Saturday, June 16, 2007

My "Creative Maladjustment" Talk

As noted in my last post, I was recently a keynote speaker, along with Sarah Conn and Allen Kanner, at the Psychology-Ecology-Sustainability Conference held June 9-11 at Lewis and Clark College. I was the only non-psychologist among the keynoters, but my talk "Creative Maladjustment: Activism as a Way to Heal Self, Society, and Planet" was remarkably well-received and included a standing ovation by the 175 conference participants. I was very touched too when Allen Kanner, the founder of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, wrote to say, "I loved what you had to say in your talk, and how you said it."

For anyone who would like a write up of my talk, please write me and I'll send you a PDF version. Also, please free feel to pass it on to any friends, colleagues, or contacts you think might be interested.

Here's a section from the talk to whet your appetite for more:

I do hear many activists complain that even well-meaning, pro-activist psychologists often fall into a very unhelpful psychological trap. This needs to be addressed before we can move forward together. Let me give you one very specific example of this unhelpful perspective. I found this example in the Psychologists for Social Responsibility book on Working for Peace I just mentioned. In it, there is a very interesting, but confusing piece by Dr. Christina Michaelson, a clinical psychologist who practices and teaches in Syracuse, New York.

Michaelson’s research interests include Eastern psychology, meditation, and inner peace and her essay in the book is called “Cultivating Inner Peace.” There is so much that is useful in this essay, so let’s start with that. First, there is absolutely no question that Michaelson is maladjusted to the world of violence and imperial war. In her essay, she also lauds all peace activists who “invest tremendous amounts of time, talent, energy, and resources into changing the world.” She also wisely claims that this work can be made even more effective, and more soul-satisfying, if peace activists cultivate their own inner peace through such methods as meditation, nature experiences, counseling, and prayer. I am completely with her on all of this.

Yet, in just her second paragraph, Michaelson says something I think we need to question. According to Michaelson:
If you’re to bring peace to others, then you must first manifest peace in your own life. Your peace work in the world should begin with cultivating an inner state of peacefulness and then you truly can offer peace to others. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” If you want to see peace in the world, then you must “be” peace in the world.
Now this all sounds pretty good on the surface, but I sense in her repetitive first/then formulation that she is actually counseling would-be peace activists to delay their outward social activism until they have cultivated a deep inner peace. She explicitly says it twice and implies it a third time in just this one brief passage. Her advice to her readers seems to be: first cultivate inner psychological peace and then, and only then, think about investing your “time, talent, energy, and resources into changing the world.”

If this is true, then Michaelson’s linear “personal growth first and then activism” idea is not only a serious misreading of Gandhi’s strategy for ending British imperialism, but is also an unconscious call to social passivity and foregoing outward activism until some unspecified future. This is just not helpful. As Paul Rogat Loeb notes in his book Soul of a Citizen, many people already hold back from becoming engaged activists because they believe that they have to be saints before they begin. As he says:
Many of us have developed what I call the perfect standard: Before we will allow ourselves to take action on an issue, we must be convinced not only that the issue is the world’s most important, but that we have perfect understanding of it, perfect moral consistency in our character, and that we will be able to express our views with perfect eloquence… Whatever the issue, whatever the approach, we never feel we have enough knowledge or standing. If we do speak out, someone might challenge us, might find an error in our thinking or an inconsistency—what they might call a hypocrisy—in our lives.
As a result of believing in Michaelson’s version of “the perfect standard,” many people I know either turn away from activism altogether or work endlessly in personal growth workshops to prepare themselves for a day that rarely comes--when they finally feel that they have met the perfect standard and can actually become activists out in the world. This is disheartening to me because I haven’t seen much evidence that this approach does all that much to help people move towards greater empowerment and wholeness in their lives. I also can’t think of a time in history when it has ever led to social movement success. Time and time again, effective social movements have been made by people who don’t wait on perfection, but who just get active by hook or crook.

[To give folks an example, I told the story I've told on this blog before of Martin Luther King's messy journey to activism in 1955.]


At 8:20 AM, Blogger Trever McFaddon said...

Wow Steve, what a insightful and crtical post. You nail it on the head concerning psychology. However, there are some psychologists that are trying to get it right. Check out Dr. Melinda Gelder and her book "Meeting the Enemy, Becoming a Friend." She talks about her own personal transformation as an activist living on a military base as well as how she used much of her psychological training to directly affect change between the military and the local Japanese citizens. I do agree, people need to start looking at activism in a developmental and personal growth light.

At 8:43 AM, Blogger sofia said...

what do you think of al gore? i think it is ok for him to be activist even if his personal life is not as environmentalist as he preaches... i have this problem of people demanding too much of environmentalists, like simple things as smoking or driving or things that all others do without being criticised. is the complete coherence stuff so important? or you mean something different?

At 4:06 PM, Blogger EdinNJ said...

Aren't there similar "You're not yet qualified" put-offs that people face in community organizing? For example, in my work with individuals who have thought of starting a mutual support group for particular health disorders, some describe how professionals have told them they couldn't go ahead and organize a group because they simply don't yet have the training or degree that's needed.

At 11:56 AM, Anonymous Diane said...

I really appreciate the excerpt from this talk - While seeking inner peace is of use for every person, It drives me crazy how many people who have discovered the benefits of yoga and eastern thought in recent years use those philosophies as an excuse to be extremely self-focused - often at the exclusion of the outside world. As if, somehow if each of us worked toward being the best person we could be that somehow everything else will fall into place. On the other hand, I know many activists and organizers (myself included at times) who put so much of themselves into making change around important issues that they put aside taking care of their own mental health. Like everything, there has to be a balance - balance between seeking to improve your inner self and fighting for justice out in the real world.


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