8. The Key Insight

Think back on a time when you felt afraid, truly afraid, and you’ll realize what an awful burden it is to live in fear. Then use that knowledge to feel compassion for conservatives whose worldview is founded on fear.

Yes, you must be compassionate to conservatives: even those who appear to be utterly lacking in compassion themselves. This is both your obligation as a nurturant progressive, and an eminently practical strategy, since hatred, even “legitimate” hatred toward a venal opponent, accomplishes nothing and is self-destructive. It will ruin your day and, if left unchecked, your life. “Whenever you feel hatred toward the enemy, think of him as a human being,” advises the Dalai Lama. “[Hatred] . . . is not necessarily helping the enemy as harming yourself.”

One way to avoid succumbing to hatred is to not concern yourself very much with the conservative “leaders” at the top reaches of government or in the media, the worst of whom are often not principled conservatives so much as craven opportunists. Focus, instead, on the conservatives in your neighborhood, classes, workplace and family. Strive to understand them and their belief systems—which often make sense in the context of their experiences—and to locate your points of commonality with them. Remember that . . .

• As a human being, you have a vast amount in common with all other human beings.

• As a citizen of the United States (or Canada, or another country), you have even more in common with everyone else in that country.

• As a member of whichever political, professional, religious, ethnic, gender, cultural or other groups you belong to, you have still more in common with the other members of those groups.

• Also, as an inhabitant of whatever local community you live in, you have even more in common with the other inhabitants of that community.

• And, finally, as a member of a family, you have an enormous amount more in common with the other members.

All of this means that you have a vast amount in common even with people you might disagree with, and even with those whose values and actions you consider deplorable. This explains why even a highly committed progressive can admire, like, or even love someone whose values are different from hers, or even diametrically opposed to hers. This is nothing to be ashamed of: it just means you are a human being with a complex, human heart, and that your heart recognizes, even if your intellect does not yet do so, the commonality of all humankind.

The insight that we have vast amounts in common even with those with whom we disagree is so important that I call it The Key Insight. It mandates an attitude of not just compassion but, yes, love toward not just the progressives in your life but the conservatives as well. Accepting The Key Insight as a guiding principle is a truly revolutionary act that will forever change the way you view yourself and the world around you. It will also empower you to do much more powerful activism, since, as you will learn in Part V, people are far more likely to be persuaded by someone who they believe likes and respects them than by someone who they believe is harshly judging them and their ideas.

The Key Insight suggests that there should be many conservatives out there who share significant common ground with us progressives, and this is indeed the case. Many of these conservatives are older people who recall a time when (for all its drawbacks), our culture was less consumerist, our media less corporatist, and our civic institutions were stronger. But there are younger conservatives out there as well, a community and a trend that Rod Dreher documents in his fun book Crunchy Cons (see Bibliography). “Crunchy” alludes to granola, and “cons” is short for conservatives, and Dreher’s subtitle says it all: “How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party).”

Dreher is a journalist with impeccable conservative credentials—he has written for the National Review, the Washington Times and other conservative bastions—and yet he writes scathingly of the greed and the consumerist ethic permeating our society, the corrupting influence of corporations on our society and political process, and our devastating failure to nurture the environment and each other. True, he is also pro-gun, anti-sexual freedom and (in my view) fetishizes the traditional nuclear family to an inappropriate degree. Still, there is more than enough here to make common cause with—and the same is true for even many “non-crunchy” conservatives.

The Key Insight does not imply that you accept what the conservatives do, or fight it any less vociferously. It means, rather, that when dealing with people, you always strive to see the person and not the label.

Always remember that stereotyping and vilification are fear-based tactics of the Right, and should not be ours. Remember, also, that every person has a complex story to tell, and that it is often in the details of that story that you will find your opening to “sell” him or her on your progressive views.

Remember, also, that even many people who seem to be happily conservative, and happily enjoying the Average American Consumerist Lifestyle (AACL—see Part II, Chapter 3), are living lives of quiet desperation. Few people, when young, dream of being a cog in a corporate machine or living a conformist suburban lifestyle. Most of us start out dreaming of greatness, uniqueness and self-expression, and many people actually try to live out those dreams, until some combination of the AACL and their own fears subvert their plan and trap them into a more constricted existence. This kind of tragedy happens all the time, and while it is entirely appropriate to congratulate yourself (silently) for having the courage and fortitude not to get sucked in, it is also appropriate to feel compassion for those who, for whatever reason, were unable to avoid that fate.

Or unable to avoid it until now. For it is also appropriate for you to do what you can to lessen the sense of fear and increase the sense of hope and freedom and possibility in those around you, and in your society and the world as a whole. That is the essence of progressive activism, and I discuss how to do it in the final section of The Lifelong Activist. . . .

Activism and Joy: A Meditation

It’s sometimes hard to remember it, but the activist life provides many opportunities for joy.

There’s the joy of living a self-actualized, authentic life, where your unique personality is being expressed, your unique needs are being met, and your unique talents and skills are being used to their fullest.

There’s the joy of living a life that’s devoted to important, even historic, things.

There’s the joy of participating in a lively and intelligent and engaged community. Of helping others and then watching them, in turn, help others. Of watching your ideas and influence spread throughout your community, your society and the world.

There’s also the joy of believing and acting passionately, and the joyful excitement of planning and executing a campaign. In Letters to a Young Activist, Todd Gitlin writes of, “. . . the almost sinful pleasure of being right, to see people surge into your ranks, to feel that your analysis penetrates to the heart of things.”

Locate your joy, and nurture it. Practice feeling joyful even in situations where you might not ordinarily experience that emotion, so that you can increase your capacity for experiencing it. This will not only help you cope with the inevitable disappointments and discomforts of the activist life, but provide you with one of your most persuasive tools. People are naturally attracted to, inspired by, and driven to emulate joyful people—and are naturally repelled by those who are morose, bitter, sad or otherwise afflicted.

Which is what Part V, coming up next, is all about.

If every activist could access more of his or her joy, it would probably help the cause of progressivism more than anything else.

And you know what? Every activist can.