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Tales of Two Under-Cultures 1

February 1, 2014
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Blame and punishment head toward destructive outcomes. Empathy and loving move toward creation. The first are grounded in an relational under-culture of scarcity and fear; the second, in a relational under-culture of abundance and basic goodness. Both of these relational under-cultures are intertwined within every individual I have known (whatever their original culture), within every situation I have been in, within every social change movement I identify with, in every historical event I have read about.

By “relational under-culture”* I mean a particular set of beliefs, values, practices, and institutions that shape default ways we relate with each other and our environments. Oppression is a primary relational under-culture that we can identify in almost every national and ethnic culture we know in spite of the very significant differences between those cultures. I believe the patterns of beliefs, values, practices, and institutions that sustain empathy, compassion as well as a sense of abundance and basic goodness also form a cross-cultural relational under-culture. Further, these under-cultures are embedded in unique ways in each individual along with the distinctive characteristics of her ethnic or national culture.

This past week I had two experiences that brought home the realities of these two intertwined under-cultures. The first was watching a presentation on The Power of Vulnerability by Brené Brown. The other was reading Micelle Goldberg’s Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars in the recent issue of The Nation magazine. Jessica Grose commented on Goldberg’s piece at Slate:

Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars” landed on The Nation’s website on Wednesday like an earthquake, with tremors still rippling throughout all the Internet…In the piece, writer Michelle Goldberg argues that the online feminist revolution is “eating its own” because feminists are calling out other feminists, in particular on issues of race, class, and gender identity.

Brené Brown’s talks have been viral successes on the internet for several years as she presents the fruits of her very original research into vulnerability, shame, blame, guilt, creativity, and wholeheartedness. What is so powerful about her presentations is that she brings all of her findings alive with stories and her whole presence as a presenter. You always know she is talking about herself as well as the people she has interviewed and observed.

Goldberg’s piece focuses on a particular development within the feminist movement, but I see it happening in all our movements for social change. I wrote a series of blogs about what happened to Shulamith Firestone in the 1970s because “her story dramatizes the dynamics that cripple radical movements.” It’s the same stuff that Goldberg, in 2014 covers. She makes the same connections in her article. However, it’s not the intent of Goldberg’s article to navigate the under-cultural dimensions. Although Brown doesn’t go into movement politics, she knows she is working with the heart and soul of what I am calling the tales of two under-cultures.

I also see all of the rich creative stuff Brown reports on in the same places where I see the crippling dynamics of rage, blame, and unexamined fears. In my writing I try to bring both kinds of under-culture dynamics into focus because we don’t see how both are persistently intertwined, and seeing this is critical for enriching and empowering our movements. Also, we very much don’t want to see how we are the problem in the world we are trying “to fix.” More importantly, we don’t see, both as individuals and as a movement, how to address these internal conflicts and contradictions productively. So we tend to want to keep them in the dark.

Brown is giving us powerful positive ways to see and understand these conflicts and contradictions and what we can do to begin approaching them. In the one-hour of this particular talk and the Q and A following it, she brings major parts of her ongoing research work together into a coherent whole. I can’t think of anyone who is offering so much in very warm, personal, and exciting ways for dealing with these very complex and critical under-culture issues. To move our world toward the kind of world we can sense is possible and deeply yearn for we are going to have to become the change we want to see happen, to become more of the empathic, loving, clear-eyed, risk-taking under-culture that is as much of our biological and cultural inheritance as is our scarcity under-culture.


If you want to get more of Brown’s work, here is a link to a host of her talks and one to her web site.


*I think that I have just created the term “under-culture,” but I want to acknowledge that it was partially inspired by POWER-UNDER: Trauma and Nonviolent Social Change by Steven Wineman, one of the most valuable works on power and movement cultures that I have ever read.

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