Politics, Trauma and Empathy: Breakthrough to a politics of the heart?
By Eva Schonveld and Justin Kenrick (website here)
Can this be a turning point for our species? Do we have time to transform our system or are we already committed through climate feedback loops to the destruction of the ecological systems we rely on to survive? Although we are writing from a Scottish and UK perspective, we expect that much of what we’re saying applies elsewhere. Certainly, to successfully change our political paradigm, the shift needs to be international.
Our current political system is responsible for dizzying inequalities in wealth and opportunity, resulting in massive suffering for billions of people. It is impacting on essential earth systems to the point that they are unable to maintain the benign balance of the last 10,000 years. There are, as is repeatedly pointed out, at most only a handful of years left to address this effectively. Looking at humans’ track record, and at our current inability to organise ourselves to work together on any issue that counts, the prospects are not looking too good.
Many have long been at rock bottom through the impacts of a system that impoverishes billions for the enrichment of a handful of billionaires. That temporary state of imbalance is almost over. There is no way for it to persist without taking everyone down with it. So here near our collective rock bottom, can we finally acknowledge the depth of change we need to make? Can we face up to the tough shared task of putting together a completely different decision making system?
Knowing how bad things have got, and seeing how much worse they will become unless we choose to do things differently, we are at a moment of breakdown or breakthrough. Awakening to the need for complete system change, though painful, can bring us home to ourselves, one another and our shared home in a way that nothing else could. Countless numbers of us who have been on our knees, and as a result journeyed towards a new way of being, know this well.
Have we had enough of this way of understanding reality, this way of organising our society? Are we now willing to do what it takes to make the changes needed to shift the outcome?
In this essay we use the word ‘we’ often and are frequently referring to different ‘we’s. Sometimes we’re talking to the wider human ‘we’, sometimes to those of us who are living in cultures with experience of colonialism, sometimes to those who are broadly from the social group who benefit most from the system of domination. We (the authors, your good pals Eva and Justin) have tried to make which ‘we’ we’re on about clear from the context, but please either use the opportunity of any dissonance to reflect — or flag any places where you feel excluded or unseen in the ‘we’s that we use. Almost all of us are impacted by the dominator culture and are all only ever part way through our healing from that.
With love and solidarity.
How did we get into this mess and how do we find a way out?
What are the impacts of our psychologies on our social structures, how and why have we got here and what kind of tools can help us make change happen? To answer this, we’ll look at the principal systems through which we make change in our society: our collective decision making systems, also known as politics.
How have we allowed a small group of highly dysfunctional people and organisations to have so much wealth, power and privilege that their short-term “me, me, me” agenda is allowed free rein to trample on all other human and non-human interests?
Dare we dream that there could be other ways to collectively agree on what’s important and organise ourselves to address what’s really crucial? The journey from politics as we think of it now, to a way of making collective decisions that actually works for us and our ecosystems is long and deep. Let’s begin.
Our existing political system has its roots in some of the darkest aspects of human behaviour. Although it has been pruned, modified and prettied up over the centuries, it still carries the inheritance of ‘power by domination’ deep within its DNA.
To unpick this and design systems and processes that are based on a more accurate understanding of human behaviour, and that mitigate our worst aspects and support our best, requires us to first acknowledge some uncomfortable, fundamental truths about our shared human experience — and dwell a little on their implications.
Much of our outlook is conditioned by neurobiological patterning in response to our experience in our first few years. This is a period we have all but forgotten by adulthood, but it continues to powerfully affect our resilience, attitudes, behaviour, and our ability to make healthy decisions for the rest of our lives. The quality of our early experience is highly dependent on our relationships with our primary caregivers and their ability to support us (or not) in these early years (Gerhardt 2003).
The ability to parent effectively is affected by a massive range of factors including our parents’ own experience of being parented, their deep personal, social and cultural patterning and backgrounds, the state of their relationships, their access to food and water, their work situation, their social status, whether they or their parents experienced disability, racism, slavery, war, famine, addiction or serious disease. So this very early conditioning is not only flavoured by our personal experience but is tightly enmeshed in our social, political and historic contexts.
We also all share a few core needs including the obvious air, water, food and shelter, but extending to less tangible but equally vital things like a feeling of safety, emotional connection and a sense of purpose or meaning in life. If these basic needs are not met (at any time in our lives) we generally feel vulnerable, anxious, angry or depressed. However, the extent to which they are met, or not, in our early years sets up most of our lifetime strengths and weaknesses. When our early experiences are positive and our needs are met, this stays with us, contributing to our strength and resilience, our ability to be empathic, authentic and confident as adults. Negative experiences and unmet needs also stay with us, echoing through the rest of our lives as things like difficulty with anger management, lack of self-worth or insecurity.
Babies and young children who are habitually left to cry on their own, ignored or punished, told off or humiliated for not behaving the way their parents think they should, who are dealt with harshly if they stand up for themselves, or who were abused by the adults in their lives in one way or another (in the wide range of ways this can and does happen), internalise the resulting pain they feel. This pain doesn’t go away. It is made sense of in a range of childish ways (it’s all my fault, I’m bad, life is scary, I will only be loved if I’m strong/ don’t cry/ do as I’m told/ take care of of others/ control others). These patterns are incorporated and become part of the unconscious beliefs and behaviour strategies we come back to again and again for the rest of our lives, regardless of whether they continue to make sense or even work to get us what we really want.
If our core needs were acutely or chronically unmet in our early years, we may experience an undercurrent of one or more of these states running in the background our whole lives, colouring much of our ability to form relationships and act positively in the world. These early experiences haunt our lives, impacting us in a range of ways, from a kind of background tone, through a range of levels of reactivity to full blown PTSD symptoms.
Trauma is a catch-all term for these responses. It’s the process our body-mind uses to deal with events which we experience as overwhelming, either physically or emotionally. Something of such states remains frozen in rigid patterns of physical and emotional reaction. These experiences are not stored in memory in the same way as other things that have happened to us, but are kept in the unconscious and the body as patterns which are triggered when something happens that reminds us of the initial experience. Because this triggering usually happens in split seconds, and usually completely unconsciously, it’s very common that the frightened, angry or desolate little child — the one who first experienced the trauma, and a fragment of whose consciousness is now an inherent part of these patterns — takes over for however long we’re experiencing the trigger, plunging us into a state which objectively now has very little to do with what’s going on in the present.
For those who have had ‘good enough’ parenting, these immature but powerful presences within our psyches are generally quiet when our needs are being met, but they can come rushing in to run the show when we’re under stress or when we’re exposed to a scenario that triggers them. Every one of us can remember times when we have overreacted or shut down (or a host of other ‘inappropriate’ responses) when things didn’t go our way. We are probably also aware of parts of life (for example public speaking, standing up to bullies, managing our anger or coping with rejection) where we know we tend to act differently to how we’d like. Dig a little into these uncomfortable feelings and the roots always lead back to the fears, griefs and disappointments of childhood.
When our early patterning is triggered, we are no longer present in our wholeness. As part of a healthy maturing process over the course of our lives, we start to notice, understand and change our relationship with, and ideally begin to heal, our hurt inner aspects. But unexamined, allowed to run rampant and call the shots, they can make our (and others’) lives a misery.
While some aspects of our personalities genuinely mature into functioning, flexible, compassionate adult selves, we also build adult-style facades of appearing and behaving on top of our traumatised parts, allowing us a defended, adult-seeming presence in the world. We feel that we are keeping ourselves safe, when we are actually perpetuating the unconscious conditions that keep our early wounds intact and active.
From the personal, these constructions ripple out into complex interactions with wider society. Our early trauma responses are triggered by things other people do and vice versa. We all spend quite a lot of our time trying, mostly unconsciously, to get our childhood needs met in indirect ways, or to protect these hurt parts of ourselves. This shows up in the kinds of everyday bullying, manipulation, clinginess, power play, duplicity, and dishonesty that we all engage in to some extent, justifed as defending ourselves — and experience in others in a dismal range of ways ranging from irritating to abusive.
Every single one of us has experienced our own version of this, but the underlying reasons for this kind of behaviour are hardly ever acknowledged. They are certainly not acknowledged publicly, socially, and particularly not in those crucial arenas where we have given power to others to make the decisions that define our lives in this society, and on whom our lives depend. The implications of this collective blind spot on our ability to restore our world are monumental.
All this can look like a personal issue — something to deal with in therapy or in our close relationships. And in part it can be. But the trauma we experience is way more than just personal — and it will take deep cultural shifts as well as personal growth to deal with it. To see why, we need to look back at the roots of our dysfunctional relationship with power.
The most recent colonial project began with what is known as the European colonial period, perpetrated by the European ruling class, dispossessing their own populations and mobilising them to colonise much of the rest of the world. Prior to this, the trauma of internal dispossession and enslavement — and of invading and enslaving others — had been repeatedly embedded in the European psyche, impacting on culture and interpersonal relations so that this most recent wave (begun in the 15th century and continuing to this day under the guise of corporate activity, economic policy and sanctions, politically motivated assassination and overt and covert ‘regime change’ wars) became, if not inevitable, then certainly no great surprise.
The process of colonisation traumatises both the object and the subject in different ways. The surviving colonised peoples are forced to comply with their new ‘masters’ in ways that are inherently offensive to their sense of personhood, and which severely limit their agency and ability to resist. Colonisers have to sever from their own innate empathy, sensitivity and sense of their own decency in order to be able to control the supposedly ‘inferior’ colonised.
In almost all people there is a psychological line. On one side is behaviour that sits anywhere from the fully altruistic awareness that our own well-being depends entirely on ensuring the well-being of others, to that which can be rationalised as ‘understandable given the circumstances’. On the other side of that line lies behaviour that negates our fundamental sense of our own decency and which when consciously, deliberately and repeatedly enacted, traumatises the enacter to the extent that they can no longer face the implications of what they have done. Each crossing of that line makes us more likely to become caught in an increasingly self-reinforcing cycle, which validates the unbearable by repeating it, each repetition ‘proving’ through this internal logic that the previous acts were necessary, normal or acceptable.
The upshot of this is that over the time that our current culture was developing (1) there was a severely traumatised, colonising ruling class (many of whom lived on the wrong side of the ‘decency’ line and who spent a vast amount of time and money perpetuating a cultural mythology that they were good, deserving, mighty and just etc) and (2) their actions created a severely traumatised, colonised population (most of whom tried most of the time to stay on the right side of the line, but who could be pushed over it by punitive measures such as corporal punishment, empressment, threat of death etc or by desperation due to poverty or starvation), which was part of how (3) European countries managed to visit an astonishing quantity of appalling atrocities on populations across much of the rest of the world, often disguising such oppression by describing it as the ‘civilising mission, or ‘the white man’s burden’, or more recently as ‘development’ or ‘aid’ as if these are gifts rather than mechanisms through which we normalise the theft of resources from those we ‘aid’.
In spite of repeated attempts at reform and steps towards greater equality over the last 200 years, the task of actually addressing and attempting to repair the harm done through colonisation has — where it has happened at all — done no more than scratch the surface. This is partly because colonisation did not just happen externally, it also penetrated our inner lives, cutting us off from essential parts of our psyches, forcing its way into our shared culture, ensuring that we would pass on this colonised mindset from generation to generation — whether in the now ‘independent’ colonised countries or in the countries from which the colonisers came.
The British approach to colonialism in Africa was to maintain local leaders who would enforce British rule, and replace those who wouldn’t. ‘Decolonisation’ has often continued the same approach but at a greater distance, perpetuating the experience of colonisation. [Footnote: Similarly, ways of moving beyond gender inequality that prioritise moving women into the public realm dominated by men, can mean intensifying the devaluing of the home and the work of emotional care. This contrasts with moves that prioritise men relearning how to value childcare and their emotions.]
Different types of colonisation have different impacts. Some earlier conquests may have tended to leave populations pretty much alone as long as they paid the required tribute or taxes. But in Europe there was a lethal combination of first feudalism and then capitalism together with an evangelising Christianity. This insisted that those colonised (whether at ‘home’ or elsewhere) not only cede land, resources and labour, but also accept that their indigenous spiritual, social and cultural sense-making was appallingly inferior or evil.
European colonisation — whether in the Highlands of Scotland or elsewhere in the world — saw the destruction of the cultural and spiritual fabric of the subjugated peoples as part of their mission, and then used those they subdued to subdue others. The (traumatised, domination focused) European culture considered itself superior to all others, presenting its domination as some kind of kindness, while extracting everything of value from colonised peoples and their lands. In the process it tried to smash indigenous cultures, replacing them with, as far as possible, a facsimile of the colonisers’ own.
This energised a massive negative cultural feedback loop: traumatising individuals and communities, seeding in them the potential to become dominators, ensuring that the indigenous cultural processes which could have supported healing and recovery were also systematically destroyed. Connections with local spirits were demonised, spirituality privatised, childcare put into the hands of the state, pupils kept indoors and alienated from the wisdom of their bodies, displays of any empathic emotions repressed, elders forgotten, lands held in common stolen, and people forced from subsistence livelihoods and a connection with family, place and nature into slavery or wage slavery, whether on plantations or in cities.
For most of those of white European descent, our true selves are buried under not only the unconscious pain of unprocessed childhood trauma, but also the colonial inheritance of traumatised — and tragically mistaken — assumptions about what it is to be human.
The extent to which we believe that we are separate individuals, that the earth can be owned, that our hearts are not as wise as our heads and our bodies are incapable of thought, that those in power are there because they know best: all this and more is our colonial inheritance and it is this alienation from ourselves, one another and our land that makes it possible for the ruling class to tear up our communities, wreck our lands and poison our air.
This process is partly kept in place through the trauma the ruling class deliberately visit on their own children. This kicks off a seemingly inescapable loop of self-justification. Whenever you hear the refrain “There is no alternative”, you are hearing the desperate cry of those who know that if they admit that there is, and always has been, an alternative of real relationship, then they will have to feel the depth of pain they have had inflicted on them.
The politics of trauma
Within our social and political systems there’s a vortex of unacknowledged trauma combined with a hereditary system of domination which, turbo charged by the neo-liberal agenda over the past 40 years, is now running close to costing us everything.
Those at the apex of our systems of power are often amongst those of us most seriously traumatised. Many have been put through the ruling caste’s mincer of distant or proxy parenting, forced separation, physical punishment and/ or emotional denial, bribery, adulation and humiliation as control, sometimes with visibly crippling results. But when this works, it results in the smooth, powerful, controlled and controlling social presentation of the elite class.
This is clearly a simplified version of a much more complex picture. Many children reared in this way do not go on to wield power in society, and some from other social backgrounds do. The political system that we in Britain have inherited however, has an unbroken line into the very depths of feudal brutality. It causes severe problems for any who attempt to function according to different principles within it, while those operating within the traditional power dynamic are supported by the structures around them.
Even within newer structures, such as the Scottish Parliament, which has in many ways freed itself from the ancient feudal energies of Westminster, the amount of power vested in individuals through the representative system, the power of lobbyists to shape policy behind closed doors, the lack of meaningfully accessible ways for ordinary people to engage in thinking about and affecting policy, and the complete blindness to the role of trauma in our thinking and our relationship to power, still means that those in the debating chamber are all too easily divorced from the realities of those they are intended to represent. The power and prestige that go hand in hand with political representation all too easily take their toll on even those with the best of intentions, once they are given power within the current system.
Traditional upper class parenting is aimed at making the offspring of the social elite able to take and hold power in their turn. The only lasting way to dominate another is through coercion of one kind or another, so the essential human quality that must be inhibited in such unfortunate children is their sense of empathy.
Empathy is love translated into the social sphere. Many of us easily feel the joys and pains of those closest to us, but empathy allows us to feel for those outside of our group, those we have never met, those of other species and for the planet as a living system.
Our culture has in general sectioned love off to the isolated personal realm, or to the shared spiritual or storytelling realm, where it appears to pose no threat to the established social hierarchy. But love for those outside our immediate circle, or even our species, is a crucial component of our ability to be social, enabling us to override our powerful inbuilt tendency to ingroup/ outgroup thinking. It is no accident that empathy and love are denigrated and laughed at as weak and idealistic in politics. This attitude comes directly from the impulse to maintain control. It comes from the unconscious understanding that our ability to make decisions based on our love for those outside our social groups, for other beings and for our world, is key to defusing the power-over paradigm.
The experience of childhood across all social classes is shaped by an abnormal system of emotional impoverishment, that presents itself as normal. Here, we focus specifically on how that experience impacts those who believe they benefit from this system, those we are taught to envy. Children who have had the deliberate, elite-perpetuating trauma of an upper class upbringing inflicted on them may still have access to their ability to care about those closest to them, but the deep denial, shaming, disparagement and sometimes even physical punishment of their own early sensitivity and vulnerability works to inhibit and displace empathy when faced with vulnerability in others, particularly those outside their social in-group.
Without empathy we’re not able to feel the impact of our selfish impulses, so there is nothing to mitigate them, especially when such impulses are also condoned by our peers and reflected in their (also traumatised) behaviour. Decisions made by people without access to their sense of empathy are traumatised, traumatising and, as we have abundant evidence to show, lead to devastating social and environmental consequences. Although, through this lens, it is possible to feel compassion for those in positions of authority, this should not blind us to the real world consequences of their trauma-driven actions. The trauma they wreck on others, the pain and misery caused by their ‘privilege’, is inexcusable. However, paradoxically, to defuse such abusive power requires us to understand the trauma-driven source of their actions.
We are, and have for a very long time been, living at the mercy of a self-perpetuating, intergenerational mechanism for keeping the checks and balances of empathy and fellow feeling out of our decision making processes. Coupled with a social reward system which values those most able to distance themselves from love and compassion, while presenting themselves as supremely confident and unflappable, this is an almost failsafe system that has worked over many generations.
Those who enact that power are ruthless in ensuring their social in-group stays at the centre of power and repeatedly re-confirm their divorce from empathy and fellow feeling by acting with violence to those who are more vulnerable. From bureaucratic cruelties like toxic welfare reform, to building armaments empires and then creating markets for them by stirring up or initiating international conflict, many of those at the top will stop at nothing to perpetuate the system their inner hurt has driven them to affiliate with.
Women, children, those less privileged by birth, those whose skin is a different colour, those who are of other species and the land itself are seen as ‘weaker’, ‘lesser’ and there only to be controlled and made use of. Anyone aspiring to power from categories seen as lesser may have to demonstrate a greater devotion to dominating others in order to prove their right to belong at the apex of such a system.
This system is the root cause of our current social and environmental emergencies. It is inherently incapable of getting us out of them. We need to create a different system.
The possible end of life on our planet is being driven by those too damaged and constricted to be able to feel their care. But what of the rest of us?
In most public social contexts we are similarly prey to the emotional and social conventions which mean that sharing our inner realities feels exceptionally risky. We fear being laughed at, shamed or ostracised. In agreeing to keep quiet, we help to perpetuate this system.
As in the political sphere so in the hierarchical organisations most of us work within, it can feel unsafe on a number of levels to voice an opinion that runs counter to the status quo. Ultimately conformity is rewarded and while imagination and insight can also be valued in some fields or areas of work, they are often hedged round with sanctions for those who go too far. Employers hold the ultimate sanction of dismissal for those who repeatedly refuse to conform to the ‘way we do things’ or who bring in challenges that are uncomfortable to those with more power. There is an absolute absence of democracy from almost all workplaces. There may be protocols that need to be observed, but ultimately those higher up have the power to advance or sack those beneath them. The infantilization of adults in the workplace, the requirement to perform a role rather than be one’s whole self, is an intrinsic part of maintaining this dysfunctional system.
This system can only persist to the extent it can get us to deny our whole selves. Our innate tendency to grow towards wholeness is its Achilles heel. One aspect of this is that the intermeshed self-reinforcing system of politics, economics and the media needs to incessantly generate novelty (personalities in politics, products in the economy, stories in the media). This makes it very vulnerable to an approach that enables people to be real, the economy to serve our needs, and to stories that resonate with reality. Movements and responses incessantly arise to champion these fuller ways of being, but — with few exceptions — political movements either become the power structures they oppose or remain in purity on the sidelines, innovations that connect us are appropriated to exploit us, and new stories fall away because they challenge only parts of the dominant paradigm and so end up reinforcing those parts they are blind to.
Our cultural reticence to stand out from the crowd is established deeply and early within some families, and aspects of the education system carefully school children on giving the correct answers and unquestioning obedience to those in authority. Time and time again, individuality, questioning, creative thinking and personal preferences and concerns are allowed within carefully controlled parameters, or ignored or even punished, leaving students in no doubt that their personal opinions and values must be carefully trained to fit within a certain mould.
Continuing relatively unchanged since the Victorian era, the school system is where many of us have cultural colonisation drummed into us, most often by well-meaning people who are, to a greater or lesser extent, unquestioningly (because that’s built in) passing on the cultural imprint that they themselves absorbed. Our world is structured to persuade us that the home is the place of emotions (where we are supposed to share with our baby brother), and school and then work is the ‘real world’ (where we are supposed to compete with others to get ahead). School is the place where the work of personal and indigenous cultural suppression so often happens, where conformity to the rule of authority can be embedded so deeply that most of us don’t even notice it’s there.
School can be a place of discovery, of friendships, of teachers who care, of interacting outside the confines of what is allowed at home. However, running deep and silent, alongside and intermingled with the range of school subjects, much of the medium, context, unspoken rules and values which underlie the education system feed into the (unconscious) perpetuation of the mindset of domination that enables the ongoing colonial project. This mindset includes the objectification of anyone who is not a wealthy white human male and the treatment of nature as a commodity, rather than the miraculous basis for our — and all other — species’ survival. We are taught that animals, winds, oceans and birds are natural resources rather than our relations, and ultimately that we are only human resources too.
This system of domination requires us to separate from our inner selves and so stay separate from one another. If we were to challenge this, if we were to commit to working towards a system of connection, then the cruelty, injustice and alienation we experience and support would become impossible for us.
Those currently in power are not willing or able to change their fundamental, ecocidal, way of being, certainly not while they remain in their current structural positions. So any hope for our species is now in our hands.
A politics of the heart
Is it worth trying to find another way of doing things? Can we find one which is able to recognise the deeper levels of our being, support that within us which is prosocial and that places our needs alongside those of other humans and species and within bountiful ecosystems that offer to take care of our material, and thereby spiritual, needs if we take care of them?
Could our current life or death predicament be the ideal moment for us to collectively and clearly look at what we really want and need, and what we’re willing to do in order to be able to stay on as part of this beautiful planet? Maybe it was always going to be like this — only when the alternative is so clearly so much worse — only then could we gather the collective motivation to do this difficult work. Even this late in the day, can we decide to do this whole ‘being human’ another way, whatever the outcome?
Mitigating human weaknesses
In some contexts it is very difficult for us to make good decisions: when we’re stressed, when we’re tired, when we’re triggered . . . So the first thing we need to think about in developing ideas about what a new political system might look like is how to ensure, as far as possible, that we create structures and processes which take into account and mitigate these difficulties.
Here’s are some of the big factors that play against our ability to make good decisions:
Since our early trauma states affect our ability to relate well to ourselves and others, recognising this and creating structures which enable us to deal with our traumatised states is an essential component of a new politics.
These states are so common. They tend to cut us off from our adult, empathic selves and so often take over without out conscious awareness, as they touch on deep running, painful emotions like shame, rage and desolation.
Just bringing the reality of trauma into the discourse can fundamentally change things. Acknowledging that we all share this experience of trauma is a huge step to enabling it to be processed. Building our relationships and running groups so that for example our tendency to flake out at certain points has a meaning that can be spoken about, can change the game entirely.
Our work relations are often so compartmentalised, we so often have to pretend to be other than we really are, imagine the relief if we were able to drop those roles and just be ourselves? Many people have spoken of the Covid period as including the experience of real connection with neighbours, strangers helping each other out, work meetings on zoom where pets and children interrupt the meeting and we are all reminded that beneath our roles we are full human beings.
There are many techniques that enable us to notice, process and ultimately heal our traumatised parts. There are many ways to acknowledge, heal and integrate these parts of ourselves, but here we are looking at simple ways of ensuring our work contexts support that integration rather than perpetuate trauma. We would want to ensure that for instance:
- We take regular breaks
- We build relationships and share appreciation in our teams
- We build opportunities for creativity (singing, dancing, simply sharing how we are feeling or subtler spaces) into our shared time together
- We become skilled and confident in feeding back when things are difficult for us and in accepting honest feedback from others
- We build tolerance and skills in sharing our feelings with one another — and in using them as useful signals to address what’s arising within and between us.
- We see becoming conscious of and skilled in handling our own and others’ internal processes as a normal, socially useful aim
- We deal openly and fairly with conflict between us, recognising that it is an expression of larger processes that we need to become conscious of
How counter cultural is this? How difficult is it to imagine a world like this? Are we uncertain about whether we even like the sound of it? To some extent this is the eye of the needle: the excruciating, embarrassing, vulnerable-feeling squeeze in the middle that, once we are through, can change everything.
Humans are predisposed to a range of foibles in the way we make sense of what’s happening around us. Sometimes glossed as ‘cognitive biases’ these are more correctly a highly complex bundle of neurological, hormonal and cultural tendencies — some more deeply neurological and some more culturally determined. One of the most prevalent and, for the purposes of this essay, most important, is in-group/ out-group thinking. The extent to which we are conscious of this will have a big impact on the extent to which we are run by, or are able to manage it. In our globalised times, it is a crucial element to be aware of.
Any map of cognitive biases is bound to be biased, in that it is a particular perspective arrived at from within a particular culture. Perhaps it is best to think of it as the tip of the iceberg, a list of reminders that our way of thinking is shaped by assumptions. So, for example, the idea that some biases are more deeply neurological and some more culturally determined suggests an opposition or continuum between nature and culture that is fundamental to how we have learnt to make sense of the world within a system in which we are predisposed to control and dominate the unknown other, to relate to them as a threat to order rather than as an opportunity for shared learning and celebration.
In our dominant culture this ‘in group/ out group’ bias is a fundamental all pervasive process of othering. However, the fundamental experience of ‘other’ shared by many indigenous peoples is very different to this. Deborah Bird Rose writes of Yarralin Aboriginal Australian peoples’ way of relating to other peoples and other species, that:
“Yarralin people assume that all species are made up of conscious and thinking individuals who speak, fight, plan, joke, perform rituals according to their own law.” (2000: 46) “Through their continued observance of the Law, all species sustain the relationships which were developed in Dreaming. It is implicit that all living beings have a choice in following Law. They can do what is necessary to maintain life or they can turn their backs on responsibility and, in so doing, allow destruction . . . All species have Law and culture, free will and choice” (2000: 57).
Deborah Bird-Rose explains the contrast between this Aboriginal understanding of mutuality (known as the ‘dreaming’), and Western understandings of opposition (known as ‘dualism’):
In Aboriginal dreaming, all living things together constitute country, are conscious, responsible and mutually dependent. When country suffers, so do people. One’s interests are enfolded within the interests of all others. In Western dualism, one side is seen as an absence, and not heard. One side depends on the subordinated other, and denies that dependency. Dualism insists that the only hope for dignity is to set oneself in opposition to the systems on which our lives depend. It encourages people to make decisions to oppose self-interest to the interest of others, shifting pain and damage elsewhere. The need is to relinquish hope for future solutions, and to instead attend to mending present day relations. (Deborah Bird-Rose 1999)
For a very long time in our culture, power rested with the top dog, the biggest bully, the one who was the best at, or maybe just prepared to go the furthest, in terms of killing and maiming. Similar dynamics are still at play. Even if physical violence is no longer publicly condoned, bullying, shaming, taunting are all a familiar part of the way that politicians may feel they have to behave to defend themselves or get their way.
Politicians are people who have decided to try and get power, however pure their motivation. They are flattered, wined and dined, lobbied, pushed into the public eye, held personally accountable for contentious decisions — all within a context where power is fiercely contested and weakness and vulnerability mercilessly punished.
Politicians can also become vehicles for the corporate ego of their parties. Political parties play to the worst aspects of our psychology, tipping us headlong into groupthink, party lines and in group/out group thinking at its worst. Parties groom their representatives to ‘appear’ in certain ways, and to maintain the party line at all costs. They also groom their members, demanding complete loyalty and seeking to turn their representatives into facsimile people who are supposed to be the embodiment of the party — a process that happens across the spectrum of political parties.
Deliberative democracy offers many insights into what a new locus of power might look like. Citizens’ Assemblies for instance, bring randomly selected groups of normally between 50 to 100 ordinary people together to explore and come to a view on complex and controversial policy areas. At their best, they are supported by facilitators whose over-riding agenda is to enable deeper deliberation, are informed by a group of ‘expert witnesses’ chosen initially by the facilitators and then by the assembly members themselves, and use a variety of small group processes to explore the issues. Experience so far with these is that Citizens’ Assemblies can be very effective in allowing people to really listen to one another and often find that their strongly held opinions change as the process unfolds.
Systems like sociocracy also have a huge amount to offer the process of building a new politics. Shared governance systems like this have already mapped out egalitarian and effective formats for sharing power, enabling autonomy through horizontal accountability. Self-organising groups of people can then get work done effectively, without giving any one person or group undue power over anyone else. Even in such systems, there’s a continual need to defuse emergent hierarchies and empower collective decision making.
Using processes like these, place based and work or interest circles could interlink, allowing communication at a range of levels, so that the impacts of actions by one group are thought through by everyone they will affect.
These systems work in communities of place or of practice. In shared governance, those who do the work tend to make most of the decisions about that work, so it would be councils of healthcare workers that would create structures within our healthcare services, repair and recycling workers who would feed into decisions about how we end waste and so on. As all aspects of society are interlinked, there would need to be connective structures which enable different parts of the system to communicate with one another, but all of this complexity would still be informed and mediated by the basic attitude of empathy and love for our fellow beings and home planet, and by the intention to create and maintain connection.
The organising logic in a shared governance system is one of connectivity and mutual care. This is in strong contrast to the organising logic of the pyramid systems (whether feudal, capitalist, state bureaucratic, authoritarian or dictatorial) where the requirement is to compete to rise higher, and to demonstrate servility to seek protection from those above us. In either type of system the organising logic becomes self-reinforcing.
Shared governance systems creatively evolve in a thousand different ways, but one essential ingredient in such systems is their emphasis on groups, and the roles within them. This emphasis is on ensuring that each of us brings our individuality in a way that enables others to also creatively contribute to our mutual care, rather than in a way that seeks to claim our contribution is superior to others. This doesn’t so much de-emphasise the contribution of the individuals involved, so much as recognise the origins and fulfilment of our individuality as being in how we relate to others.
Within a pyramid system, whatever the level of self-awareness of those involved, the intense pressure, personal power, prestige and exposure that come with being one of those who govern departments, workplaces, institutions, or entire countries, are increasingly immense. The evidence is that no matter how well-intentioned someone has been on their way into holding power over others, the experience of having it is increasingly destructive of their ability to empathise.
A new political system would need to be built around the individual’s contribution to the groups’ collective roles, rather than individuals claiming credit for fundamentally collective efforts. Hadrian did not build that wall, Brunel did not build that tunnel.
Creating contexts that de-stress
What would change the game entirely would be:
- firstly, acknowledging that our internalised childhood trauma is central to the colonising process that persists in how we are taught to relate to others in the public realm and
- secondly, centring empathy as key to our decision-making and our place in the world, including in our politics.
The UK’s House of Commons pits two sides against one another, placing them slightly further apart than the length of a sword. So one place to start making this a reality would be to create decision making spaces that feel safer for us to bring the whole of who we are.
To make good decisions, we need spaces we can relax in, where people can become less defensive and more willing to be courageous and honest about their own buried experience and how it might be coming through in their current interactions and opinions.
Safe spaces acknowledge and accept all aspects (though not necessarily all behaviours) of the people within them and create processes, structures and codes of behaviour which support reflection, empathy, patience, understanding and imagination. Above all, they create spaces where deep impassioned disagreements can be the route to deeper understanding, resolution and ways forward.
These new decision making spaces wouldn’t rely on people digging deep into their historic pain to bring it into the light for healing (useful though such processes can be). They would only need to acknowledge that when we become unable to care, to be empathic, we have stumbled across one of our early hidden patterns. At those times, we need to reflect on why this has happened, on what’s going on with us that means we’re not able to be open hearted. This can be a quick internal process, or something that needs time and support from others. In either case it’s almost always enlightening and relieving and having been dealt with, can allow us to return to whatever we were doing with more information, more attention, and a mind that is once again open.
Techniques like Nonviolent Communication can be really useful in supporting this kind of process. There is a skill to this, but more than that it takes real courage and humility to acknowledge one’s humanity and vulnerability in public spaces. These are the qualities we need in our politicians.
Clearly a shift to this kind of decision making context would be a massive change. Different skills would be called for in those who participated, and different kinds of people would be drawn to engage. At the moment, people involved in politics tend towards strong opinions and a high tolerance for (and probably a facility with) adversarial argument and conflict. They are likely to have a strong ego identification. This is fed by the role they are required to play in the system and so this aspect of their personality tends to be bolstered and (given the bias in the system towards selfish behaviour) makes our politicians vulnerable to opportunities to make the most of the perks of leadership, to play the system, or even to engage in full corruption. It can engender a sense of being exceptional and entitled, of the rules not applying to them.
Uniform exceptionalism, or diverse uniqueness
Of course, political and economic elites’ sense of entitlement is built on a widespread social belief in ‘exceptionalism’ that is central to any colonising mentality. The idea that:
- humans are exceptional, rather than are as unique as other species,
- ‘science’ is exceptional rather than a recent variant on a widespread human or more than human story-telling process of gathering evidence and testing hypotheses,
- ‘moderns’ differ from previous societies, rather than adhere blindly to an idea (in this case of ‘irreversible progress’) in a way that similarly hierarchical ‘traditional’ societies were also bound to seemingly inescapable but actually entirely changeable beliefs,
- the UK has a second chamber consisting of people who are there because they are seen as being from exceptional bloodlines (meaning their ancestors were the warlords who took others’ territories), or because their ancestors or they themselves showed obedience to this system where those who govern do not do so in the name of the people but in the name of a person who represents colonialism,
- for those in the UK, staying in the EU could have been solidarity-enhancing if it had meant ensuring the rich could no longer make themselves exceptions to being taxed, likewise leaving the EU could have involved confronting rather than entrenching notions of British exceptionalism by transforming a captured political and economic system,
- many have feared that Scotland becoming independent would somehow break an exceptional ‘family of nations’, adherence to which is — by a sleight of hand — described as not ‘nationalistic’, rather than recognising that independence could diminish solidarity between people in the UK if it results from a mistaken exceptionalism (e.g. from the idea that Scotland gets who England votes for. In fact, even England doesn’t get who England votes for: parties only have to mobilise the votes of a strong minority in England to be able to impose their power on all), but equally independence could flow from a democratising impulse, drawing on Scotland’s unique experience of being colonised, and a desire to no longer collaborate in the colonising of others, in such a way that independence could enhance solidarity and insist on democracy across the UK.
In contrast, in a system based on emotional intelligence and a drive towards connection, those drawn to engage would be strong in empathy, self-reflexivity, wisdom (the willingness to learn from, rather than deny, mistakes), and deeper, collaborative thinking. These skills can be learned and our education system could be quick to build in material that would support these behaviours and skills if there was a practical call for them. Done well, this way of doing things could quickly become embedded as our way of working. At the same time, even just looking at the few examples given above, it is clear that it would also lead to a far broader reclaiming of who we are, and a willingness to support others elsewhere engaged in parallel struggles.
These are the conditions which promote clear thinking, deliberation and good decisions. Such spaces need good facilitation, so the role of trained, highly skilled facilitators, who are aware of their biases and keen to compensate for them, would be a key addition to political processes that would contribute a great deal to making sure that our decision-making is safe, orderly and fair.
The presence of someone (or more than one person) who has agreed to stay out of the to and fro of any disagreements that arise, and who is committed to maintaining good process, can make a massive difference to achieving good decisions. It would be important to ensure that such people were socially rewarded for their ability to maintain good process, rather than gain power or prestige from their roles. This could potentially be helped by frequent rotation.
Of course tensions will arise, there will be deep disagreements in how to move forward. Processes like Sociocracy, Dynamic and Convergent Facilitation, Wisdom Councils and the Way of Council, to name but a few, have much to offer in terms of focusing our attention on our innate creativity, our wisdom and the underlying truth of our interconnection, instead of hunkering down into our polarised positions. Given the right context, patience and support, new thinking (arising from the identifying of deeper connections) which takes everyone’s needs into account can be enabled to arise from even very deep divisions.
An ethnographic review of the Kingston-upon-Thames’ Citizens Assembly on Air Quality (John Boswell, in press) highlights the way in which innovative deliberative processes such as Citizens Assemblies require a depth of disagreement to be enabled. Supporting the safe expression of disagreement and alignment is needed for deeper empathy and deeper solutions to emerge.
Boswell points out that the strong emphasis on moving from the level of conflictual opinions (the approach that dominates party politics and social media) to the level of shared values and beliefs (the approach that currently dominates in citizens assemblies), meant that there was little support for people to express disagreement, and so the space for thereby reaching a deeper level of shared understanding was missing.
Connected to this was the problem that downloading expert information on participants (in areas they were unfamiliar with) and then asking them to discuss, write post it note responses, and gather and synthesize these into recommendations for policy makers, was not necessarily a helpful process in terms of arriving at good recommendations. It may have created a feel good sense of consultation and participation, and then a mess of recommendations which policy makers can choose from. That may or may not seem an ideal process for policy makers, leaving them to choose to do as they wish, but it is very far from what is needed to deal with the climate or other crises.
Dealing with the climate crisis requires neither a muddle of recommendations nor simply a series of actionable recommendations within the framework of business as usual that is driving the crisis. What is needed is a process through which ordinary citizens can assess the depth and causes of the crisis, and decide the speed, scale and nature of the response required.
Listening to and reading accounts of the UK and French climate assemblies, and of assemblies and juries elsewhere, one of the key learnings is that such assemblies can gather the wisdom of the crowd, the collective intelligence of citizens, if they are enabled to listen to each other deeply, and so able to reach below their differences to a deeper shared understanding. This enables them to go deeper, not only than political opinions to shared values and principles, but deeper still to sharing life experiences and profound differences, and so enabling a deeper understanding and empathy to emerge. This can enable assembly members to not get stuck with choosing between the fixed positions of political opinion, but also not get stuck in the trade-off territory which invariably means the problem is being dealt with at a far more superficial level than is needed. Some describe this as a move from (i) opinions to (ii) values and principles to (iii) empathy-pathways.
This is simply about enabling differences to be expressed in a way that generates empathy, and thereby enables new solutions and pathways to emerge. These empathy-pathways and solutions may be quite simple — such as when someone described how in a climate jury in Leeds participants were told by one speaker that there was a need for huge investment in housing stock, and another that a huge amount was being invested in a new road to the airport. Participants said: ‘Why not move the budget from the airport road to retrofitting houses?’
Perhaps a more profound example is that given in a recent webinar about the Kendal Climate Jury on how to handle the increasing flooding of the town. Here there is disagreement between those who want to cut trees along the river’s banks in order to build flood defences, and those who see cutting the trees as contributing to climate change and so increasing the flooding.
At first sight this looks like classic trade-off territory. However, in an ‘empathic difference’ approach, both perspectives would be equally valued, and a way forward sought that might be better than either approach alone and better that a trade-off between principled positions. For example, the action might be to plant a great amount of indigenous trees upstream, and introduce beavers upstream to build dams, both of which regulate the flow of water, can help stop the flooding, restore the ecosystem and drawdown carbon. Temporary flood defences might still be needed in the meantime, but over the long term, an ‘empathic difference’ approach enables positions to be relinquished as the welcoming and exploration of differences leads to the ‘empathic pathways’ through which the underlying issues can be addressed.
If participants are enabled to disagree and dialogue at this depth then facilitation moves from being mostly about ensuring people are nice to each other, have time to speak, and are listened to, to instead being about enabling people to speak from their very different professional and personal experiences, and able to use difference and disagreement to really deepen their collective understanding in order to arrive at new ways of resolving what may at first seem intractable problems.
The need to be able to identify the difference between disagreement in adults with differing life experience and those who have been triggered into trauma based reativity, and the ability to support each appropriately, demands skilled and experienced facilitation. A political process that sees as part of the picture, supporting participants to identify, tolerate and manage different states in themselves and others would enable truly mature decision making to unfold.
Enabling people to empathically listen to experiences and perspectives that are very different to their own, enables us to abandon more superficial levels (which also risk leaving traumatic reacitvity unaddressed), and recognise that ‘winning’ the argument is a waste of learning, and trade-offs and compromise are a wasted opportunity. What is possible instead is to enable action which responds to, rather than compromises, anyone’s real needs.
Citizens Assemblies are a clear example of how a profound shift in our politics is possible, but also of how such profound shifts can be blocked by being made tokenistic and beholden to maintaining the status quo.
Progressive social movements that seek to challenge power structures often perpetuate the same power dynamics within themselves. To become powerful enough to transform toxic power relations often means having already become them, and not becoming them is often because we have relinquished the battle and so left them in place. For example, Extinction Rebellion has had a welcome focus on ‘regeneration’ (self-care). At the same time, XR UK has had some toxic power issues, including a struggle between those focused on antagonizing others in order to drive the climate emergency up society’s agenda, and those trying to build bridges of care to those suffering impacts of the system driving the crisis.
To resist dominant structures successfully (without becoming them) requires developing and using ‘empathy-pathways’ to split the trauma atom. What does this mean?
Painful experiences happen but pass. They become trauma if they become repetitive reinforcements by compressing aspects of our experience that should remain separate, or forcing apart aspects of our experience that should remain together. Our sense of self-worth and others’ judgements of us should not be compressed together, nor should our need for material security be confounded with an economic system of incessant acquisition. Likewise, our sense of well-being and the well-being of others should not be opposed.
Being unaware of the trauma we carry can mean being unaware that we are not that trauma. Recognising that we have experienced trauma can remind us that we are more than that trauma, that something was done to us that was painful.
Empathy-pathways allow us to build alliances between that in ourselves and in others that seeks to reclaim the fullness of our experience, and that seeks to resist abiding by the imposed divide and rule colonial strategy of turning us into an ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Identifying and disentangling the ways in which domination-trauma pervades our personal, political, economic and cultural experience, helps us to stop reacting in ways that bind us to that we are reacting against (see ‘support circles’ section below). Instead, through developing our empathy, we can reach out to build alliances and defuse dominating processes. This helps split the trauma atom — separating what should never have been forced together and bringing back together what should never have been forced apart, based on the recognition that order arises from emergent connections, and that imposing order is what breaks connection and creates chaos.
Creating empathy-pathways reconnects the neural connections that have been broken, and disentangles those that have been forced together, enabling a liberating force of energy that can generate a myriad more empathy-pathways, These can help challenge and deepen the deliberative turn in democracy, developing structures and processes to take into account and mitigate for a politics driven by trauma, thereby facilitating empathy-pathways from cognitive biases and power psychosis to self-reflexivity and mutuality
Shared purpose over parties
One of the key insights from shared governance is that everyone’s view matters — everyone involved in a project has a stake in it and their voice should be heard. The way this is organised is by a strong emphasis on developing a shared aim. Once that has been agreed, participants are encouraged to see the shared aim as their guiding principle: objections to proposals shouldn’t be made according to personal preference, but should focus on whether and how they would cause damage to the aim.
A fairly uncontentious shared national aim might be, for example: to promote the well-being and prosperity of all of our people, our communities and the ecosystems we rely on. Much of the work to develop this would happen in local communities, with issues that could affect other communities being considered at a more central tier of decision making, and regional and national tiers only taking what’s necessary to be decided at each of those levels.
However, to get to a place where such an uncontentious shared aim could guide decision making we would need to also focus on dismantling the current dominant paradigm. For example, the Scottish Government already has a similarly benign-seeming national aim which is to create “a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth”. This includes ‘success’, ‘the opportunity for all to flourish’, and ‘sustainability’, but all of these are qualifiers, and seen as flowing from an ‘economic growth’ system which systematically requires us to compete with and exploit other humans and the finite ecological system on which we all depend.
In contrast, the need is to create a shared aim based both on understanding the world we wish to restore and the reasons for its destruction.
Within such a system, the concept of political parties loses relevance. Once we’ve agreed what our aim is, and what fundamentally stands in the way of that aim, our task is to evaluate or innovate the best ways to achieve that aim, and the best ways to defuse systems that seek to sabotage it. This often means that those doing the work are best placed to make decisions about how their work should be organised. So there would be a much higher proportion of people working within different fields making the key decisions about how to ensure best outcomes.
This might mean, for example, moving from a political system centred on competing party representatives arguing that others are wrong, to one based on citizens assemblies (of a randomly chosen representative sample of the population) able to deliberate at length in a well-facilitated, supportive environment, and so decide a way forward. This could largely replace the dominant system that starts from the premise of conflict.
A completely healthy political system is as yet impossible to fully imagine. To be viable and useful it needs to have the experience, voices and engagement of as many people as possible, particularly those who are marginalised by the current system. Indeed it will never be finished, as it will change and develop over time as the needs of the people using it shift and change.
Since our current system is so pervasive, and so deeply rooted in our way of seeing the world, it seems useful to propose some founding principles which will hopefully support a healthy political system to resist being co-opted or re-infected with the weitiko virus of domination. Such principles will allow people to start working on it wherever and however makes most sense to them in their context…
Trauma Care: Acknowledging our own trauma and committing to work towards its healing is the first principle. It is also the most challenging, most countercultural, and the most important, because it targets the very deepest fulcrum of the key mechanism that keeps our system in place. Working with our own trauma leads us towards becoming more fully and authentically ourselves and gives increasing access to the whole range of human skills of connection.
Empathy: Learning to be at home with our own emotions, to understand and be able to work with them, enables us to connect more deeply with others, to understand their struggles and find the ways in which our core needs align with theirs. Compassion arises naturally when we have made a truly empathic connection with another.
Diversity: from centuries of culture dominated first by a monotheistic religion and then a materialist scientism, we tend towards one-size-fits-all solutions. As within the environment, our social models and processes should strive for as much diversity as possible, bringing in voices and experiences from the vast range of human experience and enriching each other.
Most movements for social change in the UK and beyond have been outer focused. The most progressive of these have quickly noticed, or even built in from the beginning, the need for an accompanying inner focus (because social activists tend to fall out or burn out), but this has always been quickly marginalised. We propose beginning with an equal focus on inner processes of collectively, consciously decolonising ourselves — while also taking action in the world to develop towards a decolonised culture.
Those involved in this ongoing process need to be aware of the deep social conditioning that will continually undermine our efforts at change, bringing us back again and again to our habitual colonised conditioning. But with that awareness, and the many tools and processes available to support a more fully human way of being, we can support one another to process, deepen and re-engage, using each pitfall as an opportunity to learn more about one another and our deeper selves.
In the spirit of diversity we anticipate the emergence of many ways of engaging with and collaboratively developing this movement: we are suggesting the following as one place to start.
Decolonisation support circles
One leading edge of this change can come from those for whom the idea of personal, social and cultural decolonisation makes complete sense. Many of these peoples are currently that fraction of the population who care deeply about the injustice and devastation that they see in the world, but who are disengaged from mainstream politics and often also from social activism because of the toxic reinforcement of the dominator culture they see within them. Here is a potential process by which this might progress:
Small (5–10 people) groups gather on a regular ongoing basis to develop a shared learning and practice of personal and cultural decolonisation. The intention is that, while requiring dedication and commitment, these groups would build a nurturing group culture so that they are supportive to participants’ wider lives, as well as to the decolonising project. This could begin by building relationships, trust and a shared toolkit of games, techniques and processes which support safety, trust and nourishment within the group. Safety is needed to support group members to be able to share, explore and begin to heal their experience of the deep, emotional levels of colonisation — and also to develop the emotional tenacity, skills and practices to address and transform the conflicts that will inevitably arise within the group.
Aside from this work of inner decolonisation, members could support one another to take this experience outside of the group. To bring vulnerability, emotion, honesty, challenge and a decolonising analysis into contexts which are not so safe and which don’t yet have the same (or potentially any) agreements around the need for deep change. Contexts such as our families of origin, our friendship groups, our communities and our workplaces. This is clearly challenging work, but with the support of the circles it’s worth working towards, because bringing this challenge in person, in our real life relationships, is what will catalyse a much broader social shift. Witnessing another person bravely risking ridicule, scorn and shaming to speak their truth is deeply affecting. For many it may also at first be deeply uncomfortable, but because it speaks to the deeper truth of who we are, sooner or later it will be a catalyst for the inner drive towards wholeness that eventually becomes undeniable.
We all wish to become our full selves rather than the truncated version allowed in so much of society. There’s a large constituency of people who will feel strongly called in by being connected to those they know choosing to be real, honest and vulnerable. When they’re ready, they may wish to also join or form new circles and continue with the same process themselves.
Based on their collective exploration, circles could also develop new ideas and initiatives for building solidarity and making culture changing interventions, self-reflexively learning and developing a new practice of change. Learning and insight from all participating circles could be shared, so that the collective wisdom of the wider group can grow and develop.
While it might initially seem that this group would largely be drawn from the middle class — those who have benefited enough from the system to have the time to ‘work on themselves’, there are many other groups who have developed awareness and skills in this area. Those who have the most to share may include those in recovery from addiction, those who have spent time in the psychiatric system, some of those who have been through the prison system, those who have considered or attempted suicide, those who have been caring for others in a great variety of crucial but so often undervalued roles…
Getting from here to there
Although it may be a struggle to see how we could ever replace the current system, in fact most of us already inhabit this way of being much of the time with our family and friends. We’re already used to inhabiting our empathy, to taking responsibility for our more difficult behaviours, to showing our vulnerability.
In the wider world, this ‘power-with’ or connective way of organising is also becoming more common in those involved in system change work. For example, both the Transition movement and Extinction Rebellion have been using shared governance models to organise, and both foreground the need to attend to and change our ways of relating to one another and the ways we make decisions together. These models are spreading into other contexts too — this change is already happening, albeit still in the margins.
Both the examples given — the Transition movement and Extinction Rebellion — would do well to learn from other social processes such as Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and above all from indigenous struggles. It is not enough to seek to work together to build a positive future, there is also a need to become conscious of and heal the traumas we carry into our work. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have been incredibly powerful experiences for many participating in them. However, despite the fact that they can enable past injustices to be processed and, in the moment, forgiven, there is an increasing awareness that these need to be Truth, Justice and Reconciliation processes. Unless they generate structural change to put right systems of inequality then forgiveness can be short-lived because the structural inequality continues, albeit often in a different guise. There are many hard truths in Scotland’s and Britain’s past that would benefit from being heard and processed as part of a transition to a new system.
The consciousness and the tools are available, are being used, and are being connected.
The experience of a world which is connective rather than dominating, once tasted, is never willingly given up. Whether the current systems of power will adapt, collapse or be overtaken is uncertain, but that change is coming is inevitable. We just can’t know whether it will come in time to be able to undo the damage that has been done to our social and environmental fabric.
One of the assumptions here is that the collapse of our current system in the near to medium term is likely. Destabilisation caused by accelerating climate change is most likely to catalyse this, but there are several other fairly likely scenarios (nuclear war, pandemic, biodiversity crashes), which could push us past the coping capacity of our current system. So we should not necessarily be imagining a scenario where we make a smooth transition, where enough people ‘get’ this approach and use current political processes to transition to it over years or decades. This may be more as a ‘second horizon’ project — part of a wider transitional phase to a new way of doing things. To be able to make this transition, this kind of approach needs work and investment now, so that it’s ready when it’s needed.
There are hundreds of thousands of people with much of the understanding and experience already to help energise this process:
- those who work with emotions, whether experienced as such, or expressed in the body through dis-ease;
- those who understand the hidden roots of our everyday behaviour;
- those who work with the realities of their own and others’ distress and know in their bones the ways back out;
- those who have been through distress, breakdown or addiction and have done the work to come to wholeness;
- those who support groups to develop and grow in a spirit of equality rather than competition; and
- those who care for others in a myriad of other ways.
Such people have many of the key skills to support our shared journey towards healing the personal and social traumas that have led us to this point. Such people also tend to find mainstream politics unbearable and have disengaged from it. There is another way of organising ourselves and making collective decisions that could also allow us to be gentle with ourselves and one another, while facing up to the horror of what is happening.
Most people don’t like the prospect of change. But if there was any time in history when people could be persuaded to shift their sense of what’s possible, it would be when the alternative is that we annihilate ourselves. When enough of us can see that almost all of those currently in charge, though they work very hard to look like they know what they’re doing, are actually unintentionally and by virtue of their position, completely incapable of doing what’s actually needed, then we may feel that the time has come to try another way entirely.
And like those in recovery from addiction of any kind, we may find that — although the process is rough and painful — being brave enough to be more our true selves, more honest, more deeply in connection and willing to take the risk to love ourselves and one another, allows us to be more fully alive than we ever could be before.
The ideas in this essay are pretty commonplace and uncontroversial in some contexts, but are kept firmly separate from the world of politics.
To suggest that the places where we currently expect people to be the most armoured and defended, should be the places to drop those defences and approach one another with authenticity and empathy could seem unrealistically idealistic.
However, this only seems ‘unrealistic’ because we are living at the mercy of a self-perpetuating system that keeps empathy and fellow feeling out of our decision making processes, and that rewards those most able to distance themselves from love and compassion.
Consider what it might feel like to live in a world where those defences were no longer needed. Imagine what our world could be like if we found a way to let our innate capacity for love take the lead. This is nothing less and nothing more than allowing ourselves to be present, to take responsibility, to stop hiding behind the ingrained idea that we are worth less, that someone else is in charge. If being in charge in this system means not being one’s full self, then no one is in charge.
We can choose to believe the future is inescapably set in stone, and thereby make it so; or we can dare to create an opening for a different future, and so give us all a chance.
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We are planning an online conference in late 2020/early 2021 to explore ‘De-traumatising Politics, Recovering Power’. Please get in touch if you’re interested.
We’re a 50-something and 60-something white, middle class Scottish cis woman and man. Our personal and social background, experience and resulting opinions are indelibly in with the mix in our writing. Does this piece of writing chime with you? It is as much an invitation to collaborative thought, dialogue and action as anything else. None of us alone have the solutions to our predicament, but all of us together might.
So many thanks to all those who have shared their thoughts and helped develop this piece so far. Here are some of the things that also informed it.
What Climate Alarm Has Already Achieved by David Wallace-Wells
‘Seeing Like a Citizen: How being a participant in a Citizens Assembly changed everything I thought I knew about democratic innovation’ by John Boswell
Why Does Patriarchy Persist? Carol Gilligan and Naomi Snider 2018. Polity
Behave, Robert Sapolsky 2017. Penguin
Power Under, Steve Wineman 2003 (read after writing much of this article!)
Dingo Makes Us Human, Deborah Bird Rose 2000. CUP
Why Love Matters, Sue Gerhardt 2003. Routledge