The Four Legs of Activism

Photo by Paul

By Michael Schultz

The first leg of activism is knowledge. It is important to look squarely at the issues of the day without illusion. As a good friend of mine is fond of saying, the core of activism is “between your ears”. Critical analysis of the world is the first step toward understanding what is really going on. It’s important not only to see the big picture scenarios, but also to see the little choices that–when multiplied across the planet–create the current conditions. So there is an element of humility in the knowledge that you gain. By recognizing the larger systemic problems, you can also recognize the small roles that you play as an individual, to either feed the problems or to feed the solutions. But the solutions to these problems are not solely in the realm of individual actions; there is no expectation of sainthood from people living in modern culture.

In activism today there are two main problems with the acquisition of knowledge. The first is systemic. Unfortunately, in the information age, knowledge is difficult to find at times. There are thousands of different points of view about any issue, and each of those viewpoints have their partisans. Much of the commentary and “knowledge” about crucial issues is rife with subjective interpretations, deliberate disinformation, and unexamined assumptions. Many people around the world are paid to disseminate ideas and views that benefit their employers. Few are paid to spread ideas of equality, humanity or biological interdependence. As a substitute for examining the issues, many people parrot whatever talking point they heard most recently. Knowledge is a rare commodity in the information age, and the acquisition of knowledge is rife with pitfalls, traps and dead-ends.

The second problem, while related, is more individual than systemic. It is the trap of fundamentalist knowledge, the trap of the fixed position. The people that practice this generally build their knowledge base, believe they have the full and unvarnished truth, and then proselytize and viciously defend their position from the stronghold of their world-view. This is just as prevalent in activist circles as it is in religious circles. The trap of fundamentalist knowledge demands an enemy. That enemy can be anything from industrial capitalism, to atheism, to Roman Catholics, to HAARP, to the opposing political party, and so on. In fundamentalist thought, the position is generally an emotional belief position, which is tremendously resistant to outside influence. To be in this position is to disqualify all information that contradicts or threatens to change the position. There is nothing wrong with belief, or with deeply held convictions, but if everyone that doesn’t believe what you believe is “the enemy”, you might be a fundamentalist.

The second leg of activism is wisdom. Wisdom is gained through successful navigation of knowledge, it is the fruit of that which knowledge is only the seed. To use an example, knowledge would tell us that we have the physical capacity to dig up our oil from the Alberta Tar Sands; wisdom would make the case that this is not the path to long term sustainability. It is the wisdom of activism that looks at the long-term results of current actions, it is wisdom that sees where the path leads and attempts to make this path visible. Wisdom sees an extinction coming before it is here. Wisdom comes from both dark and light sources. There is the wisdom of the abyss, that comes from turning over a lot of rocks and seeing what’s underneath, even if it’s scary. When you stare into the abyss without blinking or turning aside, you gain hard-won truths. There is also the wisdom of the eternal, which religion does its best to teach to the masses. This is the deep wisdom of the universe, the recognition of the place within it and the comfort that comes from that.

Both are absolutely necessary, and this leg can go in two maladaptive directions, fixation on the abyss, or fixation on the eternal. The fixation on the abyss is the deep dive into the darkness of the world and the universe. This is spending so much time on the monsters of existence–on the existential horror–that you are unable to see the beauty. This path leads to extreme levels of isolation, fear, and paranoia. To be in this spot mentally is to be paralyzed by the immensity of the problems of our modern world. It is also to have untouchable, faceless enemies with incredible power, that you are unable to confront directly. This leads to frustration, and, as most people are conditioned to ignore the abyss, it means screaming into the existential void of the Internet and trying to find people that share your particular brand of paranoia which, if found, only reinforces your position. People can get lost in this darkness for a long time. But that doesn’t change the fact that seeing the darkness clearly allows a person to make informed decisions on how they’re going to move forward.

The other side is the fixation on the eternal, this is a magnet for narcissism and often lives in a world of false light. Those that are fixated on the eternal have generally had an experience of transcendence, and they hope to live in that state of existence again. There is nothing wrong with the search for transcendence, but if that search forces you to pretend that everything is all good all the time, it has become pathological. By reinforcing that all reality is just a construct projected from the individual self, the individual self becomes both the most powerful ego in the universe, and the most downtrodden. People become locked up in the ideas that if they just get pure enough, and good enough, then the world will change with them. This also leads to isolation or creates adherence to the doctrines of many teachers of the false light. A lot of so called “enlightened people” on this Earth are just swindlers, laughing all the way to the bank with the funds collected from their devotees.

Wisdom is seeing both the dark and light, taking in and learning from each, but using the wisdom gained as a catalyst to both knowledge of the subconscious self and of the shared material reality that we each have a hand in shaping. To ignore the light or the darkness is to starve the soul, but to see both allows a person to actively engage in the world as it is, rather than how they fear or hope it to be. This type of balanced wisdom allows the individual to engage on issues of the time and place with integrity, and this integrity is absolutely necessary to individual and collective evolution and development.

The third leg of activism is, to quote a friend, “justified true belief”. These are the foundation stones of character in a human being. They are the examined and tested assumptions, theories, and ideas that have proven their worth based on a person’s life experience. The core beliefs are the driver of the personality and give strength to the thoughts, words and deeds of the individual. Without these justified true beliefs, a person is at the whim of the zeitgeist of the moment. Without these beliefs, character can only be built accidentally and the power to change and challenge circumstances is lessened immensely. To reach a justified true belief requires a lot of intellectual, psychological, and emotional heavy lifting. To refrain from the lifting is to ignore the laying of the foundation of personality and character. Many have resisted the heavy lifting, and therefore have not deepened their understanding of the world.

It is important to note two issues associated with justified true belief. Many people in this world try on a belief system as if it’s a commodity. If that belief system doesn’t suit them, they discard it, and go shopping for a new one. This shallowness of character is ultimately self-defeating. Because if the work has not been done to justify beliefs, there is little to guide the character in his or her response when tests come that challenge these beliefs. The beliefs have no bearing on the life of the individual and are, therefore, of no actual worth. The individuals with no built foundations will be rocked by circumstance, and at the first sign of resistance will tend to drift off into the seas of apathy. This is where many live. With no underlying structure to hold them, the winds of change destroy their lives.

Of course there is the other side of this particular duality. There are the justified true beliefs that life and reality have outpaced, and when some people are faced with the fact that the foundation stones they worked so hard to build are infected with rot and are no longer of service, they cannot bear to re-examine and change them. If there is too much rigidity in the foundation, the entire lives of those overly invested in their own foundations can collapse when the earth shakes. By grasping outmoded beliefs too tightly, they can lose the entire structure upon which they depend.

Like a lot of things in life, the key is balance. The justified true beliefs that one holds as their foundation can be either too loose, or too rigid. Either extreme will cause suffering. If a belief is ultimately justified, it should be able to stand up to tests and it should be able to continually be examined, revised and updated. Justified true beliefs tend to be most damaging to society when they are mandated onto all people. This comes from the desire of the individual to expand the truth as they see it and make it available to all people. When individual beliefs are forced onto the broader culture they cannot help but become institutionalized. Institutionalized beliefs are even more resistant than personal beliefs to the changes associated with life and reality. Codified individual beliefs become the driving force behind organizing groups, but they also become the basis of the fundamentalist drives.

The fourth leg is action. To act without knowledge is ignorant, to act without wisdom is folly, to act without justified true belief is meaningless. But to act with all three in working order, is to act in alignment with one’s own examined will. Activism is between your ears, but it is manifested through the will and action of individuals on the great playing field of the world. Activism that is missing any of these legs will not be able to stand the test of time. It is the activism of narcissism, or the activism of the mob. The activism of narcissism is doing things to be seen, to be in the scene, and for the immediate ego gratification of imposing your will or your belief upon some small corner of the world. The activism of the mob is the self-righteous fire of anger aimed at the external enemy, only to find out that the new bosses are the same or worse than the old bosses. This is the activism of emotional catharsis, making “them” pay for your suffering.

It’s time to tell you what I’ve been picking up from my own travels through the oceans of activism. In many ways, modern activism is the justified true beliefs of individuals becoming just another extension of the market. I have seen this played out time and time again on the fund-raising side of the environmental movement. If I were against this, I would not be working in that field. The justified true belief that guides me is the belief that if we want to exist long-term as humans on this planet, past the survival stage, we have to start learning how to exist in balance with natural systems, rather than existing from the exploitation of natural systems. The preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that, not only is our current path unsustainable, it is pathological. Following this path will lead us to a systemic collapse both socially, economically, and ecologically. This is my belief.

The coming ecological collapse is the most pressing issue in my opinion because the Earth is the basis of all life of which we are are aware. Not only is it the home of humans, it is the home of millions of different expressions of the fundamental life principle. What we do to the Earth, we do to ourselves, and currently, we are abusing the Earth far beyond its capacity to regenerate. Most of us are ignoring these facts, because they force us to examine our own choices and the collective choices of our culture. We know deep down inside that we must change our behavior, but we are afraid of how these changes will effect our “standard of living”. The assumption here is narcissism of legendary proportions, that our current comfort is worth the struggle of thousands of generations that are yet to be born.

The problem lies in all of us, and in all of our collective choices up to this point, but the solution is also in our hands, should we wish to grasp it. There are some real obstacles to moving forward at this point, and I believe that it’s important to see them. Our monetary market system is based on the theory that infinite growth is possible on a finite planet. This theory, although unconsciously supported by a large cross-section of people on this planet, is demonstrably false. The invisible hand of the market will never be sustainable, as it is against the interests of growth to be sustainable. We cannot fix the monetary-market system, and the good news is that this system is not a force of nature. It’s just a codified system that we are holding onto, even though it is a primarily resource destructive force in our world.

The big task for activists at this time in history is to learn how to top from the bottom. It’s going to take a lot of standing up together, not just in protest, but in service to our communities. We need to figure out how to make our houses, our blocks, our neighborhoods sustainable. We need to figure out how we can take care of our local needs locally. In short, we need to organize based on the skills that will sustainably maintain us within our communities. This means growing our own food, producing our own goods, taking care of our own waste, and taking the responsibility to do it together. This is real community interdependence and self-reliance. This means no longer expecting the market to take care of our needs, but building a resilient culture by doing it ourselves. No one can hold this kind of activism on their shoulders alone, and no group can claim credit. We have to do it together. We are the change of the culture, we are the people that can carry this burden. We’re waiting for ourselves. We’re waiting for ourselves. We’re waiting for ourselves.

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  1 comment for “The Four Legs of Activism

  1. Ruthie Benjamin
    March 28, 2012 at 4:19 AM

    This is an excellent, well-thought-out write and I really enjoyed reading it.
    I would hope you’re submitting this somewhere for print. Yes .. unfortunately in the midst of all the righteous bashing of our current president, some important messages of hope were lost. One goes along with what is expressed:
    We’re waiting for ourselves.”

    We were provided that message some years ago.
    “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

    Would that become more than mere words, we shall become more than helpless. Would that “we” become more strengthened and less divided, “we” could make significant changes.

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