This is his summer article, Out of the Darkness, in which he asks: once awake, how do we go about dragging others into the light?
Out of the Darkness into the Light by Micah White
How do we awaken our neighbours, our friends, our family to the truth? Do we go up to people one by one in the street and plead our case? Do we hand roses to strangers in the airport? Or do we work on a larger scale: raise big money from shadowy donors and roll out a nationwide television campaign? This is the foundational problem of political change. And without a compelling theory of how to do this – how to shift the minds of large swaths of the world – there is no hope of pulling off a global revolution.
Seven billion people on Earth with their own opinions, dreams, religions, knowledge, perspectives and discourses. It should be impossible to unify this many people’s minds. And yet, we have seen revelations sweep through The People in the past and we know that it can happen again in a flash. Witness the sudden proliferation of encampments during Occupy Wall Street. The development of transnational capitalism is itself a photonegative testament of the potential of an idea, a money, a meme to cut across all boundaries – and touch the essentially human.
The human is, in its essential being, adaptable. Since embarking on our experiment in civilization in the ancient world, we have lived in vastly different ways. Our species’ capacity for dramatic shifts–our plasticity–is our greatest strength. Look historically and see that amazing transformations have happened in a generation or two. It took the Romans three generations to absorb the barbarian Cisalpine Gauls into the Roman culture and way of being. moviebox for iphoneDuring the World Wars of the 20th century, tremendous social changes (rationing, conscription, air raid drills, the wartime morality) happened in the span of months. If Time is ripe and The People are awake, then mobilisations on a scale rarely seen in human history can strike at any moment.
Kicking off a paradigm shift on a global scale is not a matter of rational argumentation. In American English, to talk of convincing a person conjures images of a zero-sum debate where one side emerges the conversational winner and another the loser. But think about it: how often in your life have you let go of a long held belief? Why did it happen? I remember the few times when I have totally changed my mind about a truth I once held.
These kinds of paradigm shifts are as rare in an individual’s life as revolutions are in our social life. If they are more common when we are young, they are more profound when we are old. Sometimes the epiphany is sudden. And sometimes it is a slow dawning realisation. My departure from atheism and transition toward anarchism was the latter. It started with a sensation of being uncomfortable and it grew into a cognitive sense that I could no longer express my whole self through the atheistic mindset. I understood that I had yearnings that could not be satisfied through a narrow focus on rejecting religious authority. Paradigm shifts arise from moments just like this: an intuition that our spirit exceeds our current mindset, worldview, ontology, paradigm. The same in politics as it is in faith.
As populist anarchists, we ground our theory of social change in the epiphany. We understand that only a species-wide metanoia – from the ancient Greek word for ‘a turnaround’ – can release the tremendous interpersonal forces necessary for a social revolution. Others, the Browns in particular, have sought the high energy necessary for social transformation in emotions of hate, fear, superiority. However, authoritarianism backed by military force is far too resource intensive to work on a global scale at this contemporary moment. It requires capture of a nation-state’s military and a consequent global military conquest and occupation that would be time consuming, while exacerbating the already dire ecological state of the world. (Imagine the carbon emissions of world war!)
We are the people of truth and we must be forever innovative in how we spread that truth. This is what it means to be a meme warrior. In these end times, the only viable path is to provoke an epiphany that spreads throughout the world like wildfire.
The Browns, the fascists and authoritarians, think the answer is in force. And they will be able to convince some people of this. But that path will not lead out of the morass. There is no way to conquer the world physically. Violence can be used to divide the world but it cannot be used to unify the world. No army can hold the world’s territory if the people are hostile. But on the immaterial plane, at the level of ideas and our cultural imagination, we can make the world’s armies lay down their arms and their people welcome our governance with open arms.
For Plato, waking up our neighbours to the truth was a philosophical problem of how to break the spiritual chains that keep us enraptured by illusion. Plato is known as the great father of Philosophy but I think of him as the first meme warrior. In Book Seven of Plato’s masterpiece, The Republic, which for millennia has been celebrated as the originary great work of Western political philosophy, Plato introduces the allegory of the cave by asking us to imagine a dystopian world dominated by untruth. Not a world where people believe one or two incorrect facts. But a world where our fundamental understanding of the world – what philosophers call our epistemology – is based on false assumptions imposed by structures beyond our control.
Picture, Plato counsels his students, that human beings are imprisoned in an underground cave dwelling. There they live, from earliest childhood, with their legs and necks in chains. Behind them is a flickering bonfire. And before them is a stone wall that functions as a screen for projections whose source they cannot know. They see shadows dance on the wall and believe the shadows are the real. Nearly all these humans live and die in the cave without ever learning the truth of their imprisonment. Now, imagine that on one day just like today one of us were to escape.
We stumble out of the cave, blinded by light. The brightness is painful and for a while we can only look down, away from the sun. Still, our eyes are drawn to brightness and we glimpse a puddle that reflects the solar light. How much brighter than the bonfire in the cave! And yet only a reflection of the true light source. We must look up! We gather our strength… give our eyes time to adjust to the new reality… and then gaze upward toward the sky. For the first time in our life we see the Truth. And our first thought is of the others still trapped in the cave, living in ignorance. How can we show them the truth? How can we spread the epiphany beyond our individual consciousness?
Returning to the cave is dangerous. Having been exposed to the true light, we have difficulty seeing by the dim bonfire. We find the others and begin to explain what we saw…
Stop! Plato breaks in to warn us of a grave danger. The prisoners do not want to hear what we have to say. To them, we are insane. And worse, we are taking away their enjoyment of the shadows. Beware! Plato reminds us of the fate of his mentor, Socrates, who was killed by a citizen jury in Athens for blasphemy. Heterodoxy is blasphemy to the orthodox no matter how convinced we are of our truth.
And what does the great philosopher counsel us to do? Does he ask us to be kind to the ignorant? To plead our case intellectually? To educate them? No.
Grab them by the scruffs of their necks, says Plato, and drag them into the light, no matter the pain, so that they see the sun and so that they may return to the underworld to liberate others.
Micah White is the editor-at-large of Adbusters and co-creator of the Occupy Wall Street meme.
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