Both in George Monbiot‘s article in the Guardian yesterday and the comments of many of his respondents, the immediate and seemingly unbreakable attitude is that unless you embrace one side of the dualism they see in everything – the same side they believe in – then you are automatically touting its opposite, and therefor wrong view. Monbiot has been giving the Dark Mountain exposure in his column, that’s true; but the overall effect is best seen as a microcosm of the difficulties in getting a message like that of Dark Mountain, and the things I go on about here, to a wider audience.
The most glaring disconnect – not just for the venomous lurking trolls lying in ambush for anything that challenges their Beckian self-pity; but even for those intelligent, articulate and caring people as I expect Monbiot himself to be – the disconnect comes when they seem incapable of two fundamental understandings. First, the most basic “back of the envelope” analysis of the unworkability of the current system of civilization culminating in industrial civilization. Lost in all the “sophistication” of economic and scientific analysis – analyses that make glaring assumptions leaving out the most blatant and pointed factors to create the semblance of a knowledge about what they profess to understand – they just don’t want to see that our predicaments are truly profound and not subject to the diddling they are so wedded to. The next disconnect comes when they are confronted by someone positing that wishing and false dualities like pessimism/optimism do not characterize the ONLY possible emotional responses to one’s situation. If you attempt to deflate their “optimism” then you are a pessimistic ogre. If you try to temper their pessimism, then you are a weightless optimist. If you challenge the wishfulness their inability to see the depth of our predicament pushes them into, then you are the Destroyer of All Hope.
This entire exchange takes place in an airless space with everyone breathless and ready to bolt. The further assumption that polemics, a tit-for-tat offense versus defense battle is the only way to reach an understanding takes over and any flexibility of mind, any ability to tweak out nuance is lost in the adrenaline haze. At this point, even natural allies tend to shut-down and refuse to go any further, marshaling their defenses and cataloging their “opponent’s” weaknesses, preparing for battle.
If we look at our own individual paths out of whatever form of mass insanity each of us has been most susceptible to – we are all insane, have to be to live in an insane culture! – we will find that a lot of careful background work, a grounding, had to occur before we were able to look into the abyss of Enormity. Even now, it takes a certain gentleness of spirit to allow anyone to look around at what we have to face and avoid hardening our attitudes into fight or flight mode. We all suffer not only post traumatic stress, but ongoing traumatic stress that appears to be harder to deal with as the numbing cocoon of our defense mechanisms are stripped away.
This entire process gives anyone confronting such a message as Dark Mountain‘s ample opportunities to short-circuit. After-all, short-circuit is THE instinct of choice in this culture of civilization – face complexity and call it complicated, and then start throwing away the “variables” until the “problem” is “solvable.” This is THE challenge in getting such a message out – as well as THE main reason not to be too sanguine about the “availability” of this message to ever go “main stream.”
John Fowle’s A Maggot is about the opacity of a new world-view to those who haven’t been exposed to its realities. Not only the inability of old language to express new thoughts without going through a period of forging an amalgam capable of such expression, but also the perceptual and attitudinal barriers that are lowest in those with the least invested in the old ways of thinking and highest among the old-guard elites. This is precisely what I see Dark Mountain to be “about.” While critics from all sides who decry such an effort as “noodling about with poems and the like” while “important work” needs to be done are going to be the last people to understand this, it is an essential task. It does and will continue to require an engagement with critics and potential “allies’ alike, although as with all that we face today, such engagement should not be seen as a search for “solutions.” It’s not a “problem,” its a condition.
Undertaking this work requires that we not forget how we each arrived at this point in our own growing understanding, the need to avoid falling into the traps of the old ways of thinking. These traps are being set every time we engage with someone who hasn’t reached “break-out” from the old ways, it’s a cultural defense mechanism working through individuals even as they think they are using their “own best judgment.” Any sort of power-play, any sort of engagement that falls into the expected mode of dialectic will trigger defense and not only close off the listener, but lead us to fall back into what we are working so hard to break out of.
Every sort of willful misunderstanding will be used in the attempt to discount this kind of inquiry at every stage. Most of these will be projections of the battered psyche trying to place its own worst fears and hatreds onto another so as not to have to deal with its own damaged condition. If we are open to our own damage and to the need we have to be treated – to treat ourselves – gently and with respect, then we can work toward better ways of addressing these questions in ways that draw people in instead of putting them off.
This is where art comes in. It’s not in essays or speeches, all of which are so hard to distinguish from polemic by their very form, that minds can be affected. In fiction, in visual art, in poetry we have the best means of establishing a body of shareable “experiences” that begin to forge a new way of being in the world. These can have the effect of drawing people to them as opposed to simply setting up their defenses to resist new ideas. In an eagerness to misunderstand whenever someone hears that “poetry is the answer,” they will only see whatever form of art they personally dislike and find easy to discount. Probe a little deeper and there isn’t anyone who isn’t affected by poetry, of the kind they do open themselves to, by whatever name it goes by.
A working culture needs all kinds of people. A broken culture needs the kind of people it’s least likely to want to look towards for help. We need to remember both sides of this equation going forward. Some people will be intractable “enemies” to any new way, but we don’t know how many can be brought around and we cannot possibly go forward with just one kind of personality to face whatever unknowable challenges are ahead. Our most fundamental social condition – and this spirals out into our most fundamental condition – is the unbreakable bonds we all have with one another. These social bonds trail off imperceptibly to join the bonds we have with all other life on this Earth, and they are all unbreakable not because we wish it this way or that, but because they make up the foundations of our existence. In forging a new “ecology” in which we each find our individual place in this whole, we cannot escape this fact. From troll, to Monbiot, to curious and hopeful seeker, we cannot just break ourselves off and declare some sort of willful independence. If we cannot find a way to navigate the challenges each poses for us, then we cannot find what we are looking for, let alone share it with the world.