There is nothing new about Holistic Activism. It simply collates and packages stuff that has been said before into a step-by-step guide that may be effective in helping to change the way we approach each other and the earth. These steps are just a summary. For a more detailed description please download the Holistic Activism booklet or listen to the audio booklet.
Step 1: Embracing Acceptance and Uncertainty
Holistic Activism is about making the world a better place. The problem is that throughout history, many movements and people have set out to do just that and have ended up creating narratives that lead to repression in one form or another. Holistic Activism is about trying to avoid that by understanding that no one person can ever have access to the complete truth.
Therefore, activism by its very nature should be approached as an ongoing conversation. In other words, it is essential that we do not allow ourselves to succumb to ideology. It is uncompromising ideology and the cognitive dissonance that it generates that disconnects us from each other and the earth. Therefore, embracing uncertainty is fundamental to Holistic Activism. Of course this doesn’t mean that you cannot have certainty, only that it is relative and that the way we create our relationship with the world is fluid.
Letting go of ideology is difficult so the first and most fundamental step of Holistic Activism is about finding peace and identity outside of mind. This lays the groundwork so that the time that we do spend in mind (and therefore language) is less likely to lead us towards dogma and cognitive dissonance.
Our approach to activism and living must therefore come from a perspective of acceptance of the way the world is in this moment; that for one reason or another, for better or worse, the world has unfolded to this point. Acceptance does not mean that we have to like it or not want to change it.
Instead, acceptance is the starting point of that change. Otherwise we run the risk of becoming attached to discourses centred around what could of or what should have been. This leads to the politics of resentment and the emotional impact that comes with it.
This of course does not mean that we should condone past actions or activities. On the contrary, it is about maintaining a critical eye so that we do not repeat those mistakes. The notion of acceptance is about breaking the endless cycle of recrimination and moving towards an activism that is centred on compassion.
Step 2: Breaking the Cycle of Pain
Activism depends upon communication and how we respond to other people hugely impacts our effectiveness as activists. Therefore, we need to enter into that communication from the place of peace and acceptance that lies outside of language (see the previous step) and carry that peace and acceptance with us, deep in the knowledge that it is enduring and unbreakable.
That way we are better able to fully accept each and every person we meet in all of their beauty and cruelty with the same acceptance that we have for non-human nature in all of its beauty and cruelty. This will place us in the best possible position to contribute towards effective and long-lasting change.
As mentioned earlier, acceptance should not necessarily mean compliance. It does not, for example, mean that you have to be willing to be bullied by another person. In fact, it is essential that you do not let that happen. This is why acceptance must come hand in hand with assertiveness.
Being assertive of course does not mean ‘fighting back’. It is about preventing another person’s pain from having a negative impact upon you in the same way that the direct and indirect pain of possibly countless other people has had an impact upon the person who is trying to bully you. It is also about ensuring that you in turn, do not push your pain onto that person.
In short, it is about breaking the cycle of pain. This is the pain that we pass down from one generation to another and also sideways to those around us. While it is essential that we accept the inevitability of this pain, we can consciously start to circumnavigate and in turn break the cycle and show a pathway forward that is less governed by dogma and the inevitable pain that accompanies it. Therefore it is important to know the difference between being assertive and building up your own ego and invariably adding to the cycle.
If you are accepting, assertive and compassionate you should come out of any given conflict situation without any residual anger or resentment or sense of superiority. In other words you will be able to easily return to the peace that lies in the eternal space outside of language. That way, you will know as an activist, that you are breaking the cycle.
Step 3: Looking for Intersection and Common Ground
As discussed in Step Two, the key is to enter into a discussion with the holy trinity of acceptance, compassion and assertiveness. If you have the other person’s best interests at heart, it will shine through and this will lessen the risk of it descending into an exercise in cognitive dissonance. I should say here what cognitive dissonance is. It has a number of slightly different meanings and definitions but for the purpose of this movement, the definition, according to Frantz Fanon is:
Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalise, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.
No single person owns the truth, yet so much discussion is worn down by our attempts at making one opinion win out over another. This is as true in activist circles as it is anywhere else and it is almost always counterproductive and an ineffective use of our time.
This isn’t to say that your opinions are not important or that all opinions are equal, only that your opinion is less likely to have an impact if you go into a conversation with a fixed agenda. The paradox is that you have to let go of outcomes to some extent in order to achieve a constructive outcome, especially as that outcome should be expected to be different to the one that you originally intended. Otherwise you risk becoming bogged down in the conflict that is directed by the cycle of pain.
The key is to enter into a conversation with the acceptance that the outcome might be different to what you have in mind. This is an approach known as co-regulation and is a term used in psychology that means a ‘continuous unfolding of individual action that is susceptible to being continuously modified by the continuously changing actions of the partner’.
The process of activism as a whole needs to be seen as an ongoing process that is always open to modification. As long as there is language there will always be a need for activism because even in the most utopian of scenarios there will always be a need for vigilance. Otherwise there will always be a risk that the reductionist nature of language will, in combination with the mind’s tendency to equate opinion with identity, lead to tunnel vision and ultimately, cognitive dissonance. What we do not want to do for example is replace neo-liberalism with some other ‘ism’ that is just as socially and environmentally lacking.
It is important therefore to emphasise that the ongoing nature of activism should not be seen as a chore. Instead we need to convert activism from something that is reactionary and conflict-laden into something that is regenerative and integral to our social fabric. After all, activism is as much a part of the nature of human society as everything else that we hold dear, in all its beauty.
This regenerative approach to activism must be rooted in our desire to look for areas of common ground or points of connection. Together with acceptance and an understanding of the cycle of pain, many people with different ways of looking at the world can find a way of working together.
One great example of this is the the ban on fracking that took place in Victoria, Australia after a campaign that was driven by a combination of inner-city Greens in Melbourne and farmers across regional Victoria. The fact that this campaign was won by a diverse range of demographics also means that any attempt at reversing this ban will be all the more challenging. It will also now be easier for all of the demographics involved to work together in the future, even if those issues are divisive.
In other words, by looking for areas of common ground, you are helping to pave an easier path towards discussing issues where there is less common ground. This is because your relationship is already built on the desire for cooperation rather than the need to gain moral superiority. The fact that you are also employing acceptance, compassion and assertiveness means that the tone of the interaction will either be constructive or you will know that it is necessary to walk away.
Step 4: The Art of Critical Thinking
The nature of language is such that it reduces the complex into bite-size conceptual chunks and there is nothing wrong with that (it really can’t be any other way). But in exchange for the useful tool that language provides, we do have an obligation to understand that the way we compartmentalise our understanding of the universe through discourse is limiting. In other words, the way we frame the world through language is actually a simplification of something that is much more complex.
Therefore, holistic activism is about approaching our opinions and perspectives as as being part of an ongoing conversation. Importantly we need to do this in a way that feels joyful and regenerative. This will not only reduce the risk of burnout, it will also enable us to build a better movement for change. However, for this to happen, it is important that we also embrace the other three steps of Holistic Activism. The ability to think critically relies heavily upon looking for the common ground rather than seeking to have our opinions validated.
This in turn requires that we are able to step outside of the cycle of pain as part of that process. Also, spending time in a space outside of language is a great precursor to critical thinking because it roots our ‘identity’ into something that is not fully based on the concepts that we generate through mind. This better opens us up to looking to add nuance to our existing perception of what is right and wrong.
Critical thinking will not work nearly as well if it is merely about one person being right and the other wrong (even if that sometimes happens to be the outcome). That only reinforces cognitive dissonance as well as the polarities that critical thinking is meant to untangle. This is why it is imperative that the focus is on adding layers of nuance to what others are saying, as all parties need to come out of the other end with a sense of ownership of the outcome.
For example, if you disagree on an often controversial topic such as ‘overpopulation’ the focus can be placed more on examining the issues that are undercurrent and importantly where they intersect with those issues that may be more important to you. This could, for example be the role that mutual aid can play in empowering communities and enabling universal access to healthcare and education as part of a wider approach to a more equitable, low carbon world. Populations will stabilise in this scenario irrespective of whether you or anyone thinks that overpopulation is an issue or not.
Therefore you can connect with others who may not share your opinion, and in doing so, find the areas of interconnection in a broader movement of movements that will have within it a multitude of opinions. The planet doesn’t care about a single opinion but it will be profoundly impacted by a massive movement for change that inevitably must carry a diversity of opinion. Critical thinking is an essential component of being able to make this happen.
For example, one critical thinking skill is the ability to recognise when an issue is being broken down into a dichotomy. This technique can often be what is known as a false dilemma and it forces people to take one of two sides. In town planning for example, high density developments are often justified on the grounds that they prevent urban sprawl and that if you oppose high-density development in your neighbourhood, you must therefore be a proponent of urban sprawl. This is highly problematic.
An argument such as this denies the more complex nature of town planning and it ignores the fact for example, that there are thousands of empty houses and other retrofittable spaces that are empty. Furthermore, a considerable amount of ex-industrial land that could be developed, is left vacant by speculative property developers. In other words, there are other means of tackling the threat of sprawl other than the need to always regard high density development as a solution. Of course high density can play a role but the assumption that this style of development is always going to be the most sustainable approach in response to the threat of urban sprawl benefits particular vested interests. It also marginalises a whole range of other issues such as David Holmgren’s Retrofitting Suburbia movement.
Without critical thinking, free speech will always favour those who have the power and money to push their narrative at the expense of others. This can lead to everything from climate change to mass shootings.
This is why both free speech and the ability to think critically are both important as promoting one while denying the other can lead to cognitive bias on a massive scale. Without critical thinking, free speech can even filter into the education system where perspectives can start to be regarded as un-disputable knowledge.
What is important is that critical thinking focuses on the topic and does not attack the person (ad hominem attack) who has written or said what you are critiquing. As previously stated, critical thinking must be in sync with acceptance, compassion, assertiveness and a desire to find common ground. In other words, it must be part of a holistic approach to activism that doesn’t feed into the cycle of pain.
It is also crucial that we use critical thinking as a means of ensuring that terms such as ‘sustainability’ and ‘resilience’ do not get appropriated by particular groups and particular interests in order to suit particular agendas. We do not want sustainability for example to become an empty, hollow term used to justify developments that for many reasons would not be deemed as sustainable. It is about having that vigilance in place, not just for those around us but for ourselves as well.