Friday, April 30, 2010

Thoughts on "Self-Determination"

This morning I presented a short talk for the last day of "Advocacy Week" here at Camphill Soltane. The word "advocacy" here refers to the "Self-Advocacy movement", of which a conference dedicated to that subject took place shortly after my speech.


I want to say a few words about "advocacy" and "self-determination" here.

I do not personally have that much experience with "advocacy" in the sense that it refers to the "self-advocacy" movement. The concept of "self-determination", which is the theme of today's conference, I do have some experience with - but in a different context from what most people here have.

From about the time I was sixteen to around the time I turned 30 the concept of "self-determination" was in the front of my mind as a value that I held as dearly important to me. For about about fourteen years it was something that I thought about almost every day in some form. Why was this?

What happened was this: when I was a teenager I began to question things. I saw that the people in charge - my parents, politicians, bosses - did not know everything and that they made mistakes. I saw that because people did what they wanted, other people sometimes got hurt because of these mistakes or lack of knowledge.

Not only that, I began to look around at the world around me. I began to notice homeless people on the streets and I wondered why they were there. I noticed the wars going on in the world, including wars that are country is involved in, and I wondered why that had to be the case. I began to wonder if watching television comercials and sitting in traffic jams is really the most healthy thing for people to be doing.

Based on these questions that I was holding, I discovered this one particular philosophy called "anarchism". This philosophy says that everyone should be equals, with nobody placed above or below anyone else. It says that nobody should be forced to do anything and that everyone should be given what they need to survive. According to this view stuff like businesses and governments, politicians and bosses should be gotten rid of, and in it's place people should freely come together to share things, make decisions, and work out problems.

Absolutely essential to this philosophy is "self-determination" - the idea that everybody should be free to make their own choices, have their own lifestyle, and determine their own future however they want to do that. This idea is at the core of the "self-advocacy" movement too, the only difference is that self-advocacy focuses on people with disabilities and anarchism focuses on all people everywhere, in every aspect of life.

My passion for anarchism started out as a kind of teenage rebellion, and it grew and continued on to be a burning desire throughout my twenties to create a worldwide social revolution. The choices that I ended up making, the places that I went and the things that I did was all focused around this desire. I saw myself as being a kind of revolutionary and I wanted to change the world.

As the years went by and I had more different experiences, met more different kinds of people, and read more different kinds of things, I began to notice some stuff. I began to notice that when people make their own choices without an authority telling them what to do that they do not necessarily make better decisions. I noticed that people can hurt themselves and hurt other people just as much without an authority present as they can with one there. I began to change my beliefs towards thinking that self-determination is not the most important thing to be working on.

There is a phrase that people say sometimes, perhaps too often, without people thinking about what it means. The phrase goes: "With freedom comes responsibility."

What this means to me is that with our ability to make choices and take action, we also have to think about what effects these will end up having. Will what we choose to do end up helping people or hurting people? Will we end up helping ourselves or hurting ourselves? Will what we want to do help us just now, or will it help in the future too?

Many different times I have seen people, insisting on their right to make their own decisions and to be free people, end up hurting people by the choices they make. Many different times I have seen people hurt themselves because of the decisions that they make too. I myself have at times hurt other people as well as myself by the choices I have made. In other words - free decisions, making your own decisions, does not mean that it will be good decisions.

On the other hand, just because one is a boss or somehow has authority over other people does not mean that one will make good decisions either. History is filled with stories of different people in authority hurting, killing even, many many thousands of people because of the decisions that they made. So what does all of this mean?

What this means to me now is this: I now think that what we need to work on improving is our own wisdom and maturity. I see this as being the most important, because with this regardless of whether someone is making decisions for themself or for other people - people get helped.

When I say the word "wisdom" here I mean the ability to think through things to see what effects your decision will have. This means having the ability to see who will be affected by the things you could do, as well as being aware of how they could be affected. I also mean being able to tell what would help people the most in a decision you could make, what would be the most healthy, as well as what would be the best things for the future as well.

When I say the word "maturity" here I mean, for one, remembering that whatever emotions or feelings you have in the moment will at some point go away. No matter how happy or excited, or angry or sad, that that too will go away. Maturity involves not letting your emotions make your decisions for you. It also involves taking a bigger picture view - it means that you remember that hopefully you will still be alive in ten or twenty years from now, and that what you decide on now will have affects on you then. It also means remembering that people other then you exist - they exist now and are affected by you now, and they will exist after you are gone and will be affected by you then as well.

Advocacy, or anarchism, or "self-determination" in general, can at times focus on the importance of wisdom and maturity, but they do not have to. As I see it no philosophy or movement can completely talk about it either - because wisdom and maturity is something that we work towards, that we grow into - it is always a work in progress.

I do not trust any person who says that they have all the answers - whether it be one person talking about their own life or an authority figure talking about large numbers of people. This is because part of being human means that we have limited knowledge, limited awareness, and that we can make mistakes. Therefore part of embracing our humanity means opening ourselves up to learning more. This is the kind of free choice and social change that I am interested in working towards now - the art of learning together.


Anonymous said...

I like this. I also think it feels like the preamble or prologue to something, perhaps something where you describe what you think "opening ourselves up to learning more" might look like.

Duchesse said...

I admire the plain language you use. For me, it's hard to make good decisions when I don't have all the information, and when many variables are in play. The future is not always predictable, and there are unintended as well as intended consequences to my choices.

Finally, age and experience do not of themselves confer wisdom.

shira said...

Ian, I appreciate your experience and resonate with much of it. I also have noticed what you have and also believe in maturity and wisdom as a constant goal to work to. Most of this doesn't come automatically and the work is hard. My greatest need in keeping it up is finding empathy for my efforts. Reading your quest offers me support and empathy toward feeling not so alone and misunderstood on this journey.

Thanks for sharing.