One of the gifts of being based in South Africa has been the opportunity to get to know Allan Kaplan and Sue Davidoff and their work at The Proteus Initiative. We’re excited to share a sneak preview of their soon-to-be-launched short book A Delicate Activism: A Radical Approach to Change. If you are interested in getting a copy of the book, click here.
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Delicate Activism – An Inescapable Reciprocity
By Allan Kaplan & Sue Davidoff
“The kind of attention we pay to the world changes the world we pay attention to.” -Ian McGilchrist
In our desperation at the state of things around us we try, desperately, to change it. A (justifiable) sense of urgency and outrage accompanies the desperation, as well as an enthusiasm for life in a society more closely aligned with our own values and outlook. From out of a deep sense of necessity, passion and conviction, we set out to change the world. And right here lies our own greatest challenge, our potential undoing. As we noted in the early part of this booklet, our very enthusiasm, passion, urgency and desperation unleashes, in an act of terrible irony, the potential conservatism that lurks in the depths of activism. It perpetuates the instrumentalism that inadvertently presumes a mechanical world, and leaves us outside the very field that we are working on (so that we come to ourselves last, if at all).
But what alternative is there – should we acquiesce, relinquish our conviction and our outrage and our humanity by accepting an unjust and unsustainable world, and simply succumb? No, this is no response at all, because it simply espouses a non-activist stance, it does not get to the heart of the activist challenge. It does not get to the other side of activism, and so leaves the field to those who see social and environmental issues as mechanical problems to be solved rather than as challenging moments in the evolution of our humanity. As activists, we cannot avoid the irony of these charges of conservatism and instrumentalism; they are the keys to the evolution of activism itself, and so to the essence of the human ideal. Because activism lies at the heart of our humanity; our striving for a better future is the essence of our humanity.
Some years ago, in an address given to the World Economic Forum in 1992, one of the most remarkable and powerful of modern activists, the Czech playwright, dissident, political prisoner and eventual president Vaclav Havel, said:
“We are trying to deal with what we have unleashed by employing the same means we used: recipes, new ideologies, new control systems, new institutions, new instruments to eliminate the dreadful consequences of our previous recipes . . . We treat the fatal consequences of technology as though they were a technical defect that could be remedied by technology alone. We are looking for an objective way out of the crisis of objectivism. Everything would seem to suggest that this is not the way to go. We cannot devise, within the traditional modern attitude to reality, a system that will eliminate all the disastrous consequences of previous systems . . . What is needed is something different, something larger. Man’s attitude to the world must be radically changed. We have to abandon the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved . . . we have to release from the sphere of private whim . . . the ability to see things as others do . . . things must once more be given a chance to present themselves as they are, to be perceived in their individuality. . .We must try harder to understand than to explain . . . “ *
Havel eventually retired from politics, before his time (though his time was also dedicated to his practice as artist) and he remarked, when he did so, that he was saddened by the growing sense that even his own government was now beginning to perpetrate the very things that he had resisted and fought against so assiduously in his days as activist and dissident rejected by the former Communist regime . . . his own activism was beginning to turn conservative, to turn against its own ideals. At this stage (and age) he no longer had the energy to resist this turning, which was so imperceptible to those around him. It took an artist’s sensibility to even perceive the turning.
This turning will continue to take place until we understand the truly radical nature of an activism that gets beyond its inherent tendency to slip into its own shadow of conservatism. Such understanding can only come through recognition of the phenomenological nature of a truly radical activism. Such recognition has to do with seeing that the very way we think affects and changes the world that we see … not subjectively (only for me because I see it that way) but in reality … the world becomes the way we see it, it changes, because it arises in the first place through the way in which we see it … it’s this meeting that constitutes the phenomenal world, the world of phenomena that we live amongst.
A truly radical activism, then, will take seriously this idea – that how we think about our world, how we see it, has more power to transform or hold captive than any overt action that we take (all actions, anyway, being premised on the way we think). A truly radical activism then will approach the world with its sensibilities for simultaneity wide open, and will recognise that it cannot simply act on the world but in fact is the very world that it sees, that it confronts. A truly radical activism then will not fail to recognise that it lives inside of the world it is trying to change, that any change will entail its own change and will follow from it. A truly radical activism will recognise that it is the world it is trying to change (that, as Jung noted, “what if I should discover that I, myself, am the enemy who must be loved, what then?”**). A truly radical activism will not / inch from self-scrutiny, will regard it as central to its very activist credo, as impossible to do without (not least, as Wittgenstein notes, because “If you are unwilling to know what you are, your style will be a form of deceit” and “If anyone is unwilling to descend into themselves because this is too painful, they will remain superficial”***).
A truly radical activism will realise that it is always working from the inside, out, and that the way it sees the world will become the world that it sees. A truly radical activism will understand that the world that arises through-conversation is the real world, and that conversation is the central activity of the radical activist (and, that conversation takes place not only between self and other but within the self as well). A truly radical activism recognises that it is how we see and how we think that transforms, far more than what we proclaim. A truly radical activism recognises that how we are is how the world becomes, and so deepened self-understanding is at the heart of this approach. Genuine conversation entails both self-reflection and open-endedness; and genuine conversation is the way through to the truly radical side of activism.
(Click here to obtain a copy of the full text and for details on the upcoming book launch & workshop in Cape Town)
*In Vaclav Havel’s Address to the World Economic Forum, 1992, available online at http:www.compilerpress.ca/competitiveness/Anno/Anno%20Havel.ht
** In Carl Jung’s Collected Works of CG Jung, edited and translated by G. Adler and R.F.C. Hull, Princeton University Press, 1970
*** In Ray Monk’s Ludwig Wittgenstein