Blog post

Confessions of an unwise activist

What have values and frames ever done for you? Got under your skin much? Made you rethink some fundamental ideas?  

Well, four years after I first started looking into all this with Tom Crompton and Andrew Darnton, I can say with confidence that they have had a pretty radical effect on my life. Radical being the operative word because the lessons I have learnt by studying these endlessly fascinating ideas and evidence have led to a radicalisation of my politics, made me quit a very comfortable job and hop across the Atlantic to try something a lot less secure and comfortable, and even led me into deeply spiritual territory.

This essay is an attempt to capture and make sense of some of that personal journey;  you might say the human side of what we usually only talk about only in professional terms. What goes on inside the privacy of our minds and hearts is, pretty much by definition, confusing, shocking and difficult to interpret. It’s also, ultimately, everything we have. This is an attempt to bring order to a bit of mine.I wrote it as a letter to Tom (Crompton) and Andrew (Darnton) because I found myself talking to them in my head as I was processing many of these thoughts; I decided to make it open because I think there might be something of interest to others here as well. But you can be the judge of that.

Download: Confessions of an unwise activist (PDF)

Martin Kirk

About Martin Kirk

I've long suffered from a sense of professional inadequacy: however much we try, civil society's campaigning tools are profoundly outmatched by the scale of the challenges we set ourselves up against. We throw our best energy at the problems but always come up short. We don't Make Trade Fair, Make Poverty History, or Stop Climate Chaos. You could - and many do - say that this is a necessary tension that campaigners have to live with - in order to attract attention and support, you must present grand visions of a far better world or stark descriptions of urgent problems that can be solved just as urgently, usually with the simplest and smallest of actions on the part of the supporter - a £5 donation or an email to an MP. I don't think that's either true or honest. Nor do I think it's healthy in the long run; every time we fail to achieve our soaring ambitions, surely we heap yet more disappointment and disillusionment in the public and our supporters. Exploring frames and values has helped me put some proper academic and empirical understanding to why our current approach is destined to frustrate, and then offers a glimpse of another, more honest, ultimately more fruitful way of doing things. This is why I've dived so deeply into this work, and why I find it so rewarding and full of hope.
  • Peter Adams

    Martin,

    Last week your Frames and Values letter came to me and I have read it three times so far in an attempt to digest all that you write. Hardly anymore space for red underlining.

    Nearly everything presented is agreed upon. And, your new work at /The Rules is vitally important.

    Let me just offer up some thoughts; possibly divergent from yours.

    I feel anger has many shades. The anger you talk about could be considered “toxic anger”. The anger that I feel is justified, and necessary, could be labeled “healthy anger”. This healthy anger is short lived, allowed to burst out and be dealt with instead of simmering within and then emerging as passive aggression, or worse, as rage. I had an argument recently with an architect over a building design on a block of land near my home. I told him I would not fight with him in court like one Alpha male against another. Rather, I would go after him like a mother wolf protecting her cubs. Within two weeks a new and far better plan was produced.

    A more accurate etymological definition of Compassion is: “to suffer with”. To me, to suffer with someone carries more weight than to co-feel with someone.

    You haven’t convinced me that the flip side of compassion is anger. Anger is not necessarily reductive, hateful, arrogant, or egocentric. My ecoic Self (not egoic) could, and should, simultaneously handle both compassion and anger. They co-exist in any healthy eco-system of which humans, as animals, are part of. Jesus, kicking the money changers out of the temple exercised both compassion and anger. In this instance, he wasn’t trying to foster compassion with his anger. It was simply a healthy expression of anger that allowed him to carry on with his work, for the long term, in a healthy fashion.

    A growing anger is not always a sign that one is losing touch with compassion. To me, the more one gets in touch with and connected with the wonders of life, the more one will feel. Men, especially men, rarely feel anything except outbursts of rage. What Buddhist meditation teaches is how to get in touch with one’s feelings and where they originate within one’s body. Pure energy. Anger is one such feeling.

    My analogy to Aristotle’s “the unexamined life is not worth living” is “the unexamined culture is not cultured”. As an artist, educator, activists and concerned citizen, my life’s path has lead me to believe that the problems besetting the world are rooted in misogyny. Even Buddhism is patriarchal. Indigenous cultures seem more capable in balancing the feminine/masculine. Until the dominant powers (including China) start appreciating how necessary the sacred feminine is to a healthy world, than non of your good work at /TheRules will take hold (over even be understood).

    My world view has been shaped by Deep Ecology, Eco-feminism, evolutionary science and Buddhism.

    I’ve been writing a weekly blog for ten years called “Living on the Edge”. Check it out at:

    http://www.windgrove.com

    Sincerely, Peter Adams, Roaring Beach, Tasmania, Australia

    • Martin

      Hi Peter

      Sorry, I only just saw this. Thank you for such a considered response. It’s made me think hard about some of my statements. And here’s where I have come out . . .

      I can’t agree with you on anger. Firstly, my point was not so much to deny that anger can have its uses for us mere mortals, but that ACTING from anger is always going to be misjudged, because anger is inherently based on a warped understanding. By definition, it requires us to pay inappropriate attention to the negative aspects of a situation or object, (i.e. focus down on them), become antagonistic towards them, and then seek to beat or do them damage. That is what I believe anger to be. That said, we do agree that anger is an energy that Buddhism teaches you to get in touch with. But Buddhism also teaches, straight from Buddha that, “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”. Or, as the teacher of my tradition says, “Anger harms everyone. It harms the person who experiences it and it harms the people it is directed at.” My Buddhism, therefore, teaches me to understand anger as a delusion and the most dangerous one at that. In the final analysis, no anger is healthy. If we’re being very Buddhist about it, all anger destroys good karma and generates bad karma. That doesn’t mean we should try to just turn it off or deny it – that would require levels of spiritual attainment far far beyond what I, certainly, could dream of – but that we should understand what it is, and the cause of it, and strive, through as much wisdom as we can muster, to mitigate its presence and impact in our lives and the lives of others.

      The examples you give make perfect sense. I have had many similar experiences. And to me, as to you, anger has helped identify and drive me to action that I still believe was correct, i.e. the misjudgment wasn’t so great as to cause me to do something clearly wrong. But for every example of that I have, I have others where anger has most certainly driven me to inappropriate actions. And for me to accept that as anything other than proof of its inherent danger, I would need to agree with you that there are such things as good and bad anger, which I don’t. I don’t agree that you can separate it into healthy and unhealthy anymore than you can separate pure love – i.e. not attachment, obsession or lust – into good and bad. If we feel pure love, it is always good because it is the genuine desire for the happiness of others; it leads to actions that we truly believe will help them achieve happiness, regardless of their impact on us. We can be very wrong about what that action may be, but if the love is pure, the intention is pure. They are almost one and the same. And, conversly, the intention behind anger is never good because it’s primary desire is to harm or damage another. It can be accompanied by a desire to do good, and can even lead to temporary improvements, but the desire to beat or hurt another takes primacy. I think perhaps you are conflating anger with a recognition of injustice or wrongdoing. We can recognise such things and yet be in control of and dissolve our anger. That is, at least, a correct goal, if often impossible to achieve. The goal, though, is correct.

      That also speaks to why I believe compassion to be the opposite of anger.

      All of which is, of course, talking about the deeper understanding of anger that is almost entirely conceptual, and certainly divorced from the day to day experience. I don’t mean to suggest that anyone should deny their anger outright, or question every single action connected to it. We need to be humble about our abilities, and as wise as we can be in our judgements. For me, that’s very tough. But I believe in the truth of it and love the challenge. Well, most of the time. OK, some of the time.

      I stand corrected on the etymology of compassion. I like yours better, and totally agree with your point.

      I also agree that misogyny and patriarchy are at the root of so many of our problems. I would row back a bit from your belief, though, mass understanding of that is a pre-requisit for any of /The Rules’ work to take hold. Much good can be done in the absence of that condition. That said, I would totally agree that everything /The Rules does should have that condition in mind.

      I shall go and look at your blog now.

      Thank you again for such a great response. I really enjoyed reading it and working through the points in my head.

      Martin