The Illusion of Normalcy
Soup on the Sunflowers, milk on the floor of Harrods, orange paint on the storefront of an exclusive Aston Martin showroom. Acts of anarchy, transgressive iconoclasm, irreverent rebellion, or something deeper? Rather than sensational acts of petty vandalism are these instead conscious acts, carefully thought through and aimed at disrupting the ‘normal’ ? Van Gogh’s masterpiece was safely under glass, milk can be mopped up, water paint and chalk easily washed off. These are not the tools of vandals.
Initially, I recoiled at the sight of a can of Heinz tomato soup being hurled at such an iconic work of art. Viscerally it felt like an ‘attack’ on something sacrosanct. My mind swiftly drew conclusions based purely on the optics. Yet it’s all too easy to dismiss civil disobedience as one-dimensional protests of righteous reactivity aimed “against” the status quo. Based on personal experience and reflection, I believe this to be a superficial assessment of something more profound.
Climate change is regarded by many as the most far-reaching and thus perilous expression of a civilisation gone awry at its heart. Yet, critically, we are speaking less about its real cause and more about adapting to it. Even at the most material level – the easiest place to start – reducing heat-trapping carbon emissions and drawing a line under all new fossil fuel extraction is hotly debated, if not ignored. Meanwhile Pakistan, Somalia, Nigeria, Eastern Australia, southern Europe, CA, and China, to name but a few, are subjected to serial, apocalyptic flooding, drought, and fires that barely make the news cycle beyond 24 hours. How many “once-in-a-hundred-year” weather events can feature in our everyday lives?
As the most educated population in history, our actions no longer stem from ignorance, nor naiveté. This is not the 1800s. We know that burning fossil fuels creates the carbon emissions currently destroying our planetary systems. We know that logging in equatorial and boreal forests is destroying the earth’s lungs and precious biodiversity. We know that 10% of the world population now owns 82% of all wealth. We know that Free trade is not free; that it perpetuates neo-colonial control of resources, markets, and exploitative labour practices. We know industrial agriculture is poisoning our soil and waterways. We know that the meat we consume comes from animals kept in abominable circumstances. We know that plastics are choking our oceans and rivers, and that micro plastics are entering our bodies, including breast milk – we know it all. Yet all this knowledge is buried under the illusion of ‘normalcy’, a benign blanket that anaesthetises our ethical sensibilities, providing a false sense of security kept alive by industries of distraction.
Perhaps it’s time for a deep pause, a dose of healthy uncertainty, a confrontation with the fact that something deeply pathological is taking place in modern culture.
Has a stasis, in fact, occurred in the evolutionary process whereby instead of the natural shedding of pathologies (in this case in modernity), these have metastasized, permeating our social, political, economic, and science-based institutions?
I question the premise of evolutionary cultural theory that cognitive and ethical development are developing in tandem. On the contrary, it seems to me that a serious rupture has occurred within the human cultural psyche, between our intellectual abilities and our intuitive sense of what is ‘right’, resulting in a profound disequilibrium. Perhaps in the messy transition from pre-modernity to modernity, the ‘Death of God’ has had greater ramifications than we imagined? Despite the rounding of the circle of insights on the frontiers of new science with transcendental truths articulated by sages of ancient civilisations, has the ‘Death of God’ and the subsequent takedown of ethical sensibilities, formerly held by traditional religion and mysticism, brought us to an existential precipice; a precipice that is disguised bizarrely under the rubric of ‘normalcy?’.
The response by Gen Y & Z to the hydra-headed monster known as the metacrisis, stands in stark contrast to the largely unquestioned faith of the status quo in science, technology and rationalism, alone, to furnish solutions (RoboBees?!), and forge a flourishing future for us all. Something profound and radical of a different order is being called for. The moral intelligence of relationality, conscience, awe, and enchantment, perhaps need a recall.
New Cultural Movements
Indeed, a plethora of new movements and thinking has emerged over the past two decades in the West. These pioneers are responding to the real risk of a cultural void being filled by wealthy nihilists. Recognizing the need for a contemporary restoration of meaning, purpose, and good global citizenry grounded in inner development – a new ‘religion’ so to speak – is emerging. Voices such as Nora Bateson, John Vervaeke, Phoebe Tickell, Daniel Schmachtenberger, a collective of developmental theorists, and others, are creating a tapestry of new thought, moral imagination, cognitive cultural maps and developmental modelling. An extensive blend of traditional and experimental spiritual praxes, communities, and dialogic enquiry supports this. Non-violent civil disobedience is an unlikely noisy cousin in this family. Nevertheless, it’s a significant thread in the emerging tapestry.
Postmodern and metamodern cultural memes flow through this ecosystem of thinkers and spiritual philosophers. Yet for new ideas to not wither on the altar of abstraction, they need to have an ecology of social groups filling them out, building the inner and outer structures of a new world. This is not always easy to come by.
One of the pillars of inner development is the willingness to let go of the self-defined boundaries of one’s emotional, existential, and physical security, for a higher purpose. Non-violent civil disobedience offers one pathway. However inchoate and lacking in a grand narrative, it has its eyes on the future and is bent on creating a ‘new’ culture in the process. The metacrisis has created a generation of activists responding to a moral sensibility otherwise dormant in modern culture. It is not immune to the cultural currents surrounding it. And like other disciplines, it has evolved since the 20th century.
Rooted in the principles of Gandhian non-violence, with a debt to MLK for much of its strategy, civil disobedience today is also infected with contemporary memes. Its vision, values, and evolving structures reflect both postmodern and nascent metamodern influences. What it lacks in terms of a long-term vision for the future, this movement makes up for with the recognition that as a sprawling community of activists, it is “co-creating the culture we want to see”, as an early mentor explained to me. In this way, non-violent civil disobedience has come to embody an informal but rigorous inner practice, within a field of experimental social dynamics with a purpose.
The Inner Dynamics of Activism
Most visible in metropolises like Berlin and London, I have found in general that little is known about the inner dynamics of non-violent civil disobedience, or its current culture. It is often defined, not surprisingly, by the optics of its disruptiveness. Blocking motorways and oil terminals, hijacking oil tankers, scaling national bridges and iconic buildings, indeed throwing soup at a masterpiece, are flagrantly disruptive acts. But these are not simply angry acts against the powers that be. They are motivated by the perennial drive in the human heart to make the world a better place; and in today’s world to disrupt the very pall of normalisation that threatens humanity. Often accused of blinkered vision, activists are keenly aware of the interlinking crises, and deliberately focus on single issues to create a fissure in the edifice of the status quo. As one activist from the global south remarked, “One victory opens the gateway”.
Although not ‘spiritually’ self-identified, nor comprised of a homogenous group, climate activism today retains a strong emphasis on connecting to one’s deepest convictions, creating a culture of service, self-awareness, discipline, and care. A diverse movement, the ‘spiritual’ ground is nourished in diverse ways, drawing on a multiverse of contemporary practices, tools, and ideas. Social media, especially Zoom and Signal, plays a central cohering role, creating a forum for enquiry, connection, and discussion between people. Apart from the principle of non-violence, there is no one ideology, no one religion. But within the heterogenous community that constitutes climate activism, people are rediscovering a family of sensibilities – meaning, depth of purpose, agency, conscience, and love.
Non-violence: beyond not being violent
The embodiment of non-violence, grounded in its philosophy and history, is the guiding principle. And this is rigorously embraced. As demonstrated by Gandhi and MLK, one’s own vulnerability is the radical ‘tool’ of choice to bring about revolutionary change. Non-ideological by nature, non-violence is values-based. It does not, as some assume, simply mean ‘not being violent’, but is grounded in a nuanced interpretation and praxis of love, surrender, self-awareness, and discipline.
This involves a contextual understanding of the spectrum of responses, including violence, that civil disobedience can and does evoke within oneself and in others. Surrender is the practice, responsibility for one’s actions, the ground. Empathy is a core value and deep listening a powerful praxis. On my first action, sitting on the M25 facing an angry group of drivers, my instinctive response was fearful recoil. Forcing myself to remember why I chose to be there, the tumult diminished. I simply sat, listening to the voices around me, surrendering to their rage. What became clear was how little knowledge these men and women had of the crisis we face. Their anger at the disruption to their already stressful lives was understandable.
It was during those blisteringly cold, wet, autumnal days out on motorways; days and nights in bleak police cells, and the extraordinary joy and connection between strangers responding to a similar inner call, that I came to appreciate the spiritual depth inherent in non-violent activism, and its parallels with other intentional communities. Staying in ‘safe houses’, cut off from all outside contact including my partner and friends, meant stepping beyond the internal barriers of emotional and physical comfort. The precision and discipline of actions surfaced deeply conditioned structures of obedience to the state. And dealing with the projections of the public and even friends, demanded conscious re-alignment with the moral compulsion that had originally taken me onto the streets. Like any serious spiritual practice, I found both my intention tested, and the parameters of the ‘known’ constantly dissolving in the face of a higher objective. Stepping beyond self-imposed limitations reveals both hidden strengths and weaknesses. Activism can be a transformative process.
A current surge in prison sentences – the UK government’s attempt to stem the rising tide of climate activism – far from deterring, is in fact strengthening many activists. With their conviction tried through isolation, physical discomfort, and the total loss of freedom that prison represents, many are discovering deeper inner resources. Josh Smith, 29, a construction worker from Manchester, has been held on remand since July 7, 2022. He faces trial in February 2023. Far from succumbing to victimhood or bitterness, Josh is streaming his inspiration from his cell. Messages buoyant with love and purpose. At peace with the fact that his loss of liberty has real meaning, Josh’s messages are hungrily consumed by young activists across Europe, North America, and Australia.
As Roger Hallam, one of the visionaries behind non-violent climate activism in the UK observed, “Only in service to the Good can we become what we already are. Only in Love….do we express the essence of what it is to be human. The modern lonely “self” was invented. It can be un-invented.”
Grappling with Hierarchy
Today’s activists share both post- and metamodernism’s aversion to ‘leaders’ and hierarchical organisational structures. As a result, the movement grapples with the issue of vertical structures of leadership and decision-making, versus more democratic participatory structures. Entering the activist ‘world’ of trainings and actions, one quickly becomes familiar with the concept “we are all crew”, meaning everyone is equal. This has truth to it, although leadership exists on every action. What has been impressive to me is the way leadership is distributed. Anyone with any initiative is supported to develop it. Yet no one is expected to take responsibility beyond what they choose. I have never witnessed coercion of any kind. Everyone’s contribution is valued.
The issue of leadership, however, is thorny, and Roger Hallam, mentioned above, is a controversial figure, both unifying and polarising. Brilliant on one hand, inspiring ordinary people to take action through his authentic passion and care, Hallam’s cavalier, often ideological “busting balls” posturing has alienated many within and outside the climate movement. As Gail Bradbrook (co-founder of XR) once commented, “Roger is the best and worst friend to the movement”.
However, there is a conscious attempt among activists to avoid the pitfalls associated with charismatic leaders. Generally they do not expect leaders to be perfect. They tend not to be punitive – rarely throwing their leaders out for mistakes; nor cultishly complying.
Holding multiple perspectives
The metamodern capacity to hold multiple perspectives, including paradox, is tested in actual relationships, especially in a such a diverse group. Within much of the climate activist movement there is genuine respect for differing perspectives wherever they come from. There is also freedom to intelligently challenge decisions, including those made at the ‘top’. A recent example occurred in a zoom meeting with 34 participants over a controversial decision made by the strategy and media teams. The feedback was articulate, strong but respectful. And as such it was heard.
Another cultural nod to postmodern memes is the lack of ageism noticeable within the climate movement. Lacking in homogeneity in terms of class, educational background, profession, and age, grandparents block roads and share prison cells with students a third of their age. Team leadership is often mixed, with ‘elders’ listened to just as keenly as brilliant young minds. Similarly reflecting the cultural values of our time is the absence of ableism. The frequent participation by the Reverend Sue Parfit, 79, in radical climate actions is one example of those requiring planned assistance.
Many students will return to their studies, some not. But as future leaders, they are receiving a powerful training in inner development and good citizenry on the messy fields of non-violent civil disobedience. There are few opportunities for these qualities to be developed in our stressful, very personal, secular lives. Few occasions to experience risk and sacrifice for something one feels passionate about, or believes in. Although a range of personalities exist within the field of activism, the self-righteous reactivity of earlier modes is far less prominent. Non-violent civil disobedience is not perfect by any means, but it is a transformative force for Good to be taken seriously. In its current form it is disruptive, but not careless. It challenges our opacity to the normalisation of core pathologies in contemporary culture, and as such creates space for something profoundly different.
Thanks to Ryan Maue for the Van Gogh and Sunflowers painting
Thanks Mary, I appreciate reading your view of the involvement you are and have been having with various activists groups. I’m especially intrigued by what you experience in the very process itself of coming together as a diverse group and how that is emerging. To me that petri dish of organising and listening and maybe compromising is the important birth place of something emergent.
I say that because in the public display of those consequent actions, the brief rupture they create through the media intercourse doesn’t necessarily lead to a visible cultural shift. Our polarised echo chambers seem stay in tact.
As you imply, the cultural entropy we experience and swim in is like a thick warm heavy duvet that seems to blanket us in fear, stress, inertia and isolation (and yes, festering anger, often pointed back upon ourselves unfortunately). Yet as activists we can also too easily focus that anger outward on targets – politicians, corporations, or we can build up narratives of conspiracy to provide some new ideology that gives comfort in belonging, but no new consciousness seems to emerge that can help us escape our dilemma. Somehow that ‘militarism’ and anger towards others, ourselves and nature has to be diffused because it seems to be the very human trait that is killing our planet now.
However we can discover and share a sincere, humble and vulnerable love and care for this planet and each other seems to be what needs to be re-awakened now, in whatever cultural matrices.
it’s powerful to hear the combination of deep commitment to a cause with an openness to listen and make room for different points of views, that is part of this movement. Often when people have such depth of commitment in activism, they can be too tethered to the ideas behind their convictions to listen. But when strength is combined with openness, something much more profound is possible which is to be with people even if they are standing against certain actions. In that i have the sense of something profound and it explains the description in this article that people grow/develop in the process of the activism, as they are not taking a static position but ever aiming as we should all do to find a fuller response to the issues at hand.
Thank you for writing a much needed article which goes deeply into the inner values and dynamics of the emerging movement of activists engaged in non-violent civil disobedience. As an activist myself, I breathed a sigh of relief – Yes! I’m tired of hearing the populist media’s negative and ludicrously superficial portrayal of what is behind people of all ages facing head on into the reality of our crises in a way that remarkably few people seem willing to do. Far from being selfish and entitled, there is a spirit of sacrifice and love for the sake of all that they cherish in the world. You describe well how there’s a real praxis being forged and evolving out of the intensity of real world actions; human values are constantly being tested, responded to and developed in an unusually free and yet respectful way.