This may be a challenge to read. It’s unusually long, but particularly because the first part gets a bit dry and conceptual. However, I share an intense story to bring that to life, and then I reflect on that story.
As I was writing the first blog of this series I discovered a more coherent way to talk about how I see the personal being the political: as two “relational under-cultures” in intertwining strife within us that we act out in all our economic and political activities. My hope is that the story I share with you here and my reflection on it will help convey the dynamic of these two under-cultures within each of us. How they are always ready to act out in a social situation, even flip back and forth, and how dynamically complex their interaction is.
My riveting interest in this began with the profound experiences I had in May of 1968 as a fledgling revolutionary (and “outside agitator”) participating in the student rebellion at Columbia University. Over the next 45 years that interest evolved into the main work of my life. This is most of what I share in my writing.
What I have come to so far is that at the center of the human tale are two relational under-cultures, two ways of relating to reality. One tends toward domination and oppression; the other, toward empathy and mutuality. They are trive with and against each other within the human heart and mind. William Faulkner beautifully referred to this as “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.” That is, both are alive inside virtually all of us, probably even the enlightened.
I am convinced that the more we can understand this phenomenon and learn how to work with their energies as they are coming into play in any given situation, the more we are going to be able to act out of empathy and intelligence to produce good problem-solving, cooperation, solidarity, and maybe even democracy.
I frame them as “under-cultures” because: 1) I see this fundamental conflict as two distinct and incompatible sets of beliefs, values, and practices; and 2) I see them and the intertwining strife between them as being dynamic parts of virtually all national and ethnic cultures in spite of their respective uniqueness. Since they are so intermeshed in our daily comings and goings, it is a challenge to see them as distinct ways of living.
Maybe this story from my rebellious two-weeks at Columbia University can breathe life and clarity into this idea:
The beginning of the rebellion began by a wave of occupations of the main administration building and several of the academic buildings. The NYC police ended the first week of the ‘rebellion’ by storming and evacuating these buildings in the dead of night, most of them in the same violent manner that they ended Occupy Wall St. some four decades later. During the last hour of these evacuations a battle line formed. There were several hundred, maybe more, raging students, faculty, and outsiders massed below the major walk way. This walkway cuts through the heart of the campus from its Broadway side to its Amsterdam Avenue side. A line of a hundred, maybe more, police formed a line at the top edge making it clear that none of us were to cross their line. Paddy wagons drove in from Broadway behind this line, loaded up arrested occupiers, and drove them away via Amsterdam Ave.
We were screaming the worst things we could think of at the police men in front and above us. The abuse was intense and seemed to go on endlessly. I was of those in the front rows and there was a constant pressing forward of the crowd behind us. We had to keep pressing back in order not to be pushed up and into the police line. All the while our rage and abuse roared on and on. All the while the line of police just stood there seething and defiant.
Then the last paddy wagon drove off with the last of the occupiers. There was a break in the roaring as everyone seemed to sense that we were about to shift into another stage with none of us knowing what that would be. Then a whistle blew and the line of 100+ police came charging down at us, billy clubs raised. We broke in panic.
Behind us were two commons separated by a sidewalk. I began fleeing across the Broadway commons with a large part of the crowd, and then headed for a corner exit to a cross street near Broadway. I was among the first few to get there only to find that that exit was closed as it had been for most of the week. I turned to see what I should do next and saw that a mayhem of beatings, screamings, and fleeing was going on. Soon I was among some of the protesters who had been beaten. Out of survival instinct I grabbed one who was bleeding rather profusely. The idea was to help him to a place of safety and using his bleeding as my shield. I called to another guy on the other to join me.
Soon after we began searching for some kind of safe exit, a plainclothes detective loomed in front of us about 25 feet away. We yelled that we needed to get our bleeding friend medical help. As he nodded for us to go on our way, our bleeding shield began cursing him vehemently. All his rage came pouring out, and the detective immediately began to turn negative. The two of us immediately began trying to shut our bleeding comrade up, but he wouldn’t stop. The cop began getting enraged, yelling at him to shut up. Still he wouldn’t stop. The detective was rapidly approaching his freak-out point. We were yelling at our shield to stop, his blood now coming on to us. He kept screaming abuse. Then the cop elbowed his suit jacket back and put his hand on his gun, again screaming at the guy to shut up. His screaming had now become a begging, like, “Please stop. I am going to lose it. I can’t take it anymore.” At that point, in a panic, we took our bleeding shield down to the ground, smothering him with our bodies, putting our hands over his mouth, and screaming into his ear to stop or we were going to get killed. Finally he stopped. And the cop stopped. Then he took his hand off his gun. The three of us lay there shaking but quiet, and the cop moved on.
I’ve never forgotten this experience, most of all the picture of that detective begging our wounded comrade to stop assailing him with verbal and emotional abuse. He knew he was losing it, becoming murderous, and desperately didn’t want to. He really didn’t want to do any harm. Seeing that we were trapped in a no-exit situation and that we were aiding an injured person, he did not hesitate to nod for us to go on our way. Later my helping partner and I could see him struggling with everything he had to end the interaction as soon as the abuse started coming at him. We could see his fear of losing it. That’s what was driving us to shut up our shield.
We were awash in the overall scene of violence and terror involving all of us—police and protestors—being in a state of violent aggression. All of the feelings triggered by the entire situation were arising from a shared under-culture of blame and punishment, violence and terror, hate and fear. The detective and our trio encountered each other in the midst of this, and a small pocket of sanity opened up. Two trios and a quartet of empathy and mutuality emerged, dissolved, and re-emerged in our interaction:
- First, we three protestors were in a desperate but conscious solidarity to get to safety. The detective, struggling to be as sane as he could within the role that he had to play, supported us from the outset. For a moment all four of us were connecting with each other through a shared under-culture of empathy and caring.
- Then our bleeding comrade lost it. Immediately the detective and the two of us helping our bleeding comrade formed the second triad. By verbally attacking the detective he threatened all of us with more bloodshed, maybe even an outright killing. He had flipped into the under-culture of violent aggression. The two of us helping him grasped the imminent danger instantly because we could read and understand the freaking-out shift that was flaring up in the detective. He also realized this. That’s why he was begging for an end to the triggering of his violence and aggression. The two of us began working together with the detective by nonviolently turning against our fellow protestor to shut him down. When we took him to the ground he let go of his abusive attacking and surrendered to the power of our empathy and caring. As this happened the detective could ease off his feeling threatened and move his hand away from his gun. At that point we had returned to where the four of us were sharing and relating out of our under-culture of empathy and caring.
Our most healing human capacities were able to dominate our most destructive in this long moment. All of us can learn how to do this as a matter of course in all kinds of situations. To move out of our under-culture of blame and punishment and draw on our under-culture of intelligence and empathy that is within all of us. This is how we can bring that other world we know is possible into existence.
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