Working for Change in a New Era – How?
by Miki Kashtan
We are only days away from the inauguration of a president for the United States of America that probably most of the people of the world believe is a disaster for humanity. Those of us living in the United States who are frightened of what his reign might bring are thinking long and hard about what we could possibly do in this new climate.
This disquiet has been showing up time and again on both the Fearless Heart Teleseminar calls and the Facing Privilege calls. On one recent call, someone asked a very pointed question: if I had the opportunity, somehow, to speak with Donald Trump for 30 minutes, what would I say to him?
There’s something about leading those calls and being the one that people look to for inspiration and guidance that places an immense sense of responsibility on me. This responsibility is weighty and not burdensome; I welcome it. As times are more and more difficult, and I seem to be willing to take risks, the reality of having a small platform becomes more significant.
From that perspective, of wanting to step up to my leadership, I paused to reflect on the caller’s question. It became immediately apparent to me that I didn’t have a fully-formed response. I really don’t know what I would say to Donald Trump if, indeed, I had a chance to speak with him. What I did know, without any shred of doubt, is that I couldn’t be effective if I spoke from within a place of separation. As always, what I see myself standing for is simple and intense: how do we respond, even in times like this, from a place of total nonseparation?
My own spiritual development has largely been fueled by a ferocious unwillingness to give up on understanding everything that happens. I won’t give up, and I will keep trying for as long as I am alive, even if I am unsuccessful most of the time. From that vantage point, it’s too easy to say that Donald Trump is a narcissist, as if that explains anything. Instead, I really want to understand what it’s like to be Donald Trump: What is the actual experience? What is the feeling of waking up in the morning being Donald Trump? What brings him joy? What annoys him? And, more than anything, what leads him to do and say the things he does and says? I so want to understand that, because, otherwise, I am still maintaining separation. I might still want to stop him if I could. And, even if I do, I want to stop him with an open heart. That, for me, is the crux of shifting to nonseparation. Because what we usually do is that we separate from people before we try to stop them or say no to them. I clearly would want to stop Donald Trump if I had that possibility; and I want to do it in a way that embodies the principle of oneness. To me it would mean, amongst other things, to be able to understand Donald Trump as both entirely different from me and fundamentally equally and fully human.
Regardless of whether we will ever have this opportunity, the issue is what we need to do inside in order to be prepared. Because if we are prepared for that imaginary meeting, we will be more capable of attending to what comes our way.
Branching out to a Systemic Perspective
As far as I can tell, I am not going to have a meeting with Donald Trump. Even if I were, I don’t actually believe that Donald Trump is the source of the issues we are facing in the world, nor that stopping him, if we could do it, is the solution.
Rather, I see Donald Trump’s election as a symptom of the issues we have in the world these days. I am frightened of his presidency because I believe he will dramatically accelerate what has already been happening; not because I think he will freshly create issues that haven’t been there. Barack Obama, whatever else is true of him and his presidency, has not in any way challenged the fundamental building blocks of neoliberalism: the thinking and the systems that have gotten us to where we are. As Cornel West, a fellow Black man to him, says, in Pity the sad legacy of Barack Obama: “The reign of Obama did not produce the nightmare of Donald Trump – but it did contribute to it.”
Shifting from the focus on a specific individual in a specific position of power being the answer, and focusing, instead, on systems, changes both what I think about and what I do.
At the level of thinking, I focus on understanding the deeper principles, assumptions, and logic of the systems in which we live. Being able to see these rather than accepting them without knowing that I am, is one degree of freedom I can always give myself: the choice to imagine something different. I carry with me, for many years now, a quote from a little known deep thinker – Raymon Panikkar, who wrote, in Myth, Faith and Hermeneutics:
The moment a presupposition is known as the basis of thought or the starting point of an intellectual process, it ceases to be a presupposition. … when that happens, I cannot just hold [it] as I had earlier. This causes a crisis. The crisis thus produced is the sort that any living consciousness must pass through in order to grow.
Our systems are currently organized on certain principles which I question rather than seeing them as obvious reality. The capitalist economic system, for example, is organized around principles such as profit maximization, infinite growth, and a belief that all humans are simply aiming to increase their own self-interest at whatever cost is necessary. The liberal-democratic governance system is organized around principles of representation, checks and balances, competing interests and power blocs, and majority rule with minority rights as the best possible outcome. Those, in turn, also presuppose the very same view of human nature that capitalism is based on: that, because human beings are fundamentally self-interested, this would also apply to politicians. In my own thinking, we only need checks and balances because of that implicit belief. As maligned as Cuba is in terms of its political system, that assumption is not built into it, which allows for very different outcomes and processes, and an astonishing amount of participatory democracy on local and provincial levels. It comes as no surprise to me that our socialization system is based on the same view as the economic and governance systems, and thus includes obedience as a core value and coercion and shaming as fundamental methods for achieving it.
Seeing that systems are based on principles, views of human nature, and other core assumptions, frees us to begin to ask different questions. This is what I have been doing for decades now, more pointedly since discovering Nonviolent Communication: What would it mean to have systems that are based on needs?
Here’s just one example of how this thinking goes. If I apply this perspective to the economic system, I can begin to ask what would need to change so that instead of maximizing profit and growth our economic system would maximize attending to needs, (even including non-human needs). This way of asking the question confronts me with the reality that since resources are currently allocated not based on needs, having a need does not create the means to attend to it. As a human being, this simply hurts. It wouldn’t hurt if I believed the story that we get what we deserve. Because “deserving” is fully divorced from needs, that thinking obscures the reality of how many people’s needs are simply not part of the equation.
I have devoted considerable thought to envisioning systems based on needs, and that vision is spelled out in my book Reweaving Our Human Fabric: Working Together to Create a Nonviolent Future. I couldn’t find any better way to describe such systems except as fictional stories, sadly, about how that way of organizing society works. It was the only way I could find to give it full vibrancy. The result is that I now simply know it’s possible, without much difficulty, to set things up in a way that puts needs at the center. All we need to do is to collectively want that and change our view of what’s possible.
In the absence of total transformation of both the underlying assumptions that run our collective life and the ways in which systems operate, systems tend to perpetuate and reproduce themselves. When I watched the movie The Corporation, the most intense insight that came to me from it was that putting “decent” individuals within an “indecent” system will yield “indecent” results. For the most part, most people, most of the time, will follow along with whatever is happening. We are designed to do that. Only few of us, rarely, will rise above the logic of the system into which we were born and socialized.
This is also why my own confusion about what creates change is more of a collective incapacity rather than a personal deficiency. Although there have been waves and waves of change over the last several hundreds of years, for example, more often than not we have created change without changing the most fundamental terms of the domination system: that some people have disproportionately more access to resources than others, and that this access is at the direct or indirect expense of other people’s needs and at cost to the life support systems. For one painful example, I never thought it was much of an accomplishment to change whose needs were met at whose expense. I am not particularly happy, for example, to be an Israeli Jew knowing that my ability to even speak the revived language of my ancestors was predicated on dispossession and humiliation of so many people. Not any happier than being the descendant of oppression that lasted many hundreds of years in Europe culminating in the holocaust and continuing.
Taking Action in Humility
Even though I don’t have an answer that makes sense to me to the perennial question of what any of us can do that has any chance of attending to large-scale systems transformation, I still must act, because I am human, and that is what we are designed to do. And so it is that I have surrendered to the intrinsic not knowing, and choose to continue to make choices based on my intuition, the resources available to me, my skills and capacities, and the opportunities that life presents to me.
I start from where I am at any given moment, and then I seek to find the most efficient path to functioning outside the logic of the system and simultaneously to create the conditions that would allow others to do the same. I do this wherever I am and on all levels, often at once: within me, in relationships, in my writing, in random exchanges, when working with individuals, and when working with groups and organizations.
My favorite thing to do when working with individuals, is to find frames that I can offer that reliably invite people to a more conscious level of functioning that includes more choice, more freedom, and more care for the whole. I want to do it in a way that is simple and not challenging. So far, I have found a few such frames, and I keep looking.
What’s most important? I find that asking people to name what’s most important to them, especially naming it in terms of what their purpose is, brings people to a deeper reflection and outside of any script or reaction they might inhabit.
Solutions that work for all. A lot of people I am aware of write about the need for an evolutionary leap in consciousness that is vitally necessary for us to be able to move into any future. As far as I can tell, that leap is starkly simple: looking for solutions, paths, outcomes, or decisions that work for everyone. I see, repeatedly, that except in specific and rare circumstances, people have an instantaneous ability to do this. The muscle is there; we’re just not in the habit of using it.
Moving from fairness to possibility. As much as people get very attached to fairness, I have found repeatedly that they manage to shift into more creative thinking when invited to transcend fairness and find what’s possible. It’s not “fun” for them to do it, and yet they clearly see that focusing on what’s possible creates movement, while focusing on what’s fair runs a strong risk of creating division and conflict.
Ultimately, my work with individuals consists, more and more, in supporting them to become free of the fears and shame instilled by socialization, so that they can become true leaders, or what I call “conscious disruptors” – willingly taking on the world, challenging business as usual, and knowingly incurring the friction that arises when not following the “norms”. To be clear: I am never interested in disruption for its own sake. I am only interested in supporting people to be willing to disrupt when integrity is at stake. I see this as a very delicate path of discernment that is deeply Gandhian on the personal scale.
Working with Groups
At the group level, I have developed tools that make it possible for people to step into a needs-based, collaborative mindset without having to undergo personal transformation. This is because consciousness transformation for 7.2 and growing billion people is not going to solve our problems. To begin with, it’s impossible to complete it, since more people are born and inducted into the current systems than we can possibly train people fast enough to stand up to their socialization and take the social and sometimes physical risks that arise. Simply put, the system exerts pressures and many people will not have the necessary courage to create and sustain such transformation. Moreover, perhaps even more importantly, consciousness transformation per se doesn’t equip people with group and organizational level skills and capacities. Those need to be learned or created separately, especially after so long in our history of having our collaboration muscles atrophy.
When tools and carefully constructed systems exist, such as Convergent Facilitation, or the Restorative Systems that exist in Brazil as part of the work of Dominic Barter, people don’t have to change and transform individually, although they are transformed by their engagement with the system. By virtue of being part of such practices and systems, they gradually shift. And the outcomes of such tools are themselves transformative for the group or community, not just the individuals involved.
Is this a final answer? No. Is it a step in the direction we want? I believe so. As Rivera Sun said, in an email exchange with several other people that resulted, many moons later in this post:
Specifically, we practice self-care, use nonviolent communication and non-hierarchical/dominator structures for organizing, build new systems of cooperatives and democratic, local control; and use nonviolent civil resistance (both constructive and obstructive programs) as the means to the ends of transforming systems.
Confronting the existing systems
I myself have not engaged in social action that is a direct confrontation of existing systems for many years. When I ask myself why that is, I keep coming back to the recognition that there is mystery in terms of what we are called to do or not do. I do, however, often work with people who are doing the direct frontline work. In keeping with my primary commitment to nonviolence as I understand it, I support people in finding ways of doing their work that are based on courage, truth, and love. Which always means that no matter how confrontational our actions, at root we aim for the benefit of all. This was true of Gandhi. This was true of Martin Luther King Jr. And this can still be true in our days. As a very small example, in 1991, when my beloved late sister Inbal and I marched against the first Gulf War, she carried a sign that simply said: “Pro-Israeli and Pro-Palestinian,” five words that subvert the either/or, good guys vs. bad guys narrative that dominates so much political action.
What could be signs that people would carry now, as they plan their marches in the coming days and weeks when Donald Trump and his appointees take office? What could be a way to express what we want instead of focusing primarily, sometimes only on what we are opposing? I have seen, more than once, research results that suggest that 80% of people in the US agree on most of the practical issues that face the country and the world. How could we express the desire to mend the rift and find policies that truly work for all?
Beyond marches, which I see as far less confrontational than what might be needed to turn things around, I take my deepest inspiration from the people at Standing Rock, who are teaching all who are willing to learn how to do confrontation with love, even in the face of active repression.
Seizing the Opportunity
While I don’t have answers to all the questions I am raising, this much I know: both in direct action for social change and anywhere we are, with anyone, we can always look for the most visionary, transformative, powerful response that is most likely to bring forward the micro part of the system we are in at that moment.
From this perspective, thinking about meeting with Donald Trump doesn’t seem idle to me. Whether or not such a meeting will ever happen, many other conversations and other actions will happen, and we can be better prepared to meet them with the empathy, openness, curiosity, and utmost courage to stand up that are needed in these times.
Empathy doesn’t mean any particular ways of speaking, because those can easily reinforce separation, and subtly place us internally in a superior position relative to Donald Trump or whoever we are speaking with. Rather, for me true empathy is about being able to really imagine myself completely into the other person, and then choosing words or actions that capture that. Until we can become Donald Trump in our imagination, we will not be able to fully relate to him or his supporters, and we will continue to hold him as a different species. We will not be able to communicate or act effectively until we overcome whatever powerful reaction we have. Otherwise we write off a good portion of people in the US who put Donald Trump on the ballot card, not just him.
On the call that inspired this part of the piece, as a precursor to any specific action, we united on the assumption that we wanted to look for ways of going towards connection in the imaginary meeting with Donald Trump rather than away from it. This took various forms. My favorite proposals for what a one-sentence version of a conversation would be focused on connection and genuine curiosity. This can be the foundation of subverting the scripts everyone would be in, of getting to a place of togetherness, and of going deeper than expected.
One person focused on what he could genuinely admire about Donald Trump. For him, it was the focus on how brave it is to say the things he is saying.
Another person focused on an authentic attempt to understand why Donald Trump went for the presidency.
A third person, the one who brought up the question in the first place, formulated this question to Donald Trump: “Can you see a way in which those people currently opposing you would want to join you in making America great again?” His thinking was simple: to show Donald Trump that he gets what’s important to him, and capitalize on the likelihood that he would want to bridge the divide. This kind of question is outside the script Donald Trump is familiar with, and it has the potential to get him to notice, think, and answer in a real way.
Another one was: “Donald, I would like to see different things that we can agree on.” This question explicitly calls for convergence and togetherness instead of reaffirming the difference. In that, it presupposes that there are two human beings in the conversation, and creates a foundation of trust.
A final example of the approach that emerged on that call was this: “If we wave a magic wand and America is great again, how would you describe the average day of an average Jane?” This question is, once again, not oppositional. In addition, it’s practical and simple, and would likely get Donald Trump to go a little deeper.
These are not the only sentences that emerged on that call, and certainly not exhaustive of all that could be said in one sentence. For the most part, the ones that seemed to have potential were questions, not statements. We soon noticed that these are questions that can be used in conversation with people who are not Donald Trump, something that all of us can do.
In order to depolarize, it’s also vital that our approach is capable of humanizing ourselves to him, not just him to us. Many people see those of us who believe even in the very concept of things working for everyone as hopeless bleeding heart liberals who don’t get how the world operates. Just as much as so many of us write Donald Trump off, Donald Trump and his supporters often write us off. We need to find a way to recreate a sense of mutual respect and seeing everyone’s humanity.
You may not ever succeed in changing any person’s position. And that is not the point. The point, as I see it, is to remember that no matter how profoundly opposed we are on worldviews, opinions, and positions, we can always hear and understand each other’s deeper purpose, and collaborate towards solving practical problems that affect all of us. Once we know this and integrate it fully, I trust that we will also approach confrontation differently, and I then have more hope that miracles of transformation can happen.
 See Cuba and Its Neighbors: Democracy in Motion, by Arnold August.
INVITATION: To discuss this and other posts with me and other readers of this blog, check in to the free Fearless Heart Teleseminars. Next dates:
Sunday February 12 @ 10:30 am – 12:00 pm PST
Monday February 13 @ 5:30 pm – 7:00 pm PST
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Image credits: Top: IMG_5695 by Elvert Barnes, Flickr, (CC BY-SA 2.0). Below: The Corporation from http://thecorporation.com/.
4 thoughts on “Working for Change in a New Era – How?”
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Many, many thanks, Miki for your thorough and clear articulation of your beliefs. I’ve been longing for NVC guidance on this topic. I will turn to this blog post again and again as I struggle to maintain my commitment to connection.
I have written key points I gathered from your last blog post. I will submit it to you. I’d love your feedback. Love & hugs, Td from Dallas
First, thank you for articulating your ideas in a way that is so inspiring for me. I am guessing that it was intentional for you to refer to Trump’s term as his “reign,” as I notice that one of the authors you reference also uses the terminology “reign” to refer to Obama’s term of presidency. I am wondering if you want to expand on your reasoning for using the word “reign?”
Thank you Miki, since Trump won the election I often have a crave for reading your blog.