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Over many years, I’ve often reflected on the following questions. Why are some University of Maine students in general, Maine Peace Action Committee (MPAC) students in particular, and community members concerned about peace and justice, while others are not? Why do some of these students and community members concerned with peace and justice transform such concerns into action, while others do not?

To provide some background, I have been a professor of philosophy at the University of Maine for 45 years. I was one of the founding members of the remarkable Maine Peace Action Committee in 1974, and MPAC is one of the oldest, university, student peace and justice groups in the U.S. (although it has always had some members who are not students). The analysis in this article is intended to extend beyond MPAC and Maine and provide some insights relevant to what is happening to youth and others in the U.S. (and the world) today.

In his regard, I’ve developed an interrelated three-part, structural model that helps me to understand myself and my relations with others: 1) the human individual experience, 2) the human vision or ideals, and 3) the sense of being a part of an activist movement. In many cases, students and others share one or at most two of these structural parts, but without all three, their participation in peace and justice activism is limited and often expresses a deep sense of alienation, powerlessness, demoralization, and hopelessness.

There have been many formative influences on my formulation of this three-part explanatory model, and I’ll mention only two of them. Since 2018 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, it seems fitting to cite Marx’s profound influence. In terms of the tripartite formulation, Marx is very insightful on the second and third parts. He offers a vision of a future world free from exploitation, oppression, and injustice; with the multi-sided development of free unalienated human beings; and with human beings cooperating and contributing from their abilities to meet the needs of others. He also realizes that such a vision cannot be put into practice without the third part of a movement for change: real historically and contextually situated human beings actively engaged cooperatively and collectively with other human beings in resistance; class-based and other struggles against oppression and injustice; and working for a new world of more developed, peaceful, just, and harmonious human relations.

In my own understanding, Marx’s major weakness, or at least his most undeveloped part, is the first structure: the human individual experience. His focus is on general structures and relations of economic exploitation, capital profit and accumulation, etc. He certainly mentions, and at times emphasizes, the basic premise that we start with real flesh-and-blood individuals, who experience their world, express themselves, and are productive in definite, situated, contextualized ways. Nevertheless, he usually does not emphasize the complex dimensions of individual, existential, psychological, personal experience.

A very different and less formative influence can be found in the insightful writings of Joanna Macy. I was reminded of this during the October 4th inspirational program, “Finding a Path to Purpose with the Courage to Change,” that was part of the Socialist and Marxist Studies Series I coordinate at the University of Maine. Shawn Mercer, musician and environmental activist from Rural Roots Revival, highlighted Joanna Macy as a major influence on his personal life and work. I was moved when Shawn shared how, in a time of deep personal crisis, he responded to his wife’s question: What is your greatest pain? I’ll focus a little more on Joanna Macy because she is much less known than Marx.

I first became aware of Joanna Macy just after the publication of her Dharma and Development (1985) focusing on the need for Buddhist activist values, such as the need to become mindful of suffering and how to respond with compassion, as necessary for development and as based on her work in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Over the decades, Joanna Macy emerged primarily as an environmental activist, concerned with peace, anti-nuclear, and justice issues, and presenting a personal and social theoretical framework that addresses the abovementioned parts or relational structures. She shows how the focus on the personal individual and the harmonious environmental vision without a transformative movement is limited, just as the focus on movement building without the active connectedness and engaged activist commitment on the personal experiential level is also limited.

Macy primarily provides a psychological, environmental, and spiritual focus and framework. This is Macy’s strength, with her focus on personal experiences of grief, pain, repressed childhood and other trauma, acceptance and love, and the interconnectedness of the individual and the social in the peace and justice process. In my experiences, those of us who are progressive activists have, for example, often failed to recognize or have been at a loss in dealing with the effects of individual and group trauma.

Recently, we have become more aware of the devastating, often hidden and repressed, and sometimes explosive consequences of trauma of early childhood incest and other sexual abuse or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) of veterans from the Vietnam War and U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are learning more about post-Holocaust trauma, the genocidal trauma shaping experiences and consciousness of Native Americans, and the trauma of slavery and white supremacy on the individual and collective experiences and consciousness of African Americans. This, for example, allows us to gain more understanding of why individuals with whom we relate may suddenly lose control, become depressed and suicidal, engage in acts that are self-destructive and destructive of peace and justice groups and actions.

Marx does not develop an analysis of such complex situations that we encounter, although such analysis can be developed and integrated with his insights and contributions. Marx is more insightful in providing historical, economic and structural analyses of hierarchical top-down relations of domination, exploitation, oppression, and injustice that devalue, silence, and often punish efforts by the youth and community members to engage in peace and justice activism.

The Individual Personal Experience

By far, this is the part or relational structure most prevalent among students and community members. Most of us experience individual personal lives with a pervasive sense of unease, stress, anxiety, physical and mental insecurity, violence, injustice, oppression, powerlessness, alienation, and lack of deeper meaning. In our own individual lives and our relations with family, friends, work, and nature, we desire more peace of mind and peace in the world, real security, more moral values and relations, more empowerment and control over our lives, and more nonviolent, loving, kind, meaningful ways of living.

For many with the peace and justice ideals and individual personal experiences and desires, there is a limited or nonexistent structure of an alternative vision with peace and justice ideals. Unfortunately, many individuals then conclude they live in a “real world” of selfishness, ego-driven desires and attachments to money and power, violence, war, injustice, economic exploitation, racial and gendered oppression, and alienating and meaningless work. That’s reality. Those who have idealized visions are imaginary dreamers, irrelevant idealists who don’t live in the real world. Most, who live with the necessities of life in their individual personal experiences, understandably conclude that they do not have the freedom, privilege, or luxury to take such visionary dreaming seriously.

Such deep personal cynicism about the value of taking peace and justice ideals seriously is objectively based on our widespread experiences and is understandable, but it has disastrous consequences for engaged activism. Such corrosive cynicism also has disastrous consequences on the individual, personal, non-activist level.

Some students and community members proclaim their apathy, as if it is inconsequential or even an enlightened badge of honor. They grant that the world may be full of violence, injustice, war, bullying, economic domination, rape, white supremacy, and environmental destruction, but they then respond that they don’t care. It doesn’t affect them personally in any way. Such a facile appeal to apathy is often meant as a self-insulating escape and expresses or hides our failure to come to terms with the real meaning and consequences of the apathetic individual: as uncaring, insensitive, amoral and immoral, and complicit with so much violence and injustice in the world.

Far more students and community members proclaim a pervasive skepticism, rather than apathy, about the value of peace and justice activism. This skepticism can be both healthy and unhealthy, insightful and frustrating. Based on their individual experiences, including realistically experiencing a world lacking in peace and justice, they become very skeptical. They feel that getting involved in peace and justice activism is risky, makes one vulnerable, and is uncool. Embracing some peace and justice vision is unrealistic, foolish, and a waste of time. Among many, this understandable skepticism develops into a pervasive cynicism.

Among some who care deeply about how their experiences and experiential world are so violent and lacking in real peace and justice, this skepticism often leads to a very narrow and limited horizon of individual personal experiences. Individuals become trapped in an unhappy I-me self-defined world of dissatisfaction, alienation, meaninglessness, violence, hatred, cruelty, powerlessness, and self-destruction and destruction of others and of nature.

The Human Vision and Structure of Ideals

Without the structure of peace and justice ideals, the view that the actual does not fully define and limit the possible, the belief that another world is possible, the individual’s activism is extremely limited and usually nonexistent. The peace and justice ideals have a profound effect on the personal individual part we have just considered, but the engaged individual structure also has a profound effect on the vision or ideals part.

On the one hand, as we have seen, the concerned individual without ideals is usually disillusioned, discouraged, and often depressed. We become trapped in our individual experiences of so much violence, cruelty, oppression, and injustice. This is the present situation of the individual experiences of so many of my dear caring friends and neighbors. They are shocked, in disbelief, and rendered depressingly passive when bombarded daily by Trump’s narcissistic, ignorant, lying, cruel, sexist, racist tweets and, more important, by the policies, executive orders, legislations, and judicial and other appointments that undermine civil rights, human rights, and environmental progress gained over the decades.

In such difficult times, it is our peace and justice vision that motivates us, keeps us going, energizes us to engage, and gives us hope. As Mahatma Gandhi asserted, when he was discouraged and deeply depressed as millions of innocent human beings all around him were victims of unspeakable atrocities, in the midst of untruth there is truth, in the midst of darkness there is light. As Martin Luther King, Jr. asserted, when he was discouraged by so much overwhelming violence, hatred, and racism all around him, we must have faith or trust that the arc of history is on the side of peace, nonviolence, love, and justice. It is such peace and justice ideals that motivate us to engage, resist, struggle, create positive alternatives, and experience that our individual short-term peace and justice feelings and actions are not pointless or futile, but instead give meaning and value to our personal lives.

On the other hand, to speak of structures of peace and justice ideals without the individual personal engagement in peace and justice action is also ineffective. This often takes the form of detaching and abstracting the idealized vision from our actual personal lives, so that the lofty ideals are largely irrelevant when addressing the real world. I have often heard Indians and others say that Gandhi was a saint, a moral and spiritual visionary, with incredible ideals of peace, nonviolence, equality, love and compassion, selfless action to meet the needs of others, justice, and interconnected harmonious relations. But the Mahatma (“Great Soul,” “Great Self”) was too good for this world, the real world rejected him and his visionary message, and I, in any case, have to focus not on such lofty peace and justice ideals, but instead on what is relevant to my individual life.

Unfortunately, without the individual’s personal embrace of the peace and justice ideals, without active engagement in which the ideals guide us and are put into action, the ideals remain at best as detached inspirational slogans. They often appear on posters, T-shirts, and greeting cards, but they are ineffective by themselves for bringing about meaningful peace and justice activism.

Being Part of an Activist Movement

This is certainly the part of peace and justice activism that is least prevalent and the most difficult even for those sincerely concerned about the dominance of the many dimensions of war, multidimensional linguistic, economic, political, religious, environmental, and other violence, and classism, sexism, racism, and other forms of injustice. While the first part of individual personal experience is most prevalent by far, the second structure of our vision or ideals is often acknowledged but usually not integrated with the personal experiential part. Without both, we cannot have peace and justice activism, but they are not enough. They are necessary but not sufficient. For activism, we also need the third and most difficult interrelated structure of being part of and building an activist movement.

My experiences over the decades have been that most students and most community members have little or no awareness of what is involved in contributing to a movement. There have been exceptions. In the early and mid-1960s, I was part of an active Civil Rights Movement; in the 1960s and 1970s, part of the active Vietnam Antiwar Movement; in the late 1970s to the early 1990s, part of an active Anti-Apartheid Movement; and at various times, part of active Feminist Movements, Anti-Nuclear Movements, Peace Movements, Environmental Movements, etc. This included various Maine Peace Action Committee subcommittees and projects. In each case, there was a deep activist sense of being individually engaged, having a vision of ideals, and working with others to build a movement.

Nevertheless, this has usually not been the case and is usually not the case today in our peace and justice concerns. This is not surprising. We usually lack historical understanding, such as awareness of positive and negative features of earlier working class movements. We are socialized, educated, and bombarded by messages that provide no understanding of peace and justice movements and movement building, and often express the hierarchical top-down messages of the privileged and powerful that would be challenged by such movements.

Even when thinking about many of the most dedicated MPAC students over the decades, there has often been a strong tendency to focus on specific, small-scale peace and justice projects and acts that are very practical and may have satisfying tangible results, Understandably, even many of our MPAC student leaders have sometimes focused on such projects as raising funds for an autistic classmate; organizing or participating in a walk or 5K run to benefit cancer victims or others suffering; camping out to raise awareness of hunger or homelessness; signing a petition or joining a gathering to protest a shooting or other incident of racial or gender hatred; volunteering at a soup kitchen; and so forth. Such individual acts are well-intentioned and should be supported, but they do not by themselves usually lead to visions of peace and justice ideals and far less to active peace and justice movement building.

In some cases, the immediate, small-scale, individual, practical acts can lead to a greater peace and just vision of ideals and even to an initial awareness of the need for movement building. For example, the individual who volunteers to assemble food baskets for needy Mainers on Thanksgiving may begin to question why such small-scale acts of charity are needed in a land of so much wealth and food surplus. What would it be like to work for a more nonviolent, peaceful, and just world in which basic human needs were met and no one went hungry? And that individual may begin to realize that one’s charitable acts are inadequate, a drop in the bucket of violence and injustice, and that we need to come together to build a movement of resistance and positive transformative change in order to overcome the power interests and structures that create and maintain a community, nation, and world of so much poverty and hunger.

It is hard to gain some awareness of the need for peace and justice movements and to know what to do to engage in movement building. There is uncertainty, confusion, and considerable risk involved. Volunteering at a soup kitchen or at a charity event is easier and also safer. Not only are there clear ways to do this and short-term tangible results, but almost everyone will give you positive feedback that you have done something good. By way of contrast, there is the risk of engaging in movement building in which there is no clear way to do this, and there are usually not the immediate tangible results. Even more risky, you may make yourself vulnerable, pushing beyond your usual comfort zone. Others may consider you foolish, at the least, and even as abnormal, unpatriotic, a troublemaker, etc., as you expose and challenge the priorities and structures upholding violence, war, inequality, oppression, environmental destruction, and injustice.

Building a peace and justice movement requires dedication and perseverance. It means educating one’s self in working with others to develop an understanding of the assumptions, values, priorities, root causes and structures that give rise to so much violence and injustice. Repeatedly students and others have shared that they do not have confidence in doing this because they don’t know enough about the history of racism, the economic and political power structures promoting corporate nuclear and gun interests, globalization and international trade agreements, and other peace and justice issues. They don’t know enough, are not experts, and won’t be able to answer all of the questions others may raise. But it is not necessary to be an expert to engage in activism. In fact, it is through our activism, working cooperatively with others, that we gradually become more educated about the peace and justice issues and about how to be more effective in movement building necessary for bringing about change.

Building a peace and justice movement means sustaining activism in difficult times, when there are many setbacks and no immediate tangible victories and rewards. It means self-discipline, careful planning, empathy, cooperation, trust, and integrity. It means building a movement that puts the peace and justice ideals into practice and gives positive support to other individuals, reassuring them that they are not dysfunctional or insane. Rather, it is the world of so much violence and injustice that is dysfunctional and insane. In fact, peace and justice movement resistance struggles, and constructive alternatives are the healthiest life-affirming responses to an unhealthy life-denying world and can be of great value in allowing us to live lives full of happiness, joy, and meaning.

Conclusion

My experiences have been that participating in this third structure of movement building, when integrated with the engaged individual personal experiences of peace and justice and the upholding of peace and justice ideals, is necessary for the fullest and most fulfilling peace and justice activism. This is essential for an open-ended, ongoing process of peace and justice resistance and creativity, a value-informed meaningful journey every day and over the years, and not some final, utopian, complete peace, nonviolence, and justice victory. Students and community members disturbed by so much war, violence, and injustice should be encouraged to consider this peace and justice activism for living more meaningful and fulfilling lives.

Doug Allen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maine in Orono, Maine. A peace and justice activist, he has published extensively on Gandhi, Marx, comparative philosophy and religion, Asian philosophy (Hinduism, Buddhism), and phenomenology (symbolism, myth, MirceaEliade). His latest book is Gandhi after 9/11: Creative Nonviolence and Sustainability (Oxford University Press, December 2018). He can be reached at dallen@maine.edu.

 

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