Why Personal Liberation Alone Won’t Be Enough
by Miki Kashtan
There’s no question in my mind that the overwhelming majority of people everywhere would like nothing more than to live in a world where they can have the possibility of attending to what matters to them, caring and providing for their families, having meaningful relationships with others, and having a baseline of decency and dignity in human affairs. Whether or not such a world is possible, and what could get us there are not as clear. Far too many of us have been led to believe that such a world can never be because of human nature which is purported to be selfish, greedy, or innately aggressive. Some of us have also, or instead, been led to believe that the only way to get to a beautiful future is to eliminate every last one of the “bad guys.” The sad irony of both of these worldviews is that they perpetuate the difficulties we are facing. If everyone is selfish and no one will care about us, then the only logical solution is for us to put all our efforts into promoting our own needs, or, at the very least, becoming resigned and apathetic. Similarly, if we must kill and punish the “bad guys,” then in the act we become like them.
What’s the alternative? Many of us like to believe that individual transformation, if enough people engage in it, is enough. Others believe that if those in positions of power are reached, either through their own transformation or through mass nonviolent resistance, then change will take place. Despite the elegant appeal of these approaches, I don’t quite see how any of them will bring about structural change. I wish I knew what would, and I don’t, like so many others. All I know is that collaboration is essential, both now and in any future, and hence my own joy in having found my own steps on the uncertain road to the future.
The Path of a Personal Consciousness Shift
I see an enormous appeal in recognizing that a consciousness of separation, scarcity, and powerlessness is at the root of our toxic worldviews, the consequences of which now threaten the continued existence of life as we know it. From here, it’s an easy step towards assuming that the solution, therefore, lies in shifting that consciousness. And if that’s the proposed solution, then the obvious corollary is that getting the consciousness to shift would reliably happen through getting more and more of us to make the personal consciousness shift, and trusting that when enough of us do, the entire apparatus of life as we know it will align with the new consciousness.
I wish I believed this theory of change, because it’s simple, elegant, linear, and has clear steps to it that would leave us knowing what to do. Alas, I see fundamental fallacies with this approach which leave me deeply concerned that our energy would be diverted away from grappling with the structural and systemic obstacles to creating the world of our dreams. In addition, whatever world we ever create will have groupings of people working with each other to make things happen, requiring skills that no amount of individual change per se can acquire.
How Many Can We Reach?
The first concern that I have about the aggregate-personal-change-as-the-path-to-social-change approach is that I don’t believe that we can reach enough people – whatever “enough” would be – within the existing structures, despite the apparent exponential growth possibility of the books and workshops that are designed to support mass consciousness transformation. Several factors combine to make that exponential growth unlikely.
Fundamentally, most people go along with what’s going on, whatever it is, most of the time. After attending to all the basic needs of life, only so much energy is left for considering whether or not we believe the worldview that we have inherited; whether or not what exists works; whether or not we want to take the risks of going against the grain; or any of the other pieces of exploration necessary to even choose to begin such a journey.
In the culture and place where I live – the San Francisco Bay Area, and the USA culture at large – it’s overwhelmingly white people of a middle class background who have the luxury of having sufficient energy left over; of finding the typical consciousness-shifting books and workshops an affordable and appealing mode of learning, attentive to their needs and relevant to their lives. (I am also aware that people from other cultural groups often have separate, parallel paths to liberation, including Buddhist communities that primarily serve people of color, significant segments of the restorative justice world, and more. Investigating the extent and reach of each is quite beyond the small peek into this phenomenon that I am calling attention to.)
With or without such books and workshops, it takes effort and courage to choose to change course, internally and externally, in order to align with a new consciousness. How many of us would have it? How much would it require of people without means, people all over the world whose lives are so demanding that they are lucky if they have enough food and rest on any given day? How likely are people whose fortunes and circumstances are aligned with the existing social order to want to engage in deep enough exploration that might actually challenge the basis of their privileged status?
In addition, the consciousness of separation, scarcity, and powerlessness is wired into our very way of perceiving the world and making sense of life. Most if not all of us have experienced trauma, habituation, and repeated exposure to norms and messages that become largely unconscious and hence difficult to change. How we change our behavior is not straightforward to begin with.
It seems to me that just as the production of oil, one barrel at a time, has been getting progressively more challenging (it used to take one barrel of oil of energy to produce 100 barrels, and now one barrel only produces 2.9 barrels), I see it as taking more and more energy and effort for people to make the shift, the further they are from the few brave souls who are already willing to stand up to social norms. I just can’t see this process of one-at-a-time, or even however-many-read-the-book-at-a-time, reaching whatever we might agree would be a truly critical mass.
Exceptional People and Their Influence
It wasn’t mass consciousness transformation that got millions of Indians to support Gandhi’s project of nonviolent resistance. Rather, it was their trust in Gandhi the person that got them to act in a manner different from their habitual consciousness. In fact, it took enormous and continuous effort for Gandhi to continue to maintain the nonviolent nature of the campaign. Indeed, when he died, violence erupted without anyone managing to contain it.
Similarly, an overwhelming number of Israeli Jews changed their perspective all at once during the (so called) peace process in 1977, when Anwar Sadat came to Israel. I doubt that it was a synchronized shift in individual consciousness that created this change. Rather, the overall direction of the leadership changed, and, with it, people now were going along with the new direction while, presumably, thinking that they individually changed their minds.
The alignment of the citizens of Denmark with the project of saving Jews during the Nazi occupation serves as one last example. The Danes didn’t necessarily possess a higher moral fiber or personal courage than other peoples. Rather, because they followed the example of their king, far less individual courage was required of them to take the actions they took.
Would I then advocate for consciousness transformation for leaders? Hardly. The fact that such examples are so few and far between to me highlights the extreme unlikelihood that people in positions of significant power and privilege would undo the socialization or circumstances that prepared them to see their own position as right and to embrace, instead, a framework that calls into question the existence of such privilege and prioritizes caring for everyone’s needs.
Moreover, even were such a person in leadership to engage in these ways, their individual transformation would not be sustainable enough. Looking at the history of Rome, for example, when each new emperor could easily dismantle anything established before, I don’t see how change of the direction and magnitude so many of us long for can be achieved in this way.
Numbers, Options, and Power
While I don’t see that changing individual leaders’ consciousness, even if feasible, is a path to a livable future, I do believe that the existence of people in power who are committed to existing regimes and economies is a significant obstacle in the way of achieving the world of our dreams.
The fact of people having power means at least three things. One is that they have control over the options among which we choose. Just because enough of us have consciousness transformation doesn’t mean that, by necessity, we would have the options we want. For example, there are strong claims that the majority of people in the USA would like everyone to have access to health care through government funding (the so called “single-payer” system, a term that supplants the much more controversial term “socialized medicine”). If these claims are accurate, that has been true for some decades, and yet the actual healthcare system continues to be the very complex system we now have, which supports private insurers and leaves many people uninsured or forcefully insured. In the absence of access to decision-making power, the people of a country cannot enact a law or make desired changes to policy or functioning of the government.
The only thing a mass mobilization of people can reliably do that has a serious chance of creating change is nonviolent resistance, exercising the power that resides in numbers and in the love that fuels the resistance. Nonviolent resistance, including the willingness to break laws strategically, is a way to press forward, a path of expression of what new consciousness a large enough group of people have embraced.
Since nonviolent resistance requires stepping outside of our own individual circumstances to join with others, and often involves a willingness for personal sacrifice, up to and including death, I see it as unlikely to arise from a new consciousness that is focused solely on individual transformation. Individual transformation doesn’t usually prepare us for the potentially severe consequences that standing up to power might entail, no matter how much love we bring to it. Unfortunately, we can never assume that such consequences would not arise, since those in power, most often, are committed to their own power and willing to protect it even at cost to others’ needs and lives. Consequently, somehow, the individuals engaging in nonviolent resistance would need to overcome the potential hardship by coming together and standing together in opposition to business as usual. Again, I see this as unlikely, because, at least in our times, the individual consciousness transformation that I am familiar with sidesteps the difficult questions of personal practice and interdependence, focusing instead on more fulfillment, life satisfaction, wealth, or other personal goals.
Overall, between the lack of capacity to create new options, the possibility, always available for powerful entities, to refuse to consider change, the serious consequences that those in positions of power can deliver to dissidents, and the enormous uphill struggle of organizing mass mobilization, especially in affluent countries like the USA, the likelihood of just numbers finding and sustaining sufficient power to transform how the systems of the world operate is painfully small.
I recently read an essay by Jeff Garson, from Radical Decency, entitled “How the Good Guys Miss Each Other,” which, like much of what Garson writes, I found refreshing and enriching. At one point Jeff writes about what he had learned about working for change from his own previous experience and his observation of others. He summarizes the dilemma as follows: The structures and culture as they exist, put him and others in a place of being able “to work on a piece of the puzzle but not on the puzzle itself.”
Someone I know well runs a successful advocacy group that has run some impressively successful campaigns. Still, he confirmed without any hesitation that none of it amounts to changing the rules of the game; they are only specific changes that could definitely be undone. Even the Voter Rights Act of 1965 was essentially struck down by the Supreme Court after more than 40 years, a decision that was unpopular among the people of the country, another example illustrating the rift between what the people actually want and what ends up happening.
The rules of the game extend far beyond what specific governments do or don’t do. For example, our world is organized in such a way that all countries must adhere to a particular system of doing national accounting in which there is no negative column: Any time money changes hands, regardless of the reason, the amount gets added to the GDP; nothing is subtracted, not even horrendous damage. Similarly, the rules of the game prioritize the ability of large corporations to do business anywhere according to their terms, allowing costs to people, communities, and the natural world that are considered “externalities” and not accounted for in the elaborate process that determines prices of products.
If we are to create fundamental change, to move from separation, scarcity, and powerlessness into a world structured around interconnection, sufficiency, and active participation, something bigger than this or that decision will need to be restructured. From where I sit, what I see is nothing short of changing the way decisions are made, at all levels, and the way that resources are allocated.
How on earth can we ever get there? What could really bring about that degree of change? This is where I oscillate between deep despair and immense curiosity and humble mystery. I am thoroughly convinced that nothing linear or pre-planned can get us there. The existing paradigm and its institutions are simply too large, intertwined, and impervious to change for any linear plan to succeed. Still, the Berlin Wall fell, Apartheid was taken down, and Feudalism is gone from Europe. All of these are examples of impossible-to-imagine structures that nonetheless were transformed.
In the last few days, while teaching one of my Leveraging Your Influence retreats in NY, one participant noted that the vision I was sharing with the group requires everything to change at once, and she was hoping that there could be a way for some spiral activity to take place, where some changes could bring about further changes in a more organic way. This image captured my imagination, and is giving new form for my deep inquiry.
Collaborating within Groups
Since no mass movement exists that is challenging the way decisions are made or the fundamental forms of resource allocation we have, what can any individual do who seeks to create change, especially someone like me with a vision so large it takes inner effort to hold on to it in full without collapsing from the weight of the gap with existing reality in our world?
For one thing, although personal liberation – freeing ourselves from the inner constraints put in place by being socialized into the existing worldview – is not sufficient for creating social transformation, it’s clearly not a waste. Part of my not-so-fully-thought-out strategy for creating change is to increase the capacity of individuals to withstand the pressures of our existing norms, and to become small models of what we could all be. The more of us are willing, the more capacity we have to envision and work towards change.
Beyond that, an absolutely vital part of any world to come is reclaiming our atrophied muscles of collaborating within groups. The set of principles and skills necessary for functioning collaboratively within a group are quite distinct from those required for inner freedom or for dialogic relationships. However we might transform the larger structures that govern our lives, the end result will, once again, require us to have systems, structures, and institutions.
No amount of personal liberation by itself will prepare us for making decisions collaboratively and knowing how to allocate resources on the basis of need and willingness. We will need to re-learn how to do this, because transforming how we make decisions and allocate resources is exactly what can ensure that changes are not undone and that a culture of collaboration is embedded in all that happens.
No reason to wait until world transformation has happened, because we can start right now and right here. This is why another part of my work is focused on learning and supporting others in learning how to make decisions with each other, especially in groups; how to create systems and processes that encode within them the principle of caring for everyone’s needs; and how to participate effectively in groups whether we are leading them or not. This includes a reframing of what we mean by power and leadership so that the foundation of either/or thinking at the root of our current crises can be exposed and replaced.
When we are able to do that, we can create micro-heavens wherever we are: in our families, in our teams, and in our communities. There is a lot to learn, and yet on this level I have nothing but hope and enthusiasm. I have seen enough groups come to life and function effectively to know it’s possible. In fact, there isn’t even a need for so many of us to undergo personal transformation for miracles to happen. Because most of us go along with the tide most of the time, when someone manages to turn the tide, even a small tide, towards goodwill and trust, practical solutions that surprise everyone regularly appear. I have come to almost expect them. Working at this level at one and the same time allows real people in real situations to function better now with each other, and equips us with tools and experience that prepare us for the new world we want to create tomorrow.
Miki Kashtan is a co-founder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication (BayNVC) and Lead Collaboration Consultant at the Center for Efficient Collaboration. Miki aims to support visionary leadership and shape a livable future using collaborative tools based on the principles of Nonviolent Communication. She shares these tools through meeting facilitation, mediation, consulting, coaching, and training for organizations and committed individuals. Her latest book, Reweaving Our Human Fabric: Working together to Create a Nonviolent Future (2015) explores the practices and systems needed for a collaborative society. She is also the author of Spinning Threads of Radical Aliveness: Transcending the Legacy of Separation in Our Individual Lives, and The Little Book of Courageous Living. Miki blogs at The Fearless Heart and her articles have appeared in the New York Times, Tikkun, Waging Nonviolence, Shareable, Peace and Conflict, and elsewhere. She holds a PhD in Sociology from UC Berkeley.