Social Justice Work

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” ― Buckminster Fuller

Social Justice Warriors

“Anger is useful to help clarify our differences, but in the long run, strength that is bred by anger alone is a blind force which cannot create the future. It can only demolish the past. Such strength does not focus upon what lies ahead, but upon what lies behind, upon what created it—hatred. And hatred is a death wish for the hated, not a life wish for anything else.” –Audre Lorde

Rather than reacting out of hate, we will progress most when we take on instead one or more of these aspects:

  • The lesson of aikido: making an art out of defending self while not injuring the other, redirecting their momentum
  • Sage’s greatest lesson: tranquility in disturbance, with the certainty that everything is unfolding perfectly to create change
  • The lesson of the trickster: who plays pranks, bends or breaks normal rules and defies conventional behavior; a boundary-crosser; playfully disrupting normal life and then re-establishing it on a new basis

What about fighting the good fight? Plenty Coups, the last great chief of the Crow nation, was raised with an ethic to fight to the death to protect your people. Lear (2008) recounts that before Plenty Coups’ death he told his story to a White man who had become a long-time friend. In his youth, the largest threat ceased to be the neighboring tribes. The largest threat was the Whites’ killing off the buffalo and expanding westward. As a nine-year-old he had a dream that he described to his council of elders, after a time of ritual contemplation. He dreamed of a sole tree standing after a terrible storm; the tree was the home of the chickadee. One of the elders interpreted the dream.

He is willing to work for wisdom. The chickadee is a good listener….He gains successes and avoids failure by learning how others succeeded or failed, and without great trouble to himself….The lodges of countless bird-people were in the forest when the four winds charged it. Only one person is left unharmed, the lodge of the chickadee person. (Lear, 2008, pp. 70-71)

Faced with the end of their way of life, this young heir to chiefdom realized that the ultimate job of the warrior is to protect their people and culture. By this dream, he recognized that not fighting was what could save his people. The way to protect his people was to give up being a warrior. The U.S. cavalry would often kill women and children. He understood that by fighting, their culture and people would be annihilated. The U.S. government forcibly forbid intertribal warfare. They could no longer define themselves as warriors even against other tribes.

He avidly took up farming life and urged other members of the tribe to do so….He was active in bringing the other Crow chiefs together to form a united front in negotiating with the U.S. government…successfully lobbied to prevent a bill that would appropriate more Crow land. (pp. 4-5) 

Sitting Bull, a chief of the Sioux, viewed this as cowardly and foolish, a passive assimilation to White culture. Yet because Crow leaders were respected by U.S. leaders, they were somewhat able to protect their people. The chickadee became a symbol of listening instead of fighting, seeking wisdom in order to survive.

Ryan LaMothe (2011) a professor of pastoral care and counseling, asks how an individual or a community can endure crippling losses and fears without succumbing to despair or violence, because “we see how fear and anxiety can twist psyches into believing the illusion that redemptive violence will shield them from the reality of human vulnerability” (para. 1). He notes that often “compassion, empathy, and the willingness to seek understanding are viewed as weaknesses or naiveté” (para. 10).

How to Evolve

Change is hard, but we have this imperative to become well versed well practiced at at being able to make change, and recognizing that again it’s going to be disruptive, it’s going to be hard, it’s going to be scary, but to some degree at this point our survival kind of depends on it. Business-as-usual is killing us. Just going on with the day-to-day is a losing strategy at this point, so for people who kind of take a “too much too fast” sort of attitude about change—I’m not saying don’t be pragmatic, ’cause you certainly can harm yourself and things fall apart by things changing too much, but at the same time, the change that is going to be needed to turn things around for humanity on this planet is monumental, and maybe even impossible….How do we do the impossible? How do we actually affect an amount of change that is completely overwhelming that we don’t have the capacity for but that we have to do? (Sky Blue, Inside Community podcast, ep. 008: Income sharing, 45:52)

Schmachtenberger (2018) agrees with the above author that we have to collectively figure out how to create a culture of non-rivalry, of cooperation. And it’s unlikely we can agree on how. We may have to experiment separately with different versions of how, while trying to maintain the same core principles of non-violence and non-exploitation. Eisler (2016) recommends the same approach, to “support the shift from dominator to partnership in cultural values, economic models, and social structures” (p. 8), and has lists for how. Kashtan (2018) similarly wants to shift the target from the dominant group as the enemy we need to fight, to instead target structural inequality as the system we need to change.

Scott Alexander (2014) makes a current and thorough consideration of how, within the limits of current human nature and cultures, intentional communities with different values and lifestyles could live peacefully and separately from each other. He references prior utopian hypotheses and has a comments discussion much longer than the article, adding to and breaking down his proposal of a society that could support both justice and freedom optimally. He proposes a radical libertarian idea that “the solution to any perceived problems of liberalism is much more liberalism” (sec. IV), and points out that to a large degree, we are already capable of sorting ourselves geographically and ideologically into somewhat insular communities:

At what point are national governments rendered mostly irrelevant compared to the norms and rules of the groups of which we are voluntary members? I don’t know, but I kind of look forward to finding out…. Other people hit some kind of sweet spot that makes friendly people want to come in and angry people want to stay out, or just do a really good job choosing friends. But I think the end result is that the closer you come to true freedom of association, the closer you get to a world where everyone is a member of more or less the community they deserve. That would be a pretty unprecedented bit of progress. (sec. V)

With inter-group cooperation there could be ways for a network to put pressure on bad actors, just like on the international scene. It’s not necessarily defensible as a strategy. Many will say we need large states with large military, but some prophets such as Nostradamus have envisioned peace. I want to believe it’s possible. I can’t rationally defend the idea that coliving communities are going to create a better world, or could reproduce on a large scale, any more than every past author who has tried to envision a utopia. Our idealism comes up against the uncomfortable realities humans face, especially about human nature. Yet, as the collective sensemaking crowd recommends, we may bumble toward better ideas and outcomes only with collaboration and experimentation. Evolution doesn’t take a straight line.

The Slow-going Peaceful Route to Change the World

“If you hold an anti-war rally, I shall not attend. But if you hold a pro-peace rally, invite me.” ― Mother Theresa

These quotes seem to point to a workable answer: peacefully build up a model that is better than what currently exists. This fits with Jesus’ counsel for building a movement at a time when most were indifferent or hostile toward the views he and his disciples were promoting, “be wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (New King James Version, 1982, Matthew 10:16). We need the wisdom to protect ourselves and evade danger; we need a policy of not provoking offense, to the extent that we can do so while acting in alignment with our core values.

We need to attract resources away from the existing structures through good community organizing, providing some safety and community. If we can figure out some form of model we can replicate, we can change the entire global economy. (Geoffrey Henny, in Solidarity Summit 2021, hosted by Mutual Aid Network)

Schmachtenberger (2018) calls this a strategy of non-rivalry. Basically, this is an idea Jesus was promoting: don’t make enemies (Luke 6:27; Romans 12:17-21). If you consider others with the respect you would want to be given you, then they aren’t your enemies. Along similar lines as Bostrom’s (2019) vulnerable world hypothesis, in Humanity’s Phase Shift, Schmachtenberger makes a brilliant case that the competitive tendencies that got us to this point in our evolution will lead humanity to self-terminate if we don’t make an intentional evolutionary leap (15:50). After a lifetime of activism, Wheatley (2020) no longer believes in the possibility of incremental systemic change for the better. She believes there is more promise in focusing on local action in community, where we can create islands of sanity and kindness to weather whatever level of chaos may come. Like Schmachtenberger, she insists we must refrain from using fear and aggression. One reading of Christian-focused philosopher René Girard shows agreement with the need to denounce rivalry and aggression:

When we refuse to play the game….When we know that only when we oppose the status quo can we actually be freed from the predatory peace that surrounds us will we actually ever be able to…be freed….What happens is a really unstable period in society where the previous mechanisms are no longer working, and we get desperate, and we start lashing out in violence against each other….Incredible polarization of the left and the right politically….more and more people coming to realize the ways that groups have been marginalized and scapegoated….This is unjust. We have founded our social cohesion in ways that we have villainized…an adversary….As soon as we think that we are going to create a more just, a more peaceful… world thru the violence that we direct towards an adversary, then we are subsuming ourselves once again to the power.…The only way that we can free ourselves is to thoroughly renounce violence. (Commons Church, 2019, 08:05)

The Dalai Lama, in an interview with the Japanese cultural anthropologist Noriyuki Ueda, which began with “I would like to discuss whether it is possible to construct an altruistic society, in which people take care of and help each other” (para. 2):

One type arises out of compassion; that kind of anger is useful. Anger that is motivated by compassion or a desire to correct social injustice, and does not seek to harm the other person, is a good anger that is worth having….That anger is directed toward the social injustice itself, along with the struggle to correct it, so the anger should be maintained until the goal is achieved. It is necessary in order to stop social injustice and wrong destructive actions. (Tricycle, 2013, para. 11, 17)

Refusing to play their game doesn’t mean waiting around for change to happen, it means not trying to fit ourselves higher into the economic pyramid scheme. We do need to act. We don’t need to call it a fight. We don’t need to engage in endless culture wars until both groups of uber-competitive elites run and ruin the economy, then fly in their private jets—like the end scene of Atlas Shrugged when the world order crumbles—to their private retreats in New Zealand.

Misguided Strategies Versus Principles for Evolving

Many of the leaders and assistants to the leaders from around the world were in attendance at the U.N. Climate Summit. They say this was arguably the most high-profile, significant meeting that will in no way change anything whatsoever. –Jimmy Kimmel

It’s important to recognize failed models of change, to not fall into those traps. Ryder (2001) mused about the famed Margaret Mead quotation about changing the world thru committed action of small groups, and disagreed, noting that the left is made up of small groups “of thotful, committed individuals with a vision of the future and a plan to make it happen one way or another, regardless of what the millions think. Radicals, by contrast, set out to help people by the millions free themselves to realize their own vision of the future” (para. 49).

Ryder (2001) posits that “in general, small groups can win small victories. Big networks of groups can win big victories” (para. 26). He anticipates the question, “but doesn’t it start with a small group? No, that’s too mechanical. Real life is more interesting” (para. 27-28). He quotes Hayden:

Any oppressed people will always look like they are asleep to everybody, from the oppressor to the organizers to the experts who are observing and writing about them….The people who seem asleep always awake at the most unusual times. No one ever predicts when or where people will rise up….If you predict a revolt here, it will start there. (para. 29)

Ryder further noted that small groups can’t even predict when a revolution will start, let alone start it. Commentators on the Arab Spring have noted that the same technologies and agitation that can overthrow an oppressive government are not sufficient to build up a better government. Our role is not to agitate, but to be ready when needed, to offer a peaceful practical way forward when a tipping point of awareness arises. Organization and leadership are required for a movement to sustain itself, and various thot leaders are providing platforms for discussing the general principles we will follow. We ready ourselves by learning to ignore distractions and observe underlying trends and patterns, practicing making effective intuitive decisions, practicing mediation and conflict resolution skills, practicing leadership skills, and preparing to survive economic downturns.

Trial-and-error. Ryder (2001) spoke of the masses freeing themselves to realize their own vision of the future. What might be hindering most planners is that we often try to promote a one-size-fits-all solution, and this has never worked. Our best hope may be to recognize our underlying common aims and to support—or at least not fight—others who in good faith are working toward their version of a better society, even if it’s not our preferred way, and even if we think they are dead wrong. Allow them to try their experiments—while keeping an eye out that they don’t squelch ours—to allow them to find out they are not seeing the full picture. We too may try our experiments and find them not quite yielding our expected results. We all will learn, hopefully share notes, and revise our methods. Rutt (2020) offers four fundamental strategies for groups building models of group governance: remain self-organized, network-oriented, decentralized, and metastable for an extended period of time, to adapt to changing circumstances and select best practices thru trial and error. Astronaut Scott Kelly, a leader who had to make life or death decisions in uncertain situations, observed, “The smartest person in the room is the person who knows how to tap into the intelligence of every person in the room” (Ferriss, 2020, 06:35).

Revolution. You have heard that “the revolution will not be televised.” What was televised was the occupy movement and Trump supporters rioting at the capitol building. Seemingly on different sides of the political spectrum, these events show a growing frustration with a growing income inequality and decreasing quality of life. It is two sides of the anti-establishment showing up against the establishment. Jordan Peterson, after citing research that across the United States and Canada, the homicide rate goes up in areas that have higher income disparity (10:19), concludes the following:

We also know that as economic disparity grows, the social stability decreases, and the reason for that seems to be, well mostly seems to be male on male aggression, and so what I think probably happens is that if there’s a fair bit of chance for men to climb the ladder, then only the most disagreeable of them become violent. But as you crank down on the opportunity, so that the competition gets more and more intense, the level of disagreeableness that it takes in order to catalyze aggression starts to decrease, until if it gets so intense that there’s no possibility for status, then the whole bloody society is going to flip over, because the guys at the bottom who are like—all the guys—are going to decide that this is a stupid game and they’d rather flip the board over and you know, set the markers to zero and see how they come up in the new society, so it’s possible that one of the things that motivates revolutions in human society is excessive inequality. (Peterson, 2018, 12:03)

Yet George Orwell’s Animal Farm portrays the historical truth that the overthrow and replacement of current figureheads makes little to no improvement for the people. Don’t be diminished by a divide and conquer strategy; we don’t need to convince others to change their political leanings. Simply do your own best work that is for something rather than againstsomething.

The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. —Audre Lorde

The Tao te Ching teaches that the most subtle and seemingly powerless will survive changes, while the strong and hard will break (Chen, 1989).

No enemies. Three tactics to promote culture evolution: (a) working within the existing framework to change it, (b) finding creative ways to clog it, or (c) working outside the existing framework. All three of these can be usefully employed. The first strategy seems better applied to a small scale, changing local policy then promoting it as an example. On the large scale, idealists keep being thwarted. After Gore with the popular vote failed to gain the presidency, Bernie was denied the nomination, and Obama put the economic burden of bank profiteering onto taxpayers, I’ve lost confidence that putting effort into large-scale political reform is feasible. With the second strategy, it is crucial to remember the principle of not strengthening the resistance of the dominant culture. As many spiritual teachers have noted, what you resist persists. A prankster attitude is more useful than anger here. In my experience using humor softens the defenses and invites new perspectives in a way that erodes rather than strengthens defenses. Preaching and smashing motivate others to use the same tactics against your efforts. With the third strategy, the recommendation of this author is to work outside the existing cultural framework (of individualism and competitiveness), yet within the laws, to evolve the cultural framework. This means utilizing whatever tools are available to ethically create examples of mutualism. We know example is the best teacher, and that any preaching not backed by example is ineffective.

The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future. —Audre Lorde

If you are interested in joining with others in social justice work, see our page about co-creating an activist community.


Alexander S. (2014, June 7). Archipelago and atomic communitarianism. Slate Star Codex.

Remaining references accessible here.