(or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Neighbours)
The rallying cry for people who are against the 45th President of the United States and the GOP is all about resisting and resistance but what are they really accomplishing?
There is great power in solidarity. It helps A LOT to know that you’re not the only person who cares about something and that you’re not the only person who wants to do something about it. It’s also natural to want to band together with like-minded people. It feels great to be surrounded by people who get it. Doesn’t it? I know that when I went at Bernie’s Super Tuesday rally in 2016, I felt relaxed and happy and I was smiling openly to everyone there because everyone there was an ally. I was on cloud 9 and so grateful to my roommate for agreeing to drive me down from Montreal to Burlington so I could attend! Same for when I happened to be in Miami at the same time as a rally he held this April! I also loved volunteering remotely for his campaign because I could talk to volunteers from all over the world all day, every day. Some of them are still friends. It was so great to have found my tribe and finally be on the same team as everyone else. So I understand how wonderful it feels to be part of something with other like-minded individuals even if I often feel like an outsider no matter where I am.
As I’m writing this, I am realising that this must be how white supremacists felt in Charlottesville and I find it funny that more people can’t see that. Wait a minute. What? How can I empathise with white supremacists? That must mean that, I, a person who a triple whammy when it comes to being a target of white supremacists agrees with them! That makes me a traitor and an idiot and just plain crazy, right? Well no, there is a HUGE difference between empathising with why someone believes what they do and acts how they do and accepting bad behaviour. If anything, empathising allows us to understand how to disarm those who seek to divide us for their own profit. And believe me, that’s exactly what is happening when we unite AGAINST groups of people.
When you unite AGAINST something, all you are doing is giving the thing you are uniting against more power, not less. Yes, you are highlighting behaviour that you want to see changed but in the end what you’re doing is begging people who you have already empowered to change behaviour that benefits them and that’s an uphill battle.
Let’s look at what that means in the context of a political protest. Your elected official or worse, UNELECTED official, will not just magically change their minds because a million people march carrying signs, or tiki torches or chant witty but mean slogans. They, like every other living thing on this planet, will prioritise their survival ahead of everything else. In today’s world, that means maintaining the status quo or improving their own personal bottom line before anything else except immediate bodily harm and if you follow me on social media, you know that I do not believe that violence fixes anything and that self-defense has a very narrow definition. For most elected officials, that means balancing the things the media turns into election issues in a way that will get them the most votes and not losing the huge campaign donations they rely on to win elections. Protests don’t register for them. Protests just confirm that they are the ones in the driver’s seat. Why? Because we put them there and then we use protests to beg them for crumbs. This isn’t how change happens. This is how you maintain the status quo.
It’s the same kind of dynamic when you unite against people you have lumped together and have decided are the cause of your problems. Whether they are the GOP, the DNC, the 45th president of the United States, ISIS, immigrants, the ultra rich or something else, all you do with a protest is show them how powerful they are and you get their backs up which doesn't improve things or cause them to question anything. In fact, it just drives them right into the open and welcoming arms of those who seek to manipulate them for their own profit or, in the case of the ultra rich, to use their vast resources to stay exactly where they are. Anti-Muslim rhetoric and the bombing of civilians in the Middle East, for example, makes it easier for opportunists like those who run ISIS to recruit people because they now have martyrs to avenge and they are seeking acceptance. "See, they hate us and they killed your family. Join us!" It's an easy choice to make when you are feeling vulnerable. Like I said, they feel good about being surrounded by people who get them and they are happy to yell it out loud and proud. And that's without taking into account how badly, like all humans, they want to fit in and be accepted and the lengths they will go to to do so. You might argue that there is such a thing as objectivity and facts but do those things factor in when YOU have your back up against the wall? No, having the moral high ground does NOT give you the right to look down on anyone. Doing so just makes things worse.
Even the word resistance implies pushing against something. What we need isn’t resistance. What we need is to use our energy in a way that gets us what we want. We need to use the psychological research we have learned from in the past century or so and take another step forward in our evolution.
What if, instead of crossing our arms holding our breaths and expecting the "bad" people to stop acting in what they believe is their best interests, we took all of that energy and desire for change and directed it at things we are FOR? It is clear to me that the way to stop all of the terrible things we see in the world, is to stop getting sucked in by those who wish to pit us against each other and at each other’s throats for their power and profit.
So, how do we do that? We build structures and systems that make their power games irrelevant. Structures built on trust and cooperation instead of fear, distrust and a desire for external validation. Personally, and VERY clumsily, I am working to bring about change on a more fundamental level: I am taking on social isolation which is a growing epidemic and is fueled by our fear of vulnerability. This fear manifests itself in many ways from pretending to be perfect on social media right through to attacking those who trigger that fear in us. Unfortunately, our aversion to vulnerability is easily exploited by those, usually the ultrarich and ideological extremists, who wish to manipulate us into fighting each other so we will be too divided and distracted to counter the shady dealings that benefit them and leave us in the dust fighting over scraps out of fear for our survival.
I empathise with those who feel powerless to do anything because they see politicians, the patriarchy and, in some cases, religious leaders as having all of the power. Which is why I counter social isolation and fear of vulnerability with the smallest of actions: a hug. It's incredible how powerful hugs and smiles and the smallest of actions are. So I implore you, if you really want to resist, to stop getting sucked into the us versus them mind games that are going on and find something, anything, no matter how small and unimportant you think it is and start acting as if the world is the place you want to live in. You will be surprised at how powerful you are!
I know that we are taught to attack and call out things we think aren't right but investing energy in bad behaviour by adopting the methods of those we oppose, including dehumanisation and violence, only keeps the cycle going. What we need to be taught instead is how to deal with our negative emotions in a constructive way. That education is lacking and it is why we are where we are today. I'm not saying that we should blame ourselves or even turn a blind eye to anti-social behaviour. I'm saying that the way to stop it is not to go on the attack, or to protest or to feel in any way justified in employing the tactics of our opponents in order to curb their behaviour. The way to stop it is to understand why they think what they are doing is right and to address the issue. That includes advocating for criminal justice reform that focused on rehabilitation and not punishment. It's not that there should be no consequences for anti-social behaviour but that we need to stop perpetuating the cycle and stop enabling opportunists if we want to see change.
Attacking the president, the GOP, white supremacists, Islamic extremists or any other group you disagree with is not an act of revolution. Nor is going after the ultra rich who are, also, just trying to maintain the status quo or improve out of fear for survival albeit to the detriment of everyone else. A revolutionary act would be stepping outside of this tug of war and understanding where those who oppose us are coming from and addressing those underlying issues in order to make it impossible for us to keep being turned against each other and divided. Addressing those underlying issues can be as simple as being kind. Who would have thought that kindness could be revolutionary? As my friend and mentor Hildy Gottlieb says "Any act not rooted in compassion is an act of self-sabotage". If you really want to see change, you must move past the fear that kindness is weakness and step into your power. Anything else is compliance.
What will you choose?