How might we help increasingly distressed societies avoid a descent into authoritarian and or fascist governments?
This is a question on the minds and hearts of many people who anticipate further disruption, breakdown or even collapse of societies due to the direct and indirect impacts of environmental change. Even with the COVID-19 pandemic, we witness stupid, corrupt, repressive and diversionary responses from many governments, on the one side, and outlandish clickbait criticism on the other, which does not bode so well for us during further disruptions due to environmental damage.
This question of avoiding a descent into authoritarianism and fascism is also a concern that bubbles up in related discussions, such as whether climate anxiety in the high income western countries might lead to less solidarity with oppressed peoples, rather than more. A positive response to this situation is not to fake a moral compulsion for why we must ignore people who conclude that it is too late to maintain the advanced urban consumer societies that we have known. Nor is it right to listen to people who want us to think of ourselves as shameful for having reached such a conclusion. Rather, the response needs to be helping each other stay present to the situation, process difficult emotions, in order to become more, not less, active in efforts towards reducing harm and enabling calm.
To do my little bit to help people not make matters worse as we become more anxious about our unravelling civilisation, I have spent some of the last two years doing what academics tend to do: reading and analyzing. In my case, I spent some time studying psychology and interfacing it with critical social theory, alongside increasing attention to personal development, including insight meditation. I have done that while on a journey of reflection and experimentation as I engage other people who anticipate societal disruption and even collapse. In that process, one can get a bit lost in the various theories and data within academic texts. Therefore, to try and make sense of things in a simpler way, I have stepped away from those specifics, and in this blog attempt to make statements of what I think I believe to be true on this topic, and offer a simple framework for types of responses to a perceived threats to normal life that have become apparent during the COVID-19 period. What follows are a series of simple assertions, which derive from that research.
As the situation of humanity becomes more precarious and its stories become more brittle, for more of us it seems our conscious and unconscious minds have been losing their sense of certainty, belonging and safety.
That confusion means our potential for sadness and anxiety grows. We not only feel more vulnerable, but we may even fear feeling that vulnerability.
People with less ability for living with ambiguity and unpredictability both have more anxiety and can have a greater compulsion to escape it, rather than witness it within themselves or others. In such situations people can be more manipulable, looking for uncritical narratives to believe and a new or reassured sense of belonging because of those narratives. Thus people may become more involved in ‘worldview defence’ as predicted by ‘terror management theory.’
Uncomplicated stories of heroes and villains, or saviours and persecutors, offer an unsustainable way to escape the emotions of sadness and anxiety by shifting them into anger. Such stories also help unsustainably to distract from one’s actual situation, by focusing on blaming others, typically an imagined ‘folk devil’ (whether a group or individual). One outcome can be either outright, or passive, aggression.
Another unhelpful response occurs if we are attracted to uncritical narratives which reduce our sadness and anxiety about the suffering of (disregarded) others or our own potential vulnerability. If doing that, we might even wrongly judge the truth of a story by how it helps us to feel more bliss and less pain (for a time).
The overall outcome of these tendencies to adopt uncritical narratives is a reduction of our ability to be fully present and curious to what is happening emotionally and intellectually inside of ourselves and others. Instead, we can withdraw into a world defined by our ‘confirmation bias,’ looking for what fits with our stories of self and world, and disregarding what does not.
Our ability to live with ambiguity and unpredictability is shaped by the culture we grew up in, and live within. Our hyper modern era, with its prescribed assumptions and promises of individualism, materialism, technological progress and control, is not conducive to that ability. Our physically-isolated era, where more people than ever before experience a large part of their lives though mass media and social media, rather than ongoing in-person social dialogue, allows uncritical stories of heroes, villains and those to be disregarded, to spread and take root. Therefore, more people uncritically accept the uncomplicated narratives of heroes, villains and the disregarded, that are pushed toward them by both vested and commercial interests.
Those vested and commercial interests shape the mainstream narratives coming from governments and mass media about realities, problems and solutions. Therefore, such narratives do not critique the power of corporations and banks. For instance, how the pharmaceutical corporations shape medical knowledge and narratives is not part of most mainstream discussion on the pandemic. Another example is how the impossibility of maintaining modern consumer societies with the onset of dangerous climate change is not part of the mainstream discussion on the climate emergency.
Vested and commercial interests also shape many of the most promoted contrarian narratives from alternative and social media about realities, problems and solutions. Therefore, they do not critique the power of corporations and banks. For instance, in pandemic conspiracies, famous individuals and conspiratorial cabals are speculated about, rather than how the pharmaceutical corporations shape medical knowledge and narratives. Another example is how the main stories that deny climate change is a problem ignore the financial and institutional incentives that have hitherto stopped the climate policy agenda from becoming a radical challenge to capitalism and consumerism.
In a period of increasing turbulence and felt vulnerability the public dialogue can bifurcate into two extremes, of uncritical mainstream narratives versus conspiratorial narratives. Both extremes tend to be variants of right wing ideology, emphasizing a mix of social conformity and personal freedoms that do not challenge the power of capital and elites. Neither will help their adherents to address the real causes of increasing precarity or evolve their own emotional states. Perhaps the greatest danger of this bifurcation of public dialogue into either the submissive following of narratives promoted by vested interests or the conspiratorial narratives promoted by other commercial interests, is that by destroying space for useful dialogue and initiative, they also create conditions for conflict and authoritarianism.
If some of this analysis makes sense to you, then the questions that are important to ask ourselves are:
Do we want to be more present to the increasing precarity of humanity? To feel calmer? To be useful?
To feel calmer by feeling useful?
Many people do want that. In my experience, working with thousands of people around the world as they face up to difficult information, from the climate crisis to the pandemic and beyond, this process of being more present to the situation begins with two complementary and essential steps.
First, by developing greater equanimity or calm about our emotions in ways that are not defined by stories. That equanimity is helped by abilities to notice our emotions and aversions to them alongside a deeper acceptance of impermanence of everything, including ourselves and others.
Second, is developing greater awareness of the way our thoughts and reactions are produced in us by our life experiences and cultural contexts, which have been shaped by systems of power that emerged from millennia of aversions to difficult emotions and impermanence.
With these two steps then we can be more able to reject both mainstream and conspiratorial narratives and consider revolutionary ideas that address the possible causes of our precarity.
This is where certain kinds of facilitation of group meetings can be useful. By enabling people to meet and relate in different ways to the mainstream, and express our difficult feelings before moving onto a discussion of topics, so our interactions can be less instinctively pain-averse. In the past couple of years experiments in holding space for people who anticipate societal collapse have involved some ways of doing that for groups. I think the resulting methods of Deep Adaptation (DA) facilitation will likely be relevant to reducing the tendency towards support for any uncritical narratives in times of disturbance. Some of the theory and practices of DA facilitation are described in a new Occasional Paper. It is suitable for anyone who wants to ground facilitation practice in a robust conceptual framework as together we seek to reduce harm in the face of societal disruption and even collapse.
This summary is clearly quite technical and dry. How could it be a useful basis for discussion on how to support each other in our sense-making as we anticipate or experience societal disruption and even breakdown? To help with that, I have developed 4 ‘ideal types’ (which doesn’t mean they are ideal) that describe ways of being in relation to narratives on public issues, from the pandemic to climate change. Our facilitation methods are designed to help people become and do well as ‘offroaders’.
Railroaders – people who currently believe and promote narratives that unquestioningly follow the mainstream view of governments and mass media on any public issue, and so don’t resist bad situations.
Gardenpathers – people who currently believe and promote narratives that claim specific individuals, groups or nations are saviours or ‘evil doers’, and so don’t act on the real causes of problematic public issues, which involve systemic oppression.
Bypassers – people who believe and promote narratives that invite attention away from either the threat or the actual suffering involved in a public issue, and so don’t try to help.
Offroaders – people who believe and promote narratives that invite critical reflection on power and oppression in any public issue, to discover actions for positive change.
If sufficient numbers of people choose to be railroaders, gardenpathers or bypassers, then societal collapse may come sooner than later, in the form of authoritarian and fascist governments. Railroaders might vote them in, ultimately oppressing their neighbours and abandoning foreigners. Gardenpathers might end up supporting alt-right aggressors or even end up in harmful cults. Bypassers might think they can avoid these painful trends by entering a bubble of alternative ideas and therefore do nothing while power is lost to authoritarians (and might also end up in harmful cults). Offroaders might help preserve the sphere of generative dialogue and action that reduces harm and saves more of the natural world, giving future generations a better chance within an unavoidably turbulent future.
If you want to explore offroad, please consider joining the Deep Adaptation Forum and attending some of the events there, which are infused with the ideas in the new Occasional Paper on facilitation. It also includes lots of references to the psychology and sociology that underpins the statements in this blog article.
Ultimately, the work in DA facilitation is helping people find their own way in making productive sense of an increasingly uncertain and turbulent situation. We use these approaches in our courses, such as the Deep Adaptation Leadership online course this July.
More of the philosophy is explained below by my co-author and Senior Facilitator with the Deep Adaptation Forum, Katie Carr MA, interviewed beautifully by Dean Walker on his Poetry of Predicament channel. After that there is a video interview with me, where I talk about the amazing transformations that can happen as people support each other through their anxieties and grief, to a new place of engaged surrender, to do what’s right no matter what may come.