What if the means determine the ends?
Civilization's relentless focus on achievement and outcomes creates a more competitive worldview and makes us more vulnerable than we think.
The beginning of the year is often a time of planning and goal setting. We spend the dark hours of winter imagining what is possible for ourselves, our families, our teams, and our communities, often hoping for revolutionary transformations. Most of that process is dominated by a focus on the outputs and outcomes we can quantify and the achievements we are sometime desperate to attain. And often the easier an output or outcome is to count, the more likely it seems to be to drive behaviors. While we set goals, we also tend to focus on the impediments and adversaries. Imagining what might be possible forces us into an overt focus on what might impede us. But when we plan in a purely antagonistic competitive frame, we often miss that how we move through the world — and the strategies and relationships that orientation might create for us — might transform the outcomes that become possible — or even inevitable.
When revolutionary thinking focuses on outcomes (or adversaries), our worldview begins to take on an either-or, us-them orientation that demands hierarchy and disassociates us from others as we dehumanize our enemies. And if we acknowledge, on any level, that we are part of a natural community of interdependence, that dehumanization also disassociates us from parts of ourselves. The more desperate and existential the threat and the more extreme the means, the more severe that disorientation and disassociation. Dehumanizing our enemies (much less estranging ourselves form the rest of the natural world) traumatizes us even before we act on whatever Machiavellian means we are trying to justify to achieve whatever end we believe demands it.
Bees don’t make a big deal about making honey.
As human beings, we have essential roles to play in the natural systems in which we live. But as civilization internalized versions of a dominion narrative (where humans are special and rule over nature, where we see the natural world as a set of resources for us to exploit in order to thrive, achieve, and advance society), we have adopted a more and more separated orientation to natural systems. We have lost touch with how we are meant to be and what we are needed to do in these natural systems as members of them. In the same way that bees create the outputs natural systems need from them by simply being (pun intended) how they are meant to be, what might be possible for us if we focused on how we are meant to move in the world? How are we meant to live in community together? If we were clearer about our roles, more certain of these necessary behaviors, what would that enable about our intentions for each other and expectations of each other? Perhaps outcomes are not the right guide for healthy communities, for healthy lives, or for a society that actually works for everyone and the entire natural world. Focusing on how we are might could shift our orientation to who we are and how we relate to others in ways that not only make Machiavellian strategy nonviable but also ultimately make healthier individual choices, more just systemic behaviors, and better outcomes more likely.
What if the non-negotiable part of organizing strategy and power building was ensuring that our practice of revolution looks like the society we envision? If we believe in a society of freedom, kindness, mutual aid, and justice, then our revolutionary practice must be shaped by those things. We cannot be made free by authoritarian means. We cannot make society kinder through cruelty. We cannot kill our way to safety or to justice. What if we were guided first by the equilibrium of our role in natural systems? Our separation from our place in the natural world, from the way humans are meant to be and are needed to be is the place much of our civic and social dysfunction begins. Despite the severity and durability of our separation, we can reconnect any time if we recenter on how we live, not what civilization demands we achieve. If we advance our goals by coercion, exclusion, and violence because those are the languages and tools of the systems we are rebelling against, then we ultimately embody those things in our behaviors, our justifications, and our final results. We may (and we sometimes do) shift who is being exploited, excluded, and violated, and we may even convince ourselves that that shift is good enough. But the outcome remains exploitative, exclusionary, and violent — and is not good enough and not worthy of what the universe wants for us as humans and needs of us as humans.
If we are defined by our choices and actions, then how we move through the world and what we do determine who we are. Violence is violent whether our intentions or our goals are good or bad. And violence traumatizes everyone no matter who perpetrates, no matter who suffers, no matter the intention, no matter the justification, no matter the instigation. As Xavier Ramey often says “equality is the goal; equity is the path.” If equity is a path, then it is the way we move through the world: how we live and work and love and think and prioritize. Justice is in the living, in the choices, in the ways we see others and ourselves in relation to others, in the ways we acknowledge each other (or fail to), and in the ways we make amends (or fail to).
All of these hows get stacked into systems that codify and scale these individual choices and actions, transforming our paths into the rails that guide the trains of society. But if we focus on how we move and therefore how they move, then we can reorient around things we can control (behaviors) versus things we can’t (outcomes) and that reorientation also gives us more agency, more choice, and more power — rather than leaving us with a sense of disempowerment that invites a posture of passivity that leads to resignation. That kind of resigned lack of agency eventually aggregates within communities into a declining sense of inevitable collapse, a sense of being left behind or disregarded or dismissed. Over time, that communal resignation becomes a sense of futurelessness that can be inflamed into a roaring fire of grievance. And that anger can easily be co-opted by people seeking power into pseudo-populist movements that are about power for others and not about people at all. Lack of agency leaves us not only weak, but also vulnerable.
This vulnerability is not just to external forces but also to internal self-inflicted damage. Being overly outcome-oriented also encourages and validates Machiavellian thinking that puts us into action at odds with our own morality and leaves us traumatized both internally spiritually and externally strategically. What kinds of false choices and abhorrent trade-offs might not present themselves as possibilities in a world where we were kind first? Just first? Humane first?
The practice of radically kind revolution, of being how we want society to be as the means toward real transformation might be the key not to claiming the unjust power of cruel systems, but to dismantling those systems that are unnecessary for humans to thrive in community with each other and in equilibrium with the natural world. Accepting the fullness of our interdependence demands a morality that drives us to pay more attention to how we move through the world and get better outcomes from more just, more humane, and kinder actions as the consequence of healthier humanity, not the goal.
Please consider becoming a paid subscriber to support this work. Subscribing to 7 Bridges is the best way to keep it free and open to all.