I find it helpful to end with story.
Yes, but what do I propose? What policy do I suggest?
You know, I’ve always wanted a movie about what happened to Jules Winnfield after he left that diner. Still hoping I’ll get one.
Yes, fine-fine-fine, but what’s my answer? I've been pointing fingers—what's my big solution?
But I never said I was looking for a solution. I’m looking for a way to exist in a world I'd failed to recognize. I’m trying to understand the appropriate posture to take in a world that is different than I thought it was.
The old stories aren’t working for me. I’m looking for a new story. I'm almost done now.
What a cop out!
Really? I don’t think so.
It’s one thing to make a compelling argument. It’s another to be compelling. The former might win an argument, but the latter might—maybe—change a mind.
Put it another way. We can resift order's soil if we like, and it looks like we should. But I think we’d do better to fix justice's bedrock. And fixing the bedrock is more a matter of spirit than law. It's more a matter of desire than ideas. It's the heart, not the mind; the vision, not the spreadsheet. It's a matter of orientation. It's the compass.
It may well be appropriate and useful to make policy proposals that are more just than the current ones, and useful to pass more just laws, and our lawmakers should certainly make that attempt, and certainly I hope to see laws passed that increase justice, but policy will not move us, and laws will not save us, unless we choose to discard the spirit that has captured us, and become oriented toward a justice founded in love.
Policy may improve people’s lives, but they can’t make us believe people's lives matter. Laws can enforce justice, but they can’t make us enforce them justly. Justice’s underlying bedrock can’t be smoothed without a change of ideology, of worldview, without a recapitulation of underlying assumption, without a renewal of spirit.
The only thing that will save us from the merciless consequence of believing our foundational lies is the changing of our national soul. A reorientation toward justice, toward recognizing the fact that people are art. Something close enough to a miracle as to be indistinguishable from it.
Let me try to demonstrate what I mean.
One of the great stories of the past 10 million years or so is this: humans have had to engage in labor to stay alive.
One of the stories of the past 10 thousand years or so is this: humans have innovated technologies, which have allowed them to create enough surplus to form increasingly large societies, which have allowed them to exchange their labor in exchange for wages of goods or services. Meanwhile, organizations have harnessed this labor to form industries, which coordinate this labor toward projects of increasingly larger scale.
One of the stories of the past 200 years or so of human history is this: thanks to increasingly large jumps in innovation and technology, industry, which seeks above all else to increase profit, has developed a preference for technology over humans, when it comes to labor.
As a result, increasing numbers of people have had their labor replaced by technology.
Let’s repeat the problem: There has been an advance in technology, and as a result, industry no longer thinks humans are desirable for labor. As a result, many have been replaced and have no way of proving their worth to a society that views profitability as the metric of worth, and many others have found themselves herded into meaningless occupations in order to survive. If it hasn’t yet happened to what you do: just wait another decade. I doubt you’re safe if you’re a doctor, or an attorney, or an actor, or a writer. Industry seeks to cut expense. Humans labor is very expensive. Technology solves complex problems.
Let me ask you this: Is this a problem?
It’s here where framework is crucial.
If we live in a culture where life is something that must be earned, and the way you earn life is by making yourself profitable, this is a huge problem. You can argue pros and cons of solutions within the framework, but you’re still stuck within that framework, and increasingly people will fail to provide sufficient profit, and increasingly people will not deserve life, and so, increasingly, in various ways, we will allow people to die.
And, not to go future-shock on you, but … our technology is getting exponentially more sophisticated, more intelligent, more and more able to replicate something like thought. The more our technology replaces human labor, the more it will be making decisions on our behalf. Which means we’ll need to ‘teach’ it, but soon enough, it will be learning things from us we did not intend to teach. We can try to teach it that all human life is valuable, but unless we actually believe it, that’s not what our technology will learn. It will learn our lies from us instead. It will learn that we don’t belong to each other. It will learn that life must be earned. It will learn that being profitable is how life is earned. It will learn that humans are not preferable for this goal. And it will learn that violence redeems.
We've seen that movie. We keep making it. It's almost as if we know.
That's a pretty huge problem.
If, on the other hand, if you believe life is something you deserve simply through your being, then the fact that industry no longer desires human labor is simply an extraordinary challenge.
The challenge is this: Since industry would like to replace human labor to increase efficiency and profit, and since industry is already doing this, how do we, as a primary responsibility, make the necessary adjustments to our understanding of how human labor (a good thing) is going to function within our society in order to preserve and protect basic human physical and spiritual need, and, as a secondary responsibility, identify everything good about this trend so that we can preserve the innovation, the benefit, the increases in knowledge and ability?
Do you see what's changed? We still want to preserve industry. We still want to preserve innovation. We still want to preserve free markets. They just aren't any longer the first thing we want to preserve, or the only things.
Industry and innovation and technology and labor and efficiency aren’t bad things. They’re good things. Robotics and artificial intelligence aren’t bad things; they’re tools—amazing tools, incredibly useful ones. It’s just none of them are more important than the idea that all humans are unique and irreplaceable works of art carrying intrinsic and unsurpassable worth. If any of them is failing in that regard, we can either make adjustments to what we have, or we can come up with something else.
You’re telling me we can’t innovate some system, if we so desire, that allows people to engage in whatever labor they find meaningful, but which stands untethered to the coercive elements of a profit-oriented system? I don’t believe you. We have a rover taking pictures of Mars. We split atoms. We attack cancer with radiation. We can hit any specific spot on the planet with a missile that will devastate a city, and we can do it until we’ve exterminated ourselves. We can do whatever we want.
Which means the question is…what do we want to do?
Human beings have basic physical needs. Human beings also have an innate desire for meaning and significance, which leads them to a vast spectrum of meaningful work and achievement and expression. We can make sure we are providing for these things as a primary objective, or we can make profit and growth of industry a primary objective. If we can have both, that's wonderful—and, because we are innovative and smart and industrious, we probably can—but if the one has decided to cast off the other, then we must meet the challenge of that reality.
Oh. My. God. Am I talking about … socialism???
My answer is: I don’t know. And who cares? It’d not an important question, it's really not. It's the question somebody would ask whose first priority is preserving capitalism rather than human life. I’m suggesting merely we meet the challenge presented by a new reality. And I’m suggesting that toward that endeavor, everything is permitted … except the destruction or subjugation or abuse of human beings, who are art.
Be very skeptical of the person whose reaction to a problem is merely the preservation of the system causing the problem, rather than meeting the challenge of solving the problem.
Consider capitalism and socialism. They’re oppositional forces, right?
Wrong. They are tools. Two among many. Perhaps one has more appropriate applications than the other, and perhaps one is more useful more often than the other, and perhaps one is more dangerous than the other—and we could argue which is which, if we were the types of people who enjoy boredom.
Capitalism and socialism aren’t oppositional forces any more than your screwdriver is an oppositional force in contention with your wrench.
Unless, that is, either is improperly elevated to the most important thing.
If either is made the most important thing, then the most important thing will be to always use them for every task. And, when inappropriate use creates harmful results, the most important thing will not be the redress of the harm, but the preservation of the inappropriate use.
Capitalism has been for many years an imperfect but largely successful way of organizing human labor to the benefit of both. It is starting to decide it doesn’t need humans. Are we really going to live as if capitalism is more important than humans?
Hell, no. Let's do better.
And still there are those who will think I'm attacking capitalism, because they are in a bubble that says that capitalism, not a justice rooted in love, is the most important thing.
This is just one illustration, just one challenge to meet. The point of the illustration is, policy and law are good if they are just, but they will not save us if our frame is still unjust.
Preserve what is good. Change what isn’t. Use any tool available, provided you put it to a use appropriate to your orientation toward justice. When you find no appropriate use, put the tool back in its place.
We can change anything.
Which means we can use any thing.
Which means we can do anything.
The frame of justice is so large, it turns out it is the entire canvas. If you can manage to frame yourself there, you'll wonder why you hemmed yourself into such a small corner of it.
Everything is permitted.
So, again. What do we want to do?
Right now we want to go to war and war and war and war. Right now we want to profit off of suffering, and increase suffering if it will increase profit. Right now we want to imprison more and more people, and to profit from their imprisonment. Right now we want to blame the victim. Right now we want a Muslim ban and a holy war. Right now we want a police force that will destroy the bodies of those who are considered presumed theft. Right now we want to presume that people of color are presumed theft. Right now we want people whose labor has been replaced by technology to die. Right now we want to protect rapists if they had a bright white future. Right now we want people, who are too sick or too poor or too unskilled or too old or too disabled to be able to turn a profit, to die. Right now we want people who remind us of the responsibilities we've inherited because of our country's unresolved genocides to die.
Right now we want to try to stay comfortable through all that.
If that's not what we want to do, then why are we doing it?
If where we are wasn't where our compass was pointing, then why are we here?
Suppose you are like me. Suppose you are an idiot. In that case, you won't understand every policy proposal. In that case, you won't have a detailed understanding, or even a functional one, of every industry and every technological advance and every law. And, if you're like me, perhaps you've begun to suspect that it won't be possible for you, all by yourself, to gain such godlike understanding. After all, you're like me. You're an idiot.
But I might understand one small part of it. And, together, we might understand it all. And, if we believe we all belong to each other, then we might move together in whatever direction we choose. And, if, together, our compass is pointed toward justice, we'll eventually arrive at justice. We'd make mistakes, but we'd correct them. Because the compass sets the course, and the course informs the navigation. If the navigation is unskilled at first, we need only refer to the compass and adjust. If the compass is true, we'll get there in time. It will be hard and costly and humbling and worth it.
Demanding to know exactly how we'll get there before deciding to do so is the real cop-out. This is why asking someone for their policy solution is usually my way of distracting from the fact that I don't want to do the right thing. It's usually my way of changing the frame away from justice, back to the more precise details of how we might justify doing something unjust.
Or put another way: Usually, before people embark upon some difficult task, they first see the necessity or the desirability, which leads them to want to do it. It's only after wanting to do it that they actually make the plan.
Which is kind of obvious, if you think about it.
The good news is this: You don’t have to win the debate over policy. The attempt to win the debate is usually a loss in itself. A debate within an unjust framework benefits the unjust by accepting the framework as a foundational premise.
Lose the debate. Not in the sense of defeat. In the sense of casting it off.
Lose the debate. Move the frame.
You move the frame by telling a story.
Let me tell you a story.
* * *
Once upon a time, a tyrant became aware of his own tyranny, and left his kingdom behind to walk the earth, trying, real hard, to become a shepherd.
You know: like Kane in “Kung Fu.”
He was a bad motha-shutyomouth. (But I’m just talkin’ about Jules. So can you dig it?)
Before long, the new shepherd ran into trouble. In every town, it seemed, there were people suffering, and others who held sway over them, benefiting from the imbalance. Sometimes there was a rich industrialist, who had bought up most of the land in the county. Sometimes it was a local tough and his gang, who rode through town each night to terrorize those less imposing and ruthless than he. Sometimes there was a poison in the ground, or the water. Sometimes an abusive patriarch. There was always a tyrant.
The shepherd confronted each tyrant. Reactions varied. Some, recognizing his innate authority, offered him opportunity in exchange for his allegiance. Others, trusting to their superior familiarity with the local territory, simply lied, attempting to confuse him with conflicting narratives, attempting to cast his intended victims as the true villains and himself the misunderstood hero. Others, casually confident, simply explained the legal and physical forces against which the shepherd sought to cast himself, hoping to quell him into submissive apathy. Others simply raged and threatened him with an undue and targeted measure of the abuse they already distributed generally.
The shepherd insisted on siding with justice, and refused complicity. He refused to believe lies, repeating the truth he saw. He refused apathy, setting himself in contention with tyranny even when defeat seemed unavoidable. He absorbed the abuse with which he was threatened, knowing it had been intended for others.
Occasionally the shepherd found it necessary to bring out the tool of his old trade, his weapon, the instrument of his tyranny—yet he never used it, and he was always the first to put it down. He came to realize that he would only bring it out in order to be able to be the first to put it down. In time he brought it out less. By the end he never brought it out anymore. Some suspect he lost it.
Wherever the shepherd stayed, he lived with those the tyrant intended to hurt. At first he attempted to impart his wisdom to them, but soon he discovered that most spaces needed his ears more than his words. Soon he learned that people already understood the particulars of their own territory better than he did. Soon he realized that they were far more the heroes of the story than an interloper like he could ever be. Soon he realized that even the tactics he disagreed with were the ones that had allowed these people to survive within the abuse of their situation. The shepherd would not participate in these tactics if his conscience disallowed their use, but he was slow to criticize any perceived failing, and quick to name any perceived goodness.
Always the day would come the shepherd realized there was nothing more he could do. The shepherd never stayed long after that. The shepherd always said good-bye.
Sometimes the shepherd left having found some measure of success, with people less threatened than before, or more empowered, or refortified with resolve or provision. Sometimes the people had managed to wrest some concession, large or small, from their tyrant. In rare instances their tyrant had even been turned from abusive ways by a better example, repented, and joined humanity.
Sometimes the shepherd failed entirely. Sometimes he left having made no discernable impact, because he had been forced out, either beaten and bleeding and defeated by a stronger hand, or else shunned by those who feared a disruption of their order more than life lived under threat of a tyrant.
Even in hard times, the shepherd did his best not to forget to laugh with his friends, and to spend time in their company. In time, the shepherd came to realize that this had been the point more than had been the struggle.
The shepherd died in the end, of course. Everybody does. By the end, the shepherd had stopped fearing it. Nobody’s sure how the shepherd met his end. Some say the shepherd ran afoul of some thug. Some say he met with accident on the road. Some say he just got old.
They found his wallet, but not his body. The wallet was empty, and full of tiny holes on one side, as if at some point, long ago, stitching had been removed from the leather.
Nobody knows where the shepherd’s grave is.
But in every place the shepherd had stayed, without quite knowing why, someone put up some marker beside the road he'd traveled, a sign of a spot he'd stayed for a season.
And, in ever place the shepherd had stayed, there were those who had observed the shepherd closely, and remembered him well, and decided to become shepherds themselves. Each of them, having been at some early point in their lives a tyrant, and having recognized what kind of story they had been living, would come to one of the shepherd's markers, carrying a weapon they found they no longer needed, and would leave it behind.
Some shepherds followed in the footsteps of their old friend, and walked the earth. Some stayed where they were. They had different skills and abilities and weaknesses than the shepherd. But each of them somewhat resembled the shepherd, and each refused complicity, insisted on the truth, eschewed despair and apathy, and absorbed the abuse meant for others.
And others observed these new shepherds, and remembered them well.
And they decided to become shepherds, too.
* * *
If you’re still reading, I think I can consider you a friend.
My friends, a new name for you, whoever you are: You were tyrants. Now you are shepherds.
We all have areas, with very few exceptions, in which we hold privilege. In a society captured by a spirit of genocide and slavery, geared toward default settings, we have all been tyrants. Some of us more than others. Some of us much more than others.
Recognize your tyranny.
We move the frame by telling a better story than the one being told.
The best way for us to tell the story is to be the story.
Let’s go be good stories.
Let’s go be art.
May we pop every bubble.
We hold these truths to be self-evidentI must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
-The Declaration of Independence
-The Declaration of Independence
-Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter From a Birmingham Jail
If you want to find a Granfalooon, remove the skin from a toy balloon.
-Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle
Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?
-David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
2. THE GREAT DIVIDE
6. THE KNIFE AND THE TRAIN
7. OUR FAVORITE FLAVOR
8. CHANGE THE LOCKS
9. THE LOWEST RUNG
10. BOTH SIDES
11. I’M TRYING, RINGO
12. EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED
2. THE GREAT DIVIDE
6. THE KNIFE AND THE TRAIN
7. OUR FAVORITE FLAVOR
8. CHANGE THE LOCKS
9. THE LOWEST RUNG
10. BOTH SIDES
11. I’M TRYING, RINGO
12. EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED