Monday, May 4, 2015

May 4th: sitting down with power and violence

Citizens who use their power to convene other citizens are what create an alternative future. - Peter Block


There are few things I find more satisfying than being among people who sit down with a problem and stand up with possibilities. 

Peter Block writes in Community that "people will be accountable and committed to what they have a hand in creating." He observes that no matter the circumstances in which a community finds itself, the people of that community are usually best suited to and most capable of facing those circumstances. 

Get these people in the room with a few simple rules to govern the conversation and new futures are created. Just make sure that "the people in the room are a diverse and textured sample of the larger world you want to affect."

In much the same way, Hannah Arendt defines power as the "human ability not just to act but to act in concert."
Power springs up whenever people get together and act in concert, but derives its legitimacy from the initial getting together rather than any action that then may follow. (Arendt, "On Violence")
For Arendt, to act is to begin, to create the new "which cannot be expected from whatever came before." (Arendt, The Human Condition)


Probably because it is May 4th, even though I sat down to celebrate what can happen when we take to the chairs, I could not help but reflect on what becomes of us when we take to the barricades instead - recalling Kent State. Or, Baltimore if you prefer. Or, Jackson State. Or Ferguson. Or ....

For Arendt, violence is the opposite of power - it destroys power: "out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience. What can never grow out of it is power." (Arendt, "On Violence")

For Block, powerlessness breeds violence and it "grows out of the choices we make about the distribution of power and control, and the mindset that underlies those choices." (Block, Community). He believes all manner of avoidable and unnecessary suffering - including the violence to which it can give rise - comes from disconnecting ourselves from the difference of other lives lived differently.

By the seat of our pants

Whenever we provide too few chairs from which these others might speak, we deprive ourselves of the textured diversity that creates the better futures we hope for. Here, for Block, is the "real politics of our lives". Our lives improve as
...[W]e collectively choose to be together in a way that creates a space for something new to occur. What is needed is for us to choose over and over to more widely distribute ownership  [for creating change] and accountability. These choices spring from the hands of citizens, rather than the hands of experts and system executives. These choices arise when we value, invest in, and recognize the gifts and capacities of citizens. (Block, Community)
Though I sat down to celebrate people sitting down with a problem and standing up with possibilities, this day - May 4th - took me elsewhere. I want to come back to that place where I began, people sitting down in a city at the threshold of a bold, unprecedented future. Most of that future is uncharted. Since we will create it by the seat of our pants, let's provide plenty of chairs for the city we hope to build.

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