Episode #99 Untangling the Entanglements of Activism with Anthea Lawson
In a world of such astonishing inequity, where ever fewer people hold ever more power, how do those of us whose lives are given to change, meet the reality that we are embedded in the system? If we are an integral part of the problem, how can we live the solution into being? Is that even what we’re here for?
Anthea Lawson is a campaigner who’s interested in the connections between our inner lives and the world we create together.
Over two decades, she has campaigned to shut down tax havens and stop banks fuelling corruption and ecological destruction. She launched an award-winning campaign for transparency over who owns companies, which was taken up by many other organisations and has resulted in changes to the law in dozens of countries.
She worked on the successful campaigns for an Arms Trade Treaty, and for the international ban on cluster bombs. She has worked for Global Witness, Amnesty International, and many other campaign groups. She’s dug up Parliament Square in guerilla gardening efforts, and was arrested with Extinction Rebellion.
In her writing she explores what we can learn from how we do campaigning: how our inner lives are entangled in our work to change the world. she’s been exploring this as an associate at Perspectiva, and in her book The Entangled Activist: Learning to recognise the master’s tools, to be published in spring 2021.
She is interested, too, in the limits of campaigning in a time of breakdown, which she’s been exploring through editing at the Dark Mountain Project.
Her book is a deep exploration of personal process that then expands so that it becomes relevant to us all – if we’re activists (and frankly, if you’re listening to this podcast, I imagine you’re an activist at some point in your life even if you don’t identify as such), then we are also an integral part of the system that is the problem – disentangling ourselves from this is not going to happen. So the question arises of how we can be the change we need to see in the world. Anthea has explored this in depth and it was such a pleasure to engage with her on this question.
Manda: My guest today is an author, a campaigner, an activist and one of the deepest thinkers of our age. And in this week, where COP26 is happening, where activists from around the world are gathering to endeavour to impress on the world leaders the need for urgency and genuine change, it felt really good to talk to someone who has really considered what activism is about. Anthea Lawson is the author of a book called The Entangled Activist, which comes from Perspectiva Press, which says of itself that it provides soul food for expert journalists. And The Entangled Activist is one of the most deeply personal, deeply useful, deeply constructive works on activism I have ever read. Anthea comes to it from over two decades of campaigning. She has worked to shut down tax havens and stop banks fuelling corruption. She’s worked to stop ecological destruction. She’s worked to stop the arms trade. She’s worked for Global Witness, Amnesty International and many other campaign groups.
Manda: She has dug up Parliament Square in guerrilla gardening efforts and been arrested with Extinction Rebellion. She is at heart an activist, and she is at heart someone who deeply thinks about what activism is, what it means, how it works and how we are all embedded in the system that has created us and that has simultaneously created the need for activism. We talked for quite a while, and then at the end, after we’d said our goodbyes and done the closing statements, we carried on for a bit, or at least we went back over some of the stuff that I hadn’t fully understood and that she felt she hadn’t fully explained. And rather than stitching that into the podcast in a way that I think would have been rather clunky, we have added it on at the end. So for those of you who listen beyond the credits, who sit and watch beyond the credits in the cinema, there is 10 minutes of bonus conversation about individualism and individuality and the differences between those. So here, for our first bite, people of the podcast please welcome Anthea Lawson.
Manda: So Anthea Lawson, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast. It’s such a pleasure to have you here. How is life wherever you are? Are you in London?
Anthea: I’m not. I’m in Devon.
Manda: Oh, are you? Oh lucky you. Where?
Anthea: On the edge of Dartmoor and it is. It was lovely on Dartmoor this weekend and it’s now Monday and it’s raining.
Manda: Yeah. Well, it’s better than the other way around. Quite often, you get that, and Dartmoor is a bit like Scotland where if you can see the hills then it’s going to rain, and if you can’t see the hills, it’s already raining. So Yeah, but you know, some places in the world don’t get enough rain, so we should be grateful. And that’s one of the things I know that Jem Bendell is really key on; is as the climate falls apart, we’re either going to get very much too much rain or not enough in long periods, and we need to collect the rain when it’s there and shelter everything we’re trying to grow while we have it and then collect it for the long periods when we don’t get it. So Jem is one of the people you mention in your book, which I have reread recently after the first time and gleaned so much more in the second reading than first reading. Which is the mark of a really good book for me, is that it has layers and layers and layers, and each time you come back, you find something new. So as an opener, can you tell us how you came to be the person that wrote a really inspiring book and really for me, it felt so intensely personal and so universal to any of us in the activist space. So tell us how the personal bits arose.
Anthea: Yeah, thank you. And thanks very much for having me on the podcast. I’m really grateful. So, I trained as a journalist and I worked as a news reporter at the Times. And I became a professional campaigner after only a few years of working as a journalist. I think I’d gone into it being a journalist with sort of very vague ideas about making a mark on the world and improving things somehow through through my reporting. But it soon became clear that I wanted to be more involved in making change. I didn’t want to be reporting on other people who were campaigning, which was what I was drawn towards. I was drawn towards reporting protest. My first front page story was protesters, pro-Tibet protesters, being blocked from the view of the Chinese premier in 1999 by the Metropolitan Police vans, and I was sort of jumping up and down on the street with them and I wanted to be more part of it than I was.
Manda: Because you were working for the Times, which is not, one imagines, a newspaper that’s in support of the protest really. Was it more so in those days?
Anthea: Yeah, I don’t think they had… Well, well, actually, there are plenty of things to say about Murdoch and China and what was going on at that point. So yes, there probably were all sorts of complexities there because there was talk about what was going on with one of the publishing companies that he involved and that he owned in China. But actually, for me, it was wanting to be to be more part of it and realising that my values weren’t neutral. I mean, say what you like about any particular newspaper – I ended up there because there was a job offer
Manda: And it was a good paper.
Anthea: Yeah, and it didn’t completely fit with my political values, but I sort of wanted to make my mark and I was in my 20s and it was a great opportunity and I was very fortunate. But what I was realising, this was when the the anti-globalization protests were going on, this was when Naomi Klein had just written No Logo. I was sort of tuning in. I’d studied history. I sort of knew what was going on in the world. Sort of. I knew about inequality. I was developing a sense that I wanted to be working sort of not to perpetuate how things were. I could see that the world was being run for and by and on behalf of a very small proportion of its population, and I wanted to do something about that. I wasn’t massively fussy about what it was at that point, I just wanted to do something that was towards justice and equality. And so I found my way into working for professional campaigning organisations, NGOs, which I think from the nineties onwards were becoming more professionalised. And there were jobs going there for people, probably from what we can now see very clearly, from certain backgrounds, including my own. I’m a white middle class woman with a university degree, and so I volunteered for a while and ended up doing a job doing arms trade research at Amnesty International. So I worked for five years for Amnesty and other organisations campaigning for controls and the arms trade.
Manda: Wow. Look how well that went. Controls on the arms trade, as far as I can tell, don’t exist. Did you manage to achieve things?
Anthea: Well, that’s the thing. On paper, there are some. Yes, I worked for.. actually, this wasn’t at amnesty. I worked towards the the ban on cluster munitions. You know, all of these, you know, which are horrible bombs that drop small bomblets that then function as landmines. All of these things, there are holes in them because as with all forms of international agreement, there are countries that don’t sign up. Big countries that don’t sign up. Big users and producers don’t sign up. And then I was working at Amnesty on the campaign for an arms trade treaty, which was and is a great idea, and it ended up happening long after I stopped working on it. So a lot of people worked on it to control sales of weapons to governments who are using them against civilians. But no, that hasn’t stopped the UK selling weapons that used against civilians in Yemen.
Manda: Saudi, for instance. Yeah, yeah,
Anthea: There are plenty of examples. So I did that for five years and and then felt that I didn’t want to be looking at an issue that wasn’t just about supply, it was also about demand. I wanted to kind of move to a different place on, you know, what some people call the issue tree of where things are. And so I found myself working on economic justice, looking at tax havens and the role of banks in fuelling conflicts and corruption at an organisation called Global Witness that does investigations into the sort of nexus of natural resources and conflict and corruption and environmental devastation. And so I was looking at the way that banks facilitate corruption by accepting corrupt sources of money. But what oil companies are doing when they don’t disclose who the payments are going to at the secrecy and the tax havens. You know, this is policy advocacy, so it’s producing information that you put in front of policymakers. So I sort of wasn’t doing my job if I didn’t get things onto the front pages of newspapers. And ideally, you don’t just get it on the front page of the Guardian, which will like the story. You try and get it on the FFT or The Economist and onto the BBC and so on. And then you find people within the system, within the political system who want to do the same thing as you and you work with them. You provide the pressure from the outside and they do the stuff inside and you can get laws changed and you can get policies change.
Anthea: And yes, sometimes it does work. And it did work in this case. A campaign I sort of helped push from global Witness that lots of other organisations worked on, to end secrecy over the ownership of companies, which is the mechanism for any kind of dirty money, tax evasion, dodgy deal and it still what’s coming up. This is what is at the heart of these big data leaks. The Pandora papers is the latest one that’s come up. And this was before those big data leaks were happening, and we were just sort of starting to see the damage that these companies were causing. And we pushed for changes to regulation. And so a thing that I’d been told by some World Bank bloke in 2008 “Anthea, if you were an economist, you would know that what you’re saying is simply not possible”. A few years later, had become law in 80 countries.
Manda: Oh, well done.
Anthea: There are still, as you know, as these leaks prove, there are still massive problems with the system. It is not systemic, but as a making the point that this is one of the vulnerabilities and starting to put some kind of provision in some jurisdictions that you need to disclose it. You know, the the problem is then what you do with all that disclosed information, you know? It’s a small change in something systemically problematic.
Anthea: The point is, in the terms of the work that I was doing, yeah, there were some successes. The problem was I was becoming uncomfortable. I was noticing several things. I was noticing the ways that we were working seemed to mirror the systems that underpinned what we were trying to change. So one of the things I noticed was was here we were assuming a rational actor, when we put our carefully libel checked and sourced investigative findings in front of somebody; We’re assuming they’re going to respond to them in the rational way that we want and do what we want with it. Yes, sometimes they did, and quite often they absolutely didn’t. Now this is before the elections of 2016, Brexit and Trump, that sort of made completely clear to anyone who hadn’t been tuned in at that point, that we are not rational actors. But this was a few years before that. What was troubling me, was noticing that, you know, the assumption of a rational actor is at the heart of Homo economicus. This, you know, we were arguing a mistaken idea behind economics, mainstream economics, that we are just going to maximise the value in every given transaction rather than caring about what economics is cast as the externalities like community and People
Manda: And the natural environment and the things that matter. Yeah.
Anthea: Yes, exactly. And I was like, well,I was curious why we were doing that. Then there was the more obvious one, the one that just sort of gets kind of accepted as baseline in a lot of organisations full of people trying to do good. Which is that organisations full of people arguing for human rights and justice were treating people terribly internally. And you just say,well, that’s just ironic, isn’t it? I used to think, Well, that’s just an area, but I was starting to wonder about the deeper patterns behind it. Then another pattern is the working to burn out point; working in capitalist ways to try and undermine or reform or dismantle whichever your take is, a system that is telling us to work endlessly in order to burn the planet out. These sort of correspondences were making me very curious and uncomfortable. And then another thing that was happening was I was basically running… I was living in London at this point because that’s where the work was; being in London, sort of like in and out of parliament, in and out of places in the city and travelling lots as well… I was running away at the weekends to climb mountains and swim in rivers and climb rock faces as a way of equalising the pressure of the work.
Anthea: And something was happening to me in the wild. I was sort of opening up a another form of consciousness in myself. A kind of green mossy consciousness, let’s call it, rather than this kind of very pointy, angular, arguing, rational. Get the work done. Oh my God, what happened to footnote two hundred and fifty three in the French version of that report? What’s the libel lawyer saying? And of course, of course, we can do both, but I was bringing only one of them to my work. And it was leaving me feeling full of migraines and not well and not whole in the broadest sense, to be bringing only that side of myself to the work. And then the other consequence of my sort of opening up to an ecological, sort of deep ecological form of consciousness, really, which is that the gap between me and the natural world was so much less than I had understood and been taught.
Manda: Well done that woman!
Anthea: Yeah, it was making me really ask questions about the actual work I was doing and whether it was enough to be trying to change some of the laws of a fundamentally damaging system. And it no longer felt enough to be trying to reform certain aspects of a capitalist system to make it behave less badly and be a bit less damaging.
Anthea: I mean, this was 10 years ago. Yes, exactly 10 years ago that these feelings were first sort of making themselves apparent. And obviously, the narrative around climate emergency wasn’t there at that point, certainly in the circles I was in and certainly sort of mainstream. We were all painfully aware of it. And so when I came across writings, the first issue of Dark Mountain was one of the things, that sort of woke me up a bit to what had sort of been there, but disavowed, didn’t really want to go there. That, combined with this kind of sense of ecological consciousness. I just didn’t feel I could carry on doing it. Now I wasn’t aware at that point – I mean, this is why I want to sort of caveat this slightly, because I’m not saying that everyone is doing any work like that should not be doing it. You know, like there is such a thing as movement ecology. There is, you know, if we look at Joanna Macey’s Three Pillars. Yeah, I find that really helpful. It’s like, hold on, well that’s the holding action. Sometimes, you know, there’s stuff we’ve got to say no to.
Manda: Yes. And you can slow down the destruction enough to give space for the system’s design and critical thinking of consciousness to happen.
Anthea: But at that point, for me, it felt right to stop doing that for a bit because I wanted to look at these deeper questions, that really came under Joanna Macey’s Third Pillar of the sort of consciousness shift. I was very drawn towards that. And so I suppose that’s how, yeah, that’s where the research came from. I wanted then to talk with other activists and see how they were feeling. Were they feeling the same? I was feeling that something was missing, something that at that point I was calling ‘the inner life of activism’, and I wanted to talk to other people and find out if they felt the same. So that’s where the research for the book started.
Manda: And of course, you had so much experience in doing really, really solid research by then. You know, if you were worrying about footnote 225 in the French version, you were very good I think at bringing together very disparate ideas and creating of them something coherent, which is what you’ve done, I think with Entangled Activists. You’ve really spread your net very wide in terms of the kinds of input that you’ve drawn from, it seems to me. You’ve spoken to a lot of different people.
Anthea: Yeah, so I started making lists of the kind of concepts that people were coming up with and the issues that they were coming up with. And certain themes started to recur. Themes like individualism and carrying it all on your own shoulders.
Manda: Yes. And sacrifice
Anthea: Sacrifice and saviourism and status. Yeah. And so I sort of looked deeper into some of those and where they might be coming from. But the form that the book later took, was I wanted to try and find a way to think about how these things that we’re entangled in, once that became clear that was the frame, how they relate to each other. So we are entangled in the stories of our culture. Those obviously affect us. But we’re also entangled in in the power structures that are, and in our relationship to them. And this is where my sort of initial sort of idea that, hey, we and I wasn’t differentiating the ‘we’ when I first began. I was centring my own ‘we’ as indeed, it turns out, the type of campaigning I’d always done/ had been doing. And that’s where it sort of got much more critical and much deeper. Because when I was talking to people who’d been doing work like I had; professionalised NGO campaigning. And so they were people, quite often from a similar background to me. They were white and they were middle class, and they had a university education, because that’s who ends up working in a lot of those organisations a lot of the time. They were saying, “Oh yes, yes, we do need to talk about the inner life of activism. I totally think the same thing, you know, can we talk about the status quests and the heroism and the carrying on our own shoulders and the burnout?” And then when I was talking to people who were not from the same background and had not been doing the same kind of campaigning and particularly people who in whatever way had been campaigning on the basis of their own experience of the problem they were working on; they were fighting for the conditions of their own life, rather than intervening to help on behalf of somebody else.
Manda: So Saviourism went out the window at that point.
Anthea: Yeah, they were like, Well, yeah, I mean, you’re not wrong. Of course, we need to look at the inner life of campaigning. But that’s not new from where I’m coming from. You know, we have to look at the inner life of campaigning because we have to think about what this system is doing to us and we have to work out how we’re going to speak out and be heard when we don’t necessarily have an expectation of being heard. And so I’m just thinking about whether I had intended, when I began, to write so personally. I’m not sure I did, actually. I knew there would be some personal stuff in it, but I realised there was absolutely no way of talking about our entanglements as activists without looking at my own entanglements. Otherwise, I would be operating from that undifferentiated, unspecific way that has a shit ton of assumptions in it. And the whole point was to unpack and dismantle those assumptions and that centring of my particular way.
Manda: So can we can we unpick a few of those assumptions? The stories that undermined but also underpin our current system. Because it seems to me that differentiating the ‘we’ is essential. But in the end, it is the white, middle class, university educated stories and power structures that are destroying the world. It’s not the stories and the power structures of the Yanomami. We are, you know, we are the people inflicting on them our stories and power structures without listening. And so they are the ones that need the most unpicking, I would say.
Manda: So for you, are there some key stories and power structures that began to become apparent when you were able to step back and stop living as entangled within them?
Anthea: Yes. Well, hold on. You just said two things there. Step back and stop living as entangled. I was stepping back. I don’t know if I’m any less entangled. It’s so funny when I, you know, it’s so funny when I’m talking about this because sometimes people say, “Right, so how do we disentangle ourselves”? OK, I’m an entangled actor, how do I disentangle myself? I’m not sure we can.
Manda: Right,Ok, that’s a bigger question.
Anthea: It’s about acknowledging it. It’s about acknowledging where we’re starting, and we can come more to that in a bit. It’s about acknowledging where we’re coming from. And it doesn’t sound like much, but I think actually it makes a really fundamental difference. Because it is acknowledging in the case of those who’ve been operating from privilege, it’s acknowledging the fact that you have been putting yourself at the centre,in totally unacknowledged ways. And that can change how you then approach what you’re doing. So I think… Let’s think of some examples to pull out. So I think the individualism is a big one. And looking at this leads to various paradoxes. There’s no sort of straight, linear sort of answers in going down these rabbit holes. Because look, we are using, for example, the the basic premises of human rights thinking, which is based on the idea of an individual with inalienable human rights. So great. So that’s a useful framework to campaign against oppression of many kinds. However, also behind the idea of the individual, well, let’s look at where it comes from.
Anthea: So it comes from enlightenment thinking and it’s bound up inextricably, I think, with the putting ourselves as the subject and somebody else as object. You know, that kind of subject-object thinking that is also behind the scientific revolution. You know, this is us as a subject who is able to know. And this is what I started to see. You know, I had to start getting into some sort of decolonial thinking and reading to try and make some sense of what felt so problematic about this correspondence of like, Well, why is it a problem if we as activists, we are sort of taking things from individualism. When you combine it with what was happening at the same time, which was Coloniality; that idea of the individual and the individual being the one who knows. You know, what was happening in colonial times? It was this ‘We know about the cultures that are being colonised’ that we’re the one that knows.
Manda: So I would really like to unpick this because that strikes me as that’s kind of white supremacy,and it’s giving superiority to whatever is the current dominant thinking state at that time. So if we look at white settlers moving to North America, you know, they’ve got a kind of Christian moving towards enlightenment thinking, that then you know, everyone else is a pagan savage and what they think and what they believe doesn’t matter. It’s not necessarily individual. It’s just our ethos wins over your ethos, which has been happening, you know, with every invasion since the Romans and before. Is that individualism or is that just supremacy of the people with the biggest guns?
Anthea: I think it’s both, and I think it’s that they’re tied together. I think their emergence at the same time is what ties them. And so you have the individual subject becomes the one who knows. And it gets caught up. And so what happens when we’re unthinkingly coming from this perspective to try and help, is that we… Right, you’re smiling because it’s like the whole premise of it is really interesting, isn’t it?
Manda: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, White man’s burden. We’re going to come and solve the problems
Anthea: We’ve caused a bunch of problems and we’re going to put ourselves in the situation where we say “we’re the one that can do something about this”. It’s the dynamic that I’m interested in, because the dynamic of a lot of the development industry and I know these organisations, they’re really, really grappling with this at the moment. There’s a lot of talk about how how they can decolonise themselves. But the whole structure of it is sort of baked in. And and there are lots of organisations looking at their structure. Like, you know, how much power does the head office have? Where is the head office? Can you put the head office in one of the countries that’s, you know, the recipient of the money? Who has the power over the money? Who has the budgeting decisions? Who’s speaking to where the funding is coming from? How are you allocating the costs? You know, all of these are really, really live discussions in those organisations. And in parallel, what is happening is the interpersonal dynamics in the organisations where there are constant complaints coming out of those organisations by minoritised people who are saying, “no, this dynamic is still going on in what is happening personally”. And so something is happening there, isn’t it? Like the structure… As a structure They’re aware of what’s going on, but the structure.
Manda: Is maintaining
Anthea: Yeah, it’s and it’s running through the people. And this is why the frame of entanglement felt so powerful to me. And I was hearing it from different people and picking it up in lots of academic literature that I was looking at in trying to find ways of thinking, to look at our activist entanglements, was talking about entanglement. And it’s powerful because it seems to be able to encompass what is going on sort of both structurally and what is going on within us. When the power that we’re trying to change in the structures and the systems is still manifesting through us and through our ways of being. Despite best intentions
Manda: And so in the book, you come to what I read as basically ‘we all haven’t done enough therapy’, and it may be that we could never do enough therapy because we would have to spend our entire lives in therapy in order to to solve this… And that is an exaggeration. But it did seem that the techniques of self-awareness, the kind of social technologies that were sort of evolving on the fly, as we try and address these issues, are at the heart of helping us to disentangle, is that a fair reading?
Anthea: What that we all need to go and get a lot more therapy and then it would probably be OK?
Manda: Well, not that it would probably be okay, but at least it would take us a step to understanding the intricacies and depth and embodiedness of the problem.
Anthea: Yeah, I mean, of course, you know, probably we’d all benefit from lots of therapy wouldn’t we. You know, it often works and that we have to look at the reality of the situation. Therapy is largely not available unless you can pay for it.
Manda: It’s another privilege. You have to have the time and the money.
Anthea: Yeah, exactly. It’s expensive and it’s time consuming and so on. And so, you know, my proposal is not that we all go and therapise ourselves. You know, this can get dangerously close to the, you know, I hesitate to mention his name, the sort of Jordan Peterson kind of, you know, “go tidy your room before you dare to become an activist” trope. And you know, I don’t really want to go there, but it’s
Manda: No you really don’t. Although I know I have heard people who have very carefully redefined what ‘tidy your room’ means to suit what we’re trying to say, as if that makes it all okay. So because sorting sorting your own stuff first isn’t a new concept.
Anthea: Indeed, that’s exactly right, isn’t it? So I think this is what’s so interesting. We’re in a polarised culture that polarises inner and outer social and world rationality and emotion. You know, choose whichever set of, you know, dualistic pairs you like, they’re all there. And so in that polarisation of inner and outer, we’re encouraged to think that we can’t be doing sort of both at the same time. And I think this runs really strongly through political movements and activist movements. It’s like, “well, no, we haven’t got time for that stuff. This is way too urgent”. And it sounds like we’re being encouraged…you know, it’s either you’ve got to stay out there sort of on the barricade fighting or sitting in the road or whatever it is you’re going to do, or you’re going to retreat to the meditation cushion or the yoga mat. And you know, somebody I interviewed actually sort of like came up with a quote. It was like, “I want to get more people off their yoga mats and into ‘lock on’s'”, you know, which is the technology for, like, you know, sitting in the road holding on to somebody. Yeah. And more people out of their lock ons and onto the yoga mats. It’s like, actually, I think what we’re talking about is are more easy movement between the two.
Anthea: You know, it doesn’t have to be specifically yoga mats or meditation cushions. That’s not really the point. It’s that I think what we’re talking about is encouraging cultures of reflection as part of the activism we’re doing. And when we acknowledge that, now this is a fundamental kind of strategic point, it’s like, where do we think the problem is? Because so often in every form actually of activism I’ve ever done, whether it’s kind of community stuff, whether it’s professionalised stuff, whether it’s like hanging out on permaculture projects, trying to live off grid and grow our own food and run the community in ways that work and all of that. The same thing happens. There’s always a kind of “well the problem is those people over there. The problem is that system and those people who are running it. And it’s not us because we’re good, because we’re the activists or the ones who are living on an eco thing” or whatever it is. And so when we are acknowledging that we are part of the problem, then looking at our own ways of being becomes an integral part of our work on the wider problem.
Manda: And do you think it becomes all of our work on the wider problem? I was listening to Daniel Thorsen earlier, discussing his new project in Canada, where they’re trying to create people who simply by their presence, can move into any community or situation and become what he called omni harmoniser. Which I thought was a very interesting idea. And it goes back… There’s an old Taoist story of the sage who’s called to the village, and there’s been no rain for years and they’re all dying in and the drought is terrible, and they all want to do stuff with him. And he says, No, no, leave me alone. And he goes and he sits in the centre of the village, and about an hour later, the rain starts; and they all go, “What did you do?” And he said, “I was just fully present”. I know it’s a story and who knows? But is it, in your view, the case that if we do the inner work, the outer work will arise? Or have you found a balance point between the two?
Manda: Do you mean if we do the inner work, the natural, the outer work will arise within us? As in, we will be moved to do the things that need doing in an appropriate way? Or that the world will change because we have done the inner work?
Manda: I mean that in and of itself, the consciousness shift that happens if we do the inner work right and whatever right means, because that in itself is a value judgement that in itself is a whole separate question. But if the inner work arises out of our, let’s say, connectivity to the web of life and the ability then to become part of something greater, which for me is my interpretation of letting go of the individualism that shuts me off from the all it is. If I could do that, if you could do that, if we could do that, in and of itself is that the consciousness shift that is the third part of Joanna Macey’s triangle? And do the ripples cascading out from that create the change that we need?
Anthea: Yeah, this is the question, isn’t it? I’ve been in so many conversations about this, and again, it’s like, who’s doing this? If we’re talking about ‘we’ people who are doing activism from various perspectives and from various experiences. If we are doing that, then yes, that is part of the change that is needed. It will certainly make our activism more coherent, I do believe that. And perhaps easier to hear from outside. And I do believe that that will… The change of any person doing that does ripple out, it ripples out into our every relationship and our every interaction. I know that from, you know, the state of mind I’m in, when interacting with my children. I can bring about a completely different outcome just by being different. You know, so of course, it will have an impact. However, who’s that ‘We’? If we’re saying people who are tuned in to what’s happening in the world and realising that action is needed and change is needed and that something needs to be done? Then that’s not enough people I don’t think at the moment, for those to be being differently and that to be enough of a ripple to turn around the systems of destruction that are currently underway. I think the fact is we also need some activism at the moment.
Manda: So the the third part, the other part of Joanna Macey’s Triad. You need the holding actions, which is the activism. You need the systems design, the people conceptualising how the system might be. And you need the shift in consciousness. Where are you on that triangle, do you think?
Anthea: That’s such a good question. I feel like at the moment in terms of how I’m spending quite a bit of my time, I feel like I’m being a bit of an activist, and that doesn’t necessarily mean holding actions on behalf of a shift in consciousness. And there’s so many funny sort of little circular things I can get into there, because I can find myself being a bit of an old style activist in my old ways. Sort of…
Manda: What does an old style activist look like, is that sitting on the road on the M25?
Anthea: I’m talking about, in my case, being very, very angry. And like really sort of going off like a rocket at the slightest provocation and or the slightest opportunity. You know, so I can get very sort of overexcited about things, right? You know, and so and so I need I sometimes catch myself like, “Oh, right, am I being a bit dogmatic about that?” You know, isn’t that just something that I was… You know, I was talking about something the other day and a very dear friend said, “Oh”, (and I was sort of struggling with something in my head) And she said, “Oh, I’ve read an interesting book about that recently”. And I said, Oh, really? Quite innocently, I said, Oh, really? What’s that? Tell me? I’m always collecting book recommendations. So, “yeah, it’s called The Entangled Activist!”
Anthea: Here we are. You know, like, it’s ongoing. I’m entangled, too, and I’m particularly entangled in the ways of being that I was sort of taught and raised and, you know, conditioned in. Yes, which is going at it like a rocket, working to burn out. You know, that’s my pattern. It’s not unusual. It’s also not everyone’s pattern. So those are the particular things that I’m sort of coming at. Also, when I’m, you know, when I’m doing the campaigning that I am doing, it’s catching myself, turning the other side into “yeah, they’re the ones who are totally wrong and I’m totally right”. Now, look, this is really hard, isn’t it? Because quite often they are doing something awful? Yes, it’s not like they’re not. You know, when I’m saying we need to acknowledge how we’re part of the problem and the structures of power come through us as well. It’s not like they’re not doing something awful. It’s not like there isn’t a problem with what they’re doing.
Manda: The oil companies are the oil companies, the banks are the banks, and what they’re doing is criminal.
Anthea: Yeah, so, you know, so we’ve got to sort of hold our position against that still. But there’s a balance in it. It’s also about sort of how how tightly I’m holding on to my ideology. You know, it’s about can I hear another point of view without going into orbit immediately? And I used to think that if I wasn’t going into orbit immediately, then I wasn’t caring enough
Manda: Because caring and orbit are self-reinforcing,right?
Anthea: Yes, exactly. And that’s the mechanism. And anyone who wasn’t sort of being as intense about it as I was, you know, like verbally violent sometimes, frankly, I’d get really full, on obviously didn’t care enough. And so what I’ve started noticing through doing this writing and research and thinking is I notice other people doing activism and campaigning of various kinds who are extremely powerful. They carry great authority in their very way of being, and people listen and they have an impact. But they’re not operating in that kind of loud, you know, sort of metaphorically as well as just sort of specifically in decibels.
Manda: How are they operating then?
Anthea: They seem more in contact with the ground. Right is the best way I can describe it
Manda: Because there’s an authority that comes from that sense of authenticity and integrity that touches people beyond the raging words.Yes?
Anthea: Yes, yes. And it’s not just about the content of the words, it’s about what’s fuelling them, what’s funding them.
Manda: So the Dalai Lama, for instance, as a kind of uber example, is someone who doesn’t have to rage.
Anthea: Exactly. And there are a few uber examples, you know, that we can point to sort of share touchstones for that way of being. But actually, they’re around and about as well, you know, they’re in the community, they’re around. But I’ve found I’ve had to sort of broaden my perceptions of what successful activism or campaigning is, in order to notice the ways in which they’re also making an impact. And this is, you know, this is one of the other entanglements. You know, we’re all caught up in the status that we’re supposed to have for our kind of personal projects and the things that we’re doing. And so certainly in the kind of work I was doing that’s funded, you know, there’s all these organisations competing for funding. You know, now add,in the last 10 years, which wasn’t the case when I first started out, but add social media to that where, you know, we’ve got to be on promoting our sort of entrepreneur self. You know, there’s a whole load of status stuff there, and I look really deep into the research about, you know, is that avoidable? Is that just kind of shitty capitalist culture that makes us kind of status?
Manda: Or is it intrinsic to the kind of hard wiring of who we are?
Anthea: Yeah, I think there is some of it in who we are from, from what I can see
Manda: That’s the David Oliver concept; that we have Palaeolithic software with mediaeval firmware of the institutions around us and the technology of Gods. And this is not a good combination.
Anthea: Yes, that’s exactly it
Manda: The Palaeolithic software is I think the way for me is where the consciousness shift needs to happen, because our amygdalas are growing bigger and we are easier to trigger, whatever side we are of the multiple polarities of our world. There’s pretty good MRI evidence that our amygdalas are just bigger and therefore they are more likely to react. And unless we’ve done a lot of sitting on the cushion or its equivalent so that we watch our own responses rather than being entangled in them, then it’s very hard to find the internal space, to get to the grounding, to not simply react to stuff, I would imagine. It seems to me that the QAnon or the alt right or the whatever other side of the current political polarity, also think they’re the good people and that not enough people get it and that not enough people care. Just their caring and getting other stuff. So there’s quite a lot of people who get that the system is wrong. It’s just that our diagnosis of the wrongness and our ability to define how we could shift it are poles apart. It seems to me that where you got to by the end of the book was we need total systemic change, which isn’t surprising because that’s kind of obvious. I’m really interested in where you’ve gone since because any book is in and of itself a time capsule of where we were at when we were writing it, which is an amount of time before it was published. Where is Anthea Lawson of entangled activist now?
Anthea: I think the bit of this story that has grabbed me most and that I want to look into more, and I’m starting to think about how to investigate more, is where I got to towards the end. And this was at the prompting of campaigners who I was interviewing, who are also psycho-therapeutically trained or otherwise trauma-literate. And they were pointing out that the the deepest level at which we are sort of ensnared in the system, and the deepest level at which the system is replicating itself through us (and so if we’re not aware, we’re just going to recreate aspects of the status quo) is in our nervous systems. So this is a good link from what you were just saying, because and this is not to say that everyone is traumatised. And so everyone is, you know, running some sort of aspect of sort of fight flight or that everyone’s numb.
Manda: A lot of people in our culture are
Anthea: Well exactly! A lot of people are. And it’s become enough that it’s become a cultural pattern. And this comes back to the…I’m very, very interested now in following the threads of what white middle class, upper class, but the middle class for most people. What it does to our sort of embodied experience of being and what that looks like. Because it seemed to make so much intuitive sense when people were pointing out – so Sophie Banks, so I quote in the book – points out that the the way that she sees campaigners operating, you know, it maps onto the patterns of trauma as taken on by the culture. So if we are having a sort of a quick, we’re quickly triggered into fight flight mode, then we we have to work out instantly who’s going to win in this situation? You know, am I going to be eaten or am I going to eat somebody? That’s what’s going to happen. And so those patterns are coming through us in our power dynamics, in how we’re interacting. And we don’t necessarily, but obviously many people may be traumatised because there is also developmental trauma, which is about how child-rearing happens, how much we’re held as children, whether we’ve got a calm enough way of responding. Where there are sort of systems, our nervous system is organised in an optimum way to trust that the world is going to give back what we need and that we’re not going to have to fight for it.
Anthea: But even if we’re not traumatised, the the normalised patterns in the culture are such that, you know, if we look at the people in power, you know, it is normalised to be fighting, seeking dominance over constantly. You know, I like the metaphor of, you know, the fight and flight. But the flight bit is kind of like being on the run and the working that we’re doing and the way that we work and constantly having to be doing, doing, doing, achieving, achieving, achieving; they map on us cultural patterns in such compelling ways. And then numbness, you know, as another cultural pattern, you know, as a trauma response, but also as a cultural pattern. I mean, look at the numbness of the people in charge. Look at the numbness, then, in parallel (and this is uncomfortable) of even the privileged people, let’s say the white middle class people, but not always, as in it might be more complex than that, in organisations that are trying to help. When confronted by people who are struggling within those organisations because they’ve been minoritised. And look at the discomfort when you’re being confronted with your own racism or your own patriarchy, or whatever it is. You know, the cultural patterns of numbness kind of seem to fit that discomfort.
Anthea: So I’m really interested in looking deeper into that, kind of both within activism and within the culture more widely. Because actually what became very clear of looking at activism was that it’s just a microcosm of life really in multiple senses. There’s the sense in which it is absolutely essential in order for life to be OK, as far as I can see it, you know, any freedoms that have been fought for. That is true, but also everything that was coming up. It’s the condition of being human, because when it comes down to it, if we’re trying to look at the who’s exerting power over whom, how power structures are making themselves known through us in our activism, that’s about how we’re relating to everyone who is not us. And that is the business of being human.
Manda: Yes, it’s the business of being human in the current world. I have a whole cascading series of questions about this. Because it seems to me the business of being human, in our current broken paradigm… Because if we go back far enough or if we look at the unbroken, the small fragments of unbroken cultures that remain… So basically the forager hunter concept of civilisation. We get back to a place where individuals were known. Your tribes were small, the Dunbar number was the Dunbar number, tribes are probably 40 50 people. Everybody knew everybody else. We were all part of a greater whole, but the tribal Shaman was the tribal Shaman. We weren’t trying to pretend that everybody could be the Shaman or the good hunters are the good hunters. Or, you know, there was individuality. And yet there was collective responsibility. I am fairly certain that the levels of cultural trauma that exist now didn’t exist then. I’m really pulled by… One of my teachers, Elliot Cowan, who worked with a Huichol medicine healer, who’s dead now, but he was called Don Loupe. And Elliot tells of the time he brought Don Loupe to Los Angeles. He’d never left his village before. And he said, Elliot said, when he was young, he used to remember Star Trek, and he wanted to be the person who took the alien to Earth. You know, look, here this is a building and you know, this is a functioning tap.
Manda: And it was just like that. He said he left Don Loupe in his hotel room with the light on, and when he came back in the morning, the light was still on because Don Loupe didn’t know what a light switch was and didn’t know how to switch the lights off. So he was really bringing him to an alien culture. And at that point, Elliot was Don loupe’s senior apprentice, because all the young Huichol people were going off learning to be engineers and doctors and chemists and how to destroy the planet and become cut off from everything. And Elliot was really trying to learn. And he said one evening, you know, they would sit and be together, and Don Loupe would basically say, there is nothing that I cannot heal. Anything now, I can heal it. I got to that and I want you to get to that, too. And after half an hour walking around Los Angeles, Don Loupe said, I could not heal a single one of these people and they are all broken. You have to take me away from here and you have to stop living here because it will break you to. And I thought that was as close as we get from someone from our white British ancestral past coming to look at our current culture and getting to that square eyed bit of ” Oh everybody here is broken.
Manda: It’s just the only question is the degree to which they’re expressing their brokenness and and projecting it out and damaging the people around them. So I think it’s a part of who we are and how to disentangle ourselves from that, this is for me what’s woven through the book, and it comes again and again. I find when activists come up against people who are trying to find good reasons to tell them they’re wrong, which is, you know, “you drove here. And therefore that that completely invalidates everything that you’re trying to do because you used a car”. And it’s like, “Yeah, well, it would have taken me six weeks to walk. And by then, you know, the action would have been over”. How do I do that? I’ve got a friend who’s walking with his polar bear to Glasgow as we speak. You know, leaning on the kindness of strangers, a lot of whom are contacting him and going, “well, I would like to work with you and the polar bear, but you’re a member of XR, so I can’t”. I thought, you know, way to go finding good reasons to give yourself the moral high ground and not have to bother walking for half a day with the polar bear to Glasgow. Yay. I get really triggered by that, won’t go there.
Manda: But how then? And I think we possibly have to think in real time, but you clearly been thinking about this a lot. I think we’re beyond the point where incremental change is going to work. We have now, we don’t just have a political time limit, which has happened through most of our incultured past. We have an actual physics time limit. You know, I read a paper from the Rosaline Institute the other day about the oceans and began to understand in ways that I hadn’t before the extent to which the seas, the functioning ecosystem of most of the mass of the planet is what’s keeping us stable, and it’s racing to a tipping point. If we don’t stop the chemical and microplastic pollution of the oceans within the decade, we are toast. And I don’t see the activism around me being enough to stop that. We have to change the economic system, we have to change the political system. And both of those are very firmly entrenched in systems that are not amenable to the radical kind of change that we need. Have you got there yet? Is that a place you’ve got to? And if so, do you see a way forward?
Anthea: Yeah, I come up against that place every time I think about it. And I can veer from completely depressed and sort of feeling that whatever we might do is not going to be enough against that physics deadline, or the biological deadline, whichever way we want to look at it. And moments when I don’t feel like that and I feel like whatever we do is definitely worth it. And I then sort of, because I asked lots of questions of myself, I then think, “Well, is it just the disavowal side of me that sort of saying that it is worth it” and so on. But actually, do you know what, we can’t not (as far as my way of seeing this is) well, we can’t not do anything. And so we will carry on doing things. And, you know, because this comes up in the questions I had to ask myself about is it worth looking at these questions about how we do activism when it’s so urgent? Because it’s precisely the urgency of any kind of activism, but particularly what you’re raising here, that makes it very easy,that for years I didn’t want to look at this. Because it’s like, well, obviously, we’ve just got to crack on. And that’s what happens in so many movements, it’s like, well, we can’t look at that stuff because this is just too urgent.
Anthea: Meanwhile, people are sort of destroying each other. Burnout rates are very, very high. People can’t stay on it because of the toxic environments in which they’re doing (the toxic interpersonal environments) in which they’re doing the work. So I suppose one quite instrumental way of looking at this is, well, you know, if we are actually looking at how we do stuff, if it enables people to work without the level of burnout that you get when you’re totally attaching your own status to a good outcome. And if it enables people to work, you know, without finishing each other off in sort of bad behaviour and toxicity, then great, we’ll have more activists at it for the long run. Also, if we can speak in ways that are not so righteousness inducing that don’t leave people feeling so put off by what they hear as the righteousness in our ‘we’re right and you’re wrong’. You know, the reactions to XR were very interesting. Of course, that’s defence. You know, there’s plenty of climate psychology that has an atomised precisely how those defences work, but actually, it does also make a difference.
Anthea: And so so I’m curious about what difference it can make to speak from a less kind of polarising ‘You’re the bastards over there, We’re not’ way, but I think there’s something deeper underpinning it as well. This question about the urgency, which is, you know, when we ask the question, “Oh, well, is it worth doing this because of everything? Is it worth looking at our inner lives and what kind of people we are when everything is so urgent?” It’s suggesting that we know what is the most important task to do. It’s back in sort of centring us as the knower who makes a decision and says, “Well, this is my campaign strategy, we’re going to do this, all right, and that’s going to sort it out”. You know, what if we don’t know, actually. What if at any stage we are actually doing the best we can. Whether that’s sitting in front of cars or protesting outside buildings, or phoning up your MP three times a week until they’re so annoyed with you that you actually have a conversation with them, you know..
Manda: Does that work? I’ve tried and never got to the conversation bit.
Anthea: I’ve had some very interesting conversations with my MP, and that’s definitely for another time. Yeah. So whatever it is that we’re doing. The thing is. The work is going to need doing, whatever stage we’re at, whatever stage of adaptation, and I do believe we are now in a time of, you know, whatever we can prevent, we are lessening the impact of what is coming, but there is some adaptation coming anyway. You know, so the debate is about, you know, what proportion of it is stopping things happening, what proportion of it is adaptation? That’s a whole discussion.
Manda: You might need to unpick ‘adaptation’ for people who aren’t familiar with the phrase.
Anthea: Yeah, so adaptation is the idea that some form of irreversible change is going to happen anyway. And so we need to adapt to that, that there are things going, you know, even if we could hold emissions at a certain level, there’s a certain amount of change that is already baked in, already happening and already going to happen more and going to increase. And so we already need to think about adaptation. The thing is there is no point we’re going to reach, in whatever scenario you subscribe to (and people have different views on how much of, how far into adaptation we are) But there’s no point we’re going to reach where we can say, “Oh, you know what, we’ve done all the work we need to do to stabilise the climate, get a sort of humane justice system in, get a better way of dealing with policing and borders and everything else. And now we can look at how we deal with each other”. Yes, it’s a false separation because it’s precisely the ‘how we’re dealing with each other’ that is at the heart of all of those things, and they’re completely interwoven just in the how we’re doing it. And once I started seeing it like that, I was like, Well, OK, you know what? I’m going to carry on doing the holding actions, and I’m going to experiment with ways of bringing myself to it differently.
Anthea: And that feels like, you know, that feels like my balance. I’m no longer – maybe this is age, maybe this is the sort of evolution of my thinking, maybe it’s a cultural thing that’s happening, maybe it’s like where we are, it’s sort of cultural Evolution; I no longer feel that I’m going to solve everything I want to solve in my lifetime. And that’s partly because of what’s very clear now about where we’re at ecologically. And it’s also partly because I’ve realised the absolute privilege presumption that I could ever do that anyway. I’ve got friends who come from different backgrounds to me who never had that presumption. They never went into activism thinking, everyone’s going to listen to me. They never sort of thought I have the power to make this happen. So, you know, I’ve had a sort of, you know, humility moment of getting real, actually about what it is I can do. And I don’t need to not do activism, even though I’ve realised that limit, it’s OK. I’m happy to, you know, I’ll go down fighting, I’m happy to spend the time I’ve got, however long it is, I’m in my mid-forties, doing what I can do that works for me in my circumstances, and that feels like the right thing at that point.
Manda: All right. So we’re running out of time. So many things I want to ask, but I have one last question, which is how do you personally in any given moment, reach a sense of what is the best that you can be doing? Because it sounds like you are living the old adage of ‘be the change you want to see in the world’, which seems to me the kind of core of what you’re saying. There’s no point in expecting those out there to suddenly become really nice, fluffy, lovely, balanced, wonderful people while we in here are busy mincing each other in an attempt to make those out there become really nice. So we need to be the change we need to see. You’re living in Devon now. I’m guessing you’re living a different life to how you were living in London. What do you call on, I’m meaning on an inner level, now, to help you find what action; from making breakfast for your kids to sitting in the road, the total spectrum of your activities in the day. What is your source of inner wisdom?
Anthea: It’s two things that are completely interwoven. And one of them is stillness. Whether it’s the physical stillness of stopping in quiet in order to access the stillness within me. But one of the ways that I find the stillness within me is by getting in the river.
Manda: Oh yeah, wild swimming!
Anthea: It’s such a cliche.
Manda: I don’t think so. I think it sounds wonderful.
Anthea: Everyone, yes, everyone seems to be, you know, it seems to be a sort of joke to have to stick the word ‘wild’ in front of it now.
Manda: Well, because that’s different to swimming in chlorine, in lanes with 20 other people. It really is!
Anthea: It really is. I used to get really bad lane rage because there’s always, I’m afraid, it’s always a chap who doesn’t like being overtaken by women. Yeah, women don’t seem to mind being overtaken by women. Yes. No. So I now live near a nice river, which I’m very fortunate to live near and and I get in it year round, and I find that brings a form of stillness within me. That hopefully lasts and can withstand a bit of the inevitable impact of time with my children and family and all of the things that need doing, to hold some of that core within me that I can access later in the day. But yeah, that is very, very much a work in progress. I don’t want to claim to have found any, any good answers there. That’s what’s working right now.
Manda: Yeah. But for people listening, you know, we’re all works in progress and the work in progress that works for you may work for somebody listening. I think that’s really important. That sense that we can share the agency that we’ve found. Because I hear you that deciding that we can solve the problems is, I think, too far. But that doesn’t stop us feeling that we have our sense of agency within our own lives, I think. And that if finding stillness gives us a sense of how to direct that agency, then that’s a really valuable end point to leave people with. Anthea Lawson, author of The Entangled Activist and so much more. Thank you so much for coming on to Accidental Gods podcast.
Anthea: Thank you very much. I really enjoyed the conversation,
Manda: And so that should be the end. But actually, it isn’t because as soon as we stopped recording, Anthea said, “You know what? I’m not sure I explained individuality, right?” And I thought, No, I still don’t understand it, and it still makes me deeply uncomfortable and we really should be exploring the deeply uncomfortable bits. So we did. When we recorded it, I thought we were going to try and be clever and stitch it back into the podcast. So we framed it like that. But actually, having listened to it, I think it’s much better just coming on the end here as a bonus part. So for those of you who have stuck around this long… Here we go…Me and Anthea riffing on individuality:
Manda: So I’m hearing that individuality in a white western, the weird context, the western educated, industrial rich democratic place, is a bad thing. And I struggle with that a lot, because I grew up in a small village community in southwest Scotland, quite Presbyterian. You know, twitching curtains weren’t even necessary because people didn’t bother to draw their curtains. Everybody knew what everybody else was doing. And I grew up knowing that I wasn’t going to be heterosexual from as soon as I knew what sexuality was, like age seven. I knew I wasn’t going to fit into this community. And at the moment when anyone else in the community knew that, I was toast. As far as that community was concerned. And yet, then later, growing up reading more of what I would consider to be whole communities and particularly the Native North American, just because that’s where we’ve got the most writing from or at least the most writing that I was able to access. We know that sexuality, gender identity, role identities were not fixed in those ways. That if a woman wanted to be a hunter instead of planting beans or she wanted to be a warrior; there was a very famous woman warrior, I think blue soldier woman, who who went to battle. And her uncle said, “But women don’t fight”. And she said, I’m a woman and I fight. Therefore, they do. And she wrote into battle, and she would lift her skirts three times as she rode to the enemy so they could see she was a woman. And it was unusual enough that that was something that you did. But still, there was a sense that individuality actually was at the core of keeping the tribe whole. So can you unpick that for me?
Anthea: Yeah, I think there’s a thing that’s about us fulfilling our uniqueness as our individual selves, which is part of what you’re speaking about here. And that we’re all going to have our own way of being and that all those individual ways of being will create a community. And obviously, in communities where very narrow ways of understanding what you’re allowed to be is the norm, then that becomes problematic for people that don’t fit in. And so the sort of modern western idea of individualism, you know, has got a lot going for it in that context, because you can go off somewhere else and be yourself. And a lot of us do that in different ways from family and community. I think what I’m talking about in the context of activism is… Some of it is the thinking we have to do all of the job ourselves. It’s this kind of sacrificial thing of carrying all of the weight on our own shoulders and not truly seeing how much we could do in community with others if we weren’t seeing it as our own task that we have to stick our own name on and label “Oh, I did that. I did that. Look, I did a TED talk. I’ve done that”
Anthea: But it’s more than that. It’s that in the entanglement of the growth of individualistic thinking and the growth of, this is in enlightenment times, this kind of centring of the individual as the one, as the kind of locus of knowing. You know, it’s ‘I think therefore I am’. We can think we can know something about everything else, so that’s behind sort of scientific perception as we can perform kind of objective, measurable observations on something that stays the same and we’re the same knower. And we pin that down, sort of in science, and we’re nothing to do with what we’re observing. We have no effect on what’s going on, with what we’re observing. And it’s entangled with the other development that was happening at the same time, which was coloniality, colonisation. And so that idea of the individual sort of gets tied in with the colonial relationship. And so for some people, that then becomes, well, ‘we know something about other people’ and that that form of knowledge generation was what underpinned the political and violent process of extraction and colonisation. And it’s the echo of that playing out, when the people who historically have benefited from that relationship, which is the white middle class people, for example, in Britain. For example, in organisations trying to fight colonial legacies of inequality in tax havens or aid policies or all the trade policies, all the things that are going on. Are ultimately playing out that same relationship in how they relate on an individual interpersonal basis with people from those places. What that kind of subject-object kind of perception that we’ve internalised, some of us, of what being an individual means, is that we are always putting ourselves as subject to somebody else’s object. We’re all kind of, in psychoanalytic terms, kind of grappling for the subject position when in fact there is another way of being.
Anthea: And some people call it inter-subjectivity. And some people call it inter-being. And it’s a way of relating to each other in actual equality, where the other person is subject-subject relating rather than subject-object relating. And in that idea of inter subjectivity is also that we’re not two individuals who exist and who then meet. We are effectively made up by our interrelations, which is what is truly happening in community, when people are are engaging on that basis.
Manda: That feels much better because that feels more like the Accidental Gods being part of the the web of life or the African word, the Ubuntu.The I am because you are.
Anthea: Exactly we don’t, you know, we can again get into this sort of, you know, Western campaigner mode of like, well, we have to make up a new concept. And, you know, perhaps we’ll sort of like start a think tank out there and sort of put it all out there. You know what? It’s already there. They’re all out there. Yes, it’s already there.
Manda: It’s just that we need to learn how to access it. Yes, through an entire generational personal experience of being separate. I’m watching Faith’s grandchildren grow, and going from being born as little forager hunters, you know, Palaeolithic minds notwithstanding, they are wild and connected. And the domestication process of having to, of being rewarded for being the one who did X. You know, it’s not a TED talk because they’re six. But Faith’s eldest grandson, the six year old, wrote a book the other day. And we are all obviously you see, he’s six, he sat and wrote a book, and now he’s sending it to me because I’m the book writer and he wants me to tell him it’s wonderful and I will tell him it’s wonderful. And it will be wonderful because a six year old has written a book. But I’m also aware that in the doing of that, we are reinforcing the “you just achieved something amazing. Now you have to go on to achieve something more amazing” because what you want is the feedback and the dopamine and the oxytocin and the serotonin and all the stuff that you get from that little bit of “God. Yes, you are wonderful”
Anthea: And that what you are in your very being can start to feel like it’s not enough when you get used to that hit of the “Oh, look what you’ve done”.
Manda: It’s so hard. And the disentangling that, when it is integral to everything that has been us, at least from the Roman invasion. You know, I’m doing a set of talks for Ubiquity University on ‘We are waking up from the post-Roman nightmare’. But it probably wasn’t even…you know the Romans didn’t invent it, they just spread it very effectively because they were very good at it. So we’re actually waking up, maybe from the agrarian revolution nightmare. How do we unpick 10000 years of cultural conditioning? In a decade.
Anthea: We’re not going to unpick it in a decade, but one way I like to think about it is that we’re capable of two (at least two) ways of being as humans. You know, we are capable of relating and functioning in a sort of domination mode. We are capable of functioning and relating in a collaborative mode. Now, of course, we have set up the structures and historically they have been reinforced by, you know, you’ve just alluded to some of the history there and put into the processes of power, but we are still capable in our being of orienting ourselves, of at least setting the target towards the more collaborative way of being.
Manda: And that is it for another week. Definitely it. Finished and over, no more bonus parts. Thank you so much to Anthea for all that she has explored. For the depths of her own personal journey that brings to us the understanding of our own entanglement, our own complicity. And yet, our own need for this system. We can’t escape it. That’s the thing that is so clear to me after this conversation. We are the system. The system is us. Trying to stand outside it and change it is never going to work. As Gandhi is supposed to have said and very possibly did, “We need to be the change that we need to see in the world” and that means we need to be the new system. And I’m not sure what that looks like or what it feels like. It is kind of what the new book is about. So I hope by the time I finished it that I will have more of an idea and be able to share it. But in the meantime, for those of you listening, finding out what it means for you to be the change that you need to see in the world is, I think, the single most useful and important thing that we can do now. So that’s your mission for this week, head off out and work out what that is. And in the meantime, we will be back next week with another conversation.
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