During one of George Lakey’s train-the-trainer for social activist workshops, people kept mentioning that some tactic or other was a “high-wire” concept for them. After around the third time I heard that, I finally asked “What does she mean by high-wire?” George reached behind him, pulled out a soap box, and explained “What if I told you that I wanted you to take this soap box and walk over to 16th and Mission, stand up on the box, and just start talking to everyone who passes by?” “That would make me very uncomfortable.” I responded. “Why?” “Doing something like that is way out of my comfort zone.” I responded. “Exactly! Teaching is always a balancing act, taking people just enough out of their comfort zones that they learn something. If people are too comfortable, they get bored. If they’re really uncomfortable, they switch off.”

High-wire acts make everyone uncomfortable, especially the person walking on that high-wire, whether he has a safety net below to catch him or not.

Finally understanding what they all meant by “high-wire” I figured we were ready to get back to the discussion we’d been having. Instead, George announced to the group “OK folks, we’re going out to 16th and Mission and each of you is going to get up on this box for five minutes and speak to the people.” And off we went!

This morning, George’s latest posting from Waging Nonviolence appeared in the mail, and it focuses on the reaction people had to a Bill McKibben article in Rolling Stone in which he called for activists to step up the fight against the fossil fuel industry and their role in global warming. Some say that what he’s calling for is “polarizing.” That’s a charge I often hear when folks suggest that we approach a problem in a more direct way than ways in which they are more comfortable. I’d like to share George Lakey’s post below (read more), after which I’ll share a little bit more about what happened on that soap box on 16th and Mission.

Middle-class confusion about class war

by | August 28, 2012

Sticker graffiti in Bristol, U.K. Via irational.org.


With his July Rolling Stone article, Bill McKibben attracted enormous attention for his proposal to step up the fight against the fossil fuels industry in the struggle to forestall global warming. To identify a clear opponent and mobilize power against it is, of course, a strategy of polarization. McKibben has been getting some thoughtful push-back, and I’d like to respond to one of the objections I’ve heard: that polarizing in this way distorts the truth, since carbon pollution is driven by millions of consumer choices. We’re all responsible for the fix we’re in, some critics say, so it’s wrong to mobilize against the 1 percent.

I’d like to challenge this objection on three grounds: it misreads power, privileges one way of seeking truth and snuggles into a middle-class comfort zone.

When it comes to energy policy, power is not evenly distributed. An individual consumer’s choice to purchase a car instead of a bike is nothing like an individual CEO’s choice to blow up a mountaintop in order to mine coal. It could become trendy to eat local food – it already has, thank goodness – but an individual’s decision to buy at the farmers market and a bank’s decision to fund windmills instead of coal mining are not at all comparable in terms of their leverage or effect.

Responsibility should be assigned according to degree of power in decision making, and when it comes to energy, it’s clear who in the U.S. is most influential in the biggest decisions. Why not hold the 1 percent accountable for the enormous power that they now have – and which they fight to retain?

A more accurate picture

I agree that a polarizing campaign against “the baddies” doesn’t represent a complicated and nuanced account of all the truth about what drives climate change. But just about any given campaign’s start-up picture inevitably leaves out a lot.

An academic might prefer to start with the most complicated version of the truth possible. That’s an academic’s job, after all – the pursuit of nuance. It’s a mistake, however, for McKibben’s scholarly critics to take an intellectual procedure and apply it outside the theory seminar. Starting with the complicated version doesn’t line up with how people actually learn, either as individuals or as a body politic.

Harvard professor George C. Homans pointed out that people usually build their cognitive maps through successive approximations. We get a rough image of something (the earth is flat), and as we address it more carefully we get more clarity (it’s round); then still more observation yields nuance (it’s actually oval).

People generally get a fuller understanding of reality through successive approximations. So do societies and the social movements that lead them in the direction of more complicated truths. (For a fuller explanation of this pedagogical view, see my book, Facilitating Group Learning.)

Mohandas Gandhi rooted his work in the value of satya (truth), and at the same time led polarizing campaigns. Looking back, we can see that his work was in alignment with how most people actually learn. By the end of the Salt Satyagraha, both the Indians and the British knew far more about imperialism than either had known in the beginning.

Gandhi found social conflict a powerful means of learning, especially when views of truth are in dispute. In her book Conquest of Violence, Joan V. Bondurant argues this to be Gandhi’s great contribution to political philosophy: Fierce contention can be a valuable means of discovering truth.

Contention might sometimes even be superior to purely intellectual inquiry. When I started to study sociology, for instance, I judged the field to be largely innocent of what was going on in U.S. race relations; its picture of reality was seriously “off,” along with the pictures of race held by most of society.

Then the civil rights movement unfolded, the country polarized and intellectuals learned from what was happening. Not only did much of the United States wake up, but academics did as well.

What does this have to do with social class?

I’ve found it useful to think of each social class as having a culture: a set of norms and attitudes that back up the skills that class members need to perform their role in the larger economy.

Be warned: Just like when we identify a culture with a place or nation, when we say that a class has a culture we make generalizations that have many exceptions. It’s best to use generalizations cautiously. The point is simply to throw enough light on class to see some differences among classes, to make it easier to use the strengths that show up, and to become aware of weaknesses.

Middle-class people, for example, contribute to social change in many ways. They are usually socialized to believe that they as individuals can make a difference in their neighborhoods, cities and even the larger world. They often bring a sense of political optimism that helps a campaign get started. They bring other gifts, but like any class they also bring blind spots.

The point of class awareness for social changers is to become alert to areas where their own thinking may be clouded by their class training.

In both the owning class and the working class, there is wide understanding that economic power is a decisive force in society. Billionaire Warren E. Buffett put it clearly in his interview with The New York Times: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

The perch of the middle class is different; in the middle, it can be harder to see what’s going on. The Times‘ middle-class readers who read Buffett’s quote in 2006 did not erupt. They seem to have read Buffett with glazed eyes, unable to process the information.

There’s a reason. The middle class is socialized to remain confused about power. That’s how middle-class people can create narratives that ignore class struggle and assign the primary responsibility to – in the case of energy policy – consumers. The amount of privilege and the appearance of power given to middle class individuals make them especially prone to versions of “blame the victims.”

In my graduate school days, the leading sociological image of U.S. society was “consensus.” I believe it was their middle classness that prevented social scientists from seeing the fundamentals in U.S. race relations prior to the civil rights movement – again, a failure of power analysis.

These blind spots are not unusual in the middle class. Another of the narratives has been that the unemployed could be working if they would stay in high school or complete job training programs. But working class people recognize that’s a physical impossibility. The jobs don’t exist. The leadership of the U.S. economy exports millions of jobs. It’s the 1 percent that decides the number of jobs available, not high school drop-outs!

When middle-class people become aware enough to question their own favorite narratives, their educational attainment becomes a greater resource for social change. The gifts that go with the middle class role are enormously valuable to social change; the problem for any class comes when it forgets humility and believes that its class perspective is The One That Counts.

So, how can members of any class check themselves? They can start by asking themselves whether they are operating inside their comfort zones. If the answer is “yes,” their perspective might not be appropriate, since working for radical change (such as truly sustainable energy policy) cannot be done from inside our comfort zones.

The very awareness of discomfort when reading McKibben’s proposal could be, for many readers, a reason to support him. Outside our comfort zone is where learning happens. Outside our comfort zone is where we’ll save the planet and ourselves.


Craig Wiesner speaking again…..

I agree with George Lakey. We HAVE to step out of our comfort zones to make real change happen. I am quite a ham when it comes to getting on a stage and performing (singing, speaking, even tap-dancing despite the fact that I can not dance), but… the idea of getting on a soap box on 16th and Mission was absolutely unnerving. I was pretty sure that singing “If I Were a Rich Man” or “Hello Dolly” (songs my sister used to have me sing after she knocked on a neighbor’s door and said “If you give my brother a quarter he’ll sing for you”), was probably not going to go over well. So what was I to do?

Several people went ahead of me, seasoned activists who got up on the box and started talking about terrible deeds done by banks, how our government was failing to protect the least among us, about the need for better access to fruits and vegetables in poor neighborhoods. Then it was my first turn on the box. I decided to talk about illegal arms sales. After a minute or so of talking about how terrible I thought the whole idea of illegal arms sales was, I went on to shout “I don’t think the government should be selling any body parts! First it will be your arms… and then what? Your legs? I want to keep my nose right where it is! If this is their idea of Medicare reform, forget about it!” I got a lot of attention, a few laughs, and got through my first time on the box.

Then, one of the women in our group had her first turn. She was absolutely terrified, shaking. She got up on the box and tried to say something, but no words came out. After a few moments tears were streaming down her face and she stepped off the box. She couldn’t do it.

Another round went by. The second time I got on the box I announced my candidacy for President of the United States. I was more serious this time, going through what a Wiesner presidency would look like. I truly engaged each of the people that walked by, telling them that I would do a better job than any of the candidates. I’m pretty sure that if I had asked for donations to my campaign I would have gotten a few!

The woman who had not been able to speak on the box was up next. Again, she looked terrified. I was actually amazed that she had stayed with us through the second round. She pulled herself together and got up on that box. For the first few moments she was absolutely quiet, looking out at the passers by. Then, as one man got close to the box, she said “Excuse me sir.” He stopped. “Yes?” She leaned down a little and asked “Do you have everything you need?” “Well, no.” “What do you need?” she asked him. “I really need a job!” he answered. “Well then why aren’t you up here on a box, just like me, telling people what you need? Hey everyone!! This man needs a job. Why doesn’t he have a job? We’ve got to do something about this?” She engaged five more people, getting them to shout out what they needed and then echoing their message, telling all the passers by what was needed.

When she stepped off that box our entire group cheered. What an amazing thing she had done! High-wire indeed.

If we are going to get what we need, we need to step out of our comfort zones. We need to get up on our soap boxes and tell the truth, even if some people warn us that doing so might be polarizing.


Craig Wiesner is the co-founder of Reach And Teach, a peace and social justice learning company, transforming the world through teachable moments.

Thank you to Waging Nonviolence for their permission to repost this article.

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