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Tales of Two Under-Cultures 3

February 28, 2014
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In this series of blogs I am developing a narrative about how we maintain and change ourselves and our cultures. Here’s the core of it (taken from the first in the series):

Blame and punishment head toward destructive outcomes. Empathy and loving move toward creation. The first are grounded in a 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.

My underlying conviction is: movements to advance democracy aim to change cultures, and movement people have to be in a flow of becoming that change to do this. We embody the culture we are trying to change. At the same time we see greater possibilities, and ask why not. We are the problem seeking to become the solution. In this sense the personal is so much the political.

Here in this third blog I want to respond to an excellent set of questions and concerns I received in response to the second one. My GEO colleague Len Krimerman is a godsend. He doesn’t take anything I write on the need for personal transformation in order to achieve cultural transformation at face value. And this time he is really on in many ways.

I totally agree with his main contention: It seems to me that humans are far more complex than allowed by [the notion of] two dueling under-cultures analysis, i.e., “oppression/domination” vs. “empathy/mutuality”. We sure are. Absolutely. Beyond more than we can imagine. But I believe my narrative of two conflicting under-cultures within us can account for this.

Len emphasizes a third dynamic I did not adequately address before: Our inner struggles are not just, and may not be primarily, between our oppressive or brutal nature and our altruistic one, but between both of these and what I’ll call the culture of unconcern, indifference, unresponsiveness, impassivity.

BINGO! This third element is precisely what we need to focus on. I usually refer to it as our “culture of deference” because Lawrence Goodwyn describes it so well in the introduction to his book The Populist Movement. (By the way, it’s one of the most important books written on mass democratic movements in the US.) And Len identifies many of the key and varying characteristics in which it manifests:

  • people living lives of quiet desperation
  • the entrenched belief that nothing can be done to change the status quo
  • a wholly self-focused or self-centered personality
  • rejection of their own power in rejecting any opportunity to develop an engaged and empowered self bent on resisting or improving current institutions and/or creating more humane and fully democratic ones.

Goodwyn couldn’t have done a better job. And all of this is essential to the kind of narrative I am working on.

Len goes on to spotlight a major concern for any effort to implement the kind of empowerment learning needed to move beyond this passivity and deference: …from decades of experience, I can testify that learner-centered/directed curricula or pedagogies frequently fail to reach those saturated by indifference, disempowerment or self-centeredness… The difficult, but crucial, issue here of how to counter or help transform our complacent self and that of others needs to be addressed, even more than how we can tame our brutal impulses.

I strongly agree. We have to make transforming our personal and cultural tendencies a major priority. As movements we don’t really know how to do that. We need large scale research and development. Moreover, I would add something of my own, something I rarely hear anyone agreeing with:

the most powerful force opposed to bringing broader and deeper democracy to our country is this complex fusion of indifference, hopelessness, disempowerment, and self-centeredness. This culture of deference, not the oppressing elite.

Democracy requires people who want to be powerful, cooperative, inventive, caring. Risk-takers.

I don’t think we have natural brutal impulses. Brutality is brutally real. I think aggression is natural, not brutality. Survival depends on aggression at all levels of life. Lions eat zebras, zebras eat grass, we eat tomatoes, and so on. Brutality is a gross misuse of aggression that is grounded in social conditioning. Eating to live is not oppressive.

I have one major disagreement with Len. He sees oppression and the complex of passivity, quiet desperation, indifference, and self-centeredness as two separate psychological and cultural dynamics. I see them as two sides of one dynamic, what I call the under-culture of scarcity and fear, of blame and punishment, of domination and submission. In The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire sees that the core dynamic of oppression is dialectical. It is a dance between oppressed and oppressor that cannot happen without each playing out their role to the music of what Joseph Natoli calls our "unconscious common core." He argues passionately that for oppressed people to liberate themselves from their oppression, they have to confront a radical choice: to become an oppressor or to start becoming more fully human:

The struggle for humanization … to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity … become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both. [44]

Freire does a better job here of describing the relational under-culture of domination and submission” than I did in my previous posts. (And Len has brought this to my attention.) Further, as I read Freire, the only real alternative he sees to oppression is what he calls "re-humanization"—love and compassion along with a clear-eyed understanding of the external oppressive dynamics. This is what I mean by the second relational under-culture, grounded in our natural capacities for empathy, mutuality, awareness of abundance, and so on.

GEO blogs are part of our mission to provide a platform for co-op practitioners and solidarity economic organizers to share their thoughts and experiences with a wider audience.  Any views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do no necessarily reflect the views of the GEO Collective.  If you would like to start a blog on GEO, please contact

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