Thursday, August 11, 2011

We are a part of teaching each other

Imagine a group of Quakers in a living room in 1837 contemplating the chances for abolition. Impossible. The country was clearly institutionally corrupt and racist, not only permitting slavery but ethnic cleansing and genocide. The US Supreme Court ruled in 1823 that Indians couldn't own land in the US because it all belonged to European "discoverers" and that title transferred to the new US government upon independence from England. By 1830 Andrew Jackson had pushed through the Indian Removal Act and "legal" ethnic cleansing pushing the "Five Civilized Tribes" out of their inconvenient presence in the southeastern US to barren lands in Oklahoma. Black Americans were in chains for sale and Native Americans were in chains on the Trail of Tears trying to survive ethnic cleansing so ferocious it was in some cases genocidal, killing all or most members of a particular band or tribe.

What an environment.

The US has moved law forward for African Americans and Native Americans, but the 1823 law, while taught in law schools as a poor ruling, is still not overturned and in fact is still cited in cases. Does this mean that no progress has been made? No. Obviously, Native Americans can own land, they can practice their own religion, speak their own language, and the forced abductions of their children happens less. The idea is to feed into the public mind and challenge social norms and mores until change occurs. It happens and needs to happen more. The treaty rights struggles, waged intelligently and with nonviolence, moved that ball forward in places like Wisconsin and Washington.

Ramsbotham, Woodhouse and Miall (2011) note the importance of media, law, education and public discourse in the curve toward a better world. “Social learning effects…may produce a tipping point and a change in system behavior over time” (p. 298). But this is a two-edged social learning sword.

This is the problem with, for example, the Tea Party. In terms of ethnic conflict and civil rights, it moves the public conversation and thus the social norms in the wrong direction. The social learning from their point of view is framed as freedom but unfortunately it is used to enable corporations to freely exploit. Social wedge issues like gay marriage, immigrant rights, or abortion make unnatural divisions between groups who can then be ruled more efficiently by rich profiteering elites, which is exactly what we see. Tough times, as described so clearly in Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, are cynically co-opted toward injecting fear and its concomitants--violence and injustice--into our society.

So our public conversations will lead us toward change and toward someone's vision. If we are not vigilant and diligent that vision of the conquering elite can be a nightmare for the rest of us. We are in struggle toward one of those tipping points now and our ethical IQ as a nation is being tested.

Ramsbotham, Oliver, Woodhouse, Tom, and Miall, Hugh (2011). Contemporary conflict resolution (3rd ed.). Malden, MA: Polity Press.

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