Change things not people

by | 3 Sep 2021

The destination isn't all that matters - the path is just as important. 'Wokeness' is on the wrong path.

One of the arguments I want to develop in my writing on this website is that it will not do to pat yourself on the back about being right about the destination, how you get there is crucial. In reality, there isn’t ‘a future’ to reach, there are the things you do and the place they leads you. When someone starts talking about the future, watch what their hands are doing…

Time doesn’t have a destination, it offers paths. My belief in social, economic and environmental progress is a belief about choosing your path. Not once in my career as a strategist has involved describing the future and then going there, every case involved arriving somewhere, looking back and realising that ‘we made this place’.

That is why I want to write about the path as much as the destination. It should help explain why I do not identify with the methodologies of a kind of ‘progressive’ politics which has become known as ‘woke’, a methodology which the public now sees as synonymous with the left. It is a wrong turn down the wrong path which I do not support.

And that is because the path being taken does not lead to the destination its advocates believe it does and nor does it start from the place they seem certain it does.

Or, to put it more bluntly, the tools they believe will build their future don’t work in the way they think they do. They don’t build, they break, they don’t shape, they fragment. To be ‘morally right’ about the end point does not excuse you from responsibility of how to get there.

The problem emerges from the ideologies of individualism that took hold in the 1960s and which transformed a generation’s perspectives on the world, a transformation which became complete in the 1980s and 1990s. Society was recast as a system of trade, of interactions between individual actors. For the right that meant the money changing hands; for one strand on the left that meant their attitudes and beliefs.

Society could then be imagined as the interplay of lots and lots of personal beliefs and attitudes – the personal was truly political. Understanding the world in which we lived was to try and understand the moral failure of groups within society.

We left behind the traditional analysis of groups based around economic power and instead created many more groups based on personal identity. Thus ‘what is wrong with society’ can be traced back to the ways that people think based on the identity group to which they belong.

This is indeed an important aspect of understanding society and in fact dates right back to the founding fathers of sociology – Max Weber, Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim all recognised the essential role of cultural identity. But that was well established in moral philosophy; their big breakthrough discovery was that social phenomena didn’t track to social identity groups the way people thought they did, that there was something else going on.

That ‘something else’ is the impact on people’s behaviour of their place in social hierarchies which in turn is dominated by economic power. You can see it clearly in the post-war period where there was massive social change and gain as hierarchies contracted and economic power was shared more evenly.

Time doesn’t have a destination, it offers paths. My belief in social, economic and environmental progress is a belief about choosing your path.

But when this trend reversed in the 1980s, parts of the left reversed with it. Society became seen as a spreadsheet of individual attitudes, beliefs and behaviours interacting in a marketplace of human interaction.

And so, according to the inexorable logic of this line of thinking, a change in society is best achieved by changing these attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. The lesson that these change fastest when economic equality gets better becomes lost and the belief that the future is a process of ‘reeducation’ takes hold.

Those who have ‘realised’ this, who ‘suddenly see’ the ‘oppression’ which results from these ‘wrong attitudes and beliefs’ have awoken – they actually brand themselves as woke, higher up the scale of human awareness and understanding than the ‘sheeple’. And from their vantage point, they can see clearly that the only solution is ‘zero tolerance’ to those who are beneath them on the moral hierarchy. It is their responsibility to reeducate those who can be reeducated and to isolate those who cannot.

This, of course, is not a new idea by any manner of means. It was common practice in early magic – the ‘wise one’ could see what others couldn’t and those who didn’t believe that were a problem. It is the mechanism by which the gnostics were turned into heretics and suppressed, the driving force behind the Spanish Inquisition, the foundation of China’s Cultural Revolution.

But we should have moved on from this because we know a lot more now. We have neuroscience, we have psychological study, we have historical and social analysis. We know for certain that ‘reeducation’ doesn’t work.

Whatever specific version of punishment beatings, gulags and reeducation camps are developed and deployed by a new generation, what we know is that it does indeed change what people think – but in precisely the wrong direction.

You can see it in an MRI scan – tell someone that the person they are, the belief they hold, the way they behave is wrong and bad and must change and the bits of the brain that light up are the defensive and aggressive bits, the parts which shore up existing world views. Yes, this changes their brain, but rather than shifting it or making it more responsive to new ideas it makes them angry, more certain they’re right, ready to fight.

We know this from social psychology – the consequences of dismantling someone’s sense of themselves as a ‘good person’ through confrontation is not generally a positive one for anyone involved.

I believe we must travel together with patience, tolerance and kindness, whether we always feel it or not. If this is hopelessly out of fashion, so be it.

In history punishment beatings worked only in as far as they couldn’t be escaped, that they were always real and immediate and you could never avoid them. The modern form does not enable this – rather than driving people to reassess their views, abusing people on social media, cancelling them, trying to remove their income source or any other direct attack sends them in the other direction.

Like all human beings they seek out a tribe, one which offers safety and comfort. And they find that in the direction opposite to that from which the blows are coming. They become bitter, angry, defensive and want revenge. Far from achieving social change it makes change more difficult. It does all this because it is a fundamentally inhumane way for humans to react to each other.

It is a very long way away from pointing out this truth to be condoning racism or misogyny. But to hate racism, misogyny and poverty must surely make you want to take the path most likely to bring them to an end. And to decry those who oppose a system of perpetual punishment beatings for failing to support a destination to which those beatings will not lead is just more of the same problem.

We need to learn not from the Cultural Revolution or the Spanish Inquisition but from the calm, scientific measure of what works. Much of Eastern philosophy, traditions like Quakerism or the peace movement, detailed analysis of historical periods of social change or understanding the merits of the Nordic system will all take you to the same place.

The best way to change people is to change their world for the better and to be kind to them while you do it. So, so much of what ‘wokeness’ wishes to ‘beat out of people’ is rooted in anger, anger at an unfairness they believe is being perpetrated on them. And (really importantly) broadly they are right, an unfairness is being perpetrated on them. They work too many hours to pay too much for their housing in a society over which they have insufficient meaningful control.

If we let the political right persuade them that it is us who are perpetrating unfairness on them because we never stop attacking them and fail to persuade them that it is the result of a social and economic system which makes their life less than it should be (and then rubs their face in it via glossy pictures of the successful), we will lose them to more anger.

Anger and revenge is not the path to the Scotland or the world in which I want to live. ‘Calling out’, ‘cancelling’ and ‘deconstructing’ people is not how I personally want to live my life. I grew up in a small rural town; it was no Marxist enclave. I learned to speak out on what I couldn’t but accept that I can’t change people by lecturing them all the time.

I disapprove strongly of the operating methods of ‘wokeness’ because I want things that would appall them. I want poor white supremacists to have a good job, a nice house, a decent life. I want that because it’s the humane thing to want and because I know that’s how they have by far the best chance of changing their views.

Wokeness seems to me to insist that they must earn a decent life through recanting their heresies, that they must suffer for their sins and only then can they be forgiven. It is the opposite of what I believe, the absolute opposite.

We don’t change people, we change the things that affect them – and then they change themselves. We know this to be true. We know this path has led to better futures before. If we leave people behind us on this path we fail them and ourselves.

When I started Common Weal I thought long and hard about our tagline, our little ‘mission statement’. It had to capture what I thought was the organisation’s role in the world, to explain how it wanted to change Scotland. It remains the tightest encapsulation of what I believe is the path we should seek out.

All of us first. When I oppose wokeness I do so because it does not believe this, that it believes in a ‘hierarchy of deserving’, that we can punish our way to the future. But that is more violence, begetting more violence, begetting more violence. I wish nothing to with it.

I believe we must travel together with patience, tolerance and kindness, whether we always feel it or not. If this is hopelessly out of fashion, so be it.

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