For the changemakers

For the changemakers

This is how it goes.

You ask nicely, they say “No.”

You ask nicely, they say “No.”

You ask nicely, they say “No.”

You insist, they say “Well okay. But you should have asked nicely.”

I’ve always been someone who feels an inner drive to stand up for what is right. It’s who I am. I don’t feel like it is a particularly virtuous way to be, it just feels normal. I can’t imagine not being like this. It’s not like I am some major activist or anything, but part of my life has always been to try to stop Bad Things from happening.

There’s been successes and failures. I made some small contributions to supporting bhikkhuni ordination and the equality of women in the Sangha. That’s very much a work in progress, but we have taken some major steps forward, even though we were attacked and undermined at every turn. More recently I helped galvanize a movement to stop the fraudulent sale of original poetry masquerading as ancient Buddhist scripture. I’m super-proud of these things! It’s important to remember the good things that you have achieved, and remind yourself that in some small way, you have made a difference.

Other things didn’t work out so well. In the 80s especially, I did a lot of work with Animal Liberation. We never really succeeded in our main thrust, which was to eliminate the awful industry of factory farming, and make clear the inexcusable ethical consequences of eating meat. There’s more awareness now, some legislative changes, some shift in the zeitgeist. But factory farming continues to grow unabated, with all its associated horrors of animal abuse and environmental destruction.

Even worse is the case of climate change, where decades of activism have utterly failed to slow the accelerating rise of global atmospheric CO2, which as I write sits at 417.82 ppm 418.56 ppm. Sorry, I had to revise it upwards while I was writing. The last time it was this high was 3.6 million years ago, when the sea level was 24 m higher than today, and the temperature 3.8°C higher. I’ll be at the next rally, but I doubt it’ll do any more than the last one.

It’s a lonely and weird world. You stand in protests with a dozen people, make statements and write letters, and it’s pretty awkward actually. I never feel like it’s something I enjoy or that I want to do. I hate conflict. But I just hate injustice more. I’ll be doing it till I die: it’s part of who I am.

And so after a long time, you learn to recognize the patterns. The people who created the problem refuse to do anything about it. It’s tied too deeply to their own self-identity. So you gradually escalate the pressure until, if it works, you eventually push them to change it. Then they turn around and start explaining how you were the problem all along, that if only you’d gone about it the right way it would have been fine. As if they have the moral authority to lecture you about the right way to bring about change.

Meanwhile, bystanders chip in and say, “Well, I always believed in what was right, but you see, I didn’t like the way it was done.” Well, with all due respect, perhaps you might consider sitting down now, just like you did then. We needed you and you weren’t there for us. You don’t get to tell us the way it should have been. Being a bystander is the easiest thing in the world. That’s why most of us do it most of the time. Standing up to be counted: that’s what takes guts.

This little article is for the changemakers. I want you to know: it’s not you. You don’t have to be lectured by the ones who created the problem, or who sat by and judged you while you tried to fix it. It’s not your job to learn and grow from the experience—it’s theirs. You’ve already learned and grown, that’s why you had the moral compass to recognize the Bad Thing for what it was.

We all know what it’s like. The tension, the uncertainty. Maybe you’ve been trembling, or feeling out of place and alienated. Maybe you’ve been physically or verbally abused and attacked, subject to all kinds of accusations and innuendoes. Some of you, I know, are not here any longer, because they killed you. Or they traumatized you so much you just got out of the game altogether—it’s too much. Maybe not, though, I dunno, maybe you’ve been just fine! But I think that for most of us there is a cost. I want to talk about that, to talk about the ways that the Doers of the Bad Thing shift blame onto those who try to stop them. When we make these things conscious we can be forewarned and prepared.

Pheeewwww …. Just breathe. It can be triggering, I know. It is for me. Take a moment, gather your mindfulness. Remember what it is that we’re here for.

The last thing the changemakers need is a lecture. At each step of the way, with each new argument and shift in perspective, we’re agonizing and self-doubting. We have headaches and churning guts and sleepless nights. We look for lame excuses not to go, or to do anything else. We waste endless hours of our precious life worrying about some miserable pointless rubbish that should never have been a thing in the first place. This is an emotional cost created by the Doers of the Bad Thing and paid by us.

For what it’s worth, I just want to say to the changemakers: I see you. I understand. I know how hard it is. I know that you just want to do what is right and get on with your life. I know that the last thing you need is someone second-guessing and undermining what matters to you, especially not someone who is the problem. We do plenty of self-doubting already. It’s when we overcame those self-doubts that we found the courage to stand up. But there are those who want nothing more than for us to sit down, and they know how easy it is to plant the seeds of doubt.

It’s called “bad faith”, and it’s how they’ll undermine the possibility of change. Let’s look at some of the patterns.

The first and most obvious one is that they’ll shift attention from content to manner; from the fact of the Bad Thing to the way the event unfolded. This is more than mere distraction or even moral hubris. It is a systematic attempt to undermine the possibility of change. All the things they’ll criticize you for are normal things that are necessary to create change, but they’ll frame it so as to make them appear bad and nasty.

It starts when you say that the Bad Thing is, in fact, a Bad Thing. Suddenly the Doer of the Bad Thing ascribes to an elevated morality, where seeing things as “bad” is crude, black-and-white thinking. Even the most anodyne ethical observation can be undermined in this way. “Black lives matter!” It seems pretty obvious. But they’ll say, “Oh honey, don’t all lives matter?”

The very act of making a moral judgment is itself framed as a Bad Thing. You’ll be called “righteous”, “judgmental”, “narrow-minded”. Your one-sided morality is beneath their elevated both-sides-ism. Make no mistake: this isn’t an argument about being morally judgmental, it’s an argument against having morality at all.

Of course we’re not children. We understand that in some cases, there really are two sides and there is no clear black-and-white. But not in this case: this really is black-and-white, that’s why we took a stand. But for them, any issue must be always both-sides. Or to be more accurate, any issue where they are on the wrong side. They’re more than happy to invoke black-and-white moral judgments when it suits them. After all, is not the dismissal of moral judgment itself the most intolerant of moral judgments?

This is an effective technique, because it relies on the fact that most people don’t have training or clarity when it comes to making ethical decisions. We’re not taught how to do it rationally. So when we hear these things, we wonder, “Is that right? Am I just pushing my own view? What if I’m the bad guy?” And all these doubts add up, they sap our energy and our resolve. With each bad faith question, some supporters will drop off and disappear, and it gets harder for those who remain.

And God forbid if anyone dares to be witty, or playful, or bluntly honest, or if there’s any snark or sarcasm, or a pointed observation, or a generalization, or if someone speaks in the heat of the moment, or indeed if anyone at all makes a passing remark that is not fully qualified and hedged with exceptions. Because as we all know, it is through the rigorous composition, not to say careful and meticulous scrutiny and review, of each sentence, ensuring that every word is certified by a series of committees made up of a balanced board of members representing all possible points of view, that a message hits home. So you get rid of anything resembling humanity. And your message is met with a polite smile and a cucumber sandwich. But at least you’ve succeeded in what really matters, which is to not annoy the Doers of the Bad Thing.

Except no actually. Now they criticize you for being inauthentic. It’s almost as if you can’t win. It’s almost as if that was the point all along. So all the time and effort you put in to craft things carefully, to understand the issues, to communicate and support each other; all that wholesome and productive work is ignored, brushed aside, because someone somewhere said something that someone decided to make an issue out of. It’s frustrating.

And so we need to keep reminding ourselves: it’s not you. Just do your best. You don’t have to be perfect. You will be criticized no matter what you do. So don’t worry about what they say. Just do what you know to be right. Don’t buy into their outrage. Let them deal with their own karma.

Let’s say you ignore the injunctions to not have any moral compass and to not talk like a human being. You actually get people on your side to stop the Bad Thing. Now it’s a “mob”. It’s the baying hounds. It’s a pack out for blood. Of course, the Doers of the Bad Thing have already had many opportunities to stop. They have been asked politely, many times. Not that they should need to be asked; the Bad Thing should never have happened in the first place. Seriously, most of the evil in the world is this puddle of miserable, pathetic little self-serving lies deserving of no-one’s time or attention. Yet here we are. And they won’t stop. That’s why we need to organize.

For you, the fact that other people also recognize the Bad Thing comes as a relief and a solace. You’re not crazy! You need this, you need a sense of belonging. You have found your people. Those who stand alone, like Greta Thunberg in her early school strikes, bear a huge weight; no-one can do that for long. Bringing people together to stop a Bad Thing is intrinsically a Good Thing. You should be proud to be a part of it, to stand beside others, to recognize that we, as human beings, still have the capacity to join together for no other reason than to do good.

But when you focus the group energies and the core message, they’ll accuse you of creating an “echo chamber”, enforcing ideological conformity. You’re all just sheep, incapable of an independent opinion, manipulated by ideological masters. If you’re really lucky, they’ll come onto your platform to accuse you of living in an echo chamber. Like the guy who wrote a book about being silenced by big tech and sold it on Amazon, or the talking heads on Fox News whining about being cancelled by the media, irony is not their strong suit.

They want you to forget that the Doers of the Bad Thing have their own group, their own “echo chamber” who saw what they were doing, who reinforced it, who failed to speak out when they had doubts, who were swept up in the group dynamic. Usually you don’t know about that because they keep it deliberately hidden. It’s only public discourse that gets accused of being an echo chamber.

Any group needs a unifying message. There needs to be a simple and clear call. At a protest, someone will stand at the front and yell a slogan. That doesn’t mean they only know slogans, it means they understand how group dynamics work. Without unity it is impossible to create change. And that’s why they want to undermine it.

At the same time, you have to respect everyone’s voice, and understand that people within a group have autonomy and beliefs and reason, and a need and a right to express that. A movement needs more than slogans; it needs depth and diversity and nuance; it needs analysis that delves into exactly why the Bad Thing is a Bad Thing, and shows unexpected consequences and ramifications. Now your movement is an out of control, anarchic mess, with loose cannons and scattershot messaging. Doers of the Bad Thing will tut tut as they sip their Earl Grey, sighing as they wonder, “What even is it that those people are trying to say?”

Once you have a defined group that can act effectively, you commit the final and gravest of sins: causing disharmony. The world was peaceful and nice until you lot showed up and started making noise. Shame on you! Ruining the neighborhood like that. We should all be nice together and not argue.

This one carries an especially potent emotional charge, for the reasons made plain on the battlefield of the Kuru land in the Bhagavad Gita. Those over there, the ones we are about to fight: they are your brothers, your cousins, your friends. People you like and respect. People you would, in different circumstances, be happy to sit and have a nice chat with.

As bad faith arguments go, this is a particularly obvious one, but no less effective for that. Most people, including those fighting for change, are conflict avoidant. It’s yucky. You’d rather be doing anything else. You want to try to minimize any overt conflict, and are always trying to find that impossible balance between action that is direct and effective, yet does not spiral out of control. No-one knows how to do this, we just do our best. Sometimes you go too far, say something you later regret. That’s okay, move on, it happens. Try better next time.

It’s odd to see this argument raised so often in Buddhism, because the Buddha was really clear about what harmony meant for him: “There is no fellowship with fools.” If people insist on doing a Bad Thing, one should avoid them at all costs. If you can’t persuade them or stop them, at least you can avoid being entangled with them.

To misrepresent the Buddha’s teachings, presenting what is not Dhamma as Dhamma, is one of the most divisive things that a Buddhist can do. According to the Theravada Dīpavaṁsa, it was this that led to the first schism between the Mahāsaṅghika and the ancestral Theravādins. The Mahāsaṅghikas created new scriptures or altered old ones, distorting the Buddha’s message. When they wouldn’t give them up, the Theravādins made the choice to go their own way. Regardless of whether this account is historically accurate, it tells us how important these questions were to ancient Buddhists. It’s not ideal for anyone, but sometimes it’s the least bad option.

We’re all good people until we do a Bad Thing. That’s when we see a person’s quality. When a person is confronted with the reality of the Bad Thing they did, they have arrived at a fork in the road. On the right is a broad path worn smooth by many feet, the easy road of denial. On the left, the narrow and rocky track of redemption.

We carry inside ourselves the impression, or rather the fundamental psychological architecture, that we are basically a Good Person. And a thing done by a Good Person must be a Good Thing. This is why it’s so confusing when people start saying, “Well no not really, it’s actually a Bad Thing.” It’s cognitively hard to process.

Now, if it’s a small or passing thing, never mind. You can get over it and see the problem.

But if it is something that is deeply entwined in your sense of self, something that defines who you are and what matters to you, then the ego can’t process the co-existence of the two ideas: “I am a Good Person” and “I did a Bad Thing.” So they need to get the other side to see it as they do: not as an act that is harmful and has harmful consequences, but as an expression of an intrinsically pure heart. This is exactly back to front. We form our character through how we act, not the other way around.

You can see the moment when this psychological defense kicks in. When confronted with facts, they’ll sidestep them and call on their own subjective authority. “Believe me.” “Trust me.” “My intentions were always pure.” This is the tell. When someone says this, they are getting desperate, tacitly admitting that the facts are not on their side. They are telling you they have taken the right hand road.

Be alert, as one of their last-ditch defenses is to make a surface apology. They will do the bare minimum, relying on the fact that we are tired of the whole miserable affair and just want to get on with our lives. We’ll readily settle for what seems to be a concession, make excuses for all the bad behavior, and move on. Meanwhile, before you know it, there’s a new attempt to rewrite history and rehabilitate the Bad Thing. It wasn’t all that bad, actually. There were, after all, very fine people on both sides. If the matter isn’t fully laid to rest with finality and completeness, it will rise from its grave and stalk you like a zombie.

It’s such a shame, for redemption is not as hard as it seems.

The Buddha laid down clear guidelines for someone at this point. First they need to clearly and explicitly confess what they did. Not in general terms, but laying out the details and showing that they truly understand what they did and why it is wrong. Then they need to whole-heartedly accept responsibility. They may not blame others or criticize those who have called their bad deeds to light. Nor is it their place to make excuses or minimize their deeds or rewrite history. It is up to them to accept whatever consequences arise from their choices. They should, indeed, invite their peers, the ones who they let down, to lay down appropriate means of rehabilitation for them. They should express gratitude for the people who have helped free them from their mistake. Finally they need to pledge explicitly that they will not do the same thing in the future.

This is perhaps the most beautiful thing in the human heart. We have within ourselves the capacity for change and redemption. And when we, the ones who have fought for what is right, see someone come over to our side, it makes us so happy. We bear no grudge for the pain and anguish we have suffered, because we understand that we are all deluded; one day, we were faced with that same choice and we will again. The reality is as it always has been: we’re not a pack of baying hounds out for blood. We’re people trying to stop a Bad Thing.

When the Doer of the Bad Thing accepts what they’ve done and truly understands it, they magically become the Doer of the Good Thing. I feel warm and happy inside just thinking about that! Welcome home my friend, my brother, my sister. Here, come sit beside us. We have been here for you all along. We never hated you, we just wanted you to stop hurting yourself and others. Be at peace, for there is no evil, no wrong, no malice in the world that can withstand the power of love.