Inside Activist culture
I received a phone call this morning from a friend in Germany who's active in Extinction Rebellion. She was concerned about the way the movement there favors action over reflection, a masculine doing over a feminine being, little tolerance for the hidden voices.
I've heard the same thing here in Canada, with other words, and I feel it myself too. I think that "hidden voices" - the private and personal ones we don't want to hear - often carry the messages the group most needs. I've noticed people who come into XR as visitors and for unknown reasons don't find the welcome or the home they want. I imagine that there are voices in them that feel unheard or unwelcome, not reflected back. They can't quite find themselves here. We're all the poorer when this happens.
This isn't about Extinction Rebellion, but about activist culture. Activist culture tends to unconsciously take on the values and structures of the larger culture, even as it tries to confront them. It's similar to the larger culture in the pressure for conformity, the lack of space for listening, a fear of hearing or showing difference. When we sense these we're unsure if we're welcome to show up just as we are. And it's risky to find out, lest we become unpopular quickly. This emotional riskiness and lack of safety is much like the wider culture which also favors a more superficial conformity. The more we can counter this in ourselves and in the activist culture, the stronger we'll be.
So here are some thoughts on what something better might look like, sparked as my thinking usually is, by another conversation.
Fearlessness and Vulnerability
The context we're working with is that there is a climate emergency. It's not only a climate emergency but a very real climate emergency - a life-threatening event. The fact that it's life-threatening increases intensity and can open us up to a new degree of seriousness.
Hidden beneath the conformity are two opposite qualities which are always in tension. They can be called fearlessness and vulnerability, but they're also the individual voice and the collective voice.
We need both poles, but right now, following the larger culture, we're a bit thin on both.
Fearlessness is distinct from bravado or martyrdom. It doesn't suppress other parts of ourselves and diminish or belittle them, as if we'd be stronger that way. Fearlessness is based on a free choice, consciously chosen. Every part of us is lined up behind the action and we actually feel grounded and ready. We recognize our friends who are there with us too! Fearlessness isn't really possible as a solitary act because to the extent it's a solitary act we've no one to be fearless for.
Vulnerability is distinct from collapse or weakness. It means knowing the risk and showing up anyway with an open heart. Vulnerability also opens us to the trauma that's part of the human experience. Trauma is in the larger human body and every family's history is touched by it. Telling the truth about our experience sooner or later means opening to trauma and even the fear of death. Like fearlessness, vulnerability is also social. You can't be vulnerable without others to be vulnerable to. Another thing that vulnerability means is daring to go at our own rate and to respect and take care of our own needs. It's a form of self-care, including for parts of us we may have been denying our whole lives.
Neither vulnerability in the sense I mean it, or fearlessness, are possible without intentional places to practice and improve in. That's because the social norm is to not welcome them. It's not socially safe to risk either vulnerability or fearlessness.
Individual and Collective
Another way to understand the twin poles is to think of them as the individual and the collective. The more he or she speaks with an original voice (the less she conforms, in other words), the more she risks being excluded. But the more she conforms to the group and suppresses individual doubts or concerns, the less truth she has to contribute. I wrote a lot about that in The Singular Place of Dual Blessing. Dual Blessing is the place where we make room for both sides of the paradox.
We can practice fearlessness and vulnerability in a group for that purpose - by being fearless and vulnerable there. I have a couple of live offerings for this here on the website.
My secret wish: Have everyone be in a group like this, both for themselves and as a way of building activist culture. An "aware group" strongly increases the effectiveness of everyone of its members. Group consciousness skills have very high survival value for the collective. So much so that I think rapid, widespread group activation of group consciousness skills is a necessary part of our success. The old model will unconsciously propagate the conflicts from the larger culture.
And I just heard again from my friend in Germany, recounting some woes related to an action she's involved in tomorrow. They include a broken bone and an musician who won't be able to show. She underscores my point. A lot of activist culture comes down to very human inner challenges that we can't really separate from the outer ones. It's true that action meetings aren't the place for them.
But if there's no good place for them, then there won't be enough social capital to get the outer transformation work done. Heartful relationships, deep welcome and belonging are the core that sustains the work.