Hear from our host Vicki Robin in this solo episode, as she reflects on the themes emerging from “What Could Possibly Go Right?”, including:
- The challenges of cultural scouting and remaining open to seeing the whole picture within “growing social insanity”
- The limiting nature of polarized thinking, seeing things in binaries, and overgeneralization
- That navigating this unraveling together requires empathy and “leaning on the insights from all points of view”
- Local examples of what’s going right, including in food resilience, climate crisis action, and social responsibility within the FIRE community
Hi, Vicki Robin here, your host of What Could Possibly Go Right?, a project of the Post Carbon Institute, in which we interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good.
From time to time I take on the task of interviewing myself, so to speak, of reflecting on what I’ve heard from my guests and what I see in the world and answering the question, What could possibly go right? So I’ve written this out, I’m not going to do it spontaneously, because I’ve given it a lot of thought and care to see if I can express as clearly as possible, what my sense of things is at the moment. So here we go.
What Could Possibly Go Right?’s place in the family of podcasts revolves around this idea of cultural scouting. Cultural Scouting is like a seventh sense, a sense of what’s on the horizon and around the bend. Our guests are artists, activists, elders, innovators, leaders who have sharpened the scouting sense to orient their community or their organizations or their cultures towards safety and growth.
Pundits have points of view about where society should head or is heading. Cultural scouts may have opinions, but they don’t lead with them. They lead with this seventh sense, seeking sanity for society as a whole. In this time of upheaval, a time when trust is low and fear is rising, What Could Possibly Go Right?’s guests give us insights that can light our way.
So I want to talk about the search that I’m on, the podcast is on, that our scouts are on, for social sanity. If society like in the US or influenced by the US, were a family member, you’d encourage them to go to therapy. You’ve noticed them flying off the handle and hearing voices that tell them to do things they would never do in normal times. Furious at random people and events. Unhinged and looking around wildly for what went wrong and who’s out to get them and who’s to blame and who if anyone to trust. They are so upset that any effort to settle them down is rejected as “not getting it”. If they weren’t your family member, you’d give them a wide berth.
I think this describes our body politic right now. I know my own passions and fears have clouded my own cultural scouting. It’s a struggle to stay out of the fray, to see the extreme points of view not as invitations to take sides, to defend or attack, but as if you will, society’s cry for help. This is the struggle for cultural scouts, to take the whole pulse, not just the pulse you agree with.
Observing this growing social insanity, I have reached back to a system that helped me years ago when I was in the grip of depression. It’s called – and you may have heard of it – cognitive behavioral therapy. It has its roots in stoicism. David Burns’ book Feeling Good introduced me to these ideas and helped me strip from my mind what AA calls “stinking thinking”.
Cognitive behavioural therapy posits, at least as I learned it, 10 cognitive mistakes; 10 assumptions that are not true that we apply to the things that we are experiencing. All of these cognitive states seem to apply to the social insanity, but I’m going to single out two.
The first one is all or nothing thinking. It’s also known as black and white thinking or polarized thinking. This involves viewing things in binary, absolute terms. It’s all right or it’s all wrong. It’s all good or it’s all bad. Does that sound familiar in the body politic right now, from COVID to climate?
The antidote is something like shades of grey, but it’s not exactly shades of grey. It’s seeing the locked down mind, or as Amanda Ripley says in her book, High Conflict, it’s complicating the narrative. It’s adding other elements to it. Their side has some good points. Our side has some blind spots. It reminds me of a friend who said, If you think you have only two options, you are not thinking. Her minimum were five options to be able to make a decent smart choice.
I think about this with the crisis du jour, at the moment that I’m recording. And this is the trucker protests that clogged the streets of Ottawa and spread to other nations and continents. Their cry was freedom from mandates. The people and projects impacted though by the noise and the roadblocks, their cry for freedom was freedom to get on with our lives. Freedom to be able to not have the noise in the streets, to be able to go the places we wanted to go. To each side, the other was completely wrong.
This reflects two years of COVID polarization. Masks, distancing and vaccines will allow us to go about our lives, even with a pandemic, versus doubt about the disease, the data and the dominance about vaccines as the only way, is what is suppressing us. Social responsibility is following public health. Social responsibility is waking people up to the hidden agenda of the ruling class. And we are all sick of it.
Yet it’s not going away. It’s easy for those of us in the public health appreciation majority to dismiss the other side is crazy. But what if they are telling some truths we do not want to hear? Do some Q signs and Confederate flags discredit everyone? What grains of truth does liberal society need to hear, whether you like how the messenger presents itself, the rhetoric, the outfits, the noise, the sand in the gears of government and business? What I’m hearing is we do not trust that you have our best interests at heart. We smell something fishy and we don’t know what it is, but we’re not going to cooperate with it.
So recently, it was the truckers. But yesterday or tomorrow, it’s Friday’s for the Future, or BlackLivesMatter, or the Chaz in Seattle, the Capitol Hill autonomous zone in 2020, or the yellow vests in France protesting rising gas prices. Or Extinction Rebellion clogging up London to raise awareness of climate crisis, or Occupy Wall Street. Or back further, the diggers in San Francisco giving away free food. Back further, the Luddites.
There’s a photo of a trucker that I saw recently, before a line of Canadian police, and it echoes the photo I saw years ago of a young hippy woman putting a daisy in the barrel of a gun, or the beautiful black woman standing with dignity before a similar line of police. Part of the complex human psyche values, order and the social good. Part values belonging. Part values sovereignty. Part values creativity. Part values freedom. And there’s many parts beyond that.
We certainly want all of the above. We want all of our needs to be met in right proportion. History and philosophy swing the pendulum back and forth, missing the missing middle, the complexity. Even this framing back and forth is an expression of black and white thinking. I think it’s this binary nature of our very mind.
It brings to mind also the conflict years ago in Forks, Washington after the northern spotted owl was designated as an endangered species in 1990. Some friends and I decided we would do a listening project out there to hear all the voices in the conflict, not just be city environmentalists imposing our ideas, however necessary we believed they are. Just like I believe that the the strategies for remediating for adapting to climate change are the necessary ones. So on and on it goes.
We talked with the families, with loggers, with guys in diners, with motel owners, with Forest Service employees, and with a woman who sprouted a business in the clear cuts. Families were scared of losing their income and their homes. Young men were disoriented, because they’d been promised the life in the woods and they dropped out of school early just because they wanted to join that profession.
One logger drove us out to a clear cut, to talk about the dance of the machinery, the skill, the rhythm, the beauty and the danger of this life outdoors, as an expression of beauty and respect and honor. And the businesswoman? Well, she harvested some red bar curly twigs out of the old growth and she sold them to florists, and she was doing a really good business.
It was all there. The broken promises, the confusion as a way of life once revered is disparaged, the clever people who adapt to the change and use pieces of the old to build the new. Maybe as a woman, I have a tenderness for the parts of our collective soul that are exiled in service to what the ruling class or the ruling gender wants.
So how do our societies move with greater grace in this time of change? Voices shuffled to the margins, as we manage overwhelming challenges will be heard one way or another. So how do we open space to hear those voices?
Looking for a grain of truth is not just to placate your enemy, to shut them up by offering a modicum of understanding. Rather, it is to inform our work together, of navigating this unraveling, of leaning on the insights from all points of view, in order to pick a line. As we used to say in off-road biking, you look ahead, you look down and you pick a line through.
Any part of us we disrespect will come in some form to reclaim its dignity, its right to exist. The trucker crisis, in that event, I heard our essential workers – lauded in the beginning of the pandemic and shuffled aside now that we are finding our way out – letting us all know that they are here, they work hard, they want autonomy, and they want respect, and they want enough income for decent life. They want to be visible, not just a factor of production, getting products from one place to another, but human beings.
They tell me that what could possibly go right isn’t a technical or linear question. It’s a social, emotional, and spiritual question. It’s a matter of empathy, not just strategy. Where will the healing conversations happen in a black and white thinking world?
One of my other hats is as a co-author of Your Money or Your Life, which is a perennial bestseller about personal finance. That’s turned out to be one of the core texts for a movement called FIRE: Financial Independence, Retire Early. In the chatter about the great resignation or the big quit, I asked this community of largely analytic and accountable people why they, or people they know, were not going back to work. It was a non-scientific, social science survey of a subculture focused on earning and spending money such that they can reclaim their time for matters more than money.
Some are just a few years away from retiring early anyway, so they chose to stop working. Some are caught in the childcare bind. Some had up-leveled their skills during the pandemic and changed careers. Some used the opportunity of the online world to make money.
But you know what the biggest category was – there was so many comments about this – I would call it dignity. They were not being paid enough to make it worth it. They saw upper management grab the spoils of the pandemic and not share. They weren’t making a revolution. They had a revulsion against the indignity of working in a system where you’re not valued.
The other relevant cognitive mistake that helps me see into this moment is overgeneralization. It happens when you make a rule after a single event or a series of coincidences. The words “always” or “never” frequently appear in a sentence. Can’t you see overgeneralization at work in the recent trucker standoff? One confederate flag and they’re labeled as all inflamed Trumps supporters. The presumption that if they are protesting mandates, they’re not vaccinated, which most were.
Our minds don’t want to slog into the mess of shades of grey, of complexity. So we’ll grab any piece of evidence to paint the whole situation with our interpretive brush. While the liberal mind is repelled by this thought, were all the hordes sent to the Capitol crazies with Confederate flags? Were they highly trained military with zip ties? Were they all Proud Boys? You might say that the masses of people are just blind followers. But aren’t we all in some aspect of our lives, blind followers?
Healing our social body needs as many of us as possible to get out of our own black and white thinking, and over generalizations, to offer dignity to people we disagree with, and to get curious about what is animating them and use this information to make wiser and broader choices.
So how do we get out of this? Well, we can watch for these cognitive mistakes in ourselves, and get curious about what grains of truth the other side may be carrying, and relinquish a bit of the safety of our reference groups. I’ve done this, I’m doing it. It’s not necessarily easy.
We can watch for making inferences from scant data, for impugning the motives of our adversaries without really thinking about it. We can ask, How do I know this is true? We can ask one of my favourite questions, Who wins if I believe this? In other words, who is up the power food chain? Who benefits from the upheaval that I’m in the middle of? Who has given me the anger that is inside me? And how does it serve them? I have suspicions about that, but that’s not what we’re going to talk about now. This doesn’t solve anything, these questions, but it puts us in a mind where breakthrough solutions can actually arise.
Another example, years ago, some friends and I launched something called Conversation Cafes, a small group dialogue process. We had a set of agreements and a process that kept the conversation from going off the rails, and evolving into something really interesting to everyone. But if an exchange got heated or polarized, we offered these three questions.
If somebody says something that just seemed totally outrageous, you can ask: What led you to this point of view? In other words, you’re going from opinion to story; what led you to this point of view? You can inquire: Here’s what I heard you say? Is that what you meant?
You can also ask: Well, what if the opposite were true? I accept what you’re saying. But what if the opposite were true? And you can ask yourself that too, of your own convictions that have not been deeply investigated; well, I believe this, but what if the opposite were true?
The very question, What Could Possibly Go Right?, is a polarization disturber. It pulls us out of black and white thinking and overgeneralization and into complexity and inquiry. The question itself is grounded in intellectual humility. I think we need more of that.
So what do I see going right now, after all of this investigation? I just want to say, my small town council has constituted a climate crisis action committee. Of course, I signed up. And a few years ago, my town generally had climate denial blinkers on, as did most people, but somehow or another in the last few years, there’s an openness and this group, this climate crisis action committee, is walking right through it in a great, determined way, with a lot of mutual respect.
There’s also a food resilience council forming, of all the different people who are involved in our food system. We’re working with interested state representatives to change regulations that disadvantaged local farmers. I advocated eight years ago, after writing my book Blessing The Hands That Feed Us, I realized local food is not a local food system. And we need a system. We need scale-appropriate regulations that will allow farmers and ranchers to flourish. Back then, it was just some good ideas, a few studies, but now we’re actually doing it and I’m so thrilled that we’re doing it.
The FIRE community, the Financial Independence, Retire Early community that Your Money or Your Life serves, it’s a million strong, at least now. It has a large subculture that’s interested in social responsibility. Your Money or Your Life presumed that service would be the logical outcome of liberating time from dead end jobs. But what I saw when I found the FIRE community is mostly people who were into the technicals of earning, saving and investing money. It was like retire early was the goal, not what happens after you retire and your ability to serve the values that you think are important. So I’m very thrilled that an ever-growing percentage of this community is really interested in social responsibility.
This is just what I see in my corner of the world, bright spots that could grow in impact. We are in a system in flux, like a sailboat tacking toward a distant horizon, zigzagging in response to the canter of the deck, the waves, the wind, and the barely visible shore. We need to learn to tack, to navigate the Great Unraveling as Post Carbon Institute calls it. Because of this, we need to see through the right and wrong, good and bad, binary mind, and find a way through. We need to pick a line, not pick a side.
In human history, there are always elements fading away and always others rising up. There’s always dying, there’s always being born and we are navigators. We are cultural scouts. We are living through a complex time. And to stay on our destination, we need to tack in response to the canter of the deck and the waves and the wind and the water.
I think we stay out of cognitive mistakes in curiosity. We have a chance to get through these upheavals. Even if we don’t make it, whatever that means, staying in love and learning may make this the best of times for us as human beings. So thank you so much.