Let It Begin With Me
This is the fourth and final blog post on innovation. Innovation is important in its own right. But, I’m focusing on it now because it is desperately needed as we cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, the recession, renewed racial tensions, the 2020 elections, and more. I’ve used them to refine my own thinking about what peacebuilders and others can do in the coming weeks and months. I’ve also been laying the groundwork for a book I might write on social and political innovation in the United States
So far, I’ve focused on pathways toward innovation in general. Here, I want to end the series by bring it as close to home as possible—to you and me.
And that means ways that transform the anger and frustration we are seeing today into constructive steps toward a better future.
If I’m right, the current situation leads to what might seem like a counterintuitive conclusion given what I’ve written over the last few weeks and given the frustrations we are seeing in the streets around the world.
In the end, successful social or political innovation will depend on many things. At the top of any such list is the way we personally deal with the crisis.
And let me very clear about who I mean by “we.”
And me first.
Let It Begin With Me
This blog’s title is drawn from Tom Paxton’s 1960s folk anthem, “We Need Peace.” This version of the song was recorded by my local NPR station’s bluegrass channel as a memorial to Pete Seeger who had died a few days earlier.
The song’s simple melody and message grabbed me in those days when my hair had not yet turned gray and still grab me now. Though I’m not a psychoanalyst, I suspect those words planted an important seed that has been at the heart of my professional and political career ever since.
Listen to the song and then return to two key phrases he uses.
Let it begin with me.
My own life is all I can hope to control.
My transition from antiwar to peacebuilding activist and scholar began when I got involved in the Beyond War movement in the early 1980s. Its message was very Paxton-like.
We explicitly focused on what “I can hope to control” because “peace begins with me.”
As a faculty member at a college in Maine (where I lived at the time), I couldn’t hope to change the world or convince the Reagan administration to stop what I believed to be an absurd and dangerous escalation of the nuclear arms race.
I could have an impact on the surprisingly large number of people I came into contact with. My students. My colleagues. The political science community. Perhaps most importantly of all, my friends and neighbors in central Maine.
But only if I changed myself first.
We didn’t get it all right.
In particular, we never developed what I called a cumulative strategy last week in which we could take those localized efforts to scale.
But we did get one thing right.
Peace does begin with me.
With the things I can hope to control.
Let me be clear again.
I can control how I deal with the conflicts in my everyday life.
Most of all, that meant the mindset or personal paradigm I brought to those relationships. For the last forty years, I’ve been grappling with the strategic side of the work in ways I’ve laid out in the last two series of blog posts.
The Right Side of the Right Side of History
Recall that Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger, and the other popular folk singers were activist protesters against racism, the war in Vietnam, and more.
They said “no” a lot, and that is mostly what we remember them for. Those of us who remember those days cracked a bit of a smile when television journalists covering President Trump’s visit to Tulsa showed images of the Woody Guthrie museum that has a mural featuring his guitar and the slogan he inscribed on it—“this machine” kills fascists.”
But as Paxton’s haunting refrain also tells us, protest leaders and rank and file activists like myself were also offering constructive alternatives to the status quo. Although no one much used the term in those days, they wanted us all to be on the right side of history. They understood that we were on a journey toward what the MacArthur Foundation now class a more just, verdant, and peaceful world in its tag line.
I remember spending countless hours (usually with Paxton or Seeger playing in the background) discussing how best to do that. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we spent more time on the “no” than the “yes.”
We were young. There was a lot of anger in the air. Most of us chanted “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” with the same gusto today’s young people yell, “What’s his name? George Floyd.”
At the same time, many of us did think about constructive alternatives that would create better lives for people of color and women. Later we added a better environment, LGTBQ issues, and more to the agenda. We invented new fields of study and practice, including my beloved peacebuilding.
By the 1980s, some of us, including Beyond War, had come to see the need for emphasizing the “yes” as much as—and perhaps more than—the “no.” Many of us had been uncomfortable with the demonizing of those we disagreed with during the 1960s—whether it was LBJ or our fellow students who didn’t agree with us on civil rights or what we simply called “the war.”
Indeed, one of the things that drew me to Beyond War days was its use of this statement by the theologian and philosopher, Gregory Vlastos:
There are a thousand ways to say no, one way to say yes, and no way of saying anything else. It is a tremendous decision.
In the day, we felt that the answer lay in a commitment to solving conflicts with everyone, including—and perhaps especially—our deepest adversaries. Even then, I was pretty sure that we had overcompensated and were giving the “no”—the critique of the status quo—short shrift.
Still, I have found memories of the animated discussions we had in Palo Alto that were a lot like ones in my dorm rooms a generation earlier because they raised two questions that shifted our emphasis from what we were against toward what we were for. In other words, to include the “yes” to go along with the “no”:
- First, how do I identify the “yes” we can agree to while giving justice to the “no” that got me involved in the movement in the first place?
- Then, how do I define the “yes” in ways that can build support a truly inclusive and effective movement?
Today’s protests are putting those questions back on the table with a new sense of urgency. It is clearer than ever that if we want to be on the right side of history, we are going to have to change a lot. I’ve been delighted to see how quickly so many people have to realize that being on the right side of history in the 2020s means creating a future in which everyone is treated equally, we have a more just distribution of wealth, a sustainable environment and economy, health care for all, and more.
It also means designing policies and adopting to cultural norms that are in keeping with the two common denominators of life today that were not as important in the 1960s or 1980s:
- Ever accelerating rates of change. That’s obvious in technology. For example, I could not have published a blog post like this one forty or sixty years ago. Even though we could not have predicted that we would have an Internet, blogs, and Zoom calls then, , Alvin Toffler did warn us to be prepared for future shock which is another way of saying a life of constant change.
- The growing interdependence of all life, No matter how disillusioned we may be by the realities of globalization, it is not going away. I do make an impact on the people in the “microcosm” of my daily life. But, we should not forget that any such impact is more likely to ripple out beyond my personal “ecosystem” than it would have in my youth.
Three other things are clear. Two of them are obvious. The third might not be.
- There is a lot we have to say “no” to. For me, that includes the dangers posed by the Trump presidency, white privilege and everything eddies around that (so much of which I enjoy), climate change that will imperil my grandchildren’s lives if not mine, and more.
- People are also clamoring for constructive alternatives to the status quo as reflected in the efforts to bridge the “red v. blue” divide in this country or in those that are leading some police officers to take a knee or walk with the protesters.
- The surprising thing is that more and more of us are realizing that Tom Paxton was right. My own life is all that I can hope to control. If, as he went on, “let me life be lived for the good of my soul,” that means we have to be more intentional in the ways we deal with each other—including our adversaries.
Therein lies the “yes.”
Forty years after the folks at Beyond War rekindled my activism, I’m still not sure that there is only one way of saying yes. However, there are at least three ways of saying yes that can transform the anger and frustration we are seeing today into hopes for a more positive future and channels our energies in a more constructive direction.
Each requires profound changes on our part since they combine saying “no” and “yes” simultaneously which is not something most of us are very good at, as I’ve discovered dozens of times in my half century as a peacebuilder.
Still, if you practice all three, it becomes a lot easier to build the kinds of coalitions and movements toward constructive change that I’ve been talking about in what are now seven blog posts.
Getting Outside the Box
The first two come from an unusual source for someone of my personal or political background—thinkers and practitioners whose intellectual base lies in a particularly thoughtful wing of the Mormon tradition.
The first involves getting outside the box.
But not in the way people who think about innovation usually use that cliché.
One of my least favorite clichés used to be thinking outside the box. I changed my mind about it a few years ago when I first encountered the work of the
As the Arbinger Institute sees things, we tend to be obsessed with ourselves. We blame others for our problems. We demonize them. That puts us in what its leaders call a different kind of box that keeps us from seeing the humanity in the people that we “know” have caused our problems.
Sometimes (I’d certainly make that case for President Trump) they deserve our scorn.
However, the genius of the Arbinger approach lies in how they think of the box. However, justified our anger might be, the box and its inward mindset paralyze us.
In particular, we lose sight of the fact that we actually share problems with the people we disagree with. In an increasingly interdependent and rapidly changing world, lasting solutions to most of those problems will require cooperative solutions, whether the problems arise at home, at work, or in the public policy arena.
Arbinger’s trainers, instead, talk about an outward mindset in which we treat the other side as full human beings who need our understanding, respect, and, even, love.
That’s hard enough to do at home or at work. It’s certainly hard to do when we think about the divisions facing our country or humanity as a whole.
Arbinger itself doesn’t do a great job of addressing national or global issues. That’s not its goal. Its consultants normally work with businesses or organizations in the public sector—now, including the police.
Here, I’ve recently been inspired by one of the key points in Chad Ford’s new book, Dangerous Love, which I’ve reviewed elsewhere. Ford, too, comes out of that wing of the LDS community, but his book reflects his other experiences, most notably what he has learned from sports (he ran ESPN’s coverage of the NBA draft process for years) and from running the peace and conflict studies program BYU-Hawai’i which has the most ethnically diverse student body of any university that I know of.
Chad talks about the power of turning toward the people we disagree with. As I have listened to his podcasts and, now, in our one on one conversations, I’ve been struck by how much we agree on what is wrong with our country—despite our very different personal, political, and religious backgrounds.
More importantly, we realize that it is our obligation as peacebuilders to take the first step toward the people we disagree with and invite them to help solve the problem with us.
Even after taking that first step, there is no guarantee that we will work things out.
However, it’s an important step because by taking it, I am acknowledging the other person’s humanity and increasing the likelihood that he or she will respond in kind.
To use the language of improv which I wrote about months ago, turning toward the person I disagree is like saying “no, and.” I’m saying “no” to the kind of police violence that took George Floyd’s life—and those of so many other people of color in this country.
But, the “and” is an invitation to open or continue an evolving dialogue, just as the “yes, and” leads to an evolving and humorous story on stand-up circuit.
Let me be clear.
Doing so is not capitulation. It is not validating the positions that we loathe.
Doing so reinforces the fact that I am firmly committed to non-violence, equality, a sustainable environment, and so on. And, I’m going to call you out when I think you are on the wrong side of history.
It is an acknowledgement that these are problems that we will share and will continue to share for decades to come.
Even more importantly, it reinforces Paxton’s point that I can’t control how that other person is going to react to my overture, because my own life is all I can hope to control.
Rather, at the Mary Hoch Center for Reconciliation at the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School of Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason, we are promoting the role that insider reconcilers can play in any dispute. If a society is going to emerge from the kinds of crises that are wracking the United States today, it will have to make a series of public policy and cultural changes.
The latter includes finding a way of living peacefully and comfortably with each other so that our differences no longer threaten to tear us apart.
That’s what reconciliation is all about. It does not mean recreating a better society that existed in the past for a simple reason. Whether you are talking about post-apartheid South Africa or the United States today, no such “better” society ever existed. It has to be created on the right side of history, because the sources of our trauma lie in the past.
If you look at the people who have led reconciliation efforts that have had even a modicum of success, they are led by people who sit on one side or the other of the issues that led to the conflict but also understand that everyone has to coexist if a society is to emerge from a wrenching conflict in a healthy way.
To cite but the most famous example, Desmond Tutu was one of apartheid’s most visible opponents. That didn’t change when he became co-chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Rather, he and his colleagues sought ways for people to jointly come to grips with the past so that they could live and work side by side in a society that was trying to get to the right side of history.
In the terminology I’ve used in this post so far, Tutu and the world’s other great reconcilers had to get out of their personal boxes and turn toward their adversary while maintaining their core commitments to racial and other forms of justice.
It’s Hard Work
One last point to end an already long blog post.
No one knows how to live along these lines all the time. I don’t. Chad Ford doesn’t. The consultants at Arbinger don’t. Archbishop Tutu doesn’t.
We’ve all learned that it takes hard work and plenty of practice.
There is a meme in that innovation literature that it takes 10,000 hours of practice before you can truly master something.
I wouldn’t bet on the accuracy of that number.
However, it is clear to me that people who are pretty good at living up to values like these only got there because they put in lots of time and effort changing themselves.
Tom Paxton once again.
My own life is all I control.
Now, let me add the next phrase in the refrain.
Let my life be lived for the good, good of my soul.
Next Week—The American Spring
In the June 25 issue of the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb ran a short item entitled “American spring” in the Around Town section.
Section, I wish I had come up with the idea because the wave of protests reminds me a lot of the heady days of the Arab spring a decade ago. Like Cobb, I’m convinced that real change is possible now in ways that we haven’t seen since the 1960s.
At the same time, like Cobb, I also know how the Arab spring turned out.
Next series focuses on how to avoid the disappointment and worse we saw after the Arab spring.
- What would an American spring that continued into the summer and next few springs and summers look like?
- And what steps are we already taking to get there?
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.
Also published on Medium.