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.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A world where everyone's needs matter

Recently I visited Pittsburgh, PA and Columbus, OH and hung out with a bunch of different folks who either now or have in the past identified themselves as being "anarchists". This has been interesting for me in that on the one hand I no longer consider myself to be an "anarchist" and there are a number of different things about "anarchist" culture that I am personally very uncomfortable with. On the other hand, anarchism, and particularly the philosophy of anarchist communism, is simply just common sense to me. It always has been.

Here is the Wikipedia definition for "anarchist communism", in case you don't know what the hell I am talking about here:

"Anarchist communism is a theory of anarchism which advocates the abolition of the state, private property, and capitalism in favor of common ownership of the means of production, direct or consensus democracy and a horizontal network of voluntary associations and workers' councils with production and consumption based on the guiding principle: 'from each according to ability, to each according to need'"

(if the phrase "anarchist communism" here gets in the way of you understanding, or wanting to understand, what I am saying here, then please just pretend like I never used that phrase. You may substitute in your mind a different phrase that helps you hear better what I am trying to say.)

The "common sense" aspects of all of this goes like: "of course we all would want to share everything, not put anybody above or below another, and all work together voluntarily to figure out how we all can get our needs met." Any other system has simply never made any sense to me in a very core way.

Thinking about this, I also immediately feel fundamentally different from anyone else who would have affinity with this philosophy. My reason for this is because I also agree with this quote:

"The individual, and groupings of people, have to learn that they cannot reform society in reality, nor deal with others as reasonable people, unless the individual has learned to locate and allow for the various patterns of coercive institutions, formal and also informal, which rule him. No matter what his reason says, he will always relapse into obedience to the coercive agency while its pattern is with him." - Idries Shah, Caravan of Dreams

What this means to me is that I think that even if the miracle of an anarchist social revolution is achieved, everything that the critics of anarchism say will happen will happen. This is because people still carry within them the same personal and interpersonal dynamics upon which the structures of authority, domination, hierarchy, class, etc. are built.

This has been the case in my own life and in the case of different anarchist/counter-cultural projects & scenes I have personally come across. I have seen time & again how when an impasse is reached & the pressure is on, "when push comes to shove", that authority/obedience - in short, domination - is resorted to. This is done either by reaching for the roles & power that is offered by the larger social institutions surrounding us such as property ownership, laws, social norms. Or, it's done by recreating them anew within the social relationships themselves, such as giving up on your personal desires because of social fear, submitting to the rule of the heavy talkers, establishing a new informal alpha male elite, among other things.

The principle of "from each according to ability, to each according to need" mentioned above also stands out to me, particularly in light of the Nonviolent Communication perspective on fundamental human needs and my personal experience working with people with developmental disabilities.

Basically, what this all teaches me is the incredibly vital importance of sorting yourself out internally. This means doing the work, so to speak, to get really clear on and make a heart-felt connection with your own core motivating intentions & values that surround and underlie both the work that you do and the people whom you live with. Without doing this personal work & getting your heart back, the principle of "from each according to ability, to each according to need" won't work, it all will remain simply a vague nice-sounding slogan that is said.

At the same time, taking a path of simply just "working on yourself", "personal growth", and "creating a different kind of life for yourself" without an emphasis on profound broader social change as well does not appeal to me either. This is because, in my eyes, the world we live in is absolutely insane and genocidal to all life.

It does not make sense to me to ignore the world around us as we retreat either into a nuclear family structure, a self-help sub-culture, or an intentional community counter-culture that is primarily focused on profound personal change. Disregarding the suffering/oppression of those around us will inevitably result in those people who are pain-crazed and desperate enough interfering with your life. When people are in pain and craving relief they will do whatever it takes to get attention, and the world we live in seems fundamentally designed to create lots & lots of suffering for lots & lots of people all over.

In other words, no matter how wonderful a social bubble is created where health, growth, and positive relationships prevail, the rest of the world ("the real world") will sooner or later come crashing in. We still live together on the same planet. This also needs to be taken into account.

So that's the dilemma - how to support profound personal change, redoing your own fundamental personal programming, while at the same time supporting profound social change, rearranging our relationships & institutions in ways that address all the needs of everybody.

A third factor then enters the picture - how to do all this profound personal & social change stuff while at the same time actually surviving in this world - that is, getting your food, shelter, medical care, etc., needs met in sustainable ways that do not support or reproduce the old ways. This usually ties in with the previous question of how does one relate with the rest of the world, ie, "the real world", because often these needs can not be met now without interacting with everyone else.

Often I find myself faced with the sheer intense enormity of these questions, particularly all of these questions all at once, and my response is simply to shut down. It just gets to be too much. With that, it is easier to just ignore it all, to put everything aside and simply just live my life. But we still continue to live in this world, still continue to live with people, so really truly ignoring it all in the long-term simply does not work.

I also often find it challenging to try to reflect on these questions within a group of people, because either: a) what I am trying to say & address is either not understood or considered interesting enough to really think about b) the people listening already have some kind of pre-formulated ideology or system that they are trying to sell or c) one of the three factors that I mentioned above gets routinely overlooked or not sufficiently considered.

So this results in a certain kind of seemingly dead-end that I do not know what to do with.

Motivating me with all of this:

I know that I want myself & others to feel truly free, being keenly aware of our actions, reactions, and choices made.

I want both myself & others to have healthy, happy, mutually supportive social relationships where everyone, the whole world over, has their fundamental needs seen, valued, and considered.

And I want all of this to be very much practical, tangible, based in the real world that we all actually live in where we can all actually do this.

I continue on, as always. The only difference is that now I am a little less keen on finding a label and saying "this is it!", or finding a particular group of people and saying "these are the ones!" It all seems much bigger than that.