily and disable any extant accountability structures, policies or processes that were probably overwhelmed and under-responsive to begin with.  Those who have already faced such challenges in their work life may notice an increase in both frequency or intensity of behavior or other indicators of a cultural shift into line with the repressive regime.  Regardless of the level of formality, these shifts occur due to a perceived (and often real) sense of support or even mandate from those higher in the social hierarchy, and a perceived lack of consequences for abandoning what was previously the politically-correct behavior.  In fact, such people are simply adopting (sometimes passively, sometimes willingly and actively) the new politically-correct behavior, which happens to include misogyny and xenophobia.

The fact of the matter is, though, that enough caring people exist, generally-speaking, in every institution for that institution to hold a line against slipping toward repressive culture or policy.  What matters is whether we act strategically in a manner to amplify our impact and influence.


Civilization or “human nature?”

November 13, 2016

View story at Medium.com

This article contains interesting political analysis that I don’t disagree with. The way this article is framed, however, makes it complete bullshit, and it’s a shame that it’s getting shared widely like an expert opinion. Social darwinism and aside, it’s also a great example of the narcissistic chauvinism inherent in the historiography of civil society:

“So zooming out, we humans have a habit of going into phases of mass destruction, generally self imposed to some extent or another. This handy list shows all the wars over time.”

Nope, it only goes back to 1200 BC, well within the scope of colonizing, bloody, brutal exploitative civil society, which is the same failed model of human culture that modern civil societies use. This article says nothing about human nature, but chauvinistically projects one specific, bloody human culture that tends toward exploitation, belligerence and ecological collapse upon all humanity and human cultures. Civil society says very little about humanity as a “species” through time and space (and very little of that is anything good).

Let’s go back 6,000 or 10,000 or 15,000 years (still a blink of the eye), or look at contemporary cultures who do not base themselves on the insane model of annual agriculture and patriarchy, and compare notes. Anthropologists also describe this divide as “desert” and “forest” cultures. Toby Hemenway makes this point in his summary analysis “How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and the Earth but not Civilization” (lecture given at Duke University Nicholas School of Environment): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8nLKHYHmPbo.  The Alice Walker poem “Democratic Womanism” makes the same point: we have been mired in patriarchy and civilization for thousands of years, and have been working as long to evolve past it, with increasing sophistication and effectiveness (even as civilization spreads its tendrils to threaten every corner of the planet).

In general, Toby Hemenway’s work on the problem of civilization provide a much better “birds’ eye” zoomed out perspective on the problem than the article that prompted this post, which talks about civilization as if it’s the only form of human social structure that has ever existed or will ever exist. In addition to the above lecture, you can listen to Toby’s talk on Liberation Permaculture (http://www.permaculturevoices.com/liberation-permaculture-with-toby-hemenway-pvp100) for a bit more of a constructive, actionable (vs critical and disempowering) analysis.

Maybe a Trump presidency isn’t that bad.  If it took a Trump presidency to slap all these comfortably numb white and/or male and/or middle class folks awake, activate them and leave them without much of an excuse to fall asleep again, then maybe some net good can come out of all of this compared to a Sanders or Clinton presidency.  It won’t be pretty.  Already kids are getting attacked at their school simply for having Spanish-sounding names and darker skin, and male supremacists are calling for death squads and concentration camps.  If you aren’t satisfied with Trump, then the best way to protest his presidency is to get active and involved with the working class, gender and race struggles within your community, in solidarity with those who have struggled long before Trump ever got elected.  And start building a different system.  Starting with you and your relationships.


Pictoral and Poetic Perspective on US Politics

November 10, 2016

Perspective of Picture:

reality_check

Perspective of Poetry

“Democratic Womanism” by Alice Walker, from http://www.democracynow.org/2012/9/28/democratic_womanism_poet_and_activist_alice

You ask me why I smile
when you tell me you intend
in the coming national elections
to hold your nose
and vote for the lesser of two evils.
There are more than two evils out there,
is one reason I smile.
Another is that our old buddy Nostradamus
comes to mind, with his fearful
400 year old prophecy: that our world
and theirs too
(our “enemies” – lots of kids included there)
will end (by nuclear nakba or holocaust)
in our lifetime. Which makes the idea of elections
and the billions of dollars wasted on them
somewhat fatuous.
A Southerner of Color,
my people held the vote
very dear
while others, for centuries,
merely appeared to play
with it.
One thing I can assure
you of is this:
I will never betray such pure hearts
by voting for evil
even if it were microscopic
which, as you can see in any newscast
no matter the slant,
it is not.
I want something else;
a different system
entirely.
One not seen
on this earth
for thousands of years. If ever.
Democratic Womanism.
Notice how this word has “man” right in the middle of it?
That’s one reason I like it. He is right there, front and center. But he is surrounded.
I want to vote and work for a way of life
that honors the feminine;
a way that acknowledges
the theft of the wisdom
female and dark Mother leadership
might have provided our spaceship
all along.
I am not thinking
of a talking head
kind of gal:
happy to be mixing
it up
with the baddest
bad boys
on the planet
her eyes a slit
her mouth a zipper.
No, I am speaking of true
regime change.
Where women rise
to take their place
en masse
at the helm
of earth’s frail and failing ship;
where each thousand years
of our silence
is examined
with regret,
and the cruel manner in which our values
of compassion and kindness
have been ridiculed
and suppressed
brought to bear on the disaster
of the present time.
The past must be examined closely, I believe, before we can leave
it there.
I am thinking of Democratic, and, perhaps
Socialist, Womanism.
For who else knows so deeply
how to share but Mothers
and Grandmothers? Big sisters
and Aunts?
To love
and adore
both female and male?
Not to mention those in between.
To work at keeping
the entire community
fed, educated
and safe?
Democratic womanism,
Democratic Socialist
Womanism,
would have as its icons
such fierce warriors
for good as
Vandana Shiva
Aung San Suu Kyi,
Wangari Maathai
Harriet Tubman
Yoko Ono
Frida Kahlo
Angela Davis
& Barbara Lee:
With new ones always rising, wherever you look.

You are also on this list, but it is so long (Isis would appear midway) that I must stop or be unable to finish the poem! So just know I’ve stood you in a circle that includes Marian Wright Edelman, Amy Goodman, Sojourner Truth, Gloria Steinem and Mary McLeod Bethune. John Brown, Frederick Douglass, John Lennon and Howard Zinn are there. Happy to be surrounded!

There is no system
There is no system
now in place
that can change
the disastrous course
the Earth is on.
Who can doubt this?
The male leaders
of Earth
appear to have abandoned
their very senses
though most appear
to live now
entirely
in their heads.
They murder humans and other
animals
forests and rivers and mountains
every day
they are in office
and never seem
to notice it.
They eat and drink devastation.
Women of the world,
Women of the world,
Is this devastation Us?
Would we kill whole continents for oil
(or anything else)
rather than limit
the number of consumer offspring we produce
and learn how to make our own fire?
Democratic Womanism.
Democratic Socialist Womanism.
A system of governance
we can dream and imagine and build together. One that recognizes
at least six thousand years
of brutally enforced complicity
in the assassination
of Mother Earth, but foresees six thousand years
ahead of us when we will not submit.
What will we need? A hundred years
at least to plan: (five hundred will be handed us
gladly
when the planet is scared enough)
in which circles of women meet,
organize ourselves, and,
allied with men
brave enough to stand with women,
men brave enough to stand with women,
nurture our planet to a degree of health.
And without apology —-
(impossible to make
a bigger mess than has been made already) -—
devote ourselves, heedless of opposition,
to tirelessly serving and resuscitating Our Mother ship
and with gratitude
for Her care of us
worshipfully commit
to
rehabilitating it.

Final Thoughts

Alice Walker wrote Democratic Womanism about the 2012 election.  But considering its large-scale, long-term scope on the Six Thousand Year (and maybe longer) Struggle against the patriarchal basis of civilization, that’s really just a blink in time.  Trump, Clinton and Bernie don’t change things much, for a lot of reasons — not in the least that change has to come from us, the people.  We have to manifest it in the way we think, act and relate to the rest of the world.  Electing figureheads into an inherently corrupt system won’t do much, one way or the other.  The advent of civilization saw a sudden and drastic move far to the right, to the patriarchal roots of corporatocratic society.  We have been moving little bits and pieces left back toward real democracy since then, slow and steady.

Democracy:  rule of the people by the people for the people with the people.  “People” includes but not limited to all humans.  Without an inclusive definition of “people” it’s not democracy.  Democracy requires an intact social fabric.  If we don’t have the capacity to listen, empathize, understand, talk to, love and support one another, to the entirety of the world around us, then we can’t have democracy.  If we have horizontal violence, we can’t have democracy.  As long as property exists, we will have horizontal violence.  As long as we have objectification, we will have property (and horizontal violence).  If we can’t relate to one-another of mutual trust, love, respect and solidarity, then we can’t have democracy.  Democracy requires of humans an animistic, process-based worldview.

Regardless of how they voted, how many people voted out of fear, anger or hatred as their driving motivation?  How many people vote(d) out of love, solidarity and courage as their driving motivation?   That matters more to me than any electoral result.  Likewise, what we do and how we act before or after the election matters more to me than how we vote.  So, let’s get to the root of it, and get back to the work that needs to happen regardless of who gets elected — the long Thousand Years’ Struggle for Liberation.