Prosper Kompaore shared a proverb from his home country of Burkina Faso: “How is it that sky-high termite mounds can be made by such tiny insects?” he asked. The answer, counseling determination, endurance, commitment and plenty of sustenance: “It takes earth and earth and earth…”
It is not given you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Ancestors) 2:16
In times of great disappointment, the temptation to just react is powerful. I’m as angry, sad, and scared as anyone. But I also know that in the grip of those feelings, my judgment is impaired. My amygdala wants to fight, flee, or freeze, but my neocortex knows now is the time to rein in the reptile brain, reaching for higher ground.
For me, it all comes down to this: two obstacles stand in the way of our liberation, and both of them can be defeated by self-awareness, will, and most especially, persistence.
The first is what Paulo Freire called “internalization of the oppressor,” taking into ourselves the voice of the powerful who benefit from our subjugation, mistaking that disempowering voice for the voice of truth, unconsciously allowing ourselves to serve the oppressor through our fear, passivity, and pliancy.
The second is the imprint made on our behavior by eons of conditioning, making us prey to impulses that may have once served valid social goals—even survival—but now imperil us.
Let me explain.
How do we experience internalization of the oppressor? Sometimes that’s an easy question—with hard answers. The oppressor’s voice says, “Dial back your dreams: you people haven’t got what it takes; leave the important stuff to your betters!” If after long repetition you believe it, the voice becomes your own and the message seems as self-evident as saying the sky is blue. Generations of girls have taken into themselves the belief that they should downsize their ambitions to fit the dimensions dictated by patriarchy; a large proportion of young people and people of color have taken into themselves the belief that they have no place, no power, in the political process; and even when it comes to something so basic as valuing our own bodies, two generations of “black is beautiful” have been needed to begin to undo the self-loathing the oppressor worked so hard to install in human operating systems.
But often it’s more subtle. I’ve been reading analyses of the anti-Kavanaugh defeat that point out that the Republicans, with massive investment in digital content in the days before the Senate vote, used cleverly edited and framed clips of protests to frighten voters into seeing Kavanaugh as the voice of reason, a bulwark against the mob. Here’s how one person—responding to an individual who’d been door-knocking for progressives in Texas and had been appalled at the backlash the protests had evidently engendered—described it:
[Republicans] used key pieces of digital content (notably edited protest moments, trumps horrifying moment making fun of Dr. Blasey, and the two letters from anonymous dudes accusing Blasey and Swetnick of lying) pushed out to their base with a FLOOD of social proof (mostly bots and trolls but they look pretty real these days) and I’ll just say it again: if we ignore their digital propaganda machine just like we ignored Fox News, we will all continue to suffer the consequences. They were able to massively change public opinion amongst their base and moderates within 3 days.
I have no doubt of the accuracy of this assertion. If it is taken as a call to pursue more powerful digital strategies, fine. But other possible implications of successful Republican manipulation of protest bring internalization of the oppressor into the story. If the right’s shrewd and massively funded distortion of protest images leads to the conclusion that protests are damaging—and therefore leads to less protest—that will gladden the hearts of all who want protestors to sit down, shut up, and leave what used to be democracy in the hands of the wealthy, white, male, power-mad few.
I don’t believe protests alone will turn the tide. It’s clear that a thousand-flowers approach is needed: demonstrations, dialogues, elections, artworks, new narratives, new tactics, and everything else. The most urgent enemy is non-participation, and many approaches are needed to counter that. Just over one-third of those eligible to vote did so in the last midterm election. (There’s some interesting observation and analysis in this piece.)
The Republicans would like to reduce those voting numbers even more, as a low turnout historically benefits elites. Part of the strategy is a steady drumbeat telling progressives that resistance is futile. But look behind the curtain: the same standards are not applied to protest from the right. A few years ago, when Tea Party protestors disrupted, demonstrated, and demanded in decidedly uncivil terms that they be heeded, people like Senator Mitch McConnell played on two fronts. Publicly, he did all he could to defeat electoral threats from the Tea Party. Privately, he heard the call to jump even further rightward and merely replied, “How high?” The Present Occupant of the White House followed this playbook to the presidency. Now Republicans want to spin the opposition to Kavanaugh as a gift to their party.
How do you tell that internalization of the oppressor is acting on you? Ask Cicero’s ancient question—Cui bono? Who benefits?—and if the answer isn’t people of color, women, immigrants, sexual minorities, religious minorities, poor people, and so on, your brain has been carrying water for the opposition.
With the other obstacle to liberation, the impulses and attitudes resident in the deep structures of our minds, persistent awareness—the continuous application of awareness to ourselves with the dogged tenacity of the termite mound-builders—is the only path to understanding and change.
The other day a friend posed a question: what accounts for the widespread male proclivity for violence, including sexual violence? My response was quick and glib: “Testosterone.” A better answer would have been “testosterone unchecked by awareness.” All humans have impulses and responses imprinted in our cognitive processes by evolution and reinforced by custom. We also have the conscious power of the neocortex, enabling us to notice when those urges no longer serve and to adjust our behavior accordingly. The hitch is, awareness runs on will. We have to want it.
Ordinary examples of this deep programming are everywhere. My husband, for reasons both personal and political, would never lift his hand against another person except to defend his life (and that’s hypothetical, as the situation hasn’t arisen in adulthood). But listen to us talking about the difference in our driving styles. He often feels frustrated behind the wheel, frequently passing drivers who are going the speed limit. “When you drive,” I told him, “someone is always in your way.” “How is it for you?” he asked. I explained that it was more like boarding a train or getting in line. I pass slow drivers, but mostly I feel part of a collective enterprise, navigating to our various destinations. I don’t for a moment believe that gender is absolutely determinative. To be sure, there are aggressive women drivers and passive male ones. But the general principle is widespread enough to make it one of those Venus-meets-Mars moments, where a man and a woman glimpse how different their inner worlds can be.
It’s not just men and it’s not just testosterone, of course. There’s a nurturing impulse that women must be aware of and sometimes correct for lest we invest our loving care in those who would abuse it. And while men are often expected to manifest their aggression in the lives of others, they are also often encouraged to use their strength to care for those weaker than themselves. Think about the touching image of a father kneeling to commune at eye-level with a distressed child; what moves us is evidence of the welcome and positive flipside of the father who beats his child for showing distress.
The rage on Kavanaugh’s face during the hearings, the repulsive sneer while condemning his accusers, exemplifies atavistic, testosterone-fueled impulses unchecked by self-awareness, untouched by the higher workings of the neocortex. His inner radio is tuned to the little man inside his brain telling him he is entitled—it is natural and right—to enact his appetite for sexual and political domination all the way up to the Supreme Court. Nothing has so far impelled this man to ask who is being harmed by his actions, let alone act to heal that harm, and now that he has been rewarded by his fellow oppressors, there’s a very slim chance anything will.
Unless power changes hands to deny oppressors their privilege, thus triggering the awakening of understanding and empathy, I see only one thing that can help us conquer the evolutionary and social programming that fuels the oppressors’ violence, entitlement, and domination. That is mobilizing will, shining the bright light of awareness on our own feelings and actions with the same vigor we must bring to calling others out, and acting on what we see.
Virtually every spiritual practice since the beginning of time has made this a core teaching, although it is sometimes obscured by oppressors’ determination to substitute me-first for the golden rule. Every liberatory practice has made the practice of awareness a core teaching, although it is sometimes obscured by adherents’ impatience to vanquish oppressors. Human cultures are packed with understandings and practices that ally with awareness. We have only to use them.
One of the oppressors’ tactics is to call defeat and counsel surrender at every opportunity, promoting the idea that losing a skirmish means you may as well call off the revolution.
But inner and outer, it’s a lifetime project. Out here in the real world—as opposed to the default world dominated by the oppressors’ incursions into our consciousness—results are always incremental. “It is not given you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” If we are to persist and prevail, that has to be given its full value.
“Seeing The Real You (At Last)” performed by Bettye LaVette.