Saturday, 6 January 2018

Healing the Heart of Democracy

Thanks to my friend Tricia, I've been reading a great book by Parker J Palmer called Healing the Heart of Democracy: The courage to create a politics worthy of the human spirit.  Although this is a book about the US, it has a lot to say to Australians and others in democratic societies.  He writes simply and elegantly so that you think what he is saying must be obvious, but he covers territory that is not often discussed in 'political' books and debates.

Palmer is an American Quaker activist, now in his late 70s.  This book, published in 2011, arose out of what he describes as a 'season of heartbreak - personal and political heartbreak - that soon descended into a dark night of the soul'.  This arose partly out of his awareness of his personal mortality on turning 65, and partly from feeling increasingly out of step with wider American culture.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, had deepened America's appreciation of democracy and activated demons that threaten it, demons still at large today.  Wounded and overwhelmed by fear, we soon went to war with a country that had no direct connection to the attacks.  Many Americans seemed willing to abandon their constitutional rights along with our international treaty obligations.  Some Americans, including elected officials, were quick to accuse protesters and dissenters of being unpatriotic or worse, fragmenting the civic community on which democracy depends.

His perception of this peril led first to his own heartbreak and then, as he emerged from this, the writing of Healing the Heart of Democracy.  This book is his own prescription not so much for his own heartbreak as for addressing a heartbroken society, a community in which democracy is at risk.

At the core of the book is the notion that democracy is not simply a matter of the institutions and structures of government.  It depends fundamentally on its citizens being prepared to make it work.  It does not, however, depend on us all agreeing, unless it is to agree to keep talking.  In any functioning democracy there will be diversity - not only ethnic and religious diversity but diversity of political views and priorities.

The survival of democracy does not depend on us being able to resolve these tensions - resolving them can often be the death of democracy as dissent is suppressed - but of living with them and managing them.  This can be frustrating because questions ultimately remain open which many of us think should be closed.  The fact that we have regular elections can mean that policies see-saw from term to term.  In addition, the separation of powers in democracy can mean the parliament can thwart the executive, the judiciary can thwart the elected government and so forth.  Tension is built into the system.

For this to work, it is not enough for politicians and parties to do their thing.  Ordinary citizens need to engage.  Palmer says, 'I believe in democracy as long as we understand that it is not something we have but something we do.'  This is where it gets complex, because we are complex beings.  He uses the term 'heart' as shorthand for this complexity, not to just denote our emotions but our whole being - emotions, experiences, beliefs, attitudes and relationships.

I believe in the power of the human heart to do evil as well as good.  The heart leads some to become terrorists and others to serve the hungry and the homeless.  The heart leads some to blow up federal buildings in order to 'bring down the government' and others to see that we are the government and must work together to fulfil democracy's promise.  The heart is a complex force field, no less complex than democracy itself, maelstrom of conflicted powers that we ignore, sentimentalise or dismiss at our peril.

Given this complexity, how do we navigate the territory of the heart to bring what Abraham Lincoln calls 'the better angels of our nature' into play?  Palmer suggests that in our public lives as in our private lives, heartbreak is an inevitable reality.  Just as in our private lives we suffer setbacks and losses, so in our public lives we suffer disappointments - projects we back wholeheartedly come to nothing, policies we regard as inhumane are enacted, our social identities are threatened.  The question is, how will we respond when this happens?

He suggests that a brittle heart, one that has not been exercised, may well shatter and not be able to be re-built.  Such a person will become angry or withdrawn.  On the other hand a heart that has been exercised and exposed to the rigors of democracy will be supple and instead be broken open, able to learn, grow and take on new challenges.

So how can our hearts be exercised in this way?  He discusses a number of practical ways which involve different types and levels of engagement.

The first is in the public sphere, where we encounter members of the community who may differ from us in many respects but who live in the same community.  We meet people in all sorts of contexts - in shops, parks and libraries, in our workplaces, on public transport and so forth.  As our society privatises, the number of public opportunities for engagement reduces.  We buy our books online instead of at the bookshop, our public high streets are replaced by private shopping malls, cinemas and theatres are replaced by TVs and home theatre systems.  It is important, in this context, that we make the most of what we have left so that we don't confine ourselves to circles of people like ourselves.  In public we need to be able engage with those with whom we disagree, often fiercely, and find what unites us as well as what divides us, refusing to be driven into competing corners of mutual incomprehension and loathing.

Second, he talks about our key places of learning - our classrooms and our congregations (given how many Americans practice some sort of faith).  In classrooms, he sees it as important not to simply teach students some facts about how we are governed.  Too often students are given information about democracy but forced to operate within an authoritarian structure.  For schools to help in fostering the development of citizens, students need to be supported to think through their own response to important issues and be given opportunity to participate in meaningful decision-making.

In congregations, we are all aware of the potential of religion to breed bigotry and even violence.  For Parker (and for me) these are distortions of religion.  He quotes Anne Lamott: 'You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do'.  On the contrary, for Palmer the heart of religion is compassion, defined by the imperative to treat others as we would like to be treated.  Often churches can be about producing and enforcing conformity, the preacher up front telling us how to think and behave and the congregation passively accepting it.  This may lead is to think that everyone in our congregations is the same, but Palmer suggests this is an illusion.

What I know about the low level of trust in some Protestant churches is helpful when clergy ask me to help their 'homogenous white congregations' embrace more of the diversity that characterises our society....  My response to the requests I get to help such congregations 'diversify' is simple: 'There is no such thing as a "homogenous white congregation"'.  There are only groups of white people pretending that they have no critical differences among themselves for fear that their 'community' would crumble if they opened their lives to one another.

He shares a number of processes based on his experience as a Quaker which can help churches to build more trust and engagement and learn the habits of the heart that build compassion for those who are different to us.

The final sphere for building the habits of the heart that make for functioning democracy is what he calls 'safe spaces'.  These are deliberately created settings in which people are free to express their longings and dilemmas in the knowledge that they will not be criticised and that what they reveal will remain confidential.  These can take the form of Circles of Trust, retreats, public narrative processes and a number of others, each with their specific rules and techniques which have been developed by organisers and activists over the years.

In his final chapter, he pulls these threads together by discussing what he calls 'the unwritten history of the heart'.  History tells us about externals - who did what when.  What it cannot get access to is the inner dynamics which lead to these events.  How do the imperatives of the heart translate into social change?  He suggests there is a disconnect between our national myths and the realities of life in our community.  This disconnect is most strongly felt by those at the bottom of our society - the myth of equality is at odds with the experience of the poorest, the myth of non-discrimination is at odds with the experience of racial minorities, the myth of gender equality is at odds with the experience of women, and so forth.

Movements of social transformation are sparked by people who are isolated, marginalised and oppressed but who do not fall into despair.  Instead, they respond to their condition by taking the poet Rilke's advice that we go inward and 'do the heart-work / on all the images imprisoned within' us.  Having released those images, they return to the world of action resolved to live in a way that will help it become a place in which their humanity is honoured.  Under the right conditions, their witness can tap a collective yearning that contains enough energy to move the world closer to the heart's aspirations.

As an example he cites Rosa Parks, the African-American woman who, in 1955, refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger.  This action sparked nation-wide protests which kicked off the American civil rights movement.  While her action was, in a sense, spontaneous - she did not get on the bus that day intending to act as she did - it grew out of her participation, along with many others, in discussion groups where African-American community leaders examined their social situation and talked about how to change it, preparing the ground for both Parks' action and the movement that grew out of it.

Parker charts four stages involved in such movements.  The first is as described above - the realisation by marginalised people of their own situation.  The second is the formation of what he calls 'communities of congruence' - groups of people who experience the same thing and discuss how to change it.  This is what energises people to act, knowing that they have one another's support.  The third stage involves 'going public' - the members of the movement making their claims in the wider social and political sphere.  If a movement does not go public, it becomes a conspiracy and risks becoming exclusive and authoritarian.  By going public it both invites critique, with the potential for further learning and testing of its message, and invites more support which can build the power of the movement.  In the fourth stage the movement there are signs of success - both external 'wins' (however small) and internal confirmation for its participants that they have made the right choice.

I can't think of a better way to finish this review than to quote Palmer's own closing words.

Full engagement in the movement called democracy requires no less of us than full engagement in the living of our own lives.  We carry the past with us, so we must understand its legacy of deep darkness as well as strong light.  We can see the future only in imagination, so we must continue to dream of freedom, peace and justice for everyone.  Meanwhile, we live in the present moment, with its tedium and terror, its fears and hopes, its incomprehensible losses and its transcendent joys.  It is a moment in which it often feels as if nothing we do will make a difference, and yet so much depends on us.
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