The ego and the act

I’ve been receiving calls and emails lately from friends who think I should get back to the US and participate in the Occupy movements. I am very excited about the Occupy movements, but I am not excited to participate. I’ve done some thinking about why, talked about these issues with those same friends, and recognize that these feelings are worth writing about.

In my years as an activist in the alterglobalization movements there was an aspect of movement culture which I recognize in the videos from Occupy. I call it “false humility”. It’s an obligatory personal performance of anti-hierarchy. None of us, no matter how committed, experienced, knowledgeable, or central to the organizing was to be considered or consider themselves at all talented or special. None of us was allowed to be recognized or celebrated for our particular contributions. The required performance wasn’t selflessness, but non-existence, denying one had skills or had contributed at all. This wasn’t just for the sake of security culture. It was a demonstration of integrity about democracy and egalitarianism.

I learned a lot through this. I learned to sit on my own ferocious perspective and listen to other people with such commitment that I would be able to take their perspective as my own and present both without rancor. As I’ve noticed many times, the kind of deep listening that can get you across huge gaps will only happen when love is present. Our values about loving and respecting all people forged this level of perception and understanding.

I think this culture was a long-term blessing for my life, because promptly after becoming an Assistant Professor and gaining the status and prestige I had yearned for all my life, I was drawn into a counter-culture that insisted convincingly that I should be humble about such trappings, and focus on politics and organizing. I especially recall my desire to carry business cards, and my comrades’ view of this as a ridiculous, egoistic, and hostile act. The long-term result of this thread is that I didn’t go down a path of trying to suck fulfillment from these things. Instead, this culture taught me to identify with my acts and values, and I believe that lesson (which I fought hard) ultimately saved me from a life of bitterness and jostling. The idea that I could be something other than my CV and “recognition” was what gave me the courage (and substantive alternative vision for which) to leave the academy.

This culture also enabled me to witness some very beautiful things. By “stepping back” when it came time to talk to the media, or give presentations, I got to watch my students do their first work. Over and over, instead of being the one at the mic (which I loved and was good at), I made sure the talking points were written and rehearsed and then stood back, tears streaming as I watched my dear students and friends, shaking, smiling, coming up with brilliant new ways of saying things when that moment came.  I wasn’t yet 30, when already I was identifying as an elder, singing “Ella’s Song” to myself.

That which touches me most is that I had a chance to work with people
Passing on to others that which was passed on to me

To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail
And if I can but shed some light as they carry us through the gale

The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on
Is when the reins are in the hands of the young, who dare to run against the storm

Not needing to clutch for power, not needing the light just to shine on me
I need to be one in the number as we stand against tyranny

Struggling myself don’t mean a whole lot, I’ve come to realize
That teaching others to stand up and fight is the only way my struggle survives

Sweet Honey in the Rock, “Ella’s Song”, based on a letter by Ella Baker

But stepping back also meant holding back. It meant that after only a couple of years of activism, still entirely green myself and hungry to learn and experience more, I was already holding back my best ideas and energy so that others could have the experience and could see their ideas at work. I was stalwart in remembering that no concept, however brilliant, and no victory was ever more important than the process of human development. While I could have done more, easier, and perhaps more effectively at the moment, nothing was more important than making space for new people to try. But because I knew this, my own chance to be in that space was very short.

It was extremely frustrating that I never got to play, to work full out at my capacities. I was always holding back so as not to outstrip those around me with my analysis, my logistical skills, my ability to synthesize. I didn’t get to do my best, because my job was to get out of the way so that others, whose ideas and role were by fiat entirely equal to mine, could use the space.

But the worst of this, and the part that made it toxic for me, was the denial of credit and recognition, the collective withholding of what I suppose is known as ego-gratification, or, more commonly, as self-esteem. I have come to believe that lack of self-esteem is not an intermittent common pathology, but a condition produced by this particular culture. (This is well argued in Media Education Foundation’s documentary, Advertising and the End of the World, which proposes that advertising is designed to make us feel inadequate so that we will by products that promise to make us sexy and loved.) I think it goes deeper than advertising, but I can see it in nearly everyone, and I’ve made such incredible progress from where I used to be, that even if waves of insecurity do still pass through me at times, I’ve decisively stopped beating myself up about it and actively reject such diagnostic labeling about myself and others.

One crucial function of culture is to make self-esteem possible … Its task is to provide the individual with the conviction that he is an object of primary value in a world of meaningful action. Ernest Becker, The Birth and Death of Meaning

So a bunch of wounded people bravely show up to a community of people with values that they share, work their asses off for the cause, take risks, give things up, and are denied self-esteem and abused if they seem to desire any recognition whatsoever for having accomplished something which is, in this culture (and most) the basis for a healthy sense of self.

We’ve all met overinflated people and hoped they’d learn to step back and down. But I think underinflation is a far more common baseline. Many people, lots of youth and lots of women, have been put down so long that they don’t have a realistic sense of themselves. I believe that false humility is a further distortion, and a tragic one for people who don’t feel confident enough to share their thoughts and skills. Withholding recognition of individuals’ talents and contributions just forces everyone to be more sneaky in their necessary attempts to build a healthy ego.

And this sneakiness comes at a cost to the work we care about the most, which is connecting with more people to expand our projects. What I’ve seen repeatedly, outside the world of activism as well as within it, is the tendency of people in their early 20s, denied self-esteem by whatever means, to grab onto an idea with intense righteousness, to draw a border, and then purvey hostility toward lots of people similar to them whose interpretation lies just slightly outside the borderlines of the Correct Concept. This is a desperate measure for ego. It is what is going on in the debates over “reformism” in activist circles, and it has its corrollaries in the arts and any subculture.

It’s been a surprisingly long recovery for me, and I still find myself doing false humility, absurdly. It’s only been the need to market myself as a professional artist that has finally forced me to be willing to promote myself, put my name on things, instead of being a ghost behind my projects.

One of the things I notice that differentiates Social Entrepreneurship from the kind of activism I was involved with in alterglobalization and that I see in occupy is that egos are front and center. People are promoting their own concepts, proudly. (This of course runs the risk of projects being dependent on charismatic leaders and “ideas people” who don’t handle the logistics, a major weakness of many community organizations.) But I see a lot more jubilance in social entrepreneurship rather than the grim approach of activism.