Part 3 of 5: Praxis
To do the right thing I sometimes stop what I’m doing out of habit, contemplate the (often unintended) consequences of my potential course of action and consider the ethics involved. When I change my behavior and put my values into action, I’m engaging in a process philosophers sometimes refer to as praxis.
With each action that we take, we make the world. With each action we take, we potentially make the world better or worse. Our ordinary activities count. For it is through these everyday behaviors that the social world is constituted as an orderly event. The idea of the world as open to transformation by human intervention is crucial to our conception of modernity. We are now more aware than ever before that we can—make that must—construct a different way of social life for the survival of our species and our planet. That we are conscious of other imaginal worlds, and conscious that our actions will create these different worlds are particularly “modern” phenomenon.
We know that the social world will change and that these changes will be the result of changes in our actions. In earlier times in human history, people thought of the social world as just being “the way it is” and did not regard it as connected in any significant way to their personal behavior in everyday life. The social world was seen to exist “out here”, constraining personal action, but not really created by it.
While people can “reproduce” the structure of society by doing what they previously have done, there is no guarantee that they will. People are always able to act differently than they do. The possibility for change is inherent in every act of social reproduction. These are the spaces in which praxis enters. Praxis is for me a spiritual practice imbued with holiness because we let go of ego-driven thinking and consider the common good, thus allowing us to open our hearts and minds to spiritual possibilities. Praxis is autonomous and creative intervention which does not reproduce a society structured in dominance.
By performing acts of praxis, we move away from what Erica Sherover-Marcuse calls a “mystified consciousness” – our routine and habitual modes of being in the world which feel good because we have done them so many times before8. These ways of being in the world appear so normal to us that we are blinded to the fact that our actions reproduce systems of domination. The road to collective liberation is found when humans move from a mystified consciousness to an emancipatory consciousness. This is no easy task as the habits of oppression and injustice are deeply embedded in our subjectivity.
A rigorous process of “unlearning” is necessary in which one scrutinizes the very suppositions of one’s language and one’s emotional demeanor in the social world. We thus begin to cease our participation in reproducing hierarchy and hatred. To become aware of one’s participation in systems of oppression and to consciously choose to cease that involvement because one identifies with the downtrodden and disinherited, one stakes a moral claim that all humans are equal and warrant dignity, respect and love. This is a spiritual act.
Social activists, as people committed to changing the world, can greatly benefit from developing praxis as a spiritual practice. For some it may mean a shift in focus from the realm of public politics to the more private realm of everyday life. Rather than the focus on transforming institutional settings and the more obviously “structural” features of our society, as change agents typically do, developing praxis as a routine part of one’s daily life enables the close scrutiny of supposedly mundane tasks, such as family life, work routines, consumption patterns, leisure activities and interpersonal relationships.
Of course, each of these arenas is essential to the composition of modern society and will be sites rich in potential change. Washing the dishes, one might consider how to more frugally use the water. Talking to one’s children one might consider how patriarchy has shaped one’s childrearing practices. Driving to work one might again consider how carpooling on some days and using public transportation on others might benefit air quality. All of us need to examine our habitual patterns of everyday life with an eye to how they might contribute to the ills of our world, for it is through these ordinary activities that “societies” are constituted.
Some questions and suggestions to help you turn your actions into praxis: Take time to quietly contemplate what you are doing, for nothing reveals the inadequacies of our behavior as much as contemplative practices such as prayer and discernment. Consider some of these questions in your meditation. What are your intentions with this action and what goal(s) do you hope to achieve? Does it serve the common good? How does this action align with your values? Is it an expression of compassion? What is your vision of a better world? How do current actions contribute to social problems, social injustice and ecological devastation? What are potential unintended consequences of your action? Does this action support ecological integrity? What are alternative courses of action that you could take?
Biblical scholar Marcus Borg argues that a prophet is one who speaks by divine inspiration, often critically evaluating an existing society and putting forward a vision of a future society. Prophets are critics who are passionate about social justice and who have the courage to challenge existing domination systems and ruling elites9.
Prophesy can be a fundamental and valued spiritual practice in service of radical social change. The moral vision of “what isn’t working” and “the way it should be” aid a people to understand their world and change it in accord with spiritual principles and visions of social justice. Rather than “predicting the future”, as is often misunderstood, the energizing messages of prophets generate hope and create a new vision of the future.
Social injustice can be defined as the state in which people are treated without dignity and respect and are not provided access to basic human needs. Social injustice thus incorporates a “redistributive claim” which seeks more just distribution of resources and goods, and a claim in the “politics of recognition”, in which so-called minority groups are accorded equal respect. As we learn how to see injustices, we become aware that they plague our planet. Manifestations of social injustice include severe poverty, world hunger, homelessness, lack of access to healthcare, oppression and exploitation based on ethnicity, gender or social class, and violation of human rights.
Systems of oppression, including capitalism, patriarchy, imperialism (etc.) operate on individual, institutional and societal levels through conscious and unconscious actions and beliefs to exploit some people and benefit others based on membership or perceived membership in social groups, including those based upon race, gender, class, age, ability, sexual orientation and religion (to name some, but not all groups). These systems are interconnected and mutual reinforcing. Through these processes members of dominant groups receive unearned privileges. These unearned privileges come, not as a result of merit or effort, but as a result of systems of oppression.
Allow me to offer some prophetic observations about modernity by very briefly critiquing “what isn’t working” and briefly formulating a vision of “how it should be”. Specifically, three major problems are articulated: (1) our ecological crisis, especially global climate change; (2) systems of oppression that perpetuate inequality, oppression and exploitation; and (3) a mass psychology of misery, in which nihilism, alienation and cynicism abound.
Our current environmental situation is bleak—global climate change is wreaking havoc across our planet—fires engulf Australia, Arctic glaciers dissipate rapidly, crop failures everywhere. And two decades into this hot-house world and industrialized nations still use fossil fuels as if nothing changed. We’ve entered the “sixth extinction” and thousands of species are disappearing. Industrial civilization rapidly extracts everything it can from our fragile ecosystems and leaves behind toxic wastes and all forms of pollution.
As if that weren’t enough, modernity has unleashed levels of greed almost unimaginable. Several months ago Oxfam announced that the world’s top 62 billionaires have more wealth that the bottom half of the world’s population10. Our current forms of social organization are predicated on oppression, exploitation and social exclusion. Capitalism, while continually providing us with lots of shiny new toys, hurts lots of people badly, leaving millions barely holding onto the social ladder.
Accompanying modernity’s ecological devastation and oppressive structures is a mass psychology of misery, in which nihilism, cynicism and alienation abound. A lot of people are not very happy and have numerous mental health symptoms. These unhealthy mindsets are obstacles for the great transformational work which lies before us, in which we must feel our connections to all that exists, optimistically move forward saying “Yes to life!, knowing that we are blessed to be here sharing the bounty of this glorious world.
Prophetic envisioning allows us to create an image of a better world, in which all people are treated with dignity and respect, a sense of fairness pervades all institutional operations, human suffering is minimized and we live in harmony with all life on the planet. These are sacred visions that best emerge in collective dialogue and with spiritual practices that involve deep contemplation. These visions are ever evolving. Through history a story emerges of an evolving communal quest for greater justice. Generation after generation the body politic has gradually become more just. People and populations who were previously silenced, marginalized and treated as non-persons have been given a voice, have moved to the center and have become enfranchised.
Another way to invoke a vision of a just, compassionate and sustainable society would be in terms of strengthening three sets of institutions vital to social democracy:
- A democratic political system in which power is shared and balanced and opposition is encouraged and celebrated;
- the economy is sufficiently regulated to ensure the protection of consumers;
- a system to redistribute overall wealth to generously support the health and well-being of all citizens.
The fairness of these institutions is paramount to a just society, insuring that all citizens are treated with dignity and respect.
I don’t think that we should create detailed blueprints of our future society and its accompanying institutions. As the core of our crisis is found in our modes of thinking, particularly our sense that economic growth is essential to a vibrant economy, I think that our focus should be on addressing our cultural worldviews. As Johannes Krause observes massive systems change cannot be managed nor controlled and it is impossible for us now living in modernity to know what will be at the end of the transformative process11.
Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D.
Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. is a Santa Barbara-based social justice activist, writer, and educator who uses spiritual practices to create a better world. Specifically, Wayne is very active in helping our neighbors of the streets transition into permanent housing and environmental issues. He has taught at the Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley campus of the University of California, Ventura College, the Fielding Graduate University and Antioch University Santa Barbara.