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Challenging Cultural Assumptions In Our Work


Challenging Cultural Assumptions In Our Work

In this blog, Tom reflects on some big questions we are exploring at Common Cause.
This is a blog by Tom Crompton
Tom is a member of staff at the Common Cause Foundation.

Common Cause has worked for many years to help challenge cultural influences that serve to erode intrinsic values or that work to strengthen extrinsic values. We have focused attention on the advertising industry, media, the arts and cultural sector, and sport. Sometimes we have taken aim at the broader political movements that accelerate these processes – most obviously the rise in recent decades of neoliberalism as a dominant economic force that negates intrinsic values wherever it gains ascendency.

But we have paid much less attention to the longer-term historical trends that enabled the emergence of modern market fundamentalism and the nihilism that undergirds it, that facilitate multiple forms of oppression and that set the trajectories that make today’s wars seem inevitable. 

One place that we should look for such historical origins is in the radical shifts in worldview that emerged in Britain in the seventeenth century: the transformation of land and labour into commodities; the forceable removal of people from their homelands by capitalists who demanded labour elsewhere; the enclosure of the commons and dispossession of the rural poor; the confection of foreign wars, in part to distract attention from tensions between king and Parliament; the genocide of indigenous people by settler colonialists; the brutal execution of settlers who ‘defected’ to indigenous communities; the origins of chattel slavery; the invention of racism as a strategy to erode solidarity between enslaved people and white labourers; the claims of the men who perpetrated these atrocities that they enjoyed divine prerogative; the torture and murder of women, including many religious radicals who challenged these claimed prerogatives; the brutal suppression of an indigenous cosmovision that may have threatened  the ascendency of these narratives; the ecocide of nonhuman animals at home and in the new colonies; the reduction of nature to a commodity whose secrets must be tortured from her by science. 

These forces, and the connections between them, have been described in historical terms. But a social psychological understanding of the extrinsic values that enabled any one of these shifts also helps to explain why they should have arisen in concert. As we have highlighted elsewhere, oppression in one manifestation begets oppression in many other manifestations. Oppression snowballs. But then, so does compassion.

Recognising these interconnections, we see that if intrinsic values are to be centred, then this will be in a cultural context which is anticapitalist, anticolonialist, antiracist and egalitarian. It will be rooted in the resacralisation of nature and reverence for life. Perhaps it will require a resurgence of animism. But more on that below.

‘We Need to Talk’ by Ina Gouveia for

For some time, we have been asking ourselves: How might this longer view influence the work that we do? Would we work differently if we were to centre this historical perspective? How can we best embrace the knowledge of indigenous communities that reflect worldviews which preceded the arrival of European settler colonialists? Do we need to rethink our reliance upon social science as a tool for change, given that scientific method has so often been wielded as an instrument of oppression? Is it foreseeable that today’s western capitalist nations can come to centre intrinsic values without also finding ways to process trauma: not just (in the case of many white Europeans) as the descendants of people implicated in genocide and slavery, but also as descendants of people who themselves suffered terribly because of violence and dislocation, and who then carried that trauma with them? And finally, if centring intrinsic values requires collective healing, what kind of embodied and experiential work will that necessitate – and can insights from social science help bridge from a person-by-person response to one that has wide cultural impact?

We don’t know what it might mean for a small organisation like Common Cause to begin to respond to these questions. But we began to open them out by inviting three indigenous women from North America, each deeply engaged in social justice struggles, to join us over a series of two three-hour Zooms, familiarise themselves with some Common Cause materials, and then reflect on what we had presented.

This blog summarises some of the questions that Jennifer Andrulli (Yupik and Siberian Yupik, and a tribal member of Manley Hot Springs), Christine Diindiisi McCleave (tribal citizen of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe Nation) and Addy Aklaasiaq Ahmasuk (Inupiaq & Yup’ik) raised. We’re committed to reflecting on these questions further and want to welcome others to join us in that work. Please be in touch if you would like to be involved.

Here are five key areas of inquiry:

1: How do current debates on “transformational change” accommodate the “internal dimension”?

Addy, Christine and Jen were each clear in their belief that systemic change will not emerge solely as a result of intellectual reflection. It will require somatic learning – and, especially, exploration of the roots of ancestral trauma.  

What might this mean for Common Cause, as an organisation that is rooted in a science-based approach, and that has no experience of supporting person-centred work? Is it enough to highlight the need for embodied work in our learning materials and signpost other organisations that can help in this? Or do we need to build the capacity to align our social science work with embodied approaches, so that the learning opportunities we provide can move back and forth between these different ways of knowing?

2: Can science – as a set of tools of inquiry that emerged in conjunction with capitalism, colonialism, and chattel slavery – contribute to transformative change?

We were apprehensive that Addy, Christine and Jen would see no role for science. Given that science, as a way of knowing, legitimised white supremacy and the objectification of nature we anticipated that they would see it as a fundamental barrier to necessary change, rather than as an enabler. 

But this was not the case. Happily, we discovered that Jen had been aware of our work for many years and found it to be helpful in her public health campaigning in Alaska. They asked for careful use of science, in critical awareness of its limitations. They didn’t advocate that we jettisoned it. 

But they also suggested that the specific models of values that we use may bring problems. For example, the Schwartz model defines “honouring of elders” as a “Conformity” value – and perhaps that is the case in many capitalist societies.  Yet, from their perspective, to honour our elders is to focus on realising their spiritual vision – which is to centre intrinsic values. Or take “National security”. In the Schwartz model, National security is defined as “protection of my nation from enemies” – a Security value. Yet, as Addy said, her sense of national security is rooted in her understanding of the wellbeing of the land. 

The point is not that the Schwartz model apparently fails to reflect the lived experience of people from indigenous communities in these examples. Although they sometimes make hyperbolic claims to “universality”, proponents of the Schwartz model have never – to our knowledge – sought to extend it to describe the ways in which values are structured in indigenous cultures. Rather, the question is whether the model, in describing dominant systems of values today, inadvertently serves to limit scope for change. For example: in promoting the model, is Common Cause erecting a barrier to pursuing the spiritual vision that previous generations had for a better world, or does our work make it more difficult to foreground the wellbeing of the land when thinking about “national security”?

3: What is the role of connection to land?

Leading on from this, we spent some time exploring what connection to land meant to us. For Ruth and me, it was a difficult concept. We had no idea where our families came from even a hundred years ago, and no sense of ancestral connection to place. I think we both felt elements of mistrust in seeking connection to land and sought to assuage this by focusing on connection to nature as a source of connection that is not geographically bounded and does not carry the same connotations of nationalism.

But Addy, Christine and Jen insisted that connection to land is important – and not because they themselves felt a direct connection to some specific geographic area. Rather, they saw that the trauma created when people were forcibly removed from ancestral land during the enclosures in Britain provided the context for these same dispossessed people to become implicated in the genocide of indigenous people in the new colonies. This makes connection to land – or loss of it – crucially important. 

Ruth and I were left feeling that we need to explore more deeply what it means to establish a sense of belonging in place, what we mean by “land” and how this relates to a specific geographical area, and the implications of these things for our work. Perhaps our discomfort arises from a perception that any notion of “our land” must be tied up with a sense of national territory.  Mixing these two things up seems far from inevitable, but it would require work to disentangle them.

4: Is animism dead?

Many indigenous cultures understand the land as conscious. Animism is the attribution of consciousness to the natural world – plants, rivers, mountains  –  and as Addy, Christine and Jen see it, the loss of this understanding enabled the objectification and destruction of nature. Any systemic and durable commitment to the restoration of nature will be rooted in an appreciation of the world as living.

This is a difficult perspective for social and environmental campaigners in Europe to embrace, because it sounds like a counsel of despair. What possible prospect is there for the emergence and strengthening of such animism? It is an understanding which, as Addy, Christine and Jen made clear, becomes accessible in altered states of consciousness brought about, for example, by vision quests or plant medicines. 

This of course raises many questions for us. Do we accept that transformational change is inconceivable outside an animistic worldview? If so, do we try to contribute to work which aims to support such a shift in perspective? Does a heightened sense of “unity with nature” (a value that, we would argue, is likely strengthened through any steps that serve to engage any other intrinsic value) provide an incremental step towards such a shift in consciousness? (The potential impacts of lunchtime spent in the park seem a very long way removed from those of a vision fast in the mountains, or an ayahuasca retreat.) Could there be a case for promoting ‘connection to nature’ as an incremental step, or are we grasping at straws here?

5: Can social transformation occur without re-examining our relationship with mortality?

Addy, Christine and Jen were all clear that no sustained commitment to social transformation is foreseeable without a change in our relationship to death. Jen for example, described how she had repeatedly experienced death – in dreams, in rites of passage, in experiences with plant medicine, and in near-death experiences in wilderness. She sees this experience as being core to her development of her spiritual understanding of the gift of life that she has been given, and her commitment to service. She sees helping people enculturated in capitalist societies die in ritual space as being very important.

We have drawn attention in the past to evidence from a body of social science work in Terror Management Theory. This finds that superficial reminders of death tend to lead people to work to enhance their self-esteem – often by deepening their commitment to conspicuous consumption, public image, social prestige, power or achievement. A deeper or more meditative reflection on death, however, is often associated with development of a greater sense of meaning in life, and a shift toward intrinsic values – perhaps consistent with the potentially deeper and more transformative effects of experiencing ritual or psychedelic death. But what might such insights entail for the practical work of Common Cause?

‘Between Life and Death’ by Sofia Fuentes

These are difficult and far-reaching questions for us to contemplate. Most obviously, they are difficult because those of us brought up in Western capitalist societies have been so strongly enculturated in ways that make it difficult to grasp the importance of these questions or to embody the ways-of-knowing that would help in pursuing them.  More specifically, they are difficult for Common Cause because our organisation is so small and the resources that we have, to step more fully into any of the spaces that this inquiry could open up, are so limited. But we are committed to continue to work further on these issues, and would welcome your company on that path. If we have raised questions that you would like to think about collaboratively, do please get in touch.

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