It’s All About Me (and My Family)

According to a University of Michigan report that combined the results of 72 different studies, “College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago.” Self-centeredness, being concerned solely or chiefly with the interests of the individual, is a growing plague.

Parents can also be egoistic with regard to their children, their genetic extensions. And children can be engrossed in the self-interest of their parents and their extended family. Selfishness can go beyond the self.

Bruce Springsteen articulated that loyalty-to-family perspective in his song “Highway Patrolman” about a cop who lets his brother escape after committing a violent crime that may have led to death:

Well if it was any other man, I’d put him straight away
But when it’s your brother sometimes you look the other way…
Me and Franky laughin’ and drinkin’
Nothin’ feels better than blood on blood…
Man turns his back on his family well he just ain’t no good.

On this issue , the Trump phenomenon is revealing. David Brooks hit the nail on the head with “The Politics of Clan: The Adventures of Jared Kushner.” Brooks argues:

All his life he’s been serving his father or father-in-law…. Jared interrupted his studies to take over the family business. He lived out his family-first devotion, his loyalty to kith and kin…. We tell young people to serve something beyond self, and Kushner seems to have been fiercely, almost selflessly, loyal to family. But the clannish mentality has often ill served him during his stay in government….

Clannishness …is about tight and exclusive blood bonds. It’s a moral approach based on loyalty and vengeance against those who attack a member of the clan. It’s an intensely personal and feud-ridden way of being…. The essence of clannishness is to build a barrier between family — inside the zone of trust — and others, outside that zone….

Our forebears have spent centuries trying to build a government of laws, and not of hereditary bloodlines. It’s possible to thrive in this system as a member of a clan — the Roosevelts, the Kennedys and the Bushes — but it’s not possible to survive in this system if your mentality is entirely clannish….

The same traits are seen in the Trump family. Loyalty, automatic allegiance, is prized above all else. It seems Donald only trusts his family.

Social media has likely contributed to the increase in selfishness. When confronted with a challenging need face-to-face, it’s hard to run away. But when it happens online, it’s easy to disconnect.

Another factor may be that communicating online entails more time devoted to self-expression than to listening. That pattern may establish a habit that contributes to a growing imbalance between talking and listening.

Those tendencies have become more ingrained and have spread into daily life. If you get so wrapped up in yourself (and perhaps your family) that you fail to be present, attentive, and responsive to others when you have the time to do so, you have a problem (as I do often).

People act the way they do for many complicated reasons. They may be suffering so much or have so many responsibilities they may not have the time or energy to pay attention to others — although a bit of authentic dialog can liberate energy for life’s other tasks. Or they may not trust the person standing in front of them to be nonjudgmental.

Regardless, I figure all we can do is be of service as best we can and be available if and when others choose to engage in soulful, mutual dialog.

Prior to the 2016 election, the co-author of one study on selfishness, MarYam Hamedani, suggested another strategy: “Currently, if we want to inspire Americans to think and act interdependently, it may work best to actually emphasize their independence to motivate them to do so, Tell them, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’ instead of ‘We’re all in this together.'”

Trump’s success indicates the need for an alternative to Clinton’s compassionate “together we can” approach. It seems many Americans identified with his family loyalty, his unabashed selfishness, his self-centered affirmation of “America First” rooted in strong military action, and his rejection of humanitarian nation-building. America’s tsunami of selfishness may have been too much for Clinton to overcome.

Once again, as I discussed in The Backfire Effect and “Reactance” and How to Talk, it seems we need to learn better what language to use. Otherwise, we may never reverse what seems to be a downward spiral of increasing selfishness.



A Comment on “Individualism and Collectivism”

Yahya Abdal-Aziz, a long-term Australian subscriber, offered the following response to my “Individualism and Collectivism.” A comment of my own follows:

If it is true that:

” liberal culture is more individualistic, with looser social bonds, more emphasis on self-expression, and a priority on individual identities over group identities…”

– then this may go some way toward explaining why liberals have more difficulty creating and maintaining cohesive groups that act liberally.

Each individual, acting alone, is their own leader. Does this imply that liberals all want to be leaders? No, rather that they tend to make poor followers! 😉

One may argue that the very notion of community requires us to surrender just enough of our individuality to accept leadership and direction from others when we perceive that doing so will be for the common good – even if, acting as individuals, we would not choose the same direction or actions.

The crux of the problem of making collective liberal action effective is this: we must recognise that acting as individuals and acting as a group are two different things. For a group to act effectively, its members must unite in supporting the direction chosen by the group and in carrying it out – even when that means acting in ways those members would not choose to act as individuals to achieve similar goals. If the liberal psyche has a weak point, it’s in being reluctant to hand control over action to somebody or something outside the individual.

For liberals to act effectively in groups, they, more than conservatives, need leaders they can trust to act in ways consonant with their beliefs, values and ethics. For many conservatives, simply being the leader is enough to command trust. But the trust of a liberal cannot be commanded; it must be earnt. Nobody can be more sceptical, or harder to convince, than the individualist liberal. And this is despite their tendency to be more optimistic than conservatives. Conservatives band together in groups to conquer their fears; liberals join loose confederations with other liberals to share their hopes.

Now, nothing I’ve written above addresses your concern, Wade, with how to reconcile a conflict between liberal and conservative tendencies, and the suggestion that these opposing tendencies contribute to polarisation. If anything, I’ve described these dynamics in terms of polar opposites! And that’s despite the fact that I don’t usually label people as either liberal or conservative. You asked: “Does this distinction make sense?” and I think, yes, it does make _some_ sense. But my normal thinking on this is pretty much like my thinking on, say, sexual orientation: that there’s a continuum, spanning all shades between the two extremes, and that people may fall at different places on that line. Even, at different times in their lives, and on different issues, they may fall at a point quite radically different than they do at others. In fact, there may even be a line for each important issue! Radical liberals usually die young. Conservatism tends to increase with age, except for a few free spirits. We all have some conservative tendencies and some liberal leanings, too; but the balance between them will vary depending on our background and on circumstances.

To reconcile these opposing tendencies in our society we need to first recognise that they exist in ourselves. In each of us, there are both fears of losing what we value (which Buddhists call “attachment”) and hopes of new achievements. We need to see ourselves in others, and others in ourselves. And show others, by example, how it’s possible to do so. Then we’ll begin to realise that we’re not so different after all.

Yahya, I tend to agree with your comments about continuums, though I’d like to look into research on the matter more thoroughly. And I appreciate your all-important conclusion. Indeed, “we’re not so different after all.”

But what challenges me most is your insight: “If the liberal psyche has a weak point, it’s in being reluctant to hand control over action to somebody or something outside the individual.” Unfortunately, that has often been the case with me.

Emerson said we should live as we want others to live, while acknowledging and accepting that they should do the same. Your point is similar. We can have confidence in our own opinions, while also trusting the “wisdom of crowds.” What effective choice do we have, after all?

Is Our Democracy “Healthy”?

The New York Times opens “Checking Democracy’s Pulse,” an article about a survey of 1,126 political scientists, with the following conclusion, “American democracy remains healthy,…”

That article reports that a majority of those scholars believes that the United States “mostly” or “fully” meets the following standards:

  • Elected branches respect judicial independence
  • The judiciary can effectively limit executive power
  • Government does not interfere with journalists or news organizations
  • Government protects individuals’ right to engage in unpopular speech or expression
  • No parties and candidates barred because of politics or ideology
  • Government officials are legally sanctioned for misconduct
  • Government prevents politically motivated violence or intimidation
  • Government agencies are not used to monitor, attack, or punish political opponents

A majority also believe that the United States “mostly” or “fully” does not meet the following standards:

  • Executive authority cannot expand beyond constitutional limits
  • The legislature can effectively limit executive power
  • No foreign influence on elections
  • In the elected branches, majorities act with restraint and reciprocity
  • Leaders acknowledge bureaucratic or scientific consensus on public policy
  • All votes have equal impact on election outcomes
  • Government officials do not use public office for private gain
  • Political competition occurs without criticism of opponents’ loyalty or patriotism

Assuming for the sake of argument, if those characteristics are accurate, was the Times correct to say  “American democracy remains healthy,…”?

Individualism and Collectivism


In his January 2015 op-ed, “How Did Politics Get So Personal,” the invaluable Thomas Edsall examines many factors that have contributed to increased political polarization. In that piece, he refers to a paper, “Liberals Think More Analytically Than Conservatives,” by Thomas Talhelm, Jonathan Haidt and others. In that piece, Talhelm and his co-authors associate liberalism with individualism and, contrary to the norm, associate conservatism with collectivism.

They argue that

liberal culture is more individualistic, with looser social bonds, more emphasis on self-expression, and a priority on individual identities over group identities…

If you see the world as all individuals, then welfare recipients are individuals too, just like you. Indeed [liberals] are more likely to agree with statements about universalism — “all people are equal”; “an African life is worth as much as an American life.”.

On the other hand, conservatism

is often associated with rural areas, where people are enmeshed in tight-knit communities and are more likely to know the people they see walking on the street. Conservatism is also associated with interconnected groups, such as churches, fraternities, and the military….

Collectivism is not generalized sharing with “other people.” Collectivism is a system of tight social ties and responsibilities, but less trust and weaker ties toward strangers — a stronger in-group/out-group distinction. Conservatives care deeply about close others, but they may dislike welfare programs because those programs serve strangers or even people from out-groups.

Edsall suggests that this divide between people who are inclined toward individualism and those who tend toward collectivism has contributed to polarization.

Does that distinction make sense? If so, can that conflict be reconciled. If so, how?

Healthy Competition?

A passage in The Book of Joy, a wonderful book by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, shifted my thinking. For some time, I’ve been arguing that because most people either dominate or submit, mutually respectful partnerships are rare. The Book of Joy offers a different perspective.

It reads:

There is a Tibetan Buddhist teaching that says what causes suffering in life is a general pattern of how we relate to others: “Envy toward the above, competitiveness toward the equal, and contempt toward the lower.”

That saying suggests that many people who see others as equals compete to establish dominance or superiority.

But does all competition cause undesirable suffering? Many leftists disparage competition and advocate cooperation as an alternative. But the situation seems more complicated than that to me. It seems some competition can be fruitful.

So I posted to Facebook, “What’s the difference between healthy and unhealthy competition?” and received four responses:

  1. If we are just as happy whether we win or lose; when we can be sincerely happy for the person who wins, then we are not really competing – we are testing ourselves against a standard that involves other people. Depending on the area, we can sometimes test ourselves against our previous level, but sometimes it is helpful to test ourselves against our peers to make sure that the standards we have set for ourselves are reasonable.
  2. Playing by the rules and knowing that winning isn’t everything, [but] too many hormones & egos get in the way!
  3. I always think of how musicians play TOGETHER rather than compete… takes a stretch to apply that to sporting competition
  4. I think it’s really quite dependent on the situation. Some behaviors that are healthy competition in some arenas are not healthy in other arenas (e.g. team sports vs individual sports, any sport vs any artistic endeavor, any artistic endeavor vs any business endeavor.) But one thing I think is true across them all: If you’re so focused on your ‘need’ to win that you’ve stopped taking the humanity of your opponent into account, then you’re probably deep into the unhealthy zone….

What do you think of those responses? What do you think about the question? Is there is a  difference between healthy and unhealthy competition? If so, what’s the difference?


Peter Coyote on the Election

Last November Peter Coyote posted on Daily Kos “Democrats Need To Clean Up their Own House.” That essay included points new to me and echoed others I’ve made in my own posts.

Of particular interest was his analysis of the impact of Federal Reserve policies on rural areas.

Coyote argued:

…In July of 1980, [Federal Reserve Chairman] Volker orchestrated a series of interest rate increases that took the federal funds target from around 10% to near 20%… [One result] was the extinction of 22 million family farmers who had faithfully followed the advice of the official institutions mandated to help them [who] had assured farmers that rising land values and additional income from increased crop yields would insulate them from debt so that it would be prudent to mortgage their land, buy expensive equipment and plant and harvest fencerow to fencerow— and they did.

[Latyr] Volker (under a Democratic President) raised interest rates by five points in a single day.  The farmers could no longer meet their new debt obligations and were scrubbed off their land as efficiently as if a glacier had scoured it down to bedrock.

After the first glacier, came others, perhaps not as large but equally destructive. For every five farms that disappeared under the auctioneer’s hammer, a local business closed.  Farming towns lost their hardware and feed stores, their FFA and scout leaders, coaches, school principals, and auto-parts stores. Deep depression and shame metastized in the farming belt growing into a deadly scourge wherein the leading cause of death on the family farm soon became suicide.

Powerful anti-government resentments began to blossom in that blighted soil…. Another crop of future Trump supporters was nurtured when Bill Clinton’s Welfare Reform legislation imposed an absolute lifetime limit of five years on government assistance to needy families…..  

The Democrats, rather than assessing the mote in their own eyes and doing a serious review of how this situation came to pass are content to criticize the easy target of Mr, Trump….Fears about Trump, while understandable, can become self-defeating and counterproductive….

Those qualities [in ourselves we prefer not to examine, our personal selfishness, greediness, anger, deluded ideas, and unethical behaviors, we project onto others, creating perfect enemies. They are perfect enemies because they are undefeatable—only phantoms existing in imagination. We are all human and not one of us is purely good or evil. Missing this point leaves us vulnerable to very destructive ignorance and relieves us of the responsibility for self-examination….

… Democrats appear to be insulated from useful truths by their bullet-proof faith in their own righteousness. If I am correct, it means that they will not take fearless inventories of the callous disregard they have inflicted on the very constituencies which denied them the office and Congressional majority they so dearly sought…. Sizeable numbers of their voters have seen through their message, directly into the Party’s true core values which have morphed since the 1940s into the pursuit, generation, facilitation and protection of wealth. …

To pursue the same habitual attempts to discredit or obliterate one’s enemies (foreign or domestic) …  is to court repeated failure…. Another path is available….

The simplest way to frame the common lessons about success that I garnered from both spiritual and secular realms is that I am my opponent. I am the one I think of as the other. I have to admit that I possess the same capacity for self-righteousness, hasty judgments, greed, ambition, envy, and delusion as those I consider my opponents. Likewise, they possess the same qualities of intelligence, ethics, probity, selflessness and empathy that I would prefer to reserve exclusively as my own. Our behaviors may differ extremely, but that is a result of worldview, beliefs, and past experience not some innate quality of goodness or evil….  All humans are like radios tuned to receive the entire spectrum of humanity.

…Not knowing our full capacity as humans makes us dangerous because our reflexive assumption of our own goodness allows us to ignore our shadows—the facets and qualities in humanity of which we prefer to remain ignorant…. If, in a dispute, I assume that all goodness, kindness, and wisdom, rest on my side of the tablet, my opponent will read those assumptions and judgments as clearly as if  I had tattooed them on my forehead.  They will judge me in the same way and defend their platitudes and the holes in their arguments as vigorously as I do mine. This is how our political system has devolved….

The most useful qualities we can contribute to public life are kindness, empathy, and the willingness to listen…. One party’s victory never insures victory for the nation unless we integrate the losers back into the population. This does not necessarily mean that either side is always correct or always wrong, but that in order to communicate we must first deeply understand what our opponents mean…..   

When we observe that self and other are simply different states of the same human entity— like water and steam–we discover that our opposing views may not be as irreconcilable as we had thought. No one in the world is pure, and there is no place to stand outside the messy everyday world to judge others reliably. Knowing that should afford us all some common ground, a place to talk and listen. We are all joined by pulse and breath. We rely on the same oxygen, sunlight, water, pollinating insects, and microbes in the soil— the identical web of life.  We all inhabit the same tiny blue pearl glowing in the vastness of space and, if we’re not careful, our shadow may ruin it for human habitation.  We have evolved technically to a level capable of destroying the planet and the world we have created.  Surely our evolution should include the ability to deepen our understanding of what it means to be human.


The Backfire Effect

The positive reaction to my “‘Reactance’ and How to Talk” prompts me to pursue the theme by referring you to “You are not going to believe what I am going to tell you,” a remarkable, thought-provoking comic on The Oatmeal  — a site written, drawn, and coded by Matthew Inman. I recommend that you read the full, humorous comic by scrolling down from the top, and then consider my selected excerpts and comments that follow below.

No doubt there are no magic bullets that automatically lead to constructive dialog. But some methods, it seems to me, are more likely to enable us to “reach beyond the choir” in many situations — although other methods might be appropriate for a rally or a manifesto that is geared to energize the base.

Inman explores why “we soften to some ideas and not others,” and at times “dig our heels in deeper and believe more strongly in the opposing argument,” in which case “providing more evidence makes someone less likely to believe in an idea.”

He reports that some researchers call that “the backfire effect,” which is reported on more fully in the three-part podcast series discussed in “How to fight back against the backfire effect.”

Inman says:

  • The amygdala, the emotional core of your mind, responds to an intellectual threat as it responds to a physical one.
  • We are biologically wired to react to threatening information the same way we’d react to being attacked by a predator.

This applies in particular to “core beliefs,” which are

the beliefs which people cherish the most deeply…. [They] are inflexible, rigid, and incredibly sensitive to being challenged…. Your brain loves consistency…. If a new piece is introduced and it doesn’t fit, the whole house falls apart. Your brain protects you by rejecting that piece…. The backfire effect … is a biological way of protecting a worldview.

In terms of how to minimize the backfire effect, Inman recommends:

Just remember that your worldview isn’t a perfect house….. The best I can do is make you aware of it, so you can identify the backfire effect in your own brain…. The mind can’t separate the emotional cortex from the logical one.

He uses a unique trick: “I sometimes pretend the amygdala of my brain is in my pinky toe. When a core belief is challenged, I imagine it yelling insane things at me…..”

Inman concludes:

  • And then I listen.
  • And then I change.
  • Because this universe of ours is so achingly beautiful.
  • And we’re all in it together.
  • We’re all going in the same direction.
  • I’m not here to take control of the wheel.
  • Or to tell you what to believe.
  • I’m just here to tell you that it’s okay to stop.
  • To listen.
  • To change.

So once again we hear someone suggest that we talk less and listen more. Remember: the other may be experiencing a backfire effect. And, I dare say, a great way to listen is to ask non-rhetorical questions in order to better understand the other’s point of view — honest, sincere questions driven by real curiosity. But being curious requires not being self-centered, and self-centeredness is widespread, so many people simply are not very curious.

I love Inman’s conclusion: my pinky-toe amygdala is like a leaf on a tree in our achingly beautiful universe, we are all going in the same direction, and none of us need try to control the wheel. What wonderful concepts!

So it’s ok to stop and listen. Then, who knows, you may change.


QUESTION: What methods can we use to minimize the backfire effect?

Wade’s Journal – May 17, 2017

Now that I’m retired from cab driving, I’m more relaxed and look forward to a fruitful future.

My 50-year-old commitment to help organize “communities of faith, love, and action” remains intact. The language we’ve used to articulate the “faith” part has changed over time, but the spirit has not. For the first 20 years or so following that commitment, the spiritual values behind my work were implicit — until I decided to make those beliefs explicit. Since then I’ve stumbled along: researching, going to workshops, convening workshops, writing, talking, planting seeds, and looking for an open-hearted, compassionate, holistic community to join.

Now I think I’ve found one: Thrive East Bay, a community that’s led primarily — in a very non-hierarchical, “flat” fashion — by young people. As is the case with so many young people these days, the members of that community amaze me. They seem far more advanced than my peers and I were at that age. It definitely gives me hope for the future. The Thrive East Bay people I’ve gotten to know a bit personally have been impressive and highly committed to social transformation.

More than a year ago, I met the Thrive East Bay organizer, Joshua Gorman, at a workshop that he and I attended which was convened by the Center for Spiritual and Social Transformation (now the Ignite Institute). He invited the participants to an event sponsored by Generation Waking Up, a project that provides training, mentoring, and support to young people to help “bring forth a thriving, just, and sustainable world.” That event, which was open to people of all ages and whose participants were a diverse mix, was remarkably inspiring. It included poetry, music, and personal sharing from the stage as well as among the audience, who at times milled about and paired up to interact.

When Thrive East Bay began not long afterwards, I went to their first public event, which was held in a Lake Merritt apartment with about 20 people squeezed in. A similar format was employed and I again found it to be invigorating. But my working full-time interfered with sustained involvement.

After returning to one of their events last week, I’m heartened by their growth. And now that I’m free, I plan to participate fully once I return from visiting folks in Seattle and on the East Coast during the next several weeks.

The Thrive East Bay website homepage identifies the group as “a new kind of community” dedicated to “connect, grow, transform.” The About page states:

Thrive East Bay is a purpose-driven community of people committed to creating a flourishing world for all.

We are a new kind of community offering a relevant space for diverse people seeking meaning and connection in our rapidly changing world. Informed by modern science and ancient wisdom, our culture is both secular and spiritual, infused with a deep sense of purpose and interconnectedness, inspired by the arts, and focused on social change.

We welcome people of all ages and backgrounds as we engage in personal growth, shared learning, and collective action.

We host regular Sunday events, small group circles, workshops, and training courses in the Oakland, Berkeley, and wider San Francisco Bay Area.

We are inspired by the following core principles that guide our community:

  1. Thriving Lives – We support each other in overcoming personal challenges and injustice, and creating healthy lives filled with purpose, joy, and expression.

  2. Love In Action – We let love guide us toward compassion, gratitude, empathy, and community amongst diverse groups of people.

  3. Shared Learning & Practice – We seek to deepen our understanding of the world through conversation and critical inquiry, and to grow together through transformative practices and action.

  4. Systemic Change – We unite to build equitable systems where we can flourish as individuals, as communities, and as a planet.

I particularly relate to the fact that they identify “support each other” at the head of their first core principle. I also respond to the fact that in that principle they affirm “overcoming personal challenges,” which suggests a commitment to self-examination. I anticipate exploring with them whether and how they believe that effort includes “modifying harmful social conditioning,” a key concern of mine recently.

I’m also eager to participate in the “Holistic Movement Building” workshop with Kazu Haga and Sonya Shah June 26-29, which aims to

harness the power to change policies and institutions while cultivating the love it will take to transform relationships…. How do we dismantle systems of oppression without replicating those same patterns in our own relationships? How do we heal our wounds while transforming the systems that perpetuate them? How do we better cultivate the relationship between inner and outer transformation?

Kazu and I have had some rich interaction concerning those issues. I’m very encouraged to see that he, Joshua, and others are keeping the holistic-change fire alive!

“Reactance” and How to Talk

In addition to the Peter Coyote talk, another piece that has prompted me to reevaluate my thinking and my rhetoric is the June 2016 “The Anti-P.C. Vote” op-ed by Thomas Edsall and two articles Edsall referred to. He also reported that Jonathan Haidt, a professor at N.Y.U, told him “reactance” is

the feeling you get when people try to stop you from doing something you’ve been doing, and you perceive that they have no right or justification for stopping you. So you redouble your efforts and do it even more, just to show that you don’t accept their domination.

The theory was first developed in 1966 by Jack W. Brehm in “A Theory of Psychological Reactance,” in which he stated:

Psychological reactance is an aversive affective reaction in response to regulations or impositions that impinge on freedom and autonomy. This reaction is especially common when individuals feel obliged to adopt a particular opinion or engage in a specific behavior. Specifically, a perceived diminution in freedom ignites an emotional state, called psychological reactance, that elicits behaviors intended to restore this autonomy.

Haidt argued, “The accusatory and vindictive approach of many social justice activists and diversity trainers may actually have increased the desire and willingness of some white men to say and do un-PC things.”

In his reference to another article, “Psychological reactance theory” by Dr. Simon Moss, Edsall summarized that Moss found that the kind of messages that provoke a defiant or oppositional response include “imperatives, such as ‘must’ or ‘need’; absolute allegations, such as ‘cannot deny that …’ and ‘any reasonable person would agree.’ ”

More fully, Moss wrote:

Specifically, a perceived diminution in freedom…elicits behaviors intended to restore this autonomy. Reactance, for example, often encourages individuals to espouse an opinion that opposes the belief or attitude they were encouraged, or even coerced, to adopt…. Reactance was proposed to explain many common examples of resistance in society, such as the adverse effects of prohibition.

Reactance is experienced whenever a free behavior is restricted…. Specifically, individuals often show boomerang effects, in which they become more inclined to enact the very behavior that was restricted…. Finally, reactance provokes adverse attitudes towards the source of any restriction….

Research indicates that some linguistic features seem to evoke…psychological reactance. In particular, dogmatic messages were perceived as more threatening, which provoked reactance, anger, and unfavorable thoughts. The dogmatic messages include:

  • Imperatives, such as “must” or “need”
  • Absolute allegations, such as “cannot deny that…” or “This issue is extremely serious”
  • Derision towards other perspectives, such as “Any reasonable person would agree that…”
  • Threatening warnings rather than merely impartial, objective information

In contrast, messages that are less dogmatic do not provoke this sequence of reactions. These messages are more likely to include:

  • Allusions to choice, such as “You have a chance to…” or “We leave the choice to you…”
  • Qualified propositions, such as “There is some evidence that…” or “This issue is fairly serious”
  • Impartial, objective information
  • Avoidance of imperatives or derisive language

Questions are less inclined to promote reactance. These messages are not as dogmatic or dictatorial…

In the writing I’ve done since reading that article, I’ve tried to follow its recommendations. But old habits die hard!

That’s especially true when one feels a sense of urgency, and Lord knows we face many urgent issues. It’s easy to develop tunnel vision on one pressing crisis or another. But I think it’s helpful to recall Coyote’s long view and Dr. King’s faith in the moral arc of the universe — and step back to see the situation from multiple perspectives.

Yes, the Apocalypse is happening. Pick your Apocalypse; the options are many. But the ultimate Apocalypse is Death itself. All life dies. Even the universe as we know it will die (and perhaps collapse into another black hole that will explode in another big bang which will lead to new life. And let’s remember that each day more than 20,000 young children die needlessly, prematurely.

It’s hard, but we can face those realities, change what we can, accept what we cannot, and still embrace the joy that life offers — a joy that becomes deeper the more compassionate we are. With that perspective, it may be easier to avoid reactance-provoking language.

As one who has long been intrigued with the power of questions, I was struck by Moss’ report that questions are likely to be more effective. I would add, that’s especially true if they are sincere and not rhetorical questions. Regardless, I yearn for a world that, one way or the other, learns to better communicate.

What suggestions do you have for less dogmatic language — as alternatives to “must,” “need,” and other absolutes?

Peter Coyote, Change, and Transformation

In recent months a few items have haunted me and prompted me to reconsider my thinking and my rhetoric. One is a video of a talk by Peter Coyote, a co-founder of the Diggers (who played a major role in San Francisco’s Summer of Love) and author of two memoirs, Sleeping Where I Fall and The Rainman’s Third Cure: An Irregular Education, and the excellent essay, “Democrats Need to Clean Up Their Own House” (November 2016).

During that talk Coyote said:

The idea of a counterculture itself is a problem. The idea that you’re going to invent a culture to stand outside the majority culture and you’re going to make a world that is so appealing and so inviting and so wonderful that when this one collapses everyone is going to run over … not going to happen.

Lots of people out there didn’t want their kids to be around drugs, long haired, sexually libertine, experimental, crazy people. We missed the opportunity to organize those people by being so attached to our own freedom. So looking at it in hindsight, counter culture condemns you to marginality, to being marginalized. So I don’t think the failure of the counterculture is a problem. I actually think it is a blessing.

Because what it means is that we’re all now in the same culture together. You can’t tell who’s who. You can’t tell who’s a change agent. So every single place that any one of us touches the culture is a juncture point at which you can press for change. If you study martial arts you know that to change the adversary’s direction you have to contact him. But at the point of contact the fall goes to the most conscious not the biggest. So where we work, how we work, where we shop, how we shop, what we use, what we waste, what we don’t, all of those are actions of change agency. And we can do that as a secret practice. No one knows we’re doing it.

So I don’t think the counterculture failed…. There’s no place in the United States today that you can go and not find organic food, alternative spiritual practices, the women’s movement, environmental groups, alternative medical practices,… the slow food movement. It’s completely woven into the culture…. It’s a kind of highly invisible effect…. All of those people are out there. They’re just doing their work, practising compassion, taking care of the world, taking care of other people, invisibly…. They’ve internalized those values that their parents had to stumble through clumsily….

I think it has evolved and it’s evolved and it’s evolved and it’s still changing and in that regard I’m optimistic that we, our generation, managed to plant fundamental ideas about family, about tribe, about compassion, about taking care of other people. It’s just that we can’t see it because it doesn’t have edges. It’s like the self. It doesn’t have a definite shape. It doesn’t have a definite location. It doesn’t have a definite form. So is it real or isn’t it real? Well, we have the experience of having a self even though we can’t touch it. So I think the experience of this force that is dissipated throughout the entire culture feels pretty good. (emphases added)

Those comments suggest to me:

  1. It’s impossible to stand outside the dominant culture, because that culture is embedded within each of us. Everyone is a bundle of contradictions, a variety of all-too-human tendencies, often at odds with one another. It’s not us vs. them.
  2. Declining to identify ourselves as “outsiders” makes it easier to connect with people who identify as mainstream. Then we can be compassionate with them — and help spread compassion.
  3. The human family is experiencing  “change” and “evolution.” Compared to even fifty years ago, humanity has made progress — even more so over longer time frames. For every gain there is a loss, and for every loss there is a gain, but over time the gains have exceeded the losses — and will likely continue to do so.
  4. Hopefully that evolution will lead to “social transformation” — a significant change in the composition, structure, outward form, appearance and character of our society. Public financing of elections, for example, would be a positive structural change.
  5. But “transformation” or “revolution” strikes many people as a future-oriented abstraction that’s hard for them to relate to. Leading with that language can leave people mystified, or drive them away. So it can often be more effective to connect around concrete concerns, build momentum, and grow community — and talk about “transformation” later.
  6. That’s how I take Coyote’s reference to a “secret” practice. We need not be “in your face.”  We need not be self-congratulatory about being a change agent. We can just be compassionate. We need not always talk about why we’re doing it. We can just do it.