Buddhist Anarchism and Nonviolent Communication

Here are some pieces that I wrote up for two episodes of the Anarchy Bang podcast. One episode was about buddhist anarchism and the other episode was about Nonviolent Communication & anarchism.


Buddhist Anarchism

It’s hard to really know where to begin with Buddhism, given that there are so many different ways that people relate to the thing. Buddhism can be seen as a religion, a philosophy, an approach to psychology, a personal practice or a culture. And then there are the infinite different sects, traditions, branches and sub-branches within Buddhism. It all can very quickly become very overwhelming and confusing.

That all being said, the way that I like to begin to make sense of Buddhism is by studying some of the renowned lists within Buddhism. What better way to organize one’s thoughts on something than to use lists? One list in particular stands out to me the most, it’s called “the three marks of existence”. Basically it lists the three qualities that mark life as we know it. The first quality is that change is constant and inevitable, that nothing lasts forever. The second is that everything is comprised of many different interacting components and forces acting on it, that nothing exists on it’s own, in and of itself. Basically, “anti-essentialism” is how I like to look at it. And the third is that suffering exists, it’s an experience that we all have.

This then goes into perhaps the most famous list within Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths. The first one is what I just mentioned, that whole “suffering” thing that we all have. The second is that there is a root cause to this suffering, and that is craving or clinging to our ideas of what we want. The third is that it is indeed possible to overcome this kind of attachment. And the fourth is the way to go about doing that, which is itself another list, the Noble Eightfold Path.

…And as much as I love the Noble Eightfold Path, I won’t go into that list here.

So what does this all have to do with anarchism? Well, as I see it, that whole “suffering” condition that we all experience makes us all crazy, it makes us all desperate and frantic, even if we are able to put up a good front and present ourselves as being mature capable thinkers. Our lack of dealing with our own suffering head-on deprives us of our own personal power.

Buddhist practice is all about developing one’s own personal power, self-mastery, cultivating one’s ability to choose and act on one’s choices, rather that letting one’s own old habits, old beliefs and emotional reactivity dictate one’s life. It’s also about getting more peace and contentment in one’s life. You are not always going to get what you want, anarchists will always disappoint you, your dreams for an anarchist world will never happen, and if you do decide to embark on a Buddhist practice, you will probably fuck that up too. But the paradoxical beauty of Buddhism is that even with that all being the case, one can come to acceptance of all of that, and still keep on going. At least for as long as this life you are living now exists.


Nonviolent Communication & Anarchism

Nonviolent Communication (also known as “NVC” or “compassionate communication”) is a set of conceptual tools and a general worldview that a number of anarchists have found useful and at times have adopted. Some have found it to be a how-to guide for living without hierarchy and domination, whereas others have found it to be a series of tips for approaching conflict in ways that are hopefully more productive.

NVC can be used as a way to do conflict resolution, which is what it is best known for, but it can also be used for meeting facilitation, counseling & therapy, and some would say for social change work itself. The crux of NVC is developing one’s ability to make distinctions between objective observations vs. subjective interpretations, bodily-felt feelings vs. cognitive evaluations, and fundamental human needs vs. the infinite ways that needs can be met. The ultimate goal of NVC is for it’s practitioners to come to embody a way of being that the psychologist Carl Rogers said is most helpful in relationships: heartfelt authenticity, empathic understanding and unconditional positive regard. The idea is that through such qualities being present in a relationship, that relationship will eventually and inevitably become stronger, autonomy-respecting, collaborative and conducive to those involved realizing their own personal power. Anarchy, baby!

Some related readings

The Basics of Nonviolent Communication

Key Assumptions and Intentions of Nonviolent Communication

Compassionate Anarchism

Can the Social Order Be Transformed through Personal Practice? The Case of Nonviolent Communication

Person-centered Therapy

 


I will begin with a quote which has always been the touchstone for me and my anarchism, that famous quote from Gustav Landauer:

“The State is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another… We are the State and we shall continue to be the State until we have created the institutions that form a real community.”

With this in mind, I immediately ask: what are the different kinds of relationships that would comprise anarchy? What would these relationships look like?

The answers that I come up with is that these relationships would, generally-speaking, acknowledge and respect the autonomy of everybody involved while also enabling people to cooperate, collaborate and make decisions together as equals, with no one person or group of people bossing everyone else around. All of this stuff is easier said than done, which is why I eventually started to look for some guides and pointers for how to actually do this, practically-speaking.

This lead to me eventually discovering something called “Nonviolent Communication”, or “NVC” for short. NVC generally lives in the self-help/self-improvement world, and the demographic that is mainly drawn to NVC is middle-aged middle-class 1st world white women with liberal/progressive politics. In short, NVC is not at all something that originates from the anarchist scene, yet as soon as I started to study I immediately saw the connections and correlations with anarchism, and I got quite excited about that.

For about five years I was a zealous missionary for a kind of NVC-anarchist hybrid that I tried to develop and promote to anybody who would listen to me. For the next ten years after that I had more of a low-key involvement with NVC lasting until just last year when I decided to end my involvement with the NVC milieu altogether. My overall takeaway message from the whole thing is that while some maps, guides and conceptual schemas may be helpful for actualizing anarchy in the real-world, ultimately human beings with all of their complexities, foibles and psychoses go above and beyond anything that we can come up with.

To quote our anarchist daddy, Mikhail Bakunin: “No theory, no ready-made system, no book that has ever been written will save the world. I cleave to no system. I am a true seeker.”

This leaves me with a belief that Nonviolent Communication is something that can be useful and helpful for anarchists, if one cares to spend the time & energy to seriously consider it. I do not think that NVC is something that anybody “should” do, and in fact I think that the moment that one looks at it that way the whole thing becomes completely worthless and a waste of time. But if the sincere interest and desire to learn NVC is there, then the time spent can be worthwhile. So let’s talk about Nonviolent Communication.

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The Problem with “Here I Stand, I Can Do No Other”

“Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.”

According to some tellings, this is how Protestant Christian reformer Martin Luther responded to demands that he recant positions which the established Church of his time considered heretical.

This is a badass speech, and it’s archetypal in our society. It’s the speech of many martyrs throughout history – people who have chose to accept terrible consequences for their decision to do what’s right.

But it’s technically wrong.

Technically, Martin Luther could very well have done something “other.” He could have recanted. He could have partially recanted. He could have pretended to recant.

And when you pull a page from ML’s book and tell your boss, your parents, your friends, or the Nazi camp guard that you *can’t* do something because it’s against your values/convictions, you’re not being entirely honest either.

“I *can* do no other” is a cop out. You have agency, and you have a choice at all times. If you are going to make a stand for something you believe in, acknowledge that fact.

It may soften the blow for your hearers if you tell them that you *can’t* do what they’re asking you to do. But it almost implies that you *would* if you *could.* If you are making a refusal based on your values, though, there is only one right way to say it:

“Here I stand. I *will* do no other”.

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Science “Knows” Nothing

Nobody asked but …

Science (or discovery) is not a knowledge set.  The Online Etymology Dictionary contains at least one reference to the Greek skhizein “to split, rend, cleave.”  A software engineering colleague said that all knowledge pursuit was either splitting or clumping of previously discovered things.  This means doing it now, more splitting and clumping — a process.  The object of the process is to make educated guesses toward future probabilities, and that those educated guesses will still, in an ongoing fashion, be the subject of splitting and clumping.  A knowledge set produced by science is a transitory thing — a mass that is soon to be split and re-clumped.  If science could not do this, we would be without several innovations of today, like the plate tectonics theories which underlie most modern geological thought, and, for further example, we would be without smartphones — 1940s and 1950s scientists might have assumed that vacuum tubes were a constant in digital processing.

Unfortunately, we often stop reading the etymology when we see the Latin scientia “knowledge, a knowing; expertness,” which, also unfortunately, implies a mastery over known information.  As if Latin were a refinement of Greek.  To me, Greek civilization was of discovery, while Roman civilization was derivative — eg the Greeks named the (fictive?) gods and their purviews, whereas the Romans only renamed those same gods.

Today, we need to return to the original meaning of science, an unceasing breaking apart and rebuilding. a continual questioning and re-synthesis of concepts.  Science is a guessing game, one impeded by conclusion, not impeded by inquiry.  Why do we want final answers when only clever new answers which spin off new inquiry will get us further down the evolutionary road?  That other fork is a cul-de-sac, a deadly one.

— Kilgore Forelle

 

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Great Tools for Teaching Kids Economics and Liberty

Whenever my children express an interest in economics or are curious about the ideals of freedom and responsibility, I can barely contain my excitement. It wasn’t until college that I discovered, and fell in love with, economics, and it wasn’t until much later that I understood liberty as a life philosophy.

Fortunately, I can avoid stifling their budding interest by drawing demand curves or quoting Hayek and Hazlitt (though I’ve been known to do both!) and turn to some outstanding resources just for kids. Designed to introduce economic principles and the foundations of a free society to young children, these tools are interesting, engaging, and easy-to-understand—for children and adults alike!

The Tuttle Twins

The popular Tuttle Twins book series continues to grow, with 10 children’s books now available, as well as accompanying activity sheets and instructional materials. Created by Connor Boyack, a father who was disappointed by the dearth of good economic and civic content for kids, The Tuttle Twins series introduces concepts ranging from spontaneous order and how money works to individual rights and youth entrepreneurship. The latest book in the series, The Tuttle Twins and the Education Vacation, makes a case for non-coercive learning outside of the classroom.

These may seem like big ideas for small children, but Boyack says we underestimate children’s ability and interest. “I’ve been blown away at how well little kids can understand big ideas,” he says.

We get reviews from parents daily who are amazed at the same discovery and are thankful that their children are being introduced to ideas that most adults never learn.

Boyack recently launched Free Market Rules, a new weekly, family-centered curriculum for exploring free-market principles in greater depth, and FEE readers can use the coupon FORTY to get 40 percent off the Tuttle Twins books.

Nobody Know How to Make a Pizza

FEE’s founder, Leonard E. Read, wrote his famous essay, “I, Pencil,” in 1958, celebrating the miracle of the free market in facilitating voluntary exchange and producing the goods and services we want and need. This process happens spontaneously, without any central planner determining what to produce and how to produce it. Indeed, the remarkable message of “I, Pencil” is that “not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.”

Now, author and economics commentator Julie Borowski offers a kid-friendly version of Read’s classic essay in her new book Nobody Knows How to Make a Pizza. Like a pencil, a pizza may seem simple to make, but it relies on millions of strangers working together peacefully and spontaneously to produce a basic cheese pizza. Borowski explains why she decided to write this book:

Over the years, many parents have told me that their kids enjoy listening to my commentary because I make learning about economics fun and simple. Some have asked if I would ever consider writing a children’s book. One day, I was re-reading Leonard Read’s “I, Pencil” when it hit me. It’s already a fascinating story, but can I make it more kid-friendly? I changed it to pizza cause, well, kids are more interested in pizza than pencils. And my illustrator, Tetiana Kopytova, did an amazing job creating cute characters with bright colors. It’s a fun, positive book that will revolutionize the way kids think about the world.

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I Know My Rights: A Children’s Guide to the Bill of Rights and Individual Liberty

A 2017 survey by the University of Pennsylvania found that 37 percent of American adults couldn’t name one right protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, and only one-quarter of them could name all three branches of government. Clearly, there is a crisis in American civic education and a disturbing lack of understanding of individual liberty.

Author Rory Margraf wanted to address this problem by creating an accessible, colorful children’s book that easily explains the Bill of Rights and the principles of liberty to kids. He says:

I Know My Rights: A Children’s Guide to the Bill of Rights and Individual Liberty was inspired by research for an article while reflecting on the first time I was stopped by the authorities. The gap in civics knowledge, between both children and adults, indicated a crucial need for additional resources outside of brick-and-mortar schooling.

The book was so well-received that Margraf plans to release a sequel to I Know My Rights before the holidays. He adds:

I have found that the philosophy of liberty and the principles of free markets reach children extremely well.

FEE Resources

FEE also provides many high-quality resources to help young people expand their knowledge of economics and individual liberty. The free Invisible Hands video series for kids combines fun puppets and a famous YouTuber to offer an introductory look at basic economic principles. And for teenagers, FEE’s three-day summer seminars on college campuses across the country offer an opportunity for more in-depth exploration of these important ideas. Additionally, FEE’s free online courses on economics and entrepreneurship are great for people of all ages!

Parents are perfectly positioned to introduce economic and civic concepts to their children. In fact, they may be the best ones to do it. With authors now creating exceptionally good material for young children on these topics, it has never been easier or more enjoyable for parents to present these ideas to their kids and help them to deepen their knowledge throughout their teenage years.

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Learn About Something Before You Talk

The better you understand something, the easier it is to notice when you’re being lied to. Plus, the less likely it is you’ll be fooled by the lies.

When I’m watching a movie and I see someone on screen starting a fire by randomly hitting rocks together and suddenly their campfire logs burst into flame I always think, “That’s not how it works!” Anyone who tries to light a fire this way isn’t going to end up with a fire unless someone else builds one for them.

The same thing happens when I hear a non-libertarian person or idea called “libertarian.” You can’t fool me, but those not as familiar with the core idea might accept the lie without question. For that matter, those spreading the lie may not realize they are lying.

How many people know “libertarian” refers only to those who understand no one has the right to use violence against anyone who isn’t currently violating the life, liberty, or property of another? My guess would be not many.

I also see this happen in debates about guns. Anti-gun activists are among the worst in this respect. Years ago a rabidly anti-gun politician was asked what a barrel shroud was since she was trying to get them banned. She said she wasn’t really sure but thought it might be the “shoulder thing that goes up.” Hint: It’s not.

It was obvious she hadn’t bothered to learn what she was trying to criminalize and didn’t even understand the basics of the English language. Knowledgeable people are still laughing at her.

If you’re trying to turn decent, everyday people into criminals by imposing a new law against objects, you could at least make an effort to learn the fundamentals of what you’re talking about. It would be a crime to destroy lives through your lazy legislative ignorance.

It’s usually helpful to know what you’re talking about before you start talking. Sure, you can use hyperbole for effect — unfortunately, humans respond to emotion better than to reason — but if you’re not even in the same hemisphere as reality, people familiar with the subject are going to notice and ridicule you.

When you catch someone lecturing on a topic they clearly don’t understand, pretending to know more than they do, point it out. You probably won’t change their minds, but you might help an onlooker learn enough to not fall prey to the lies being told.

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Dominance: Material vs. Rhetorical

Do the rich dominate our society?

In one sense, they obviously do.  Rich people run most of the business world, own most of the wealth, and are vastly more likely to be powerful politicians.

In another sense, however, the rich aren’t dominant at all.  If you get in public and loudly say, “Rich people are great.  We owe them everything.  They deserve every penny they’ve got – and more.  People who criticize the rich are just jealous failures,” almost everyone will recoil in horror.

Do males dominate our society?

In one sense, they obviously do.  Males run most of the business world, hold most of the top political offices, hold a supermajority of the most prestigious jobs, and make a lot more money on average.

In another sense, however, males aren’t dominant at all.  If you get in public and loudly say, “Males are the superior sex.  We owe them everything.  We need to protect males from women’s emotional abuse and financial exploitation, and show them the great deference they deserve,” almost everyone will recoil in horror.

Do whites dominate our society?

In one sense, they obviously do.  Whites run most of the business world, hold most of the top political offices, hold a clear majority of the most prestigious jobs, and earn above-average incomes.

In another sense, however, whites aren’t dominant at all.  If you get in public and loudly say, “Whites have built Western civilization, the glory of the modern world.  Almost everything good in the modern world builds on white Europeans’ efforts.  The people of the world need to acknowledge how much they owe to the white race, and apologize for their many insults fueled by their own sense of inferiority,” almost everyone will recoil in horror.

My point: There are two very distinct kinds of dominance.*  There is material dominance – control of economic wealth and political power.  And there is rhetorical dominance – control of words and ideas.  Intuitively, you would expect the two to correlate highly.  At least in the modern world, however, they don’t.  Indeed, the correlation is plausibly negative: The groups with high material dominance now tend to have low rhetorical dominance.

Isn’t material dominance clearly more enviable than mere rhetorical dominance?  On balance, I suspect so.  Still, many people who could have won material dominance invest their lives in acquiring rhetorical dominance instead: intellectuals, activists, and religious leaders are all prime examples.  Why do they bother?  Because man does not live by bread alone.  Material dominance gives you luxuries, but rhetorical dominance makes you feel like you’re on top of the world: “I can loudly praise what I like and blame what I dislike – and expect the people who demur to meekly keep their objections to themselves.  Or even feign agreement!”

Conflation of material and rhetorical dominance helps explain why liberals and conservatives so often talk past each.  Liberals feel like conservatives dominate the world, because conservatives run the government half the time, and conservative-leaning groups – the rich, males, whites – have disproportionate influence over the economy.  Conservatives feel like liberals dominate the world, because liberals run the media, schools, and human resources departments.  In a sense, both groups are right.  Conservatives have the lion’s share of material dominance; liberals have more than the lion’s share of rhetorical dominance.  In another sense, though, both groups are wrong.  In the contest for overall dominance, both groups are roughly tied.  Both groups feel like underdogs because both yearn from the kind of dominance they lack.

Due to the endowment effect, moreover, both sides get angry when the other intrudes on “their” territory.  Thus, even though leftists have a near-stranglehold over research universities, the rare academic center that promotes free markets or social conservatism blinds them with rage.  99% rhetorical dominance?  We’re supposed to have 100% rhetorical dominance!  Conservatives have a similar, though less hyperbolic, reaction when business adopts liberal causes.  “Sensitivity training?!  Give me a break.”

The dream of both movements, naturally, is to hold all the dominances.  The conservative dream is a world where they consolidate their lead in the world of business and take over the whole culture.  The liberal dream is a world where they purge the last vestiges of conservative culture and bring business and the rich to their knees.  (The latter rarely means outright expropriation; I think even America’s far left would be satisfied if they could sharply increase regulation and regulation – and hear business and the rich repeatedly shout, “Thank you, may I have another?”)

When you put it this way, of course, both dreams sound like nightmares.  Neither liberals nor conservatives even dimly internalize Spiderman’s principle that “With great power comes great responsibility.” Both are epistemically vicious to the core, so habitually drunk with emotion they don’t even know what sober rationality looks like.  Frankly, I’d like to see both of these secular religions fade away like Norse mythology.  Since that’s unlikely to happen, however, I’m grateful to live in a world with an uneasy balance of power.  Or to be more precise, an uneasy balance of dominance.

* I suspect Robin Hanson will say that I’m conflating dominance and prestige.  Maybe a little, but when I picture “rhetorical dominance,” I’m picturing words and ideas that intimidate more than they inspire.  General point: You can have material prestige and rhetorical prestige as well as material dominance and rhetorical dominance.

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