The recent events in Charlottesville have brought even more attention and public conversation to the growing phenomenon of visible, explicit calls for white supremacy. Much of what I have since read and heard is horror and disgust at what has happened, and an intense inquiry about what can be done to make a dramatic shift, and quickly.
Although I experience myself as entirely separate and different from the torch-marchers, from their slogans, actions, and hatred, I consciously choose to maintain the discipline of remembering that they were not born this way; they are not in any special category. There are reasons why more and more people are drawn into such groups, and I want to know the causes, not what’s wrong with the people. Like many who’ve been writing recently, I am confident that fighting back, name calling, shaming, denouncing, and other similar tactics I’ve seen used recently are feeding rather than quelling this upsurge.
Clearly, we are facing a huge problem here; one of many that are challenging our overall ability to sustain ourselves as a species. One of the benefits that our very large brains give us is that we are, as a species, amazingly capable of responding to major challenges by solving complex problems. We know, without having to learn it very much, that to solve a problem we need to understand its cause and then look for solutions based on understanding the cause.
Indeed, over the time of our existence, we have applied this capacity to many problems and issues on the material plane, even if the astonishing results have sometimes caused disastrous side-effects. Not so in relation to addressing the problems that exist within our human family. When we look at social problems, we seem to filter the search for a cause through a very narrow focus, and our patriarchal conditioning makes our search for a cause devolve into figuring out who is at fault. By logical extension, if the “cause” is specific people who are at fault, then the “solution” would be punishing, shaming, removing, or killing the people who are presumed to be at fault. By necessity, this also means that proposed “solutions” would be directed at specific individuals or specific groups rather than at systemic conditions that are identified as the deeper causes of a problem.
This logic operates at all levels. Its net result is escalating cycles of violence. As Kazu Haga reminds us, in Don’t Feed the Trolls, ISIS emerged as a direct result of the violence inflicted in the Middle East in the war designed to combat terrorism. James Gilligan writes about it in his classic Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes, where he shows with great care and sensitivity how the methods used to punish criminals are fully intertwined with shaming, which he sees as one of the active causes of subsequent violence. I am quite confident every single one of us can remember a time in our own life when someone tried to shame us into submission and where we either rose up in defiance right there or nursed retaliatory fantasies until we were able to carry them out later.
In each of these cases, the cause is not truly focused on. Change is expected to come from the very shaming, not from thinking through what may have actually been the cause of what the person in question did. For example, bombing Iraq, killing and maiming hundreds of thousands of armed and unarmed people in the process, does not address in any way whatsoever the underlying, systemic causes of the hatred towards the US, for example. Attempting to deal with it in this way, through war and/or shaming individuals and groups, can only appear to be reliable if the problem is inherent in the people, which makes the only possible change appear to arise from that “evil” being subdued. Except it doesn’t seem to ever work. The “War on Terror” has only created more hatred towards the US and has driven more people to join groups that target US and other Western entities.
My current hypothesis about shame is that it evolved for extreme cases of threat to the group, and has been appropriated by patriarchal systems for widespread use to protect the powerful. Shame may appear to work in the short term, and usually has disastrous consequences in the longer term, invariably for the person or group shamed, and regularly for those doing the shaming.
This takes us back to some of the roots of patriarchy and its view of life and human nature. This is what I studied extensively and wrote about in my dissertation in the 90s and have been continuing to investigate since. My working assumption about human nature is that we are creatures with needs that we attempt to meet with each other’s support in relationship with the web of life of which we are a part. I am part of a long tradition of thinkers that believe us to be profoundly influenced by the conditions and systems that we encounter when we are born and throughout our lives, regardless of which particular group we are born into. There is no group I can see that is immune to cruelty, nor any group that hasn’t rallied in generosity in response to need.
This is a far cry from what thousands of years of patriarchal systems and cultures have been training us to believe. In the harsh world of separation, scarcity, and powerlessness, we are made to seem as if we were creatures with insatiable self-gratifying needs and with little care for anything else. Each new generation of children is put through a grueling version of socialization emerging from the conviction that we must be controlled or molded to be any good for our fellow humans or for society. (And the sad reality I have observed and examined: the more we do that collectively, the more we create trauma, resistance, defiance, and knee-jerk defensiveness that serve to “prove” the theory about who we are.)
What’s more, we’ve been trained to believe that we are not all fully capable of love or fully capable of hate and separation; that some groups are more capable of the “good” things, and other groups, usually not our own, are more capable of the “bad” things. When you add power and privilege differences to this mess, it gets even more tragic. As my late sister Inbal noted years ago: the ones with power see those without as subhuman; the ones without power see those with power as inhuman; and no one truly sees each other’s humanity.
This is why even with extensive immersion in nonviolence, I hear people who join me on one of my many free calls speak, casually and without conscious choice, about “types of people”. Recently, that language has been used in relation to the growing and, to me, frightening phenomenon of the active rise of the right. Once again, I see the conversation being heavily focused on the people – those who marched with torches in Charlottesville, for a particularly visible and painful recent example of this escalation – instead of the context within which it’s happening. My own wish is to apply the distinction between fault and cause to the current state of affairs to see if we can gain any wisdom from that about how to proceed.
In aiming to grasp the causes, I find myself drawn into comments made by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow; comments I found startling, wrenching, tragic, and hopeful all at once. Based on what she is saying about the aftermath of the US Civil War and, again, the aftermath of desegregation and the Civil Rights Act, my current sense is that the Civil War hasn’t really ended, 150 years later. As Alexander stated, the end of the Civil War was a disorienting trauma for many white people in the southern states. Like all “losers” of war, the terms were imposed on them, unsettling everything they knew as “normal”, forcing them to treat as equal people they previously were brought up to believe were subhuman and undeserving of respect. This, on top of the general humiliation of losing, left them in exactly the position I spoke of before: licking their festering wounds, nursing a sense of overwhelming victimization, and waiting for the moment in which they could re-assert their “rights”. That moment came not long afterwards. This is how the Jim Crow social order was instituted, along with convict leasing and stripping formerly incarcerated people of rights. These moves reversed much that the Emancipation Proclamation sought to establish and created new forms of misery for the recently emancipated African-Americans.
Over decades of struggle the Black community came together to organize for Civil Rights. Against unbelievable odds, they successfully mounted legal and civil resistance campaigns that granted them again rights that had previously been granted and negated. First, school desegregation, and then the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Once again, as Alexander notes, this was a victory imposed on the Southern whites. Their humiliation was once again stirred up, and, again without any attention, care, or outlet, was funneled into powerless rage that went underground, waiting for the opportunity to reassert itself. Both the institutionalization of segregation and the struggles to dismantle it were times when many of the confederacy statues were erected, as a recent Guardian article – Why Is the US Still Fighting the Civil War? – points out. In the 60s and 70s, as the general culture shifted away from racialized narratives, the War on Drugs was born, targeting racial minorities without ever naming them as such, and leading to widespread acceptance of accelerating mass incarceration rooted in the very same unhealed hatred born of defeat.
To be clear: I am all in favor of the Emancipation Proclamation and of the partial gains that emerged from the Civil Rights movement. I am also incredibly moved by the courage and creative strategy of the Civil Rights movement, and wish that the Civil War had not happened and abolitionists had found nonviolent means to achieve their goals. What I notice, however, is that even though the Civil Rights movement proclaimed itself to be rooted in love and aiming for “beloved community”, the experience of the southern whites was the same in both cases: defeat and humiliation. My main concern is that imposing conditions on those who are defeated that affect their sense of dignity can have catastrophic longer term effects. The Treaty of Versailles is now widely considered to be one of the breeding grounds of the rise of Nazism in Germany: many Germans felt profoundly humiliated by the terms of that treaty, and saw Hitler as rescuing them from that fate. Similarly, fast forward 80 years, I see the persistent support for Donald Trump and the growing support for overt white supremacy, Alt-Right, and neo-Nazi movement as rooted in the same kind of dynamic, dating back to at least the Civil War. As Rabbi Mordechai Liebling said in Fighting What the Nazis Fear, “we cannot tolerate white supremacy and we must listen to the fear and pain that many of its supporters carry.”
I am not here trying to imply that racism and white supremacy as overall systems were based on the humiliation of defeat. I am only speaking here of the attempts to create change in those systems which have been done without attending to this dimension and thus failed to create sufficient conditions for true systemic change. Also, the careful historical research into the many variables that affect why sometimes defeat is followed by transcending the conditions that led to war, such as comparing WWII to WWI, is quite far beyond the scope of a blog post. What I am writing here is not a “grand theory” that aims to explain everything. Rather, I am calling attention to the potential to create change in a live and dangerous situation by understanding a particular dynamic and shifting our responses accordingly.
So what is it that we can do? Then, and now? As leaders and as participants? What I know I long for is a clear path that makes sense; that integrates, on the human level, the reality of complex and multiple human needs and perspectives. I fully disagree with the white nationalists that white people are attacked or threatened in any way, or that immigrants are taking away anything from them, for example; yet I don’t have any shred of belief that asserting that will help anyone shift out of believing that they are. And, given that the experience is real, I want to find ways of addressing it.
If I were Lincoln or Johnson in the US, or the Allied Powers after WWI, for example, I would want to build into the very conditions of institutionalizing the agreements that marked the end of certain struggles measures designed explicitly and specifically to support the “losers” in having their dignity and humanity upheld without compromising the safety, gain, or integrity of anyone liberated in those very acts, in the US case that being African Americans.
In a recent email conversation I witnessed, an experienced chemical dependency counselor proposed looking at violence and white supremacy as an addiction; another way to understand why Jim Crow followed slavery and mass incarceration followed Jim Crow. His suggestion: creating ways for grief and loss to take place for those whose behavior we want to change. Perhaps it would mean trauma relief; perhaps spaces where they could simply be heard and solutions for how to move forward without bouncing trauma from group to group would be brainstormed. I am not here designing what such interventions could be. I am only expressing my profound desire to find effective measures to attend to the causes of the resurgence of violence and hatred rather than maintain the ongoing cycles of escalating violence that we are witnessing again.
And what about now, as citizens – of the US or the world – concerned about the potential implications of the legitimacy of hatred and violence that Donald Trump’s presidency came to signify? What is there for us to do in the face of this surge? What’s most pressing for me is to hold in the foreground two realities simultaneously, without dropping either of them. One is the red alert danger of erupting violence leading to serious harm to people who are already vulnerable – immigrants, African Americans, Muslims, Jews, and other groups, and the slightly longer term threat to the solidity of democratic institutions in the US, such as they are. The other is the commitment to humanize everyone, including the brutalizers.
Ultimately, holding this dual intention is key for me in having hope that we can mitigate and transcend the humiliation that perpetuates separation and find our way towards that luminous dream that fuels my work on all levels: a world that works for all, attending to everyone’s needs, interdependently, within the means and in reverent interaction with our one beautiful planet.
Image Credits: all Flickr: Top:Downtown Charlottesville, Her name was Heather Heyer. 08/14/2017, by Bob Mical, Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Middle: Point!, by a2gemma, Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Bottom: Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally, Alt-right members preparing to enter Emancipation Park holding Nazi, Confederate Battle, Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me,” Southern Nationalist, and Thor’s Hammer flags, by Anthony Crider, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)