What Can We Do?
Posted on 20 February 2017
Things are going seriously wrong in the world. Many people are finally concerned enough that they want to take action.
A lot of different people have the populace running around like chickens with their heads cut off. “Do this! Do that!” Soon people are confused and weary. We need to reduce the busy work, while still supporting consistent action. That action may sound like stuff you have been told many times before, the point is that we finally need to listen. So, I suppose I am giving you another list. Today is the general list. On another day I will give you a more specific one. I just hope they are particularly effective ones. I want to get at the ugly roots of our problems, so they are more likely to go away for good. That will take a deep courage worthy of great respect.
In order to put our to-do list together properly we have to set our priorities. The two most pressing concerns that are driving a long list of woes are:
- Poverty and
- The abuse of our living world.
These two issues are profoundly bound up in each other. We must be willing to grapple with why these problems have become so entrenched in our culture and find genuine solutions for overcoming them. My sense is that at base this is about fear and our felt need for control. Fear is a very broad term. So, let me provide an example of fear and what it can do.
Fear and Power
In 1971 Philip Zimbardo ran the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which students role-played guards and prisoners. Early into the experiment things went horribly wrong and Zimbardo had to cancel it after the students roleplaying guards began to abuse the students roleplaying prisoners, some of whom experienced mental breakdowns. Zimbardo describes the incident in an article published by Nautilus.
Students in 1971 were anti-war activists. Many students on many campuses protested against the war, were beaten up or suffered abuse by their local police. So nobody wanted to be a prison guard. Initially, it was very difficult for the boys playing prison guards to get into their role. But, the second day of the study, the prisoners rebelled. They did not want to be dehumanized, because one way to take away power is to take away your name, your style, the way you wear your hair and so forth…
All 12 guards came in, and they crushed the rebellion. At that point, the guards said, “These are dangerous prisoners. We have to show who is in charge, who is the boss.” That changed everything. That’s when it became a prison. No one used the word “experiment” again. The guards used physical force—stripped the prisoners naked, put them in chains, put them in solitary confinement. There was actual fighting. The guards used psychological force to make prisoners feel helpless and hopeless.
Example: Poverty in Melbourne Australia
I am currently helping the homeless of Melbourne to stop a new set of laws targeting them. These laws mean those who have been forced to sleep on the streets can be fined or have their belongings confiscated, simply for having the bad luck of having to do so in the city. These people are caught in a nightmarish trap. People who have lost jobs, are refugees, had to run away from home, etc have to choose food over housing. Because they don’t have an address, they are ineligible for Federal support. This forces them to become professional beggars. Most of their time is taken up with simple survival.
Unemployment in parts of Melbourne is as high as twenty percent. A single unemployed person on Newstart Allowance is receiving $528.70 per fortnight. Currently, private rooming costs $130-$200 per week for one person. This leaves people with as little as $64 per week on which to get by if they are getting funding. This kind of money is beyond the beggars. Victoria has 35,000 people waiting to receive public housing and the state government is selling these properties off to developers. This creates more homeless. It doesn’t take long living in the streets for clothing to be damaged and for people to become dirty. Not only are they not getting Federal help, there’s no way to make it possible for them to get jobs.
We are already seeing the outcomes of these changes in Melbourne city policy. If a homeless person has to use the toilet and leaves their things to do so, the police come and take their things. People have been told they can pick their items up at town hall, but when they arrive they find the items have been taken to the rubbish tip. One homeless man was frantic when the police threw away genuine medication for a serious medical condition. Unsurprisingly these people become upset and angry. They are desperate. What is being done means the difference between life and death. And the homeless come from all walks of life: children from middle class families, former university lecturers in astrophysics, people from the building trades, and more. Those who are living secure lives want to see these people behaving peacefully before they are willing to give them help. To be honest all I have seen at the homeless rallies is peaceful behaviour albeit peppered with angry colourful language.
Sadly, homeless anger is being used by the city council to justify their strong measures. At the council meeting I attended people told stories of their degrading treatment and I watched councillor’s faces shut down and their manner become formal. The place was utterly surrounded by police. We had to have our items checked and many of them left outside before we were allowed to enter the council chambers. The news reporting largely painted a picture of the event that was imaginary. They pointed out how aggressive they found the homeless. If you were there it was clear that all the power was in the hands of the council. We were all completely vulnerable to the whims of the city government. Evidently the council plans to spend money on a public education campaign to discourage people from supporting homeless people with donations of money, food, and basic supplies.
Can you see how similar this situation is to what happened in the Stanford Prison Experiment? The more dangerous the powerless were portrayed as, the more control was enforced upon them, the worse the situation became.
The frightening core of this situation is that as a society we are only as safe as the people we treat the worst. Anyone for any number of reasons can fall between the cracks. You could fall between the cracks. Our security is an illusion and many people sense this without consciously acknowledging it. The more poor and homeless we all see in the world, the more frightening it becomes to lose a job. With that fear we all accept worse and worse working conditions to make sure we are the ones who survive. We can convince ourselves that we are getting by because of our virtuous work ethic. This is also a tool for toadying up to employers: “You want to keep me, see how much harder I work than anyone else?” Yet the more we work, the less time we have to ensure we live in a fair and humane society—the less time we have to even love, reflect, and feel human.
When most of our day and most of our life is dictated to us by a company where we have no say in how we are treated or what we can do, we do not live in a democracy. Then when people are subsequently coerced to work for the dole, because there are so few jobs to be had in our increasingly technological society, that is slavery. It is work when people are being given public service jobs with full pay and full workers rights that they can take or leave by choice, anything less and they are being used as captive menials.
So we now have levels of captivity. And the more we struggle to stop the abuse, the more force the people at the top use to control us. Sadly, we are often complicit in this in our attitudes toward those below us as we imbibe in the Stockholm Syndrome cup. We can become desperate for status. That desperation equates to a need to consume in a manner that will make us feel secure. We will want to live like we are rich, so that we can become part of the rich club, so we will hopefully be beyond poverty. And so we use up our planet’s resources. We find we need the poor to prop up excessive lifestyles. Those who are poor will kill endangered species and destroy forests, rivers, oceans, and ecosystems just to eat. More destruction. Hence we create a planet that can no longer support us…any of us, rich or poor.
The To Do List
Don’t focus on Trump. Don’t focus on particular politicians or wealthy corporate heads. You do away with them without changing our culture and nothing gets better. Learn how to best care for the vulnerable and do it. Learn sympathy and how to help one another. Learn how to live simply. Find intrinsic satisfaction and peace, rather than always chasing after extrinsic validation and false security.
The crazy thing is, even though those in power are immensely wealthy, they only have as much control as we give them. So few people are calling the shots that collectively we could knock them over with a feather. Doing so through violent revolution would be a complete waste of time and lives. War is a lose/lose less situation. All we need to do is not play their games, and replace those games with better ways of living.
Create a world where all energy is renewable, all needs are met sustainably, all businesses are democratic nonprofit cooperatives, and all people and all creatures are treated with respect and dignity. We can do this at a community level. If enough communities do this then cities, states, and whole countries will be carried by a public tide.
As dark as things seem. Change could be easier than we all realise.
Peace and kindness,