I spend a lot of time thinking about the things that I choose to value and what those values actually look like as they interact with each other in my life. Ideally, the things I believe in are not like objects that I acquire, and set on a shelf, but things that I continue to pick up, turn over in my hands and engage with in some meaningful way.
Too often it seems like shared aesthetic tastes become a kind of shorthand for shared values. Rather than getting to know the people that we interact with, we rely on superficial codes to identify allies. The world that we want to live in often becomes defined as one that looks like our vision, rather than one that feels like our truth. It is easy to understand the appeal. When we express ourselves with the same language and interact in a similar cultural mode it is easier to avoid conflict on the surface of things. This is helpful on days when it is all we can do to put one foot in front of the other. The problem is that it is also easier to avoid the passion and processing that is attached to conflict, to decide that it is not possible to find a point of connection with those whose words and actions trigger us.
When we assume that someone else’s truth should look like ours, we become grotesque — we begin to build a system of morality that separates ‘right thinking’ people from ‘wrong headed’ ones and inhibits our ability to understand people who are not like us. This is true among conservatives and reactionaries, but it is also true in radical circles. The vast majority of mass social movements, whether political or religious, have worked to deny or minimize facts that don’t conform to their Truth. The channels of power put in place to do this, no matter how well intentioned, almost always lead to abuse and the dehumanization of people defined as enemies. When we state, as radicals or anarchists, that we want to create a better world, free from domination, and begin to build an aesthetic vision of what that world looks like, we run the risk of falling into the same trap.
If everyone in the world decided to become like-minded in regard to revolution, or pacifism, or anarchy, or whatever else is held up as ‘the way’, but the quality of their relationships and the way that they interact with and use power in their daily lives remained the same, the world would only be made duller and more grey. Trying to think intentionally about the essential elements of my values while continuing to grapple with and reassess them as I grow helps me focus on my goals and build relationships and structures in my life to support those goals in ways that are not loaded with aesthetic judgement.
One of the values that I think about a lot is freedom. So many people use this word in so many different ways that it’s meaning tends to fall apart when you look at it directly. One of the ways that I think about freedom is in terms of the autonomy each individual should have to construct/conduct their life as they see fit; that there is no right way to be in the world and that no person’s reality is more valid than anyone else’s. The implication of this statement is anarchy — it is what gives people the strength to cast off the bonds of received knowledge and defy power hierarchies that do not acknowledge their own humanity. It also means that I am not able to stand unreservedly behind a unified vision of a revolutionary society. If I believe that there is no one right way to be in the world, then no program or plan can be applied to all people.
Another definition of freedom that I find compelling is the existentialist view of freedom as an internal process connected to choice, responsibility and passionate engagement. Choice, here, is not the choice between products or political leaders, but choosing how we react emotionally to the world. We exercise our freedom when we choose how we are going to react to and be a part of the situations that occur in our lives, most of which lie outside our ability to control. This allows one to claim their freedom and embody it as they negotiate and create systems of meaning in the world, rather than to view freedom as a state that is to be achieved only in some distant future, after irksome struggles. Taking responsibility for these choices makes one aware of their own power. It is not something that can be done for the sake of others, or for all time, but that must be claimed and maintained by each person as they make their way through the world.
The ramifications of radical autonomy are not safe or easy, they are at the heart of what people fear about anarchy. Without rules and powerful hierarchies looking out for society, what prevents everything from just falling apart? What will compel people to recognize any responsibility to themselves and others? For me, the answer is obvious, and grows out of the way that I think about the nature of my relationships.
At the heart of feeling alive and engaged with the world is feeling connected to oneself and to others. When I decided to become a radical and build my life in an unconventional way in order to escape the quiet desperation that I associated with a conventional life, I thought, on some unconscious level, that changing what my life physically looked like was equivalent to changing the way that I emotionally engaged with the world. What I discovered was that even though I had found people whose lives more or less matched the broad strokes in my mind, I was still aching for a life I was not living. What I ached for was easy intimacy and shared trust, the ability for two people to expose a bit of their vulnerability to each other and come away stronger from the experience.
Don’t get me wrong, I love living in a community with other wingnuts and radicals, and sometimes a similar aesthetic can lubricate the process of building intimacy, it’s just that the emotional work of building sustainable intimate relationships is hard, even with people who dress and act and talk like me, and it is possible, even with people who don’t.
Often, political identities encourage people to ignore the health of their relationships. By shifting our focus to things very large and removed from our reality, political discourse runs the risk of allowing us an excuse to neglect the responsibility we have to be present in our own lives. If we are constantly aware of the abuse of governmental power but are unable to approach or confront the way that power operates in our relationships with the people we love, how are we ever going to be able to create beautiful realities in the lives we have been given? If people you know and are connected to began to heal themselves and learned how to talk to each other — about power and pain, passion and death — and became confident and aware of the ways in which their words, actions, and relationships shape the world they end up living in, how much more vibrant and less despairing would your existence be?
The charm of authoritarian systems is often in their ability to act as a surrogate for real connectedness. They pacify people by giving them simple answers and something they can easily hold on to. The ugliness of these systems is that they require shutting down our ability to recognize the humanity of people whose truth differs from the one we have connected ourselves to. Building substantial relationships in our lives that are based on trust and maintained through a mutual understanding of each other’s particular truth gives people a sense of security that is certainly more appealing to me than anything authoritarianism has to offer.
Having a sense of yourself and your own power, as well as the ways that you depend, in so many ways, on your connections to others is not about the music you listen to, the food you eat, how you dress, or how you dress your children. I believe that people best relate to one another when they can see their own humanity reflected in the other person. This is not saying that every
body is really the same, but that no one is wholly ‘other’. A direct implication of this is that I put much more stock into trying to understand how another person sees their world than I do in categorizing people. I deeply question whether the model of identity is the best way for people to talk about their differences and similarities; it can often obscure more than it clarifies. Only by placing ourselves firmly in our bodies right now and taking responsibility for our power and our freedom, even when that process is painful, or seems impossible, are we ever going to create engaged communities of strong and beautiful people who are connected to each other in healthy ways. The trick, for me, is figuring out how to be in deeply intimate networks of relationships with people while still maintaining an individual sense of freedom, finding a way to hold autonomy and mutual aid in my hands at the same time without reeling from the cognitive dissonance.