Town HallAug 02, 2020
This week, I am forsaking the typical format of this letter while I mine my childhood for more embarrassing personal anecdotes to share. Fear not, it’s my 25th wedding anniversary this Wednesday and I will more than compensate for any lack of mawkish prose in next week’s missive. That being said, you will not be completely spared my loquacity.
No doubt some of you may be wondering anyways why you receive my interminable screeds every Sunday - prattling on about culture, spirituality and current affairs - when all you did was innocently sign up for a meditation or yoga course. It’s a well-founded question. Your confusion might be compounded by the fact that a platform featuring Deepak Chopra reciting mantras is now releasing a course called Political Hope with Charles Eisenstein. What do meditation and politics have to do with one another?
For years, I have been exhorting, often into the wind, that our personal and societal well-being are inextricably interwoven. The notion that we, individually, cannot be well, unless the world around us is also well. And this notion is circular: A self-actualized society with a strong ethical foundation springs forth from individuals who are psychologically and physiologically healthy. This fine-fettled society, in turn, provides community and the belonging that is essential to individual happiness.
This is the holistic vision for well-being that gave birth to Commune and has informed the programs that we create. The idea that wellness is an individual quest characterized by green juice and sun salutations and reserved for the elite should be thrown on the historical trash heap. This is why, in addition to the standard menu of yoga and meditation, we produce “wellness” courses on Unwinding Prejudice, Redefining Leadership and Organize a March (which we offer here for free). Or courses on regenerative agriculture and living plastic-free. Or now, Political Hope, which is free in its entirety from August 3-12.
Bridging our quest for personal health and societal well-being feels more prescient than ever. It doesn’t take a medical doctor to diagnose that society is profoundly un-well.
Since around the 3rd week of quarantine, I have been obsessively ruminating and writing about the erosion of social cohesion and the continuing efflorescence of socio-political polarization. Even if you don’t contemplate these subjects, they are hard to avoid. Just open your Facebook app and it will take you 10 seconds to get swept away by the invective, the invidious all-caps screaming matches about mask wearing or hydroxychloroquine. This should not be confused with public debate. These are private acts happening in public, solving nothing except to further our atomization and fealty to our political identities.
We have myriad salient societal problems, the starkest currently being COVID and racial justice, and potentially the most existential being global warming and rising authoritarianism. And there are countless other inter-related issues jabbing us on the nose including, but not limited to, income inequality, chronic disease and poor nutrition, criminal justice and ascendant fundamentalism.
But sitting behind all of these grave symptoms is a more pervasive and insidious illness. We are suffering from an absolute inability to cooperate.
Almost every issue we face exists in a blunt, binary framework and thrusts us into unambiguous role playing in a sparring match of identity politics: pro-life or pro-choice, racist or anti-racist, pro-gun or pro-gun control, pro-police or defund the police, pro-vaccine or anti vaccine, and on and on. In truth, these issues are profoundly complicated and nuanced.
Our positions are obstinately girded in biases that are confirmed and reconfirmed on social media. Our feeds are driven by algorithms and artificial intelligence that arguably understand our preconceptions better than we ourselves do.
Every once in a while, we venture out beyond the borders of our proscribed socio-political landscape. And, even more rarely, we summon the strength to engage in thoughtful dialogue only to be eviscerated by a swarm of locusts. This is the modern instantiation of the public square. Social media has proved to be a brilliant organizing tool but it is an abysmal sandbox for discourse.
Agreement on even the simplest measures of our social contract or engaging in the most token sacrifices for our mutual benefit now seem out of grasp. Forty years ago, less than 25% of us lived in landslide districts, where one candidate won in a landslide over another. Now that number is 80%. We’ve bunkered ourselves in echo chambers so resonant that all we hear are modifications of our own voice. And any thoughtful deviation from that voice now carries a personal risk where simply questioning the political orthodoxy of your group or steelmanning your opponent’s point of view in an attempt to more solidly cement your own can cost you your reputation or, in some cases, your job.
Our ability to engage in thorough and respectful debate has deteriorated, but it is these very conversations that are essential in order for liberal democracy to function. We have always had disagreement but never have we been so disagreeable.
Humanity’s rise to the top of the food chain is reliant on our ability to cooperate flexibly at scale, to find uneasy consensus. Our inability to commune may lead to our demise.
Even though it may seem daunting, we must humbly seek out thorny, substantive conversations. If we care about America, and there’s plenty of good reason to, we must move beyond performative posts and memes. Conversation is not for the faint of heart, but consider the options: California and Mississippi secede? We tried a form of that in the 1800s and it didn’t work out so well. How much more unbridled vitriol can we withstand before our country completely unravels? We simply must find a way to stop screaming at each other.
Here is where I deviate from my usual soliloquizing and ask all of you to get involved. Commune would like to host a series of digital town halls with the goal of fostering thoughtful, respectful conversations around complicated societal issues. Would you be interested in partaking in such a series? And, if so, what are the issues that you would like to discuss and learn more about?
Please email me at [email protected] and let me know.
Thank you. It’s an honor to do this work.
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