Communication

The Case for “Hashtag Activism”

I’ve never seen myself as an activist.  I was born on third and spent a lot of my life thinking I’d hit a triple. As I’ve started to learn about privilege — all the benefits I receive in the society I live because I’m a white, able-bodied cis-gender heterosexual male who learned English as his first language and who has never had any serious bouts of mental illness or hard financial times — I’ve started to think more seriously about why I’ve never been an activist.

The thing about privilege is that by possessing it, you’re blinded to its impact. White people don’t easily see the advantages afforded to them as white people, black and brown people do. Men don’t immediately see the advantages afforded them by their gender, women (and all gender non-conformers) do. Able-bodied people don’t see the advantages afforded to them by their luck, people with handicaps do. I could go on.

The most effective and important place I’ve learned about privilege in all its depth is from people I’ve never met personally, on Twitter. In the context of a casual place I started visiting to see dumb jokes and discussions of techology, I would see glimpses of perspectives different than my own. Sometimes I’d pursue them, sometimes they just appeared for me to notice or ignore.

Twitter in specific — and social media in general — is such an effective space for genuine transformation of opinion and understanding because it is so casual and ambient. Its rare — at least as a quiet and privileged person — that someone is confronting me directly. Instead I see them caring about a topic on which I’m not informed. It’s a safe place for me to ignore them, if I’d rather, or pursue what they’re talking about if I choose.

The activism of marches and sit-ins and strikes is important. Essential even. But it’s not the only way to transform people or situations.

When the only media was mass media, the only way to galvanize attention was to make a scene so big that no one could deny it or ignore it. The only time the civil rights activists of the fifties, sixties, and seventies were able to talk to those whose passive acquiescence to the status quo sustained it was when they made the evening news.

Today, smaller and less-reported demonstrations, events, and opinions can go quite far, among a network of sympathetic ears. And at the edges of a network of sympathy — to the plight of black men in America, to the casual violence so frequently suffered by (trans)women, etc — are interested but ignorant eyes and ears.

The change engendered by “hashtag activism” is much slower than the sort that can be spurred by large demonstrations. It is a slow opening of those people at the edges of a an existing network of concern. But if or when they’re converted, then the network has grown by a small but important amount.

This a slow process, and one largely invisible from the outside. But its significance, power, and importance is easy to miss, deride, and understate. This sort of “activism” won’t change the world in a year, or even a few, but it certainly has value.

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OPW

OPW: “Our Actions Create Our World”

I haven’t done this in a while, but I’ve been thinking about bringing it back. OPW stands for “Other People’s Words,” and since I moth-balled Link Banana I’ve been sharing most things I would have previously put there on Twitter. But this mini graduation/commencement/life speech from Hank Green, in the form of a YouTube video, was good enough I wanted to put it somewhere a bit more permanent.

Partial transcript:

Hello, future dead person! I have an uncomfortable truth for you: you are very likely, one of the luckiest and most powerful people who has ever existed on this planet.

Now you almost certainly do not feel powerful. It’s difficult to feel powerful unless you suddenly have more power than you once had or have much more power than the people around.

So, you don’t feel that power all the time. And it’s probably good that you don’t, because it might be crippling. But in terms of absolute, not relative, power you are basically a god. You can hold the sum of all human knowledge in the palm of your hand. If you’ve ever taken a hot shower on a cold day, you have experienced a luxury that the vast majority of humankind could never even dream of. …

There is one thing that I can definitely say about the world as it exists right now: we are, at this moment, both creating and solving problems faster than we ever have before. So your job—the only thing anyone can ask of you as a human—is to solve more problems than you create. Also, take care of yourself and and have a good time, ideally. But you are very powerful, and you can make your world and yourself better. So, do that.

… I also live in a world that was created by the actions of people. … Our culture is just the collective actions and decisions of people.

And that culture is, at this point, the single most important factor in the health and sustainability our species. And we all get to collectively decide what that culture is.

Now, it might feel like we have no control of this. That we’re at the whims of what has come before. That we’re destined to end up in a cut-throat world of ever-increasing inequality. But not if we decide to not live in that world. Not if we choose compassion.

We collectively decide what world we’re going to live in by being that world. That’s the real power you have. It’s not your job, and it’s not your bank account.  It’s a power that every human has. Every human ever has had. And it has nothing to do with immortality or fame. And yet, I think that it might be the most important thing that every person does.

The reason we educate ourselves and improve ourselves is so that we can be more effective at making these positive changes. At creating more solutions then problems. Because in the end, your actions are what build our world. So don’t take that for granted.

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Personal Development

You’re Either Make the World Closer to Your Ideal, or You’re Not

There are two things about categorical statements: all of them are wrong, but some of them are useful. And so at one level, I think this piece’s title is clearly wrong: some actions don’t quite make the world better or not, they just kind of happen.

But that being said, it’s clarifying to realize that fundamentally this is a choice that every action you make can be categorized into: either it makes the world more like you’d like, or it doesn’t. Either you’re having a positive transforming impact, or you’re not.

One of the complicating factors on this simple dichotomy is that we all want the world be different in some very big and some very small ways. For example, I’d like to know that I was definitely not having an negative impact on the global environment. I’d also like to be able to get to a conference across the country next weekend without having to rely on only my own muscles (and perhaps a bicycle) to get there. What do I do?

Another great example is that I’d like to look like a Greek god. 5% body fat, big (but not obscenely large) muscles. “Ripped.” But I also like the taste of pies, chocolates, and other unhealthy things. And I don’t particularly like to perform all the exercises (in either their specific motions, or the quantity) required. Plus, as much as I’ve learned to like the flavor of vegetables, I couldn’t stay happy for long on those alone.

So what gets in the way of making this a simple and concise hueristic by which you change your actions and thus simply transform the world is that there are these different time horizons where our desires for world transformation operate. Maybe I’d like to lose 10 pounds, but dislike the feeling of hunger. Maybe I’d like to gain 10 pounds, but just can’t fathom how people eat that much food.

This balancing of all the different horizons of our desires is an art, and a constant dance. Like balancing a stick above your hand, it requires continuous adjustment. Sometimes you’re in a place where your short term desires and your long term ones align. Sometimes you’ve got to put your short-term ones on hold to pursue the long ones, sometimes the opposite. It’ll never feel perfect and natural, but the balancing of it is what living is.

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Personal Development

Things Don’t Change Unless Something Changes Them

It’s one of those things that seems so obvious that we don’t think about it. But it’s also true: things don’t change unless something changes them. The rock that you see today will be the same forever, unless (as is likely to happen) wind, water, people, and other entropic forces eventually change that rock.

This is more useful as it comes closer to the realm of human life. Unlike rocks, our bodies are self-sustaining agents of change and chaos. We eat, drink, sleep, move, and breathe — processes of transformation. Our living body is always in flux. So we’re bad at noticing all the things that don’t really change.

The mental stuff — how I think, act, and react to the world — doesn’t change fast. The way that I feel about myself is unlikely to change without effort. If I see myself as a stupid fat ugly worthless person it’s very likely that, save for the interaction of a saintly other stepping into my personal psychology and helping me out of that darkness, I will stay convinced I am that until I die. We like to think that our minds are powerful agents of change — they can be — but they’re also habit-driven robots that tend to live in their own ruts.

Your ownership of your relationship to yourself is obvious; after all, you’re the only one in that relationship. And the something that changes a relationship with another I rely on or care about can be the other person. Because of that you’ll often find it even easier to believe in your impotent powerlessness. It’ll be easier for you to just say, “I guess this relationship can never work,” than to take responsiblity for changing it.

But the thing that’s true — about a relationship on the rocks, your negative and problematic self image, or the simple fact that your socks are currently scattered all around your house to the chagrin of all the people you live with — is that the facts of those situation won’t change without something changing them.

And that thing that changes them can be you. Even when others are involved. You can seek the counseling you, or that relationship, might need. You can work, on your own, to change it. You can go pick up your socks. You don’t have the ability to dictate the final outcome. But the closest and most reliable change-agent you’ll ever have control over is yourself.

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Communication

The Slow Revolutions of Love

Nonviolent revolutions aren’t clear and simple and swift; they’re typically exactly the opposite. Slow and halting and frustrating.

Violent revolutions have a clarity. A, typically abusive, power structure is forcibly displaced through the expending of material and life energy. This can have a certain effectiveness and speed, and so inspires hope. And there are places where it does, indeed, have a good outcome.

The American Revolution would probably be seen by most people throughout the world as a violent revolution whose outcome had good results. That is to say: the resulting power structure was generally as free, just, and fair as the one it displaced.

But most violent revolutions are more problematic. Violent revolutions have an understandable tendency to create power structures based in violence. Places where order is maintained not so much by the consent of the governed as their fear of the new occupants of the seat of power. The entire history of the Soviet Union is the most prominent and easy to read this way today.

One is tempted, when seeing injustice in the world, to want to counteract it as quickly and effectively as possible. And almost by definition, that action which is swift and decisive will be “violent.” But beyond the dictionary play, it is unlikely that you’re going to want to respect the power structure you see perpetrating an injustice. You’re going to want to overpower it; forcibly displace it; damage it.

The politics of love doesn’t work that way. Love is a slow process of transformation. It’s a revealing, and an opening, and at times it’ll halt and even seem to stop. Its triumphs are small and partial and imperfect. It is the Civil Right Act of 1963, but it doesn’t stop the madness of cases like Rodney King or Eric Garner. It is the fact that today at the end of 2014 gay marriage is legal in a majority of, but not all, US states. It is the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest, but that Burma is not a well-functioning popular democracy. It is the fact that Tibet is still occupied by the Chinese and that South Africa still has crazy levels of black poverty.

Governments are at their best when they’re responsive to the actual will of the people they govern. And the wills of masses of people aren’t something that’s easy to change. Coercion can make a change seem to have happened from a distant perspective, but it doesn’t actually make it happen. Real change, at the level of the individual, is a slow, inefficient, and idiosyncratic process.

Democracies are at their best when they reflect the well-considered and high-minded will of the people. But the will of the people is not something that can easily be swayed by force, nor should it be. And so it’s partial and halting and incomplete, this quest for justice founded in love in the modern political epoch.

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Practical Philosophy

Seeing Through Nouns

Nouns are a part of speech most people understand, and they’re common across all human languages. And yet we know of very fews nouns that aren’t simply an aggregate of a number of other nouns. Further, those aggregates of other nouns are, by the very nature of their compound-ness, temporary.

Recently someone presented an idea that blew my mind a bit: in reality, there are no nouns. There are bits of energy assembled and masquerading as nouns for periods of time. For some things — as fruits of a tree — this illusion is very short. The period of time during which an unharvested apple or plum remains an apple or plum is no more than a few months. So while we see the atoms of an apple taking that form for a while, we’re also well aware that it’ll form a brown sludge on the ground where it fell if left untouched.

Most bugs are living, flying things for a mere matter of days. All the parts of a fly — the eyes, the legs, the body, the wings — are combinations of atoms that will be a living corporeal creature for a few weeks. After that, they may stay together — unworking — for a few months. But eventually they’ll get processed through the digestive system of a frog, or decompose, or something else, and all those atoms will become other things.

Some things last for much much longer. Our sun has had the form we call by that name for about 4.5 billion years. But before we would have identified it as a star or our sun, all the atoms in it existed. They just hadn’t joined together into the unit that we recognize. We’d think of them as free hydrogen atoms floating near each other; the accretion of them into a cluster of mass sufficient to be recognized as a star, and to give off the energy of a star, and have the physical processes of a star, took time. But the atoms were there before. The sun, as all things, is a process that we identify much more than the concrete entity we can mistake it for.

Literally nothing that we know of in this world is permanent. Flowers, people, rocks, and planets: all of them will, in some period of time, cease to be those things we recognize them as today. There is nothing so certain as change, and the fact that things aren’t what we mistake them for.

Realizing that nouns are really just temporary assemblages that came together and are currently in the process of “verbing” that noun is a clarifying new lens through which to see the inherent ephemerality of the material world we inhabit. Nouns are comforting and useful — try to communicate effectively without them… — but when we forget that they’re not real, we set ourselves up for heartache.

Most people understand that nothing lasts. But we also forget it. A lot. And that’s why remembering the non-existence of nouns is useful. It brings us back to the reality that there are no nouns. The material world is really built out of very slow verbs.

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Practical Philosophy

The Hidden Power of Acceptance

Most people think of power as assertive and domineering. That power rides up to the world and forcefully changes the way that it flows. Sometimes, power does look like this. And it’s undeniable that this kind of power is the most visible and compelling.

But as many martial artists know, there’s a lot of power in taking the way the winds are blowing and modestly intervening to better align it with your interests. While the traditionally powerful fighter will stride confidently into the ring and forcefully throw punches at will, a clever and skilled master in any of a number of martial arts will seize this as a great and powerful opportunity. When the opponent is assertive and driving the fight, a defender aware and knowledgeable of what the attacker does is able to take advantage of the weaknesses his style exposes.

Acceptance of the opponent’s style is powerful in fighting because it allows you to turn a fight from a one-on-one affair into a two-on-one match. Me and my opponent’s aggressive style against my opponent. There’s a reason martial arts movies love to tell this story, and a reason we keep needing to hear it — we still don’t really get it.

We continue to insist that we know the way to do things in the world, and that way is to set a course and push valiantly in that direction until we succeed. And that can and does work at times. But it works only when it’s got all the luck of the world flowing behind it. When it (more typically) fails, we think that we’ve failed. But the failure’s root cause will likely be that we allowed ourself to completely ignore the way the world really is.

To many, especially stereotypically Western, mindsets, acceptance is something that weak subservient people have to learn. This mindset leads to the belief that world is led (or should be led) by those who have the ability to dominate and change present conditions. But even the most strident person can probably think of at least a few times when acceptance would have helped.

Acceptance’s power lies in its lack of denial. Where the domineering mindset may well have to fights two fights — against both reality and it’s actual fight — simultaneously, a wise acceptance constrains the problem to its own fight. By accepting, respecting, and taking full view of reality as it is right now, acceptance allows one to start from a place of knowledge rather than ignorance. And by working with reality, acceptance has a lot of power.

I’ve used this quote more than a few times on this site, and it’s been a defining one in my life. But I always return to it because it’s so accurate. Henry Miller:

Everything we shut our eyes to, everything we run away from, everything we deny, denigrate or despise, serves to defeat us in the end.

The power of acceptance is that it removes from play all those hidden corners of reality that can defeat you. By accepting everything you can see and sense fully, the world as it is becomes yours to change. By denying any facet of reality, the world is yours to slowly and blindly fight against. The choice is yours, but I recommend acceptance.

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Personal Development

On Dreaming Your Dreams

One of the hardest things I’ve learned in my life is that dreaming doesn’t make it so. This sounds so self-evidently true that you’d think I never needed to learn it. But I knew it, and sometimes still know it, only intellectually. What’s needed to really grow and mature and become the person you want to be is to know it completely instinctively and automatically. You need to know it in your bones.

Continue reading

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Life

Boiling the Frog, Resolutionism, and Exercise

When it comes to changing your life, people always get a critical things wrong: they overvalue aspiration and undervalue planning. It’s understandable: apiration is easy and planning is work with the promise of ever more work to come.

But the other, perhaps more powerful part of change that people get chronically wrong about life-change is that they get caught on what I like to call “resolutionalism”. Continue reading

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Life

Grit & Doing the Change

You care, you’ve got a plan, now you’ve just got to do it. Great! You’re going to change your life. This is the easy part! You just need to get up every day for a year, and go for a five mile run first thing in the morning, no exceptions.

The hard part of doing the things that you’ve planned and plotted to change your life is that a lot of that doing is dull. Continue reading

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