San Francisco Bay Area peeps are collaborators. We are student-centered, client-centered, customer-centered, patient-centered. We are power-sharers. As learners we’ve been shown how to power-share, and we expect to share our power. We are freed to stop chasing power, debating for it, fighting over it. Power-sharing frees us to create a multitude of healthier sources of power.
SF Bay Area peeps know possibility is real. We know it’s as real as what’s actual. We know that ideas have lives, that they can change lives. We like to work from the ground of possibility. We are subjunctive. We are limited when we problem-solve only from the actual. We challenge systems that lock us into the actual because they block our view of the possible. We live in the actual and are present now (and now and now), but possibility moves us, lights up our imagination.
SF Bay Area peeps imagine. We imagine BIG. Our imaginations soar. We look up. We expect things will work out. (And we know they will, eventually, if we keep doing just work.) We know that imagining positive outcomes helps us create humane methods for input. We know that’s what humans can control, our own input. We focus on our best input instead of fearing unknown outcomes in the future.
SF Bay Area peeps self identify. We know the power in knowing ourselves. We embrace our intersectionality. (Ness.) We recognize that diversity, options, choices—knowing our own agency—makes healthier humans. Too much of any one thing always steals power. We know that each of us is a work of art. And we know that art is life.
SF Bay Area peeps orient toward the best. We strive to engage with our best selves. We trust each other to speak to our best selves. We try to connect with others’ best selves. We prefer incentive and support to threats and punishment. We recycle. We upcycle. We don’t throw people away. We know that people have inherent value because they are part of a whole.
SF Bay Area peeps embody Ubuntu. We live “I am because you are.” We recognize that we are all glittering jewels in Indra’s net: all our reflections are in each of us and those reflections are the core of who we are as human animals in the cosmos.
We know that creating one just relation at a time makes just families and just communities and just societies.
How democracy (power-sharing) and authoritarianism (power-stealing and hoarding) function on an everyday level is actually quite simple, even though lots of folks have a stake in keeping it complicated.
Power-sharers are open, they turn toward others, they share accurate information, and they are transparent: their words connect directly to what they do in the world so everyone can see the connections. They support and nourish those around them, lifting them as they lift themselves. They create safe spaces where creativity and innovation thrive. They live democratically.
Power-stealers and hoarders are closed off; they turn away from others, stealing their power to connect and engage. They also steal power by offering inaccurate information intentionally, stealing others’ power to see and understand fully. Power-stealers’ words are often not connected in any identifiable way to their actions, and that lack of transparency steals power from others to know with whom they are connecting. Power-hoarders gain resources and stolen power, then lock out access to those who might participate and also benefit. They live as everyday authoritarians, undermining power-sharing practices and norms in our democratic country.
Try this today: as you move through your world, note the power-sharers in your world. Who helps you drive your forward momentum? And, who are the power-stealers? Who slows, staggers, or stops you moving forward?
Live democratically. Every day. In everything you do.
Project Vision: To build, fuel, and drive a social change vehicle prototype that can open up closed U.S. rural cultures to democratic practices and norms by supporting the diverse rural residents and newcomers in their navigation of non-democratic practices and normsin rural cultures.
Open cultures create the conditions that feed and grow democratic norms, which are embodied in human practices: what individual humans say to one another and what we do in relation with each other. Democratic practices in a culture create trust, make space for vulnerability, nurture creativity, and foster expression—all necessary conditions to grow power-sharing (democratic) norms. Democratic norms are open and inclusive: they “turn-toward” and seek out and embrace diversity in all its forms, including race and ethnicity. Democracies thrive when those committed to power-sharing via systems and processes contribute novel and creative cultural ideas and practices. Democratic ecosystems are most healthy and abundant when the social soil in which they grow—the cumulative cultural effect of individual communicative practices and norms–is also healthy.
Each individual democratic communicative practice—each granular act of relational power-sharing–counts in a culture to outpace and outnumber non-democratic practices. The cumulative effect of individual democratic relational practices, over time, build democracies and support power-sharing systems and processes. Put differently, democracy is not in elections or issues or candidates; not in systems or processes. The heart of democracy is in the human commitment to share power in everyday practices, and the more power-sharing practices that can be created in a culture, the more open it becomes to forming patterns of democratic norms.
In our current climate, U.S. rural cultures are often closed and disconnected, creating stagnant, poisonous information puddles of outdated mediated knowledge and misinformation. As a result, many of those citizens live in a world of conspiracy theories and threats of imminent race wars, the fear of which is spread in relational communication patterns. White militias are a symptom of closed U.S. rural cultures drowning in mass propaganda created by those who benefit from the rural-urban divide. The rural purge of all rural television programming in the 1970s began the rural closing off process. Since then, U.S. rural citizens have had virtually no representation in urban cultures, leaving them without the cultural reflection necessary to create their existence. Decades long internalization and pain created by that invisibility left rural Americans vulnerable to those with political ambitions pretending to hear and see them only to later exploit them. Those with political ambitions continue to direct rural citizens’ pain at non-white, urban targets, who seem to be the cause of their pain (confirmed by television brought to them by Sinclair, often the only option).
Closed rural cultures reproduce poisonous communication patterns directed at newcomers and other marginalized residents: smiles become stoic, blank faces; waves are ignored or dismissed; and, eye contact is intentionally elusive. There is little trust between newcomers and “oldtimers” or “insiders” in closed rural cultures–inaccurate information intentionally offered over and over create severe trust deficits. Fierce passive aggression protects little patches of power that have been staked out by those few–in a power-scare environment–who know how to steal power from the newcomers and other marginalized residents.
Those newcomers and other marginalized residents from whom power is stolen adapt, sometimes with passive aggression of their own, or by disrupting or supplicating—all attempts to take back their power. Self-medication to numb the pain of power-scarcity is common in closed rural cultures: drugs, food, television, alcohol, and violence are all used and abused to feel better or to avoid feeling altogether. Power-hoarders who capture community resources lock down access to newcomers and other marginalized residents who might take a turn at participating in the decision-making about and distribution of those rural resources. Fear is used as a weapon, often projected onto newcomers and marginalized residents, creating confused funhouse mirror reflections of twisted intentions and motives, which further poisons the social soil in which all other activity takes place.
I worked for 19 months, post-11.6.16, fully immersed in ethnographic study of cultural norms and power relations in poverty-ravaged, deep-red rural Josephine County, Oregon, and my data confirms the conditions described above. My second full immersion immediately afterward into rural Sea Ranch, California, for another 19 months, adds further ethnographic support to the description of non-democratic conditions.
In particular, the study’s findings identify normal everyday authoritarian practices–relational power-stealing and -hoarding–in both rural cultures. The findings also point to a generational “orientation” embodied by members of the two rural cultures whose normal relational practices function to support state-level authoritarianism, while undermining local democratic practices and norms.
As a newcomer at the bottom of both rural cultures, I experienced first-hand the non-democratic practices and norms. It didn’t matter than I’m white, educated, a professional, and wasn’t poor: in these two (and similar) closed rural cultures, anyone who’s not an “old timer” or an “insider” is excluded, marginalized, and invisible. Exercising agency in these conditions–speaking up, dissenting, and generating forward momentum–is actively undermined, and everyday democratic practices discouraged or simply impractical.
The non-democratic cultural conditions in increasingly diverse rural America have not been acknowledged in any literature or research. Currently, no academic, business, religious, political, or nonprofit educational or cultural work effort is underway to address the cultural conditions in rural America that grew the possibility of the 45th POTUS and the white nationalists making policy at the top levels of the U.S. government.
When those top-level democratic systems and processes struggle or break down, reanimating “bottom-level” everyday democratic practices must be prioritized to bring about change. To address non-democratic rural cultural conditions, rural America needs to be more open, and the route in is up through the bottom. This project proposes opening up U.S. rural cultures by supporting the increasingly diverse newcomers who are moving into rural areas all over the United States and who find themselves at the bottom of rural petri dishes immersed in poisonous social soil. To begin that work, the prototype of a democratic change vehicle that can travel into and out of closed rural cultures needs to be built, fueled, and tested. This project will do that work.
Change in U.S. rural cultures has historically been driven by economic “development,” and that body of literature reflects the development approach in its language and focus on creating change. Previously, social and communication scientists relied on development approaches that framed research in terms of “development problems,” which were primarily associated with developing nations’ rural cultures, not U.S. rural cultures. In each case, the starting point was at the top: in economic analyses that rendered economic approaches and solutions while excluding or ignoring the social and communicative conditions within which those solutions were planted.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2012, development communication (devcom) researchers described how “development” is now understood more broadly as “social change” in current research. Recognizing that economics is only one factor in nurturing healthy rural human beings, the CMC (Communication for Social Change) approach allows change agents to also focus on a broad range of issues that impact increasingly diverse rural residents: the right to communicate; environmental sustainability; food security; empowerment of women, girls, and senior citizens; access to digital media; poverty reduction; and, access to health care.
Communication researchers acknowledge that “there is a consensus in the early 21st century on the need for grassroots participation in bringing about change at both social and individual levels.” Healthy, democratic communication practices—those that are open, transparent, and accurate—are the “enabling conditions” (the healthy social soil) that grows the strongest grassroots for supporting top-level democratic processes and systems. And, the grassroots is precisely where newcomers and other marginalized rural residents are located.
Cave Junction, Oregon was the site of my first full immersion, and like everyone else, I landed as an outsider at the bottom. From there, I learned how to protect myself from the poison in the rural social soil by fully embodying my role as an ethnographer. The little bit of distance that role required separated and lifted me above or around the relentless power projections so that I could experience, observe, note, and let go. The documentation process—notes, recordings, photos, etc.—helped me understand the relational environment so I could navigate it more or less safely.
I developed other coping strategies in both hostile research environments, all creative and connected to the earth. And, I found individual ways to speak up, reframe non-democratic relations, and embody democratic practices (none of which involved politics, just everyday mundane tasks). I observed that those actions in that context modeled that behavior, and others copied parts of that behavior later. I began to see the possibility of ethnographers– who were also cultural workers–immersed at the bottom of rural cultures around the nation—using the prototype from my experiences—creating the conditions for the possibility of rural democratic practices and norms.
Instead of immersing other ethnographers, however, this project proposes working with newcomers and other marginalized rural residents to develop and train citizen researchers in southern Josephine county, Oregon. Citizen researchers (CR) are non-professionals who devote dedicated time to methodological understanding of pressing cultural problems and are unaffiliated with religious, business, academic, or political organizations.
For this project, the focus is observing and noting everyday mundane interactions in relations—all those communicative practices that happen outside family, friends, lovers, and mentors. Many newcomers to rural areas are isolated, and this social soil is where they live. Training newcomers to recognize power-stealing in all its communicative forms and modeling power-sharing in that process creates the conditions for making healthier social soil in which democratic norms might grow. When newcomers are able to observe and note power-stealing practices, they can also understand how to reframe those relations in democratic terms.
In the context of the racial justice field, this work provides something unique and urgently needed: a way into the very conditions that continue to exacerbate racial divides in this country, and a vehicle for social change.
The Private Principal Investigator‘s immersion protocols emerged from field experience in what can accurately be described as “extreme ethnographic conditions” or “hostile field environments.” I organized similar ethnographic experience characteristics from my immersion in each rural culture into the following categories of methodological protocols:
I’ve seen, experienced first-hand, and documented everyday authoritarianism in U.S. rural cultures that no other researcher or scholar writing about authoritarianism has noticed or addressed. How is that possible? A few reasons.
First, it’s because none of them have any actual experience in authoritarian cultures. Most are privileged humans who have always lived in power’s comfortable confines, and unless you’ve felt powerlessness consistently and had to adapt to that power-scarcity to keep living, you’ll always assume everyone else can just stand up and be powerful. It’s nowhere near that simple, but their projections onto what they don’t understand—and its reflection back to them in their published words–create the impression their work is accurate and complete. It is a dangerously uninformed position from which to make any claims about authoritarianism, particularly when everyday authoritarian practices are growing right under our democratic foundation. The “experts” just don’t have the experience to understand.
It’s also because the already existing body of literature (all of it) begins with the assumption that authoritarianism is in systems and in men-at-the-top, and those systems and men-at-the-top are where all the power resides. Scholars focus their analysis where they assume change can be made, but they can’t see that changing the power relation happens at the bottom, never at the top. With their unexamined assumption up front blocking their view, scholars can never understand the locked down power at the bottom, can never appreciate that power-stealing (everyday authoritarianism) is stopped dead when there is no one from whom to steal power. Indeed, they can’t even know that they don’t know, so they begin where everyone else has started: in unexamined assumptions that continuously reproduce radically incomplete rural knowledge–mostly framed in capitalist terms and without a grounded analysis of power–they then present as authoritative.
It’s also because there is simply no body of scholarship about U.S. rural cultures, let alone one that might have noticed the power-stealing patterns of practices that constitute everyday authoritarianism and that support state-level men-at-the-top and the systems they’ve hijacked. U.S. academics have ignored U.S. rural cultures so they could study “exotic” foreign cultures. Other scholars have followed in the steps of the body of literature addressing so-called “third-world” rural problems, and those frameworks have kept them locked down into particular lines of analysis. There is simply no existing framework within which to make sense of everyday authoritarianism (power-stealing and hoarding) in power-scarce, resource-scarce, and reliable, accurate information-scarce U.S. rural cultures.
It’s also because most academics live in a world of words and abstractions, and that point of view “raises” their thought processes above emotions, above feeling. Such a move is valorized in their world: rationality without emotion is the sine qua non of the straight, white, male scholar, the standard in academia. It is also a serious mistake: all beings experience the world first in emotion, then abstract up from it. When scholars stay in the abstract without an actual connection—some experience—back to the phenomena they describe, analyze, and argue endlessly about, they blindly erase the everyday ravages of authoritarianism in favor of obsessing over authoritarian personalities and oppressive state apparatus. They forget the humans and the locked down power and potential at the bottom in favor of analysis, argumentation, publications, book tours, and vitae lines.
It’s also because most academics, like the rest of us, have had little to no exposure to accurate representations of our rural neighbors. In the 1970s, U.S. television executives canceled en masse every rural television program. Nothing was broadcast to rural populations that reflected them: they did not exist in worlds where television was the authoritative voice, which was everywhere. The few representations consistently made fun of rural people, and those were the only images the rest of the country saw of our rural neighbors. If there are no representations of a population in our culture, they do not exist, for anyone, academic or not. You can’t see connections to something that doesn’t exist.
The “experts” about authoritarianism are wrong. They are all looking in the wrong direction–up to politics, media, capitalism–for answers and solutions. They need to be looking “down” to the basis of everything: relational power patterns between humans and how to reorient toward personal power-sharing practices. All of those little, granular interactions between humans create the social soil in which people and policy are planted. If it is poison, people and policy are dysfunctional and unhealthy. The U.S. authoritarian knowledge scarcity is why The Center for U.S. Rural Cultures Studies exists.
And the last three years’ ethnographic work has shown me that we do not have time to fuck around with bad knowledge about authoritarianism.
Other scholars who’ve researched or commented on everyday authoritarianism outside the U.S.
Sarah takes the clipboard and paperwork the desk attendant abruptly hands her, walks to a seat in the waiting room, and breathes slowly, trying to calm her heartrate. She has dreaded this visit. She looks around, hoping to connect with someone friendly here, but no one makes eye contact with her. Sarah’s new in town, and her body’s been telling her that her blood pressure’s been far too high since she moved here.
She settles into a seat in the waiting room and looks down at the first sheet on the stack of papers she’s been asked to complete. First set of questions is about drug use. Huh. She flips the page. Second set of questions is about alcohol use. Really? Flip the page again, and the third set of questions is about her mental health history. All before you get to any questions about her name, her address, or the reason for her visit. She puts the pages with the screening questions unanswered under the rest of the paperwork. The seemingly constant fear of punishment here sits acidly in her gut. She begins filling out the other, more familiar forms.
“The doctor said I need to take two of these in the morning without food.” Sarah looks up and sees the slightly slumped back of a male patient standing at the front desk. He’s talking to the woman seated behind the desk.
“I don’t think you understood your doctor. He wants you to eat before you take the medication.” The woman’s voice is hard with authority, forcing attention. Everyone in the waiting room can hear this exchange.
The patient quietly responds, “I think the nurse told me the doctor said I need to take them on an empty stomach.”
The desk attendant’s hard tone gets loud and final: “You don’t understand. Do as I say: comply, and you’ll be fine.”
The patient tries one last time: “I think that might be wrong.”
The front desk woman has begun looking at papers in front of her and ignores this response. The patient waits a beat, ready for acknowledgement of his concern about the drug protocol. The woman at the desk looks up, avoids eye contact with the patient, looks past him, and spits “Next,” to the ceiling and to no one waiting in line.
The patient, slumped over from the beginning of the interaction, shrinks even smaller and walks away toward the exit door. Sarah notices many in the waiting room share that slump. When the door closes behind the departing patient, the room is silent except for the copy machine on the corner of the front desk sliding out replicas.
Sarah finishes her paperwork, puts on a smile, and walks to the front desk.
“Hi! Thank you for fitting me in! Not too busy today?” she offers, making small talk to connect.
The front desk woman takes Sarah’s clipboard. She doesn’t make eye contact with Sarah. She ignores the small talk, and Sarah watches as it splats, lifeless, on the desk between them. (It is only one of thousands of little deaths of human connection she’ll experience in this culture.)
The gatekeeper begins looking at the forms Sarah’s filled out on top. She flips through to the blank drug use, alcohol use, and mental health forms at the bottom. Sarah feels the grip of anxiety, making her stomach clench again. (It is a familiar feeling that has not left her body since she moved to this rural place.) She is painfully aware that this is her only health care option.
The woman seated behind the desk looks up at Sarah, openly apprises her physically, and decides to ignore the noncompleted forms.
“We don’t have a doctor on staff who can help you, but you can see the day nurse. Take a seat and we’ll call you when he’s ready,” she states with finality.
Sarah sits, breathes again, trying to calm her body. Her heart is starting to race with the feeling that her health is in hands that keep all the power for themselves. She feels like she’s not safe here; that her well-being is not the objective like it was for her back home. She’s used to office staff, nurses, and doctors who talk to her, who put her concerns at the center of their practices; who respect her and value her privacy. She is used to professionals who share their power with her by making her good health the objective of the interaction. She’s used to professional communication structures that focus the interaction on that goal. That’s normal for her. She is blindsided, finding these unhealthy power relations in a health clinic. Being blindsided in this culture is becoming routine for Sarah.
She’s called back to meet with Dan, the day nurse, in a private room. This is Dan’s second to last day. He seems unfocused and very hyper.
“Hey, okay, we need to take your blood pressure!”
“Yes! Thank you so much! I think it’s been really high. I’ve been waking up with a racing heart at 3:30-4 o’clock in the morning every day. I need a blood pressure read and to discuss my meds with the doctor. I’m new here, so I definitely need to get set up with the doc.” She hears her voice pretending to be in a safe place, trying to create that safety out of thin air and desire.
“We’ve got a pediatrician in back who can’t see you, but he gives me advice. Here, let’s do this. Follow me.”
Sarah has no idea what any of that actually means, but she is without her own blood pressure monitor, and she needs a reading from the one here. She has no choice. She follows Dan back.
She was right: her blood pressure reading is 228/118. Dan starts shouting. His face and bulk are about 2 inches above and in front of Sarah’s face as she sits in a chair below him.
“Oh, hell! Your blood pressure is so high! We have to get you out of here! You need to go into the city, to the hospital! You could get a brain hemorrhage! And if you’re here, we’re liable! We need to get you out of here, now!”
Her brain is frozen. Her whole body feels frozen. In a flat voice she has never heard before, she tells Dan to try to calm down, to remember who the patient is, that she’s here because her blood pressure is 228/118 because of stress. Sarah tells him that his freaking out isn’t helping lower her stress. He’s backed up a little from her and has stopped yelling.
Sarah hears the voice of the man who must be the pediatrician shout from a back room; he calls for Dan, and Dan seems annoyed. He stalks out of the room. During the 3 minutes or so he’s gone, Sarah weights her options. If she has to go to the hospital, what will she do about the kittens? Will she be able to drive herself home? What if they find something worse, what then? She is socially isolated here and has no one to call who could help. She is very aware she is breathing harder and beginning to panic a little.
When Dan returns, he’s calmed slightly, and he has a Clonidine tab in hand. He stands too close to her again.
“Okay, you need to calm down,” he starts.
She almost laughs, but stifles it knowing it’s going to sound a little unhinged. She also knows that she has no choice but to put her life in these hands. She has no choice. And laughing at Dan will only make this worse.
“Take this, lay back, and breathe. I’m going to turn off the lights. I’ll be back in 30 minutes.”
She holds out the palm of her hand and he drops the little peach pill onto it. Dan says nothing, turns, walks to the door, flips the light switch, and closes the door. Sarah feels around on the floor for her water bottle, knocks it over, finds it again, and swallows the pill with a long draught. She didn’t realize how dehydrated she had become. She also takes 10 very deep slow breaths, each settling her into this new rural health care reality.
Maybe the stories were true, she thinks as she lays on the crinkly white paper in the dark room, in a world an eternity away from home. Maybe the whispered stories–about how the health clinic in this town is killing people–were accurate.
Once there lived a city of beings atop a great green canopy.
The mindfully drifting wind swept silently over them all—young and old, rich
and poor, humans and not–the wind going its own way, knowing only its purpose.
Each city-bound being–in her/his/their own fabulous fashion–clung tightly to the branches and leaves of the great green canopy, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the wind is what each had learned from birth.
But one being spoke, at last: “I am tired of clinging.
Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I see it in the art of its imprint, and I
trust that the wind knows its purpose and where it’s going. I shall let go, and
let the wind take me where it will, while I ride and dance.”
The other beings laughed and said, “Naive fool! Let go and that wind you trust will throw you tumbled and smashed across the jagged mountain!”
But the one being heeded them not, and taking a breath did let go, and at once was blown and tumbled away and smashed against the jagged mountain, bouncing back up onto the canopy. Clinging once again.
But, in time and possibilities and hope, the creature imagined a different ending: the knowing wind lifting her to fly. Refusing to cling with the rest, she let go and the wind lifted her free from the canopy, and she was bruised and hurt no more.
The being who let go, the one now carried by the wind, said, “The universe delights to lift us all free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure. Our true purpose is riding and dancing on the wind of the universe so that others may see and let go, so they may learn to fly: so they may embrace the world from the sky.”
*Inspired by the opening tale in Illusions, by Richard Bach
It all started with the “Humans of Cave Junction.” It was my first formal project to participate in the community. I would create an Instagram account (inspired by the NY original) and walk the streets of downtown CJ. I would meet people, share with them that I’m new in town and doing a little project to get to know the humans there. Ask if I might take a moment of their time for a couple of quick questions. Maybe connect with them. I’d make sure it was okay to take a picture, then let them know I’d share the stories and images online. It was a chance to create something beautiful and useful while getting to know this new community.
(You know that dream, the one where you’re in public, naked? That feeling? It stalked me all through the five weeks or so of the project. I’d been in Josephine County for months, living with and processing enough of the new experience to keep moving forward, even though the process was dissolving my sense of self, my identity. I had no position anyone could see, no role I wasn’t giving myself, nothing I wasn’t doing into being. While walking the streets of CJ, the breeze was wafting into some intimate places it’s never visited before in public.)
During those weeks, I met many of the humans without homes in CJ. At the park, behind the grocery store, on the streets, along the Redwood Highway. When I asked to talk, to take pictures, they all said yes. They all just gave me their time, their stories, their privacy. They gave me permission to use all of it, without a second thought. They gave me little pieces of themselves, without asking for anything in return.
I met humans in Southern Josephine County who are used to giving their power in exchange for resources to live, who often tie themselves into knots trying to show how “good” they are, how worthy of support. Authority in this culture has taught them that they are worth nothing unless they produce, unless they stand on their own two feet and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They have been taught that addiction is a personal failing, that mental illness is a weakness. Authority has taught them that this is how things have always been and that this how they ought to be. It also teaches them that nothing ever really changes.
They have been taught that if someone does something “nice” for them, they need to show gratitude, show respect to the person giving them something, sometimes by getting on their knees to say “thank you.” They have been taught that their “bad” position is a result of their badness, their own stupid actions and decisions. They have been taught that authority is the only “good” person here because it always makes the right moves, obviously. They have been taught to obey without questioning authority and to supplicate. There is no audible dissenting opinion from authority here. None.
I have never shared the “Humans of Cave Junction” pictures or recordings, never did populate that IG account. It’s never felt ethical, unless I can share the benefits with the humans whose gave up parts of themselves for a little warmth. (Sure, I met their expectations: I gave them things they needed, like gloves and blankets and hats because the only warming center in town had closed and it was about to get very cold.)
What the humans without homes in Cave Junction gave me was an actual understanding of the humans in the middle.
Democracy is a big human experiment in organized power-sharing. In political literature, democracy is both an ideology and a structure. In politically abstract terms, dictatorship is democracy’s opposite.
Authoritarianism is a big human experiment in organized power-stealing and hoarding. In political literature, authoritarianism is both an ideology and a structure. In politically abstract terms, “personal liberty” is authoritarianism’s opposite.
Everyday authoritarianism, however, is different than an abstract political theory. It exists in human relations, and you can see it in the everyday interactions and the mundane tasks. Living everyday authoritarianism means stealing power from other humans, on a relational level, and hoarding it. Its opposite is everyday democracy.
When your professional processes are not transparent, you steal power I use to understand fully.
When you give me inaccurate information, intentionally, you steal power I use to make sound decisions.
When you take my time or expect me to use it for your purposes, you steal my power to spend it on what my family needs.
When you purposely exclude, you steal power I use to participate.
When you refuse acknowledgement, you steal power I use to connect.
When your cynicism leads, you steal my power to be openly optimistic.
When your doubt blindly stands in front of my credibility, you steal my power to access those benefits
When you withhold emotion, you steal power I use to engage.
When your fear is weaponized in my direction, you steal power I use to confidently move through the world.
When you pretend to know what you don’t, you steal power I use to assess effectively.
When you willfully ignore new information and rely on your own outdated assumptions, you steal my power to protect myself from old, poisonous ideas.
When you block access to resources, you steal my power to feed my life.
When you refuse to say my name, you steal my power to exist.
When you steal my power, you steal my forward momentum, and my power to progress. When you steal my power and hoard it, you systematically lock down my agency. When enough power is stolen and enough humans’ agency is locked down, everyday authoritarianism supports an authoritarian state, a political culture. Gramsci had it right: we do it to ourselves.
Living democratically every day means sharing power. Living a democratic ethic means moving through the world, authentically engaged, without knowing the outcome. To live democratically is to help create the conditions for the possibility of trust, of vulnerability, of creativity in everyone you meet. To share power on a relational level is to create the conditions for the possibility of unlocking everyone’s agency.
Living democratically means that all of us can make sound decisions, we can understand fully, we are able to spend our time on our purposes; we can participate, connect, live optimistically, move through the world with self-esteem; we are able to engage fully, effectively assess situations, live without fear of poisonous ideas. Living democratically means being able to confidently drive our forward momentum. It means being able to feed our lives. It means a just human existence. It means we all share “the right to pursue happiness.”
Democracy cannot be imposed. It cannot be elected. It cannot be bought. It cannot be attained through prayer. It must be lived in bodies, in relations, in all of us. Every single day.
Other scholars who have studied or commented on everyday authoritarian practices
A Note to Solitary Researchers in Hostile Field Environments (HFE)
As a solitary researcher, you’ll find yourself in social and professional environments designed to annihilate your sense of self and lock down your agency. Living and working solo, navigating loneliness, and surviving isolation all require a set of skills. While you’re away from home (some of you for several years), the following can help you develop that skill set.
First rule of isolation: Don’t tell anyone you’re isolated. Seriously. You might think a response would be compassionate, maybe an, “Oh, wow, no one should be isolated—I’m sorry about that!” Instead, most assume that there’s something wrong with you, that you probably deserve to be alone. They may assume you have no one because you’re dishonest or mean or stupid. They may tell you with their intentional turning away that you’re not worth anyone’s time. Being honest about being solo is being stupid. So don’t do it.
Get comfortable with pain. That no one knows you will drop on you regularly, even if you pretend it won’t. Work on those legs—you’ll need their strength to keep you upright. Or, you may choose to just let the pain fall, drive you to your knees, and pin you further in your isolation. Either way, get used to pain.
Get comfortable talking to yourself. Just let go. Be both sides. Be all sides. Let those convos rip—where they go will surprise you, especially when you’re the only one listening, the only one responding. (A small round blue mirror worked for me.)
Get comfortable finding many ways to express yourself. If you have a lot to say, the round blue mirror will only get you so far. You will need to find new creative modes and vehicles for your expression. You may ultimately find that you are not a writer or a photographer or a teacher: you may find that you are an artist–a learner–who always looks for new creative vehicles for sharing your new modes of expression.
Get comfortable with the fear of blinking out. When you don’t exist for others, disappearing becomes a real possibility, if not an actual one. (Right? I mean, if a human screams from her isolation, but no one hears–or they hear and choose to ignore her–does she exist? I don’t think so.) If you exist in no world but your own, post to Instagram; get a LinkedIn profile so you can show up in searches; make yourself a website so you can obsessively check stats. Pretend existence is better than none. Or if an imaginary existence online isn’t possible because you’re not connected to the electronic world, go outside. You always exist among the trees.
Get comfortable getting to know yourself in ways you never thought possible. Think of isolation as a time to get closer to who you really are, without all the human interactions. Without the expectations, the treadmills of busy; without the imposed outside standards. Who you find may surprise you, and maybe even in a good way.
Get comfortable telling yourself stories. Since no one keeps isolated humans in the loop, you’ll need to create stories for yourself to make sense of things. Let your imagination run through those fields of daisies. Isolation can produce extraordinary self-storytelling. You’ll find that, really, everything is a story. And, in your isolation, your narrative could be groundbreaking.
Get comfortable learning your mind’s resting places. All those spots your mind sits when it’s not working, where it rests and contemplates? You’ll become acquainted with them all. All the other humans you used to know may join you. All the conversations, the arguments, the humiliations, the joys will make appearances. Your fears will find you there. So will self-knowledge. And, you’ll create new resting places, maybe decorate them for the arrival of guests someday.
Get comfortable always being the stranger. Humans categorize, especially when overwhelmed with information. Strangers are big truckloads of new information, and if they can be ignored, life is easier to navigate, especially with all our other demands. You’ll find that humans make it easy to ignore strangers, to disrespect them, exclude them. This is a good time for self-storytelling: you are the mysterious stranger who isn’t really a stranger, after all, but someone who knows this place intimately, from another life, and has come back to reckon.
Get comfortable never seeing yourself in anyone else’s eyes. This one will be especially difficult for those of you who’ve had many human mirrors, who’ve had others to tell them who they are, reflect back their power. There are no human mirrors in isolation, only wooden human walls and opaque closed doors. No reflections. Make your own.
Get comfortable keeping your own history. Start gathering all the pieces of your life now so you have some coherency in your own mind. That is the only place your history exists: in your own mind. Be sure to note those birthdays, the holidays, the goals reached, the milestones. With no one else to notice or to hold your history, you must do that work for yourself.
Get comfortable with no physical human touch. If possible, hire a CMT, sit in hot baths, hug yourself. The lack of human contact in isolation means finding other ways to feel like you exist and affect the world around you. (An electric chainsaw worked for me.) Keep in mind if you hurt yourself, you’ll need to take care of that on your own, too. In isolation, there is no friend to call. Sick? Hurt your foot? Get out of bed. Hop around the house. You got this.
Remember that the work you are doing is crucial and worth the isolation and hostility. Try not to shut down, even after the thousands of rejections you’ll experience: your ignored smiles, your dismissed waves, the lack of eye contact with you, the invisibility created when they refuse to say your name, your blown off attempts at small talk, the perpetual gatekeeping, the blocked access to resources, the dogs they let run at you, the sideways looks they give you, the “no” you will hear over and over and over.
Try to remember that shutting down is the problem and that your work will help recreate human connection in hostile environments. Remember: isolation is a relation that can be changed. And, even if no one ever says your name in an HFE, you exist in the work you do, the good you leave behind, and the kindness you offer.