When I tell stories to my grand children’s classes, I notice that – no matter how feeble my effort might be that day – every face is rapt, eyes wide, waiting to see what happens next. Sometimes they raise their hands and suggest additions to the story; at the very least I can see them mouthing to themselves what they think is going to happen. This is not passive absorption, it is ongoing participation in the narrative. It is humbling to be part of it.
As the years go by such participatory urges are gradually suppressed by our education system, which is based on one way communication from teachers and books to the “mind” of the student. This mind is supposedly being filled with knowledge, but in reality it is being emptied of curiosity, creativity, and the spirit of engagement.
By the time we are adults, we are watching other peoples’ stories, on the Internet, or with television or the movies. That’s not all. We listen to other peoples’ music. Machines and other people grow and produce our food. Responsibility for our health is placed in the hands of doctors or other health practitioners. Our houses and neighbourhoods are designed and built by professionals. Important decisions about our communities and regions are taken by people who compete for votes on election day, but who (though their attention is fixed on polls) have little interest between elections in hearing our personal views or even in encouraging our engagement in politics.
Large institutions have a lot to do with how all this passivity has arisen. But rather than dwelling on its sources, I want to show there are signs that we still have the urge to be active participants in the technology-saturated world around us. These urges can be seen not only in our personal lives but also in the public arena.
Anyone who has been to an African American church service and heard a sermon knows that the congregation helps to shape that sermon. The preacher may be in front of the room, but his or her message adjusts itself to the responses of the listeners – who are not merely listeners.
Martin Luther King, Jr was a gifted speaker in his own right. However, one of his biographers has analyzed some of his addresses and noticed that, rather than following a particular written script, King would test out themes until one of them obviously touched a nerve. Then he would continue to stimulate and excite that nerve in different ways, to raise emotions to a fever pitch. In the words of James C. Scott, “The seemingly passive listeners to his soaring oratory helped write his speeches for him.”
Scott gives another example: Franklin D. Roosevelt. He started out his first campaign in 1932 as a conservative Democrat. His campaign train criss-crossed the United States, with Roosevelt speaking from his rail car at one whistle-stop after another. He was met by a dispirited populace, many of them jobless and poor, who would respond vigorously when he promised assistance and offered some hope of institutional change. “Roosevelt and his speech writers worked feverishly, trying new themes, new phrasings, and new claims. At the end of the campaign, his oral ‘platform’ was far more radical than it had been at the outset.” The crowds had helped to effect a transformation not only of FDR’s speeches, but also of his programs for change. Roosevelt understood, consciously or unconsciously, that exchanges between speaker and audience can provide fertile soil for the germination of imaginative ideas.
Most politicians don’t get this. I have heard even accomplished orators such as Barack Obama receive huge applause and cheers for a well-turned phrase but plough ahead, speaking over the crowd to finish his point. What is he thinking? He’s got to catch a train? No, I think this is how so-called leaders in a nonparticipatory culture “communicate” with passive followers.
Listening to stories and speeches, of course, is not the same as making up our own stories and speeches, let alone building our own houses or being our own best healers. Yet there are hopeful stirrings suggesting that in countless ways some of us are restless to escape from our habits of passivity and learnt helplessness, to use Michael Pollan’s phrase.
Many of the millions who used to wander supermarket aisles in a semi-stupor, filling their carts with processed foodlike items, are now searching out farmers’ markets, growing vegetables, and cooking meals from scratch in their own kitchens. This change in attitude toward food has become a movement, and it is not just a middle class phenomenon, either. The working class and the poor are discovering that our economic system puts proper nourishment out of the reach of the disadvantaged and that achieving a healthy diet is crucial to improving their lives socially and economically. We are all finding out that the food movement is a political project as well.
Almost everyone who is caught up in the food movement has also noticed that it links us up to all sorts of new people and ideas. Such a process leads us to connect dots we never connected before, which can be wonderfully empowering and enlivening.
On another front, hundreds of millions of people are (and have been) healing themselves outside the model of mainstream medicine. More importantly, a huge number of people are choosing to combine alternative and mainstream Western methods to help themselves. In Europe there are 300,000 registered alternative practitioners, almost half of whom are also trained as conventional physicians.
There is a political side to this attitude toward health. Rather than waiting until they become sick and require powerful drugs or surgery, citizens are getting together to clean up polluted waterways and to prevent the spread of toxins by opposing factory farming, fracking, and other polluting industries that parachute themselves into the locality. To get an idea of how many thousands of groups are doing this work around the world, have a look at wiser.org, a brainchild of Paul Hawken. It has compiled data on over 100,000 NGOs involved in ecological restoration, social justice, and health – and their interconnections.
I think all of us have this internal desire to engage ourselves with the world in many ways, not just in working and raising a family, but in making ourselves part of our local and regional communities. David Putnam, after documenting a postwar slump in civic engagement in Bowling Alone, sees a growing interest in public affairs. Interestingly, he sees it more in direct action at the local level than in national politics.
Machines and technology are wonderful, but they are the corpses of ideas from the past. Machines don’t have new ideas because they are dead. Unfortunately, they can turn into substitutes for face-to-face cooperation with other people. Once we discover the creativity and (sometimes) pure joy that comes from doing stuff together, our energy to participate blossoms, especially at the level of our neighbourhoods.
For inspiring examples of how individual neighbourhoods and towns are “starting to build a new economy based on local action,” in particular an economy that is both democratic and carbon free, read Rob Hopkins’ short book, The Power of Just Doing Stuff. The Transition Town movement, which he helped to start, has spawned hundreds of initiatives from below in 40 different countries. Don’t wait for permission, writes Hopkins. Instead, he says, explore what’s possible to do right now. He gives numerous examples of people joining with neighbours in riding bikes, baking bread, installing solar panels, planting community gardens, and sharing skills with each other.
Our urge to participate isn’t dead. It just needs resuscitation.
Hawken, Paul, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No On Saw It Coming, Penguin Books, Ltd. London, 2007.
Hopkins, Rob, The Power of Just Doing Stuff, UIT/Green Books, Cambridge, UK, 2013, 129.
Pollan, Michael, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Penguin Books, New York, 2013, 20.
Putnam, Robert D., Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2000.
Saul, Nick, and Andrea Curtis, The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement, Random House Canada, Toronto, 2013.
James C. Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2012, 25, 28-9
Von Ammon, Klaus, Martin Frei-Erb, Francesco Cardini, Ute Daig, Simona Dragan, Gabriella Hegyi, Paolo Roberti di Sarsina, Jan Sörensen, and George Lewith, “Complementary and Alternative Medicine Provision in Europe – First Results Approaching Reality in an Unclear Field of Practices,” Forschende Komplementmedtärmedizin 2012;19 (suppl 2), 37–43.