by: Sigfried Gold on December 4th, 2013 | No Comments »
Economic and power relations are the place where any set of lofty religious or humanistic ideals come to ground, where the rubber hits the road. And for those atheists who care about making a better world (rather than just making religious people look dumb) this is a place where atheists and the religious can help each other face a most formidable, perennial, intractable challenge: how to structure institutions for the benefit of their members or the public at large while discouraging exploitation and the use of institutional power for the private gain of trusted leaders.
My current favorite of the atheist religions–which don’t generally consider themselves religions–is Nonviolent Communication or NVC, and I was confirmed in my positive regard for the NVC movement when I came upon this piece by Miki Kashtan on Tikkun’s blog addressing crucial questions of money, higher values and inner peace. Kashtan attacks the problem of money in a mode of full-fledged utopian dreamery, offering ideas and experiments that point toward the reform of our society’s whole economic exchange structure. She summarizes some of her intentions thus:
In how I engage with money and resources, I continually strive to move closer to my vision of how I want to see these operate in the world at large. I aim to move from considering exchange value to valuing people and life; from seeing relationships through the lens of exchange to participating in a flow of generosity; from allocating resources based on output equity to caring for everyone’s needs; from making things happen based on the ever-s-subtle coercion of money incentive to complete and wholehearted willingness; from thinking about our merit to sharing our gifts; and from wondering about what someone “deserves” to contributing to everyone receiving all we need. (Miki Kashtan, personal communication)
But I want to focus on a specific problem she raises: how can she offer her services as a trained NVC teacher and practitioner in a way that is consistent with her values? She is, from what I can gather, in considerable demand in the NVC world, but many of the people and organizations who would like her help have little money to pay for it. Does she sell her services only to those who can afford it? No, that would not fit her values. But how can she meet her own financial needs otherwise?
A week ago Sunday, a friend sent me a link to a story about Time Magazine covers. According to the article, the magazine has different covers for its US edition as compared to its three other editions (Europe, Asia, South Pacific): the former focus on personal issues and feelings while the latter on international events of significance. Although the assertion itself has been questioned by some who commented on the story, this story sparked some conversations and reflections for me that led to my deciding to make it this week’s topic.
At the time of receiving this link, I was leading a retreat. Later that same day I led a session in which I described some of my vision and thoughts about money and resource allocation. Little did I know that, in the end, an interaction I had during this session would lead to my having more understanding about the significance of this difference in cover stories.
The idea for this piece came to me when I read a comment on an earlier blog post. The specific content of that post (which was about race), is not the issue here. Rather, it was two references to “ego” which caught my attention and got me thinking for all these months. Here they are as context:
“The only use for these false values are to enhance the ego’s sense of separateness, be it through conceived superiority or inferiority.”
“One result of acting upon true values is the freedom from the ignorance to which the separative ego tenaciously clings.”
There is nothing unusual about these sentences. They simply capture a way of speaking that I have been aware of: attributing intention to what is, ultimately, an abstraction. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so noticeable to me if it weren’t for a second aspect: the intention being assigned to this abstraction called “ego” is one that has a negative connotation with it.
It was a sad surprise to me when I learned that the entry of “ego” into the English language was in large part the result of choices made by Freud’s translator, James Strachey. “Ego” was introduced as a translation of the word in German that simply means “I,” thereby changing the meaning and tone of what Freud wrote. “When one says ‘my ego,’” says Mark Leffert, “one can always distance oneself; when one says “I,” no distance is possible.”[Footnote 1]
In last week’s piece, I looked at some fundamental questions related to money and resources. Today, I want to move from the general and abstract to the personal and practical. There are various reasons for wanting to make it personal, ranging from my desire to support people in making their own personal choices about money with much more awareness to the modeling of transparency in talking about money. As this mini-series is unfolding, I am seeing just how much ground there is to cover. For today, I am focusing on “just” two questions, central to the process of using money to mediate transactions in which goods or services are offered.
How Much Money Do I Pay?
This is a question that’s been haunting me for years. We are so accustomed to supply and demand logic, that I imagine most of the time many of us don’t even think about it. When I look at it deeply, however, I really cannot understand, on the human plane, why I give the woman who cleans my house less money than the acupuncturist or naturopath who attend to my body. The “obvious” answer is that they invested years of their life getting educated. Setting aside the huge question of who gets to be educated and how that gets determined, there is still an embedded assumption in this answer. As someone on a recent teleseminar based on one of my blog pieces said simply: “Why are people with education more valuable than others?” This is precisely the part that haunts me. In effect, setting up the system in the way that it is means that some people’s needs are valued more than others.
The Guardian’s recent article, “How President Obama can achieve a nuclear deal with Iran,” speaks about why a nuclear deal with Iran is urgently needed, and what Iran must give up. This Guardian piece is a little weak on what the United States and the Western powers must offer as part of the deal. When read by itself, it repeats the “tough-minded” and largely blind to emotional nuance approach that has made the West’s dealings with Iran so fruitless. Here’s what author Tom Rogan writes:
In the cause of peace, the clock is ticking.
Western Intelligence services have delayed a nuclear Iran. Still, the evidence on the ground is unmistakable. Iranian nuclear activities increasingly point to a weaponization agenda. Of most concern: Iran’s soon-to-be plutonium production facility at Arak. As David Albright and Christina Walrond of the Institute for Science and International Security note (pdf), claims of an inherently peaceful nuclear program cannot easily co-exist with a heavy water reactor. Correspondingly, in last weekend’s P5+1 negotiations, the French Foreign Minister suggested that allowing Arak to remain in operation would represent a “sucker’s deal”.
My vision is of a world in which needs are routinely met, in which the experience of need satisfaction is the norm rather than the exception. Considering how far this vision is from what we mostly know in our modern world, the question of the possibility of meeting human needs takes on a great deal of significance.
In this excerpt, I am skipping the section that deals with some theoretical questions related to this problem, as my intention is to focus on the practicalities.
Ultimately, the question of need satisfaction can only be answered in practice. Unfortunately, as far as I know, no human society has been solely dedicated to meeting human needs, and the data for assessing this question on a large scale simply doesn’t exist. However, on a smaller scale, my work over the years has shown me beyond any doubt for me that more satisfaction is possible even before changing social conditions.
This brings me to some deep questions that so far humanity as a whole has not found a way to answer. What would it take for optimal need satisfaction to become a societal goal? How can we produce and allocate resources in a way that’s most conducive to meeting everyone’s needs? What societal and individual changes are most likely to change patterns of consumption to make resources available more widely? In large part, these are the questions that led me to embark on the project of writing this book and its sister, Reweaving Our Human Fabric: Working together to Create a Nonviolent Future, which I imagine will be out in the summer.
One of the questions that keep coming up in discussions within the community of Nonviolent Communication trainers is how to become more effective at bringing Nonviolent Communication (NVC) to a level where it may support significant cultural change. Most recently, someone calculated that in order to train, for example, the UK armed forces, it would take 7,000 training days just for a basic level of training of 12 hours in groups of 50 people. This calculation helped me reach even more clarity about a question I have been wrestling with for a long time. The starkest way of framing the question is this: can the training model be a strategy for social or cultural change?
Workshops and Culture
Although much of what I write about below is about NVC, my fundamental question is far beyond NVC. I see it as being about any attempt to create fundamental change using a model of change that focuses primarily on individuals changing their behavior or ideas.
Seeing the numerical analysis above immediately suggests to me that the training model is limited, not just that the number of existing NVC trainers is small. There are several reasons for this. The most obvious, given my sense of the urgent need for transformation in the world, is that I simply don’t believe that we can reach enough people fast enough in this way. This is one of the reasons why in my own work I am focusing on understanding how to change structures and systems. That is not a substitute for personal transformation. It just makes it easier.
There is no question that my love of language is an inherited trait. My father was a lay linguist, in addition to being a teacher, writer, and public intellectual. In the last few years of his life, in his fifties, he went back to school to get a Ph.D. in linguistics, a project he didn’t complete due to illness. Not having a degree didn’t stop him from writing and continuing to perfect a book about common errors in usage of Hebrew until he got sick and had the book finally released for publication. My mother also wrote a book about language, explaining in detail a unique method she developed for teaching Hebrew, both to native speakers and as a second language. I hope she gets to publish it in her lifetime. Our family culture was suffused with intellectually stimulating conversations about politics, society, Judaism, psychology, social critique, and deep engagement with all of our daily experiences. In among these topics, we always had extensive discussions about language and meaning, about the source of words, and about how changing words, even word order, can change meaning. It’s no wonder to me that I landed on a language-based practice as a primary passion and my calling.
I continue to carry in me the deep reverence for precision and clarity in use of words that unites our family. Which words we choose to say is not “just semantics,” as so many often say. Rather, I see each word that we choose as carrying a specific field of meaning. If we change the words we use, we change the message we send – both to the person who hears it as well as to our own brain. I have a distinct experience that a language-based practice such a Nonviolent Communication (NVC) can most literally change the wiring within our nervous system.
There are three ways of dealing with difference: domination, compromise, and integration. By domination only one side gets what it wants; by compromise neither side gets what it wants; by integration we find a way by which both sides may get what they wish. — Mary Parker Follett
A couple of days ago, I was approached by someone asking me to videotape some responses to the government shutdown. His hope was that having a YouTube video in response to the crisis could possibly travel wide and result in the possibility of an invitation to support dialogue. As it turns out, I’ve been sick (finally I am getting better), and the prospect of recording my voice was singularly unappealing. And so I decided to write a blog piece instead. My contact was super happy. I read the background information he sent me, and then some, and proceeded to write a piece. Then I sent it to two people whose opinion I value. They didn’t like it. They had some pretty strong things to say about what I had written, two of which were that what I wrote was “oversimplifying” and “naïve.”
I was ready to can the whole thing and write about something else, when I got a new suggestion from my contact’s partner. She suggested that I write about this whole process – getting the request, writing about the situation, getting the feedback, and everything in between. Given my predilection for transparency, I was inspired. Then, before I got a chance to come back to this, one of my critics sent me a new piece to read, and it all came together. The result is here in front of you.
I opened my email to the news that Governor Brown had vetoed AB 1229 which would have allowed local governments to require a smidgen of affordable housing along with luxury developments. Immediately, I felt tense and angry, outraged that rent control is illegal in California, and now this further setback. I was despondent and disgusted that a liberal governor would veto one tiny step toward affordable housing.
Then I opened another email about a community college inviting for-profit education companies, at least one of whom had said public education was “broken,” to hold a conference on campus.
My stomach tensed. My forehead ached. I felt antagonistic, judgmental, enraged and ready to shout.
Once this state of mind didn’t trouble me. I may even have welcomed the adrenaline.