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.

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