Revolution: the case for more compassionate activism
John Lennon’s Revolution
John Lennon’s song, Revolution, was released by the Beatles in 1968 to much controversy. The song was Lennon’s response to the political protests of 1968 advocating for civil rights and other social issues of the day. Whilst Lennon sympathised with the causes and need for social change, he did not agree with the violent rhetoric and tactics espoused by some of the activist groups leading the protests. He advocated instead to “free your mind”. Lennon stood accused by some of betraying the cause, of being an enemy of the revolution and of being the consciousness of the petty bourgeois. Time magazine’s support for the song only served to reinforce the view that Lennon was now part of the establishment; what we might today call the privileged elite. The harsh criticism he received stung him hard, particularly at the way he felt denounced by the reformists with whom he largely agreed, but differed in the approach he believed was needed to achieve social change. It was as if they were saying you can only be with us or against us
Looking at the Revolution controversy half a century later, it is hard not to see parallels with our polarised and divided world today. The debates over current social and environmental issues too often evolve into binary positions of opposing camps. People are categorised as being either all for or all against Brexit or Trump, and the values they are assumed to stand for. Individuals are perceived as being either those challenging the elite and the privileged, or those who are part of the problem. Responses to Greta Thunberg either portray her as a hero speaking truth to power, or an angry girl who needs to study economics before she has the right to speak.
The space for nuance and constructive critical debate is shrinking. In the words of JJ Abrams: “We live in a moment where everything seems to immediately default to outrage, and there’s a kind of MO of it’s either exactly as I see it or you’re my enemy… it’s a crazy thing that there is such a norm that seems to be devoid of nuance and compassion… and acceptance”. This is particularly the case in the reductionist world of social media where keyboard warriors fight against those they disagree with, driven by a sense of righteousness. One small error or badly expressed phraseology in a tweet and a person risks becoming a villain – as John Lesson once did – and a justified target for online abuse. Being one step out of line with the ‘right’ way of thinking is seen by some as an act of heresy.
In the context of this polarisation and conflict, I am starting to question whether there is a way we can pursue our activism more compassionately. Is there a way we can stand up to racism, homophobia and misogyny whilst also recognising that humans are a messy and contradictory mix of ideas, values and practices, and nobody is truly a villain or a saint? Can we still campaign for the rights of vulnerable people and the environment, whilst also accepting that the world is too complex for simplistic binary notions of good and bad, right and wrong, woke and unwoke? However much we may disagree with a person’s views, can we still accept that their life experiences deserve to be understood and respected? Most important of all, is it possible that campaigning in this way could potentially even be more effective in achieving our goals?
The War in Iraq
Martin at an anti-war protest in London in 2003. © Martin Punaks 2003
To explain why I am asking these questions, I will share a bit about my own background as a social activist. My journey began in the build up to the War in Iraq in 2003. Feeling outraged by the possibility of an illegal war, I joined thousands of others at Anti-War Coalition meetings and went on numerous anti-war marches. I wore anti-war t-shirts and badges and aggressively challenged anyone I met who might indicate a slither of sympathy for a war which in my mind was wrong on every level.
The righteousness I felt towards what we were doing began to slip into other aspects of my life. Through our union at the small charity where I worked, we demanded that on the day war broke out all staff would leave the office and march on Parliament. Sure enough we did this, breaking through police lines to enter the City of London and angrily waving placards in bankers’ faces, seeing them as the capitalists who were somehow responsible for the war. I remember seeing a banker in an expensive car being surrounded by raging protesters, and him angrily shouting back at them, which only went to justify in our minds why he was a valid target for our anger.
A few weeks later when a colleague of mine had her bicycle stolen from outside our office, our union decided that it was the management’s fault for not providing a safe place to lock up bikes, so we made a formal grievance and took it all the way to the Board. It was as if this was the time to right all the wrongs of the world, and my poor boss, who was just trying to keep our small charity alive, had to go along with it all out of fear for what her staff might do if she disagreed. (A long overdue apology, J, if you are reading this!).
But while all this was happening on the surface, something else was happening to me on a personal level. While on one hand I had never felt more in touch with what I thought was the ‘truth’, my anger was turning inwards and making me depressed. I was losing the ability to find happiness in everyday situations. I became obsessed with the news – watching it constantly for updates on Iraq, and taking a perverse pleasure in it fuelling my adrenalin and anger even further. I began finding reasons not to socialise with certain people because I disagreed with their political views, narrowing the self-affirming social circle I mixed in, and limiting my exposure to different ideas from my own. Doing pleasurable things began to make me feel guilty for enjoying myself while others were suffering. I even felt angry towards those who were not as outraged as me – I justified this feeling the with the Paulo Freire quote: “Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral”. Angry conversations would go around in my head, playing out scenarios of what I would say to George Bush if I had the chance to meet him. To cut a long story short, it wasn’t long before I emotionally burned out.
I learned a lot from my Stop the War days about the need for self-care, but essentially I continued on my righteous path for social justice. The activist in me found its outlet in new causes, in particular child rights in India and Nepal, and like many other British people, Brexit. I similarly viewed these issues through a binary perspective of right and wrong, and saw myself on the right side of history, educating those who didn’t understand how volunteering in orphanages could incentivise child trafficking, or those who chose to vote to leave the EU. Feeling angry was just part and parcel of the work. Even though it wore me out and made me depressed at the state of the world, I considered it a cross I had to bear for the greater good.
An Alternative to Winning the Argument
Flags associated with popular campaigns outside the Young Vic Theatre in London. © Martin Punaks 2020
The question I now find myself asking is, did this approach have the outcomes I hoped for? Did it help the people I was campaigning for? Did it address both the symptoms and causes of their problems? Did it help me achieve my full potential, not just as an activist, but as an all-round moral and happy human being, which at one level was what I wanted for myself in seeking a kinder and fairer world? I am not so sure it did. Or at least I am not sure it worked as well as it could.
When we work on the basis that we are right and others are wrong it removes the possibility for a million potential unknowns and nuances in understanding a complex issue. Nobody can know everything or be right about everything. When we take a position of righteousness – especially coupled with righteous anger – it makes it much harder for us to understand the myriad of reasons why a person may think a certain way, and only by understanding this can we begin to understand what might influence them to change their minds. This requires a meaningful dialogue, which can only happen when there is enough trust and respect for an open conversation to happen in the first place. This kind of discourse requires everyone to feel that their life experiences and views are valued. When this happens, the people we are trying to influence are more likely to listen to us with an open mind, and not a mind that feels personally attacked and defaults into fight or flight mode.
I know this sounds obvious, but far too often we choose to ignore this when we are overtaken by the primal urge to fight for what we believe in. Discussions become a game of ping-pong where the focus is not on listening and understanding, but on clinching the argument – nailing it – winning it. And this is where I believe we may be failing – because although we may win the argument, we don’t win hearts and minds. Quite the opposite in fact – our opponents feel dismissed. They feel their life experiences and views have not been valued, and this may make their opinion even more entrenched.
In the UK I often read or hear opinions about how ‘stupid’ people are who voted for Brexit. The argument goes that in the face of overwhelming evidence for why it is beneficial to stay in the EU, stupid people still voted for it, believing lies and fake news. But if we turned the tables and imagined what it would be like if people called us ‘stupid’ for views we hold, would we accept this kind of criticism as constructive and re-evaluate our positions? Or might we be offended and become indignant and defensive and look for more reasons to hold our ground?
I look back at my own writing from around the time of the Brexit referendum and can see this sense of self-righteousness in it. Increasingly I question whether this kind of discourse may have actually been counter-productive in our efforts to influence people as to the benefits of the EU. Could the EU referendum have been different if we had made more effort to leave our echo-chambers and have non-judgemental dialogue with people from different backgrounds so we could better understand and empathise with their underlying reasons for wanting to leave the EU? Could have we have found common ground somehow - beyond the divisive leave/remain dichotomy - which we could build on in seeking compromises and solutions to work for us all?
In my efforts to campaign against people supporting or volunteering in orphanages, because of the links with trafficking and abuse, I also used to be very self-righteous. I would reel off the evidence to support my argument, and counter every argument thrown back at me. I would do it very politely, but I was unflinching in the certainty that my views were right and theirs were wrong. I did have success in changing some people’s minds, but I know I also alienated many others.
In more recent years I have taken a different approach – I have started to listen more openly to the experiences of orphanage volunteers and donors. I have tried hard to find a personal connection with their sincere motivations and efforts to help children. I have learned that there is much more that unites us than divides us. Whilst I am still true to my beliefs and evidenced arguments, I put the focus instead on what we have in common and build on this. The results have been impressive. Instead of wanting to win the argument, and risking people cutting me off, our conversations continue for longer and I have had the pleasure of seeing some people change their minds of their own free-will. The difference is that they changed their minds rather than me changing it for them. Our dialogues have also helped me to better understand and communicate effectively with others like them.
In a similar vein, my work in Nepal gave me the uncomfortable opportunity to meet face-to-face with several child traffickers. In some cases, far from being the depraved psychopaths we might imagine them to be, they came across as very normal and friendly people. Some had been exploited themselves, which in turn had made them do what they did as it was the only way they knew how to earn enough money to put food on the table. It made me realise that moral chastisement and threats of legal punishments would only go so far; we also needed to better understand these people so we could be more effective at addressing the reasons why they became traffickers, and influence their behaviour.
Managing Our Anger
The Tibetan Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteśvara. Note the ‘angry’ face, second from the top. © Martin Punaks 2020
Anger and outrage is often described as the fuel which drives grassroots activism and campaigning. Issues such as racism and child trafficking understandably make us angry, and in our rights-based ideology we see ourselves as having the right to be angry. It is true, we do have the right to be angry, but we also have a right to many other things which are not always helpful in every situation. We have the right to freedom of speech, but when taken to extremes it unnecessarily offends and causes conflict, such as has happened with those who exercise their right to draw offensive pictures of Islam’s holy prophet. Is it possible that while anger has an important role to play in motivating us to campaign for what we believe in, holding on to it could be counter-productive?
Buddhism has much to say on this subject, not least from the Buddha himself who said: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned”. This was certainly my experience of being angry during my Stop the War years. Buddhism conceives of constructive and destructive emotions – the latter which we need to avoid as they result in causing ourselves and others suffering. Anger is considered a destructive emotion in that it over-estimates the negative qualities of an object, without seeing it as a more ethically complex entity. It may seem easy to hate Donald Trump and love Greta Thunberg – or the other way around – but in reality both of them exist, as all humans do, as a mixture of positive and negative qualities (although different people may think that each of them has more of one quality than the other). Nothing is all good or all bad.
Buddhism sees patience as the constructive antidote to anger. Patience encourages us to resist the urge to speak or act in trying to achieve an immediate solution to a problem, and instead wait until the red mist has passed. With a more peaceful mind we can understand the object of our aversion in a more balanced way, and determine a more constructive way of reacting to it. Buddhism does not say that we should accept or ignore things that are harmful to ourselves or others, but simply that our thoughts and actions should be motivated by a peaceful mind, not by a mind distorted by anger. Interestingly, one of the many faces of the Tibetan Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteśvara, appears to be ‘angry’ (see above). This is to demonstrate that sometimes people need to hear something that is uncomfortable for them, to help awaken them, but this intervention actually comes from a place of compassion. In other words, just as we may sternly tell a child not to put their fingers in the fire, there is an important role in activism for compassionate tough-love.
There are similar ideas in other religions too. The Islamic Prophet Mohammed talked of the importance of remaining silent whilst in a state of anger, the real strength being the ability to control one’s anger. In Hinduism the idea of ahimsa or non-violence is as much about being kind to yourself as it is to others. And in Christianity, Jesus’ teachings are full of advice about the need not to judge others, resolving your anger, and the importance of forgiveness and love.
By practicing how to communicate emotive issues without feeling angry we are:
kinder to ourselves and avoid burn-out;
more likely to communicate in a sensitive and impactful way;
more likely to understand aspects of the other person’s life experiences and views that we had perhaps not appreciated before; and
we are less likely to make the other person feel offended, shut down or become defensive, and therefore be more open to hearing our ideas.
Learning how to better manage our anger could make us so much more powerful and influential as activists.
Compassionate Activism in Practice
"Every bee brings a flower".
I don’t profess to be an expert in practicing compassionate activism, and my ideas presented here are merely building on the ideas of others who have written about similar themes before. But I do have some thoughts on how we could try and implement this approach.
Aspire for the long-term goal of winning hearts and minds, not the short-term goal of winning the argument: Let’s be more mindful of what we are thinking, saying and doing through our activism. Instead of trying to win the argument, let’s try to build trusting relationships with those whom we disagree, so we can have an open dialogue in which we can share our ideas. Over time they will digest these ideas and they may change their own minds, which will be much more powerful and sustainable. Indeed, we may also learn from them, and change our minds on some things too.
Focus on solutions as well as problems: As President Obama wisely said: “If all you are doing is casting stones, you are probably not going to get very far… that’s not activism”. It is important to explain why something is harmful or doesn’t work, but people are more likely to be convinced if we also offer them a vision for an alternative or solution. Even if they do not agree with us, putting the seed in their minds for the need for a solution means they will think about this, and not just the problem. Who knows, maybe they will come up with a better solution than us.
Drop words like ‘stupid’: Let’s make a conscious effort to avoid demeaning judgements of others, just because we disagree with their views. There is nothing constructive that comes out of using inflammatory language like stupid, selfish, uncaring, ignorant, idiotic, and so on, when talking about other people. It might give us a temporary feeling of satisfaction and superiority, but it will inevitably be short-lived because it will only escalate conflict further. It will do nothing to help others become more sympathetic to our views. In other words, it’s an own goal.
Expose ourselves to ideas out of our comfort zone: As uncomfortable as it may make us feel, let’s make a real effort to expose ourselves to ideas and thinking that we don’t agree with. Let’s see ourselves as anthropologists, entering the worlds of different tribes so we can understand the rationale behind their strange customs and beliefs. We don’t have to agree with their views, but we can try and understand them – there is a big difference. In practice this may mean consuming media that doesn’t align with our own political views, or even better, meeting and talking with people with different view-points. This not only helps us better understand those whom we want to influence, it also sharpens our own ideas, and may even make us adapt our own ideas.
Look for common ground: Although on one level the world is becoming increasingly polarised, we actually have more in common than we perhaps realise. Most of us want to protect our families and friends, want safe communities to live in, want to be happy and healthy, and so on. We just differ on the best ways to achieve these things. By focussing on what we have in common we can start to build trust and respect for each other. Be it our pets, walks in the countryside, musical tastes, favourite foods, whatever, there are ways we can form connections with people, which in turn form the foundations for respectful dialogue on more contentious issues.
Try to keep the dialogue open: The problem with cancel culture is that it shuts down conversations completely, and halts all the possibilities for dialogue and change. There are of course times when it is best to walk away from a heated discussion, to cool down, and with a clear head decide how best to proceed. There are also times when someone may be verbally attacking us in such a personal way that we need to withdraw for our own emotional protection. But even if we decide that continuing a conversation is not going to be productive, if possible we should still try and leave the door open for future dialogue.
Work on our anger: It is completely okay to be angry about social and environmental justice issues. It is natural and it shows that we care for those other than ourselves. But as I have outlined above, to hold onto anger is counterproductive, both for ourselves and for the cause we want to progress. One of my favourite writers to tackle how to work with difficult emotions is Pema Chodron, and I particularly like this article by her about anger.
Move beyond binary notions of good and bad, right and wrong, and woke and unwoke: What is good and bad or right and wrong? Millennia of moral philosophers have been unable to agree on this. Similarly, can we ever assume that we fully understand an issue and are therefore woke? Conversely can we assume that others are unwoke? Julie Pham makes a convincing argument as to why we should drop these concepts and focus instead on our own awakening: “Awakening allows us to recognize that individuals have their own stories and histories with various kinds of oppression. Awakening means understanding that you start with what you can control, which is your own attitude toward others. Awakening gives us the space to ask questions rather than to assume answers”.
If you also have thoughts on how to implement compassionate activism, I would love to hear them.
John Lennon in 1969.
I sometimes wonder what John Lennon would make of our world in 2020. Similar to 1968 there is no shortage of issues to campaign for. Majoritarianism in many countries is resulting in discrimination against people because of their religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. In worst case scenarios it is fuelling ethnic cleansing, such as with the Rohingya in Myanmar or the Uighurs in China. Multilateral agreements designed to make us safer, such as the Paris Climate Accord and Iran Nuclear Deal, are losing their power as some countries withdraw from them. With rising international tensions, it is becoming harder to implement and enforce United Nations human rights frameworks, leading to an increase in unchecked human rights abuses. Perhaps most concerning of all is the global climate crisis, for which, if we are to believe the scientists, we are fast approaching a point of no return unless we make radical changes to the way we manage our natural resources. These are dark times, and therefore all the more reason for us to up our game as activists. The question is, how can we up our game? My humble offering to this debate is to consider a more compassionate form of activism, because I believe it will ultimately be more effective.
It is interesting to note that John Lennon actually changed his mind about the views he shared in the song Revolution. In 1971 he released the song, Power to the People, in which he said that if you want a revolution then “we better get on it right away”. But then in his last ever interview before he died in 1980, he reverted again and reaffirmed the pacifist message of Revolution. In my mind this holds a very positive message. It shows that each of our understandings of the world is constantly in a state of flux. If individuals can change their minds, this means the world can change with them.