Alternative Editorial: The Difficulty Of Waking Up.
Yesterday I took part in a Global Conversation Day, hosted in the UK by The Talking Revolution. Held in The Common Room, Kings Cross, with 30 people of multiple ethnicities who had responded to the idea that we need to talk more. A similar conversation, we were told, was happening all over the world at the same time, including Vancouver, New Zealand, Italy, France, Trinidad, Lagos and New York.
It was a beautiful event, carefully facilitated to avoid any tribal framing – yet prepared to face the emergencies of our time: climate, Brexit and psycho-social health. The emphasis here however, was on our ability to communicate, whether as individuals, groups or in the broader society. When we talk, can we hear each other?
No doubt, attending that event meant we were all up for exercising that skill. Yet there was a very wide range of abilities to do so, prompting a range of questions. Why do some people need to be heard more than others? Why do some not speak up at all? Is it possible to hear another person other than through the filter of your own experience of life? In a very diverse room, there was no obvious pattern there.
In the room, there was also a common ‘sense’ that Brexit indicated a lack of talking skills in those areas where people voted for the first time. But hold on: is that true? Are we not all talking voluminously, albeit within our bubbles?
Think pubs, festivals, football matches, families. Even technology – often derided for replacing conversation - seems to be expanding our ability to express ourselves, and develop our ability to observe, in ways that earlier generations could not.
What then is the real issue that ‘A Talking Revolution’ could reveal and interrogate? While I left with a renewed sense of how different we all are – in a good way - what is it that we could be learning together while we talk? What are we listening out for that could help us move into a better relationship, capable of giving rise to better social outcomes for us all?
What is the value of empathy?
In another conversation this week, this time under the auspices of Extinction Rebellion, I was introduced to the concept of Empathy Circles. Practised in small groups of three, this is a beautifully designed tool-box for listening. While exploring that, we talked repeatedly about our capacity for expressing, allowing and holding our emotions.
Not unlike the Talking Revolution there was a sense that we had a good and important practice here: yet no clear sense of what to do with the new experience we were having. What do we do with these newly uncovered emotions?
Given the cacophony of modern life, being heard is clearly something all of us would benefit from. Yet for those speaking from within zones of deprivation – economic, ethnic, gender – it’s much more than that. Speaking up and being heard constitutes a correction to the public sphere – a renewing of our collective reality. No small ambition.
In a safe space, this would be manageable: processing our new feelings and understanding of each other can happen in the hours, days, months following our encounters. In more volatile spaces – political or activist - that can be tricky: the emotions we experience can be difficult to handle. The anger, grief and powerlessness being expressed has nowhere clear to go.
The quickest route is to hold others accountable – ultimately, the government, via different versions of the elites that control them. However, just to ‘blame’ your rulers is to profoundly disempower yourself, particularly if that anger disconnects you from the social relations around you.
One of the recurrent themes of social movements in the past twenty years – from the cultural creatives to Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the new politics and now Extinction Rebellion - with many more in between - has been the notion of waking up.
It’s as if we have all been in collective trance, allowing the downgrading of the huge majority of people in all parts of the planet in the interests of running a growth economy that only a small elite benefit directly from. That same economy has destroyed our planet.
Waking up, until now, has meant becoming starkly aware of the outside forces that have enabled this inequality. These forces can be as early as the failings of the agarian system around 9500 – 8500 BC (as Yuval Noah Harari described it in Sapiens) that set up a false hierarchy between man and ‘Nature’. Or the actions of marauding empires during the period of global colonisation, which led to false hierarchies between ethnicities.
Consider also the industrial revolution that made slaves of some men and masters of others. Or the Scottish Enlightenment, which reified the cognitive-rational over different forms of embodied knowledge. The list goes on and on - and it must. Awareness of our cultural and structural inequality lies at the heart of liberation movements everywhere.
However, what is still relatively low in our collective awareness is how we are constructed on the inside. Why have we allowed this incredible imbalance to arise? How has the 99% remained in thrall to the 1% if the numbers are so hugely in the favour of the majority.
Why does our anger disempower us rather than empower us? Why have our emotions largely distracted us rather than enabled us? Why is it that we feel so wrong for wanting the things we need? Why can we not simply collaborate when our very survival depends upon it?
Why are we blind to the needs of others when our rational minds consistently confirm that we cannot exist on our own?
If, as has been said so often by all doctors of the psyche, our emotions make us stupid, why do we place such a premium on expressing them now?
Our given emotional needs.
Although this is a huge field that I won’t try to summarise here, there are some key findings that could be considered core to unlocking our human potential. The first is the understanding that from birth, every human has ‘given’ needs, experienced through our emotions, that enable us to survive.
After decades of research into the neurological and evolutionary psychology already available, Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrell, founded the School of Human Givens to draw attention to what they describe as our interdependent psycho-social needs. Here they are in no particular order:
· Attention – giving and receiving
· Autonomy - control
· Connection - belonging
· Status - role
· Intimacy – friendship, being ‘known’
· Meaning and purpose
· Security – physical and existential
It’s interesting that, if you look at these nine, how many of them have been problematised by our industrial/post-industrial work culture. As if the very thing that allows us to flourish as human beings has been reconfigured as individualistic, meaning selfish, or ‘needy’. The Protestant work ethic has much to answer for in this regard.
While we were not taught at school how to get these needs met in a healthy, balanced way, others have always known how to harness them for their own purposes. The advertising industry, for example, has prided itself on being able to sell the products of its clients directly into our emotional needs system.
Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, taught business how to addict us to consumerism: an expensive handbag as a status object, a drink that delivers our need for belonging, pharmaceuticals that give us back control of our bodies and minds.
Addiction to buying stuff has been the means by which we have been persuaded to stay on the hamster wheel. We have used all our time and energy in service to the very thing we now understand has not only enslaved us, but has brutally damaged our planet. Waking up to that is complex. Realising we don’t need as much stuff as we thought we did is relatively easy, compared to the challenge of how we are going to get our needs met in healthier ways. If we ignore people’s need for status or control, for example, we get Farage and Trump.
Our Given Capacities
While we are born with these innate needs, we also have innate resources for getting those needs met, individually and collectively. I recommend this 5-minute read in the Human Givens literature to re-acquaint yourself with our human design.
Amongst these resources are the power of our imagination, the ability to build rapport, our long-term memory and our dreaming brain – all of which point to immense human potential that has, until now, been suppressed by our modern, working structure and culture. How can a person who spends 10 hours a day as a slave to the growth economy ever find the time and space to re-imagine and build a better future?
So we welcome the ‘global conversations’ and multitude of other spaces being convened to give people a ‘safe space’ within which to wake up. It’s crucial that we all being to listen to each other without harnessing their energy for our framing of our cause too soon.
The concept of decolonisation, for example, is a key learning in our shared understanding about how we got into our state of extreme inequality and climate injustice. However, it could be argued that colonial power relations are a pathologisation – rather than the compassionate meeting - of the universal human need for status, autonomy, achievement. If we aren’t alive to how easily our given emotional needs can be badly met, we will simply re-create the conditions for another form of colonisation. This may be the lesson of our more harsh current populisms, and perhaps fascism itself.
Instead, we have to work on better ways to get our needs met. We need to use our innate resource of imagination – a faculty equally distributed at birth – to build a society that helps us to flourish.
So that when we meet in bubbling conversation, we not only hear the sharing of our emotions as a call on our compassion, in itself valuable. But also as a place to understand our deeper needs and listen out for alternative ways to get them met, without destroying the planet.