17. POLITICAL LIFE AND MORAL DISCOVERY
Self-directed change techniques do reach into the world, though they do so best in small communities.
Even without genuine communities, we can take steps to overcome alienation.
o Loosening the grip of successomania, consumerism, addiction and juvenile arrest – at least sufficiently to reveal their emptiness and irrelevancy – will help. It draws you toward personal connections natural-sized groupings where you have a better chance of experiencing genuine belonging. With the seductive palliations of our larger polities cleared back, we will be able to listen to each other better and respond more honestly. We will be more inclined to meet in person in less structured settings, and when we do our gestures and inflections, and all the carrier waves that bear the freight of real human connection, will gain impact. The empathy now locked away in enchantment to media stimulation will break free. And this will create better conditions for the reception of new memes on the local scale.
o Training in inwardness will help us recover from the powerlessness we now experience. With inwardness we will restore our access to the ethical mind, whose concerns we will find interesting again, germane and meaningful. With deepened inwardness we will understand that caring is crucial to happiness.
o With ethics central to community life, more of what we believe, create and imagine will pass through the generations. Memes will move more harmoniously, transmitted by living example from parents to children, and the reverse. Our heroes will become local again.1
Social healing that restores belonging can also mitigate aggression. With sensory stimulation made artful by a creative life, many of the frustrations that push stress across the line to aggression will be relieved. Assured of belonging, we will let ourselves be ourselves and as ourselves renew kinship ties in extended family and second family relationships. Democracy could become deliberative then, more open to discussion, more participatory, and politics would be more inclined deal with important ethical issues for which it was worth struggling. But what chance have we of forming natural communities in ourhigh speed world?
We are not oblivious to natural communities. They are constantly forming and dissolving within larger civic institutions. The stimulating signals for natural sociability exist in large polities simply by the physical proximity of others, particularly people who share interests and passions. Whenever the sensory stimuli present themselves, including the archaic distance regulation rules, we try to orchestrate our social behaviors. Band-sized societies take shape within larger polities as families, secondary institutions, factions, friendships, voluntary associations, and other groupings.
The population of a great city is intrinsically a mosaic of superimposed and overlapping natural communities. A single neighborhood, a single block, can have numerous overlapping communities in it. Nor do the members of a community have to live next door to each other. In a big city, thousands of independent natural communities can aggregate and disperse in the course of a day to celebrate significant events. The same technologies that isolate us while seeming to draw us together, the phone and the Internet, can actually bring us together. In New York City thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of intentional communities overlap. These intersecting webs of natural comity stretch across neighborhood boundaries and reach across all five boroughs and beyond. They give us our real world of Philia.
With their rich opportunities, the likelihood is that cities that do not “wait for their states” in states that “do not wait for the federal government” will become the venues for the rebirth of community in times to come in the USA, precisely because their diversity and com-plexity create so many possibilities.
This shifting mosaic of communities would meet and overlap at permeable boundaries. Across these boundaries two-way movements would flow. All kinds of information, embodied intentions and actions would travel between natural sized communities. Some with strong mimetic energy would inspire imitation and repetition. These horizontal transfers would bind people into larger groupings. And these larger units, for as long as they persevere within still larger polities, would exert upward pressure for change. In some of these ad hoc alliances of communities, love and wisdom would begin to exert a modest pressure on dominance and territory as they have done in the past.
Political and ethical movements travel on these routes.
For ethical changes to take hold, these movements would have to:
1) Arise from the discovery of correlated unused potentials by many people simultaneously.
2) We would have to communicate the memes expressing these potentials face to face, by example, in person. We would carry them on approach-and-separation and withdrawal-and-return pathways.
3) These ethical discoveries (ethical because they require choiceful action) would affirm “This I like, this I want, this I abhor,” and these visceral reactions would provide the real transfer material to which imitation, entrainment and introjection for whole communities could be linked.
Implicit in this program is my belief that our ethics have no fixed content or priorities. Nature has equipped us to play many and varied roles and it is our great good fortune that they come forward in different settings, even when they prove contradictory. I agree with Richard Posner’s affirmation of moral pluralism. “Given the variety of necessary roles in a complex society,” he writes, “it is not a safe idea to have a morally uniform population…We need gentle, kind and sensitive people, but we also need people who are willing to employ force, to lie. To posture, to break rules… Failing it, we are better off with moral variety, and this places the entire project of moral education in question.”2
You may object that most people most of the time get their moral strength by following the rules, customs or religious laws handed down to them. They defend what society teaches them to believe. Few are willing to think for themselves. John Stuart Mill wrote that for these people it was “as if accepting it [belief] on trust dispensed with the necessity of realizing it in consciousness, or testing it by personal experience, until it almost ceases to connect itself at all with the inner life of the human being.”3
Nevertheless, even transmitted ethics have a creative side. Reasoned assent or sincere belief in a received or recovered ethical directive affirms moral creativity because a moral act is moral only in the moment we choose and enact it. In that moment, the act is new. Of course, the feeling of newness does not constitute an act of discovery. But it doesn’t rule it out either. Ralph Waldo Emerson pointed to intuition as the “source, at once the essence of genius, virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions.”4
Emerson suggested that the open-endedness and creative energy in our emergent powers comes more from imagination, play, caring and daring than from the strict cognitive learning. He insisted, “The way, the thought, the good, shall be wholly strange and new.”5 These competencies are always “new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.”6
For some, tuition rules, for others, intuition. The distribution within and between people varies with the spirit of the times. But even assent to tuition has an intuitive character.
We make our best moral discoveries when love and wisdom converge in tough times. These are the times when we find it particularly hard to comprehend the two root ethical dilemmas: “What do I owe others?” and “What do I owe myself?” (The first gets its essential energy from the approach/separation rhythm; the second builds from withdrawal /return).
For love and wisdom to draw together in troubled, turbulent times, they have to overcome destructive derhythmization before they can even start to find each other. Rhythmic restoration moves consciousness in subtle ways that free up the powers of choice at turning point moments. And freed choices with convergent love and wisdom in them, when their turning points merge into one greater turning event, lead to creative solutions of fundamental human dilemmas. Certain people get good at this in troubled times.
Creative people come upon their moral energies in the interregnum between the old and new passing rules. The longer the interregnum lasts the better the chances for value transformation. Most people fail to generate effective turnings during this time. However, the imagination of creative people, if it can be stirred by empathetic impulses traveling as social memes, can devise intentions that satisfy the pulls of love and wisdom both then. I can make this less abstract with every day examples.
Four Current Moral Discoveries
Four planet-wide ethical movements meet these criteria. Their influence is spreading now. I list them as nonviolent activism, feminism, environmentalism and new corporate governance. Each responds to the altered conditions of belonging brought on by the fifth epoch revolutions (see # 191, 192, 201-203.) Each tries to restructure belonging to overcome the kinds of alienation that mark the era. Each seeks re-engagement with life by making belonging real again. Each moves us toward the sixth human age.
Each moral discovery requires decisions and actions. Each recognizes the inevitable presence of aggression in social and political life and tries to transform it by giving it new content. While seeking to assert itself in the world, each uses the language of struggle and the imagery of victory and defeat in its public pronouncements. Nevertheless, at the same time each moral discovery tries to resist the “us and them” mentality.
All four share certain fundamental traits.
o They are essentially secular – spiritual but secular.
o They are inclusive. Everybody’s invited to join. They promote diversity. They are all global movements that enlarge the “us” without requiring a “them”.
o To some extent, they have been held in trust for the dispossessed by the déclassé among the prosperous people. But the catalyzing moment that makes them real comes when the underclasses themselves affirm their own ethical discoveries and put them out into the world. This is happening now with nonviolent activism and feminism and will soon happen in popular uprisings dealing with environmental issues.
o The four moral discoveries rely on inwardness because they require individual acts that bear witness.
o The movements, despite their call to confront pressing needs, show a joie de vivre in action that makes them seem “media savvy”, theatrical and sometimes even comic. They respond to situations imaginatively, in ways the state cannot easily predict or thwart. They are playful.
1. Nonviolent Activism
The ethics of nonviolence as practiced by Gandhi and Martin Luther King has influenced mass movements everywhere. When nonviolent activism reached the underclasses in America in the Civil Rights movement, a global circle in the emergence of ethical activism was completed. The story, when it is told in the fullness of time, will show how the descendents of slaves created the Civil Rights movement and changed the course of American history.
The Civil Rights movement, the peace movement, the anti-nuclear campaigns, the opposition to the Vietnam war and the farm worker movement used these same methods of non-violent activism. They in turn inspired the strategies for the Velvet Revolutions across Eastern Europe that shook off Soviet domination; these movements, and along with the internal activism of the Refusniks, to some extent hastened the peaceful fall of the Soviet Union. Interestingly, Tom Stoppard in his recent play Rock and Roll attributes to rhythmic dance music – and the jailing of the Plastics, a Czech rock band – the mimetic force to inspire political action, and in fact to trigger the demonstrations that led to the fall of the Communist regime.
Movements of non-violent activism have had extraordinarily good track records in the twentieth century. They have generated a momentum of ethical engagement that touches human nature at a pivotal point: the realignment of the “us and them.” Moreover, the core value of all of the nonviolent activist movements has been an expansion of “usness” across political and ethnic divides.
As Gandhi wrote:
“It is the acid test of nonviolence that in a nonviolent encounter there is no rancour left behind and, in the end, enemies are converted into friends. That was my experience in South Africa with General Smuts. He started with being my bitterest opponent and critic. Today he is my warmest friend…”
The chemistry of nonviolent personal and political action has catalyzed change on a planetary scale.
“Nonviolence is like radium in its action,” Gandhi wrote. “An infinitesimal quantity of it embedded in a malignant growth acts continuously, silently, and ceaselessly till it has transformed the whole mass of the diseased tissue into a healthy one. Similarly, even a little of true nonviolence acts in a silent, subtle, unseen way and leavens the whole society.”
People have practiced nonviolence before, but never across the whole planet almost simultaneously and with knowledge and support of each other.
Here the powers of women have engaged cultural and political realities in a new way. The engagement is transforming economic relations, families and electoral politics around the world. Gender relations, child rearing, artistic expressions and legal systems are being shaped by it. Possibly the feminist movements, as they alter the size and structure of family life, will shift the character of sexual and romantic love sufficiently to bring new standards into sexual selection, changing the stages of approach and separation and influencing the balances between inwardness and outwardness in favor of the ethical mind.
And the moral power of feminine nurture may yet bring more warmth and softness to civil society, perhaps even changing the character of competition in the workplace. Feminism too has had earlier manifestations, but never so broadly based across so many different cultures. Its current historical role is unique.
In feminism as in the Civil Rights movement in America, success brings to the table new people with fresh outlooks and attitudes. And the newness in both ethical movements promotes a broadening of the “us”, reaching out to challenged people, to children, the disabled, the elderly and the mentally ill. And this ties the feminist to the environmental movement on one side and to nonviolent activism on the other.
The struggle to protect and heal the planet now involves millions of people across national borders. The motivations are compelling; the climate is changing more rapidly than even the most pessimistic of the scientific studies predicted. Many people follow the science. They accept a level of complexity that earlier mass movements ignored. They take an integrative, systems of view of the biosphere. Like the other moral endeavors, the movement rests on principles of nonviolence, and seeks an all-inclusive “usness”, one that even transcends species. The broadest kind of love infuses it, a direct caring for the biosphere, for other species, for future generations, for climate and geology, an inclusive Agape, a love of nature for its own sake. Like the other ethical movements, environmentalism has had earlier manifestations but never before with full consciousness of the fate of the whole planet at stake.
4. New Corporate Governance
One can hardly call this a movement yet. Its ethical implications have just begun to stir. But economic crisis and decline will bring them into sharper focus among larger numbers of citizens. You can see it in shareholder efforts to assure corporate accountability, in scandals over corporate theft, in taxpayer resistance to corporate bailouts, in outrage over reneged pension plans and cancelled health insurance. As things go badly for the economy, the obscene gap between executive compensation and wage labor will become a pressing issue.
Legal efforts to repeal “corporate personhood” will focus future judicial and legislative actions on responsibility and accountability, but only after great failures have occurred. New corporate profit sharing and employee ownership plans may surface. We will get synergistic effects from the other three movements. For instance, the revulsion against corporate greed and incompetence will grow as environmental concerns intensify; and some of it will come from feminist and civil-rights efforts to fight discrimination.
Very little has changed so far. Powerful interests oppose it. If they prevail during the coming economic crises, we are in for steep decline in standards of living with authoritarian governments holding ociety together. The preferred dystopian model will switch from the infantalism of Brave New World to the state coercion and oppression of 1984.