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A new society can't be run by 'controllers'

Last spring, I sent an e-mail to the author Philip Slater telling him how much his work had meant to me over the years. His early work, “The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point,” helped me see how destructive our extreme individualism is. As The New York Times put it: “The book, published in 1970, warned that a national cult of individualism and careerism threatened to turn America into a country of hypercompetitive loners ruled by tyrants.”

His 1980 book, “Wealth Addiction,” helped me understand how important it is to live simply and refuse to make money my main goal in life.

His 1992 book, “A Dream Deferred,” helped me see that democracy is more than just voting; it’s engagement and interdependence. Again, from The New York Times: “The problem with democracy... was... its own citizens’ ‘inability to cooperate, to negotiate actively about the things that concern us.’”

But it was his latest book, 2008’s “The Chrysalis Effect” that prompted me to write to him. He argues that just like the caterpillar changes into a butterfly, our culture is going through a change from what he calls a “controller” culture to an “integrative culture.” We’re leaving the world of authoritarian, top-down control, of rigid hierarchy, of a warrior mentality in which we wage war on everything. We’re moving to a more cooperative, democratic, egalitarian world in which we work together to create change.

Others have said something similar, of course, but I wanted Slater to know just how much I appreciated him. He wrote back thanking me for my message.

And then, this summer, he died.

I’m so glad I wrote to him!

The New York Times’ June 29, 2013, obituary praised Slater as a preeminent social critic who gave up a successful academic career to write and act in plays and pursue an unconventional life that, in the end, Slater described as more adventuresome and satisfying.

Living up to his Simplicity principles, at his death at 86, he left only two boxes of personal possessions. He hadn’t owned a car for years.

Controllers on both right, left

The thing that I like about his last book is that it doesn’t just analyze individual problems but goes deeper to show the systemic cause of things. Being rigid, authoritarian and warlike produces one kind of culture; being cooperative, interdependent and egalitarian produces another. Clearly, only one allows the world to survive.

Rigidity and authoritarianism bring about political strife, and people become attacking and hateful as the extreme right is today — clearly, a “controller” approach.

But Slater argues that the left has its “controllers,” too — often making people feel they’re not progressive enough. I experienced this in the last election.

After working for liberal causes for years, my support of President Barack Obama in the 2012 election was greeted by some with derision and disdain. I was made to feel stupid, shallow and not “left” enough — very upsetting.

If we want a more democratic, collaborative society, we can’t treat people like that.

Giving birth to ideas

Slater’s ideas help me clarify my own work as an educator. Most thoughtful people feel we’re going in the wrong direction in education, with our focus on test scores. We’ve required teachers to be strict controllers who fill the students with facts.

Another approach to education, according to Latin American educator Paulo Freire, suggests that we give up the “banking” method of education (where we deposit information into the students) and turn to the “midwife” approach, where we’re helping students give birth to their own ideas.

Because if we want a more collaborative culture, education must help people learn to cooperate and care. My work educating adults focuses on people coming together as citizens to help each other change both their own lives and their society.

I work in the tradition of the Swedish study circle, an approach to education that creates change by bringing people together to learn from each other, to connect, reflect and act together in an egalitarian, cooperative way — not compete or win.

We learn that we can think for ourselves, express ourselves. We’re not just training to be good test-takers that end up with rigid, “controller” lives.

So, thank you, Philip Slater, for helping me find my own path in my work to build a new society.


Editor: the thumbnail image is from the cover of Cecile's latest book Living Room Revolution.: A Handbook for Conversation, Community and the Common Good.

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