Integrated Change

Two books i am reading make the same point: The hyper-individualism of our culture is hurting us deeply. Eva Illouz in Why Love Hurts argues that psychology, including self-help approaches, are perpetuating individualism. Aric McBay, Lierre Keith, and Derrick Jensen point out in Deep Green Resistance that liberalism prevents the emergence of collective solutions even in alternative cultures.

How does this individualism manifest? Illouz analyses modern heartache and compares it with coupled relationship challenges of the past. What she finds is that us moderns are ignoring the social dimensions of living. Instead of acknowledging that we are yearning for recognition, which can only be given by others, we contort ourselves into people who give ourselves recognition. Marshall Rosenberg writes

We get depressed because we’re not getting what we want, and we’re not getting what we want because we have never been taught to get what we want.

As much as i agree with him that we haven’t been taught to ask for what we want (let alone know what we want), he is leaving out a much more tangible impact of our culture. In a society that overvalues the individual, the structures are set up to continually not meet our needs for community, friendship, and love. Without also addressing the isolation that is an inherent result of our way of life, trying to meet these needs becomes a Sisyphanian challenge.

Similarly, McBay, Keith, and Jensen find the ethos of individualism infiltrating our approaches to the crises we are facing. One of the key issues that they find with liberalism is its erasure of power. If we do not acknowledge that there are those who have power and others who don’t, if we do not provide a thorough systemic analysis, we fall into the trap of ignoring crucial differences within society. Not everyone feels empathy, for example, an assumption that seems to be made within Nonviolent Communication circles, despite evidence to the contrary. If we acknowledge power-differentials, this phenomenon can be easily explained even when we continue to assume that the experience of empathy is inherently human, i.e., that we are soft-wired for it, as Jeremy Rifkin frames it. Since empathy is soft-wired, it needs to be nurtured as we grow up. If we are part of the more powerful class, empathy with the less powerful is not nurtured, instead we might learn to feel sympathetic, which allows us to maintain the power differential (“those poor less privileged folks!”). This can lead to things like soup kitchens. It does not lead to a fight with the goal of abolishing homelessness. In other words, power structures are maintained.

This phenomenon can also be observed in mainstream Western Buddhism. Enlightenment is essentially an individual affair. Meditation helps us deal with our stress of living in a life-alienating culture. Yet, we are not taught to look deeply into the origins of this stress. We are taught that the origin is in our mind (aka “dependent arising”). If we watch our mind for a while, we quickly find that this is true: I am very good at adding a layer of suffering to my pain, whether that pain is emotional or physical. However, as David Loy argues, if we allow Western Buddhism to be informed by the critical analyses of Western social justice movements, we can understand this suffering on a social dimension. While my suffering might be a direct result of my thinking, there are patterns to my thoughts that reflect cultural trauma. When i tell myself that i am not lovable that is a direct result of the individualism in our culture: We have not learned to mirror our love for each other because we have learned that each of us is on our own.

Notice how powerful this analysis becomes when we let go of the individualistic interpretations: Instead of seeing my suffering only as the result of my individual thought patterns, i can understand it also as the result of the way i am taught to think, thus calling for a change in culture if i want to fully alleviate my suffering. This is essentially the call of engaged Buddhism – at least its radical variety: We cannot end suffering by changing our minds alone. We also need to change the systems that perpetuate this suffering. This acknowledges that there are social patterns reflected in our individual suffering that can only be undone by collective change.

This analysis can also help us understand why the social change movements nowadays are not as powerful as those of the 1960s. During a panel discussion of activists from the 1960s, one person said something that stuck with me as important, though i didn’t fully get its implication. Roughly this person said that the difference between now and the 1960s is:

If we take 100 people, in the 1960s, these 100 people would have joined one organization that was fighting for one thing. Today, these 100 people would join 10 or more different groups fighting for a variety of things without noticing the interrelatedness of their demands.

The individualism of neo-liberalism, the right-wing perversion of liberalism, has infiltrated even our activism, splintering us into smaller and smaller groups and preventing us from seeing the big picture because we are uncomfortable even claiming that there is a big picture. Claiming, for example, that all women are oppressed qua womanhood is politically incorrect because it ignores the intersectionality of oppression. While there clearly are women who are privileged on one or more dimension, we are unable to fully address patriarchy if we end up arguing over who is more oppressed (something Iris Marion Young was trying to prevent with her definition of oppression).

What about being the change we want to see, an idea purported to come from Gandhi. This is actually not what he advocated. As he showed with his own life, simply to be the change we want to see is not enough; just like Gandhi, we also need to work diligently for social and cultural transformation. As Brian Morton puts it:

[F]or Gandhi, the struggle to bring about a better world involved not only stringent self-denial and rigorous adherence to the philosophy of nonviolence; it also involved a steady awareness that one person, alone, can’t change anything, an awareness that unjust authority can be overturned only by great numbers of people working together with discipline and persistence.

So, where does this leave us? If as activists today, we want to follow the paths of social change agents of the past, we need to stop focusing on one side of the coin. We need to integrate individual and collective solutions by acknowledging the interplay between nature and nurture and break down individualism. If we do not acknowledge and analyze the collective/social/cultural dimensions of our lives and address them collectively, we are guilty of perpetuating the status quo. Unless we are willing to name the structural and systemic culprits of our suffering, we will not be able to change society (or reach enlightenment if that spiritual attainment is important to us).

Additionally, we cannot effect social change without addressing what is wired into our brains – the cultural trauma. I disagree with McBay, Keith, and Jensen who suggest that we only need a collective approach. We cannot successfully build a social change movement unless we address the cultural trauma of individualism and other myths we have learned by living in this culture. We cannot change our minds simply by an act of will – such claims ignore what we are learning in neuroscience. Culture, whether we like it or not, is weird into our brains. In addition to living differently, we need to rewire those brains to ensure that social changes will be fundamental. Individual and collective solutions work hand in hand and mutually reinforce each other. Only when we work on both can we change culture as it is – or even end civilization, as Deep Green Resistance advocates.

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Integrated Change — 2 Comments

    • Yeah! I just reread this – more than a year later – and think I want to see if I can get a wider audience for it… Seems important to remind us that we can’t do it alone – whatever “it” we might be working toward…

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