Fighting the old... and building the new

What you resist, persists. What you pay attention to, grows.

This week I’ve found myself sighing a lot more. I can feel the constriction in my chest, an inchoate foreboding about the moment we’re living in, the pressure building on all sides. There’s something particularly cruel about the juxtaposition of a disease that targets the lungs and robs us of our breath… and a white supremacist system that leaves our black fellow Americans pleading, yet again: “I can’t breathe.”

It’s the impotence of us onlookers in the face of a pandemic we can’t see, a carceral state and system that is so omnipresent as to seem unassailable. I think that’s what I feel the most: my own powerlessness in the face of a system that is in the air we breathe, and the inadequacy of our forums for grievance and redress. It’s exhausting.

Uniformed officers of the state killed George Floyd on my birthday, the day after the NY Times devoted its Sunday front page to commemorating the nearly 100,000 dead here in the United States from COVID. My dominant feeling watching protests roil our country is not rage or anger, though there is some of that. It’s sadness.

I feel deep solidarity with the pain of black and brown Americans who are in anguish right now. And I feel deep sadness knowing that people who look like me are stoking the flames of legitimate protest to incite further violence, whether our president, members of the police (including here in Seattle, who last night seemed responsible for most of the violence) or white nationalist “accelerationists” hoping to use this moment to instigate “boogaloo.” But my sadness is a blanket covering a bed of determination and resolve.

The resolve is this, a position I’ve been evolving toward in my 38 years on the planet: I’m no longer interested in fighting the old. I’m not interested in destruction. I’m interested in building the new. I’m interested in creation; in co-creation. I don’t believe phoenix will rise from the ashes. I believe Buckminster Fuller was right when he said:

You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.

I’d like to use this post to explain my evolution toward that conclusion, and why I think it matters in this moment.

From fighting… to civil resistance

I’m writing as the Washington National Guard deploys to Seattle (where I live) for the first time since the 1999 WTO protests; our mayor imposed a curfew last night. The 8pm cheers for frontline workers were more subdued; our thin veil of pandemic solidarity pulled back to reveal the divisions that have always been there.

I wrote my senior thesis in college exploring social movements: how they form, what makes them successful, why people join. But it wasn’t until after graduation, during a human rights fellowship program in Denmark with Humanity in Action that I had this epiphany. As Serbian activist Srdja Popovic noted:

Empires fall not because people oppose them, but because they find their support eroded. To win, you need to convince others to defect.

Movements like Otpor — the Serbian resistance movement that toppled Milosevic — popularized the notion of “civil resistance” (building on traditions from India’s independence movement, the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, and the anti-apartheid movement). The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict explains:

When people wage civil resistance, they use tactics such as strikes, boycotts, mass protests, and many other nonviolent actions to withdraw their cooperation from an oppressive system.

Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth wrote a foundational book comparing violent protests to nonviolent movements like Otpor that affirmed with Gandhi, King, and the Otpor leaders already knew: civil resistance is far more effective.

The limitations of resistance: what you resist, persists

Occupy and the Arab Spring arrived concurrent to the publication of their book, and these diverse movements applied many of their tactics. But they remained focused on what they did not want: Mubarak in power. The economy in the hands of the 1%. And they did not spend enough time inviting people into a vision of the future, one in which everyone could participate.

I watched at first with skepticism, then excitement, then concern as these movements swept the country (Occupy) and the region (Arab Spring). As someone who had worked for years studying authoritarian regimes (I worked for a time in USAID’s Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation), I couldn’t believe Mubarak fell… but I also knew after living through the Iraq War that there was a big difference between toppling a dictator and the hard work of building a pluralistic democracy.

I had a nagging sense that Otpor’s epiphany — that it’s about withdrawing consent — didn’t go far enough. Something was missing. Two books published in the run-up and aftermath of Trump’s election put that gnawing thought into words: the Engler brothers’ This is An Uprising, and Jonathan Smucker’s Hegemony How-To. They start to get at the need for imagination, for an attractive future vision that is based not only on what we don’t want, but on what we do want. So I felt profoundly mixed feelings when the righteous backlash to Trump took on the moniker of “The Resistance.” That didn’t sit well with me. Michelle Alexander said it beautifully in her debut column We Are Not the Resistance, concluding:

Resistance is a reactive state of mind. While it can be necessary for survival and to prevent catastrophic harm, it can also tempt us to set our sights too low… Another world is possible, but we can’t achieve it through resistance alone.

The other lesson I took from my time abroad (I was in Rwanda for the 20th anniversary commemoration of the genocide there): the deeper the violence and destruction, the longer and more difficult the path to healing. In nature it is a matter of weeks between the last forest fire and the emergence of the first fireweed. Nature bears no grudges. Humans are different: look no farther than our southern states, where the Civil War has been over for 150 years and the battle lines remain firmly entrenched (the Mississippi state flag still bears Confederate insignia; the Confederate flag flew over the South Carolina state capitol until 2018!.. and only came down after activist pressure).

Criticize by creating: what you pay attention to, grows

It is easy to destroy, but hard to create. A plant that takes months to grow can be uprooted in an instant. I’ve returned often over the last couple years to Deb Frieze’s “two loop” model, which talks about “hospicing the old” and “midwifing the new.” And what’s become increasingly clear to me is that I really am only interested in the new. I find fighting the old both personally draining and paradoxically reinforcing the very thing I want to dismantle: the famous line about mud-wrestling with a pig.

Of course, the reality isn’t binary; it’s not an either/or. This is my attraction to AnaLouise Keating’s work on post-oppositionality, and where I see the transformative potential of this moment. Indeed, focusing on building the new — following Buckminster Fuller — can be a powerful tool in fighting the old. It’s good to say “abolish prisons”… but what does a post-carceral world look like? Can we make it visible, tangible, attractive? This is the power of radical imagination.

I have taken deep solace and inspiration in the writings of adrienne maree brown, whose book Emergent Strategy introduced me to the concepts of “what you resist, persists” and its opposite: “what you pay attention to, grows.” There are a host of tools/concepts coalescing here, and I find it really exciting: the analytic process of appreciative inquiry, Trabian Shorters’ notion of “asset-based framing,” Doug Hattaway’s concept of “aspirational identity.” At their core they invite us to focus our energies on enacting and manifesting the world we want. As I’ve written about here; we become what we practice.

Building Belonging

It was reading adrienne, and a friend’s advice to “create the spaces you wish existed” that prompted me to launch, together with john powell and others, Building Belonging.

In recent conversations with my therapist I’ve discovered a new tenderness for the value of resistance. She reminds me that knowing what we don’t want often points us to what we do want. To me this is the promising of belonging. We all have a felt sense of what it’s like not to belong: that is what it feels like to live under systems that we know intuitively are deeply hostile. It’s impossible to belong to a system that is fundamentally inhumane: the only way to do it is to deny our humanity, and who wants to pay that price?

Belonging offers an aspirational vision we can move towards, and it invites us to consider: what would have to be true for me to belong? It also reminds us of what is self-evident: of course we all belong. We are literally interdependent, at a molecular level and in the broader ecosystems of which we are a part. The challenge is to make our felt experience match the physical reality.

I don’t know how to do that, but this project is my effort to try; to criticize by creating. One way we’re doing that is by hosting a series of what we’re calling “Conversations on Transformation” over the coming months; on Thursday we held our second, on Narrative and Belonging feat. john a powell, Bridgit Antoinette Evans, and Martin Kirk; you can find the recording on our YouTube channel here if it’s of interest.

The contradictions of our system became personal for me last week. Six days before George Floyd, the police killed a man a few blocks from where we live in Seattle. He was brandishing a knife at passersby, someone called 911, cops confront him and kill him. 100% predictable (I don't know the race of the victim, but in the body cam video he appears black).

But the broader point: the guy was clearly mentally disturbed. Normal people don't walk around parks waving knives at passersby. I walk in the area all the time, so I can easily imagine my ethical quandary: of course I don't want a guy brandishing knives at me/my children. But I also know that if I call the police, odds are he ends up dead. That's not justice, and that's not the outcome I want. Surely we can come up with a better system than this. Why haven’t we?

This is an important moment of awakening for many white Americans, and an important opportunity to step into considered action. We should do so, and we should follow the lead of black people and other leaders of color. We should also be thoughtful about what we’re resisting, what we’re trying to co-create, and how our actions contribute to those objectives. As it happens, our next “Conversation on Transformation” (June 9th @ 10am Pacific) is on the topic of “conflict transformation”: how do we shift from violence and opposition to relationship and repair?

You can RSVP here if it’s of interest. Stay safe out there.