I want to add to my reflections on my Green Party visit and my relationship to social and environmental activists in general, because I have been told that I seem to be much more critical of them than I am of the CEOs, politicians, etc. who are driving the world-destroying machine. Toward them, I counsel love and understanding – well don’t the people who have dedicated their lives to protecting the earth deserve it even more?Usually, I feel more at home among social and environmental activists than I do among people with mainstream views, because I know we feel a lot of the same pain. A big issue in the air in Minnesota was the vast expansion of mining happening in pristine wilderness areas in the northern part of the state. I was happy to be among people who didn’t need convincing that this is a terrible calamity. I felt at home knowing that each person there feels it as intensely as I do; that no one justifies it for all the GDP and jobs it will supposedly produce, that no one covers it up with one or another glib story in which normal is normal. These are people who know, to varying degrees, that the story we call civilization bears a deep sickness.
When I identify habits of hatred and domination within activists, along with hidden motives of seeing oneself as good and right and better-than-thou, I don’t mean to impugn the fundamental wellspring of these lives of service, which can only be reverence for our planet and grief for what is happening here. We are, however, all born into a society of separation and we all carry its wounds. The hidden motives and habits I describe go along with these wounds. They are a kind of malware that steers the host toward behavior that no longer serves the original sponsoring motives of compassion and service. The malware motivates ineffective strategies: ineffective at creating real change, but effective in serving the agenda of the malware. One of these strategies is to arouse as much loathing as possible toward the people running the corporations and their collaborators in politics.
I am familiar with this malware only because I have so often witnessed it running in myself. Sometimes when I am attacked, I notice a nearly unconscious, reflexive program to dominate the attacker, to beat him into submission, to humiliate him. Because I am well-versed in my logic and enjoy a lot of support, I could probably win such battles most of the time, come out smelling like a rose, leaving a trail of defeated enemies behind me until the day of my own humiliation. I might win each battle, but I would lose the war. Knowing this, when I get the occasional piece of hate mail around a certain sensitive topic that starts with, “Shame on you Charles for…” I do my best to suspend the domination program, responding instead along the lines of, “Thank you for your forthright expression of your feelings,” or something like that. (There isn’t a formula; it comes from a moment of understanding what it is like to be the other person.) Now I cannot say that the results are always good, but sometimes an adversary is converted into an ally, or at least a modicum of understanding and human connection is born. The questioner might still disagree, but it will not be in the spirit of “shame on you.”
When it doesn’t work, I sometimes realize to my chagrin that dominance-behavior still snuck into the interaction despite my attempt to avoid it. A part of me hurts when I get attacked, and that hurting seeks expression sometimes by hurting back. This is the habit we call “fighting.” I don’t think that any of us, even if we have devoted our lives to serving what is beautiful, are exempt from habits like this, woven as they are into the fabric of our society.
That is not to say there is never a time in the world for a fight. It is the unconscious, reflexive habit of fighting that is most dangerous.
How to translate the approach I described in personal interactions to important goals on a larger level, such as stopping the sulfide mining projects in northern Minnesota? I wish I knew. I am certainly not advocating that we shy away from exposing uncomfortable truths in order to avoid offending the mining CEOs. This is not about being nice. It is about staying focused on our real goals and not letting ourselves be hijacked by other motives. Again, there is no formula for how to do this, but I think that striving to accurately understand the world of the CEO – what it is like to be them, their humanness, and not a caricature of them as a monster – can only enhance our effectiveness. If we operate from a delusion we perpetuate the image of that delusion.
How to effectively resist the mining companies? I do not know. I don’t think there is a short-cut answer, a trivial solution; if I were to offer one I would be insulting the intelligence of the dedicated activists who are intimately familiar with the situation. I think that all of the tools used today, from legal challenges to petitions to direct action on-site, are valid and needn’t be run by the “malware.”
Here is an example of how the malware operates by contaminating truth with hatred. Initially, one might describe in graphic terms the damage that sulfide mining can cause: the dead fish and birds, poisoned lakes devoid of life, devastated forests, heavy metal contamination. This description evokes horror and grief. Then the malware takes over and says, “And the mining companies are well aware of the damage and they are doing it anyway! In service to their greed!” Aren’t they awful, appalling, inexcusable. I see this kind of argument all the time, as if the main point were to convince you to hate along with me. Unfortunately, such tactics repel the undecided, who are likely to discount the graphic descriptions of the effects of mining by thinking, “Those are just fighting words. They are exaggerating so that they can defeat these people they hate.” That’s what people do in a fight – they exaggerate the bad behavior of their opponents. That is one reason why I think the truth will be more receivable if it doesn’t accompany the invitation to hate. The same is true for many kinds of resistance action.
I am aware that sometimes it is hard to find another interpretation for corporate behavior; for example, when they actively suppress evidence that shows that their activities are harming people or the environment. It sure seems like pre-meditated evil in service of greed. When cover-ups are discovered, they should be exposed as well. But again, we don’t need to resort to the explanation that “they are just wicked.” Instead we can ask what story they are living in. And we can ask ourselves, When have we told lies, hurt people, and covered it up? Why did we do it and what were we feeling?
Marshall Rosenburg famously said, “Every judgement is the tragic expression of an unmet need.” The same wounds that get activated as the malware in resistance actions also express themselves in the internal workings of activist groups themselves, if perhaps on a subtler level. The same character assassination, infighting, lying, and cover-ups play out, destroying solidarity, consuming energy that could otherwise go toward creating change, and generating untold stress. We cannot accomplish much from a fractured foundation. This is another reason to deprogram from the habit of judging and fighting; another reason to recognize our projections and use them as tools for self-inquiry. I find it a fruitful exercise to attempt this with the people (like anti-environmentalist politicians and right-wing hatemongers) who trigger me the most. It builds a new habit that also operates with respect to my allies and the people I love.
I offer these observations about hidden malware so that my brothers and sisters who have dedicated their lives to healing our world will be more effective. It is not to take them to task, bring them down a notch and puncture their self-importance. That is not my crusade. I’m simply describing a virus whose virulence subsides when it is no longer hidden.