Sunday, November 27, 2016

Race, Class, and Systemic Reform

Can compassion-minded activists justifiably talk about human rights without also talking about civil rights? Can we justifiably talk about what it means to be human without talking at the same time, in the same sentence, about race, class, gender, and the other pigeonholes that the System uses to divide and conquer? Or can we first affirm universal principles, and then later, time or space permitting, oppose specific forms of oppression? Might we build a broad coalition based primarily, most fundamentally, on universal principles, while also, secondarily, affirming the rights of people whom the System classifies and oppresses based on certain arbitrary characteristics? In order to mobilize the white working class, do we need to emphasize economic issues more than social issues like race?  

Many post-election commentators are saying that class is more important than race. Robert Borosage for example has argued, “Clinton [talked] about removing barriers, with constituency-specific agendas, rather than focusing on a populist economic message that would lift all (emphasis added).” Borosage concluded, “Democrats better learn how to sing from Bernie Sanders’s gospel….”

Bernie’s post-election message is: “One of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics,” which, according to wikipedia, “refers to political positions based on the interests and perspectives of social groups with which people identify.”

In The GuardianHeather Long says, "As I re-read King's addresses, I can't help but think that if he were alive today, he would be preaching and organizing first and foremost about income inequality.... The most pernicious problem in society today is the haves and have nots."

On NPR, Mark Lilla cited as a positive example a man who reported:
I belong to a bowling team with black and Latino coworkers. And when we get together and we talk about politics … we don't talk about Black Lives Matters. We talk about what matters to our families. We talk about jobs, and we talk about the fate of the country. That is America, and you can reach those people.
In his “The End of Identity Liberalism” essay in the Times, Lilla objects to the proposition that “we should become aware of and ‘celebrate’ our differences.” He argues that “the fixation on diversity” has encouraged people narcissistically “to keep this focus on themselves” and that “younger journalists and editors [believe], that simply by focusing on identity they have done their jobs.”

Lilla criticized Clinton’s campaign for
calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded.... Fully two-thirds of white voters without college degrees voted for Donald Trump, as did over 80 percent of white evangelicals.... Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it….
National politics in healthy periods is not about “difference,” it is about commonality.... We need a post-identity liberalism,... As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale.
But as Steven Shults posted on Facebook, “You can draw attention to the plight of the poor without pitting the issue against other issues. This is not a zero sum game. (It's not a game at all.).” It’s not either/or.

As I see it, Clinton’s mistake was not her calling out to specific constituencies. Rather, it was not calling out to more of them -- as examples of a larger problem. Society systematically labels, ranks, and discriminates against countless categories of people. It’s systemic. The problem is the System, which serves to divide and conquer.

If one has only a sound bite, it’s not feasible to present a long list of examples. But in a standard stump speech, it is.

Economic populists, however, want to heavily emphasize economic issues and reject that intersectional approach. Intersectionality” argues:
We should think of each element or trait of a person as inextricably linked with all of the other elements in order to fully understand one's identity…. The classical conceptualizations of oppression within society—such as racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and belief-based bigotry—do not act independently of each other. Instead, these forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system of oppression that reflects the "intersection" of multiple forms of discrimination…. Socially constructed categories of differentiation interact to create a social hierarchy…. There is no singular experience of an identity. Rather than understanding women's health solely through the lens of gender, it is necessary to consider other social categories such as class, ability, nation or race, to have a fuller understanding of the range of women's health concerns…. Seemingly discrete forms and expressions of oppression are shaped by one another….  [This] analysis is potentially applied to all categories (including statuses usually seen as dominant when seen as standalone statuses).
Or you could use Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” to make the point:
Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight
Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight
An’ for each an’ ev’ry underdog soldier in the night...
Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake
Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked
Tolling for the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake...
Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind
Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind
An’ the unpawned painter behind beyond his rightful time...
Tolling for the tongues with no place to bring their thoughts
All down in taken-for-granted situations
Tolling for the deaf an’ blind, tolling for the mute
Tolling for the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute
For the misdemeanor outlaw, chased an’ cheated by pursuit...
Tolling for the searching ones, on their speechless, seeking trail
For the lonesome-hearted lovers with too personal a tale
An’ for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail...
Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed
For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse
An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe
It’s not easy to talk about intersectionality. Some may believe that I as a white man have no right to do so. But partly because what I have to say, I believe, echoes what I’ve learned from people of color such as Howard Thurman, Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr., James Baldwin, and Mahatma Ghandi, I feel compelled to speak.

To transform the System, we need to set aside labels and affirm our universal humanity, while also opposing specific forms of oppression. The various identities the System inculcates in us overlap and reinforce one another. In that way, the System is integrated, combined into a whole. We can better transform that System with communities that are integrated in the same way -- that is, communities whose members acknowledge and accept their multiple identities. From that perspective, if one talks about class one generally needs to also talk about race, and vice versa. However, it is also justifiable at times to go deeper and talk only about our essential humanity. One can hope for the emergence of a broad vision that inspires a massive human rights movement that also affirms civil rights.

I’m not fully comfortable with that approach. It may be wrong. But for now that is the perspective affirmed by the latest draft of the Holistic Transformation statement of principlesI envision that additional publications will address specific forms of oppression.

Criticisms and suggested changes for that work-in-progress are welcome.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Transform the System: A Statement of Principles (11/20/16 Draft)

Supportive, holistic communities that nurture the whole person and care for the whole world can help transform our social system and turn the United States into a compassionate community.
Our major institutions, our culture, and we ourselves fit together to form the System, which is fueled by the drive to climb the social ladder and look down on those below. Those inter-locking elements overlap and reinforce one another, which makes the System self-perpetuating. No one person or group controls the System, which individuals strengthen by buying cheap products made in other countries, failing to treat one another with respect, and seeking to be King of one Hill or another.
We’re told we can become whatever we want -- so if we fail, it’s our fault. Hyper-competitive individualism and feverish ambition help preserve the power chain and its dominate-or-submit dynamic. Labeling people and discriminating against those considered inferior enables the System to divide and conquer. In ways that are taken for granted and often unconscious, cultural conditioning and other forms of soft power complement mass incarceration and other forms of hard power to instill conformity. As a result, we live in an America that is greedy, power-hungry, hateful, corrupt, and immoral.
“Me First” leads to “America First.” The United States tries to dominate, expand its influence, exploit low-wage workers and the environment, engage in “regime change,” and use its power to persuade other countries to serve America’s self-interest.
We who endorse this statement pledge to help transform the System by promoting the common good of the Earth Community -- all humanity, all living beings, the environment, and life itself -- and helping to reform our institutions, our culture, and ourselves to serve that purpose.
Our goal is to establish a balance between self-interest and the common good, become more altruistic and less materialistic, strengthen both individual and community empowerment, seek win-win solutions, make our society more democratic, and develop collaborative leadership. We will set aside labels, relate to one another as human beings, love others as we love ourselves, and avoid selfishness.
We will remember that no evil deed is a reflection of the whole person, place ourselves in other’s shoes, and not allow anger to become hatred. We will decline to condemn others by calling them less than human and refuse to seek revenge. When in conflict, we will seek reconciliation.
We will aim to be humble, accept that we cannot achieve everything we want, remember that everyone is equal in the eyes of God, try to do what is right, and learn to listen well. We will acknowledge mistakes and try to avoid repeating them. We will form close, trusted friendships and help one another become more effective activists and better human beings, as defined by each individual. By growing holistic communities, we will unlearn the System’s conditioning and nurture helpfulness, honesty, forgiveness, and a passion for justice, which are widespread but suppressed.
We intend to take big money out of politics, assure that seniors have enough retirement income to avoid poverty, guarantee that everyone who wants to work can find a living-wage job, provide needed human services, clean up and protect the environment, and offer everyone the opportunity to find dignity and value in work.
A foundation of economic security will greatly improve the quality of life and the tone of our culture. Rather than feeling pressured to work long hours to earn enough money to guard against catastrophe, Americans will have more time to enjoy life, take care of one another, and be creative and productive. Greater economic security will also diminish the fear that inflames racial divisions. Americans will be better able to acknowledge deeply ingrained problematic bias and more easily tell one another when words and actions are offensive.
A commitment to compassion will lead the United States to adopt a realistic foreign policy that recognizes the limits of our power and understands there are no military solutions to many problems. We will make clear our own values without trying to manipulate other countries to follow our path. We will work with other nations to solve problems, affirm the principle that no nation should interfere in the internal affairs of other nations, accept that nations may choose to establish trade barriers to protect their interests, and hesitate to take sides in complicated conflicts. We will support economic development elsewhere as best we can when other countries want assistance, because as members of the human family, we’re all in this together.
To help achieve those goals, we:
  1. Urge Americans to participate in activist organizations that pressure Washington to establish compassionate national policies, especially policies that a majority of Americans support.
  2. Urge those organizations to join together in broad coalitions that focus on priorities in a sustained manner.
  3. Urge those organizations to encourage their members to unlearn divisive, oppressive tendencies the System drills into Americans.
That unlearning must happen internally, within each person’s heart. But many of us also benefit from supporting one another in that effort. So we encourage compassion-minded activists to experiment with ways to facilitate personal growth, mutual support, and political action.
Toward that end, at least once a month we who endorse this statement will share a meal with two or more other endorsers to discuss the statement and how to advance its principles. Eventually, we hope an inclusive team will organize a national gathering to form a network of holistic communities to explore together how we can best transform the System.
If you agree with this Statement of Principles, please sign it on the Transform the System website, report on your efforts there, and occasionally review what others report to see what you might learn. Let us join together to promote the common good of the Earth Community.

NOTE: Please send comments or suggested changes to this statement to Wade Hudson.
You are also invited to discuss it with Wade and others Saturday, November 26, 10 am..

Please RSVP, <wadeATwadehudsonDOTnet>.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Resistance Begins: What Shape Will It Take?

For fifty years, I’ve been waiting for a sustained, multi-issue, multi-racial, grassroots movement focused on national policy. Now Trump’s election may have sparked one. Afraid he’ll do what he said, a broad range of folks have been in the street -- not just for themselves and their own people, but for others as well. That is very encouraging.

No doubt the resistance will take many forms. Critics of Trump have voiced various opinions about how to react to his election.

Elizabeth Warren has said, “If Donald Trump will advance the kinds of policies, the kinds of measures that can be helpful, then man let's jump up and work with him. Let's make that happen because these are things, not just that Democrats want, these are things that Americans want." Examples she cited were infrastructure spending, social security, raising the minimum wage, and paid family leave. She also said, “But on those core issues about treating every single human being in this country with dignity, on that we stand up and we fight back. We do not back down. We do not compromise, not today, not tomorrow, not ever." I tend to support that approach.

As best I can, I try to understand the anger directed at Trump. As a relatively privileged white man with a college degree, I cannot fully understand the fear of those who are most vulnerable, especially people of color. And I would decline to argue with or try to persuade people who choose to adopt an anger-filled, uncompromising stance, partly because I affirm, “One struggle, many fronts.” Nevertheless, I feel obligated to echo counsel from people of color with which I agree. In a nutshell, it seems to me that if we allow anger to harden into hatred, it tends to be counterproductive.

I just re-read, as I have countless times, Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman, which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. carried with him when he traveled. The last two chapters are “Hate” and “Love.” I posted excerpts here. The following quotes seem most relevant:

Above and beyond all else it must be borne in mind that hatred tends to dry up the springs of creative thought in the life of the hater, so that his resourcefulness becomes completely focused on the negative aspects of his environment….

To love the Roman meant first to lift him out of the general classification of enemy. The Roman had to emerge as a person…

No evil deed -- and no good deed, either -- was named by him as an expression of the total mind of the doer…. No evil deed represents the full intent of the doer….

Though it’s hard to know, because Trump has exhibited multiple personalities, I suspect those words apply to Trump. At his core, he probably has some humanity. The Autocratic Trump will likely be on frequent display, which will intensify the resistance.  Trump is a dangerous man who will likely accumulate as much power for himself as he can. I suspect his moral compass is very weak.

But let us remember. When Richard Nixon tried to create a virtual police state with his Huston Plan, within a year or so Congress forced him from office. Americans love liberty. We do have some checks-and-balances. Several Republican Senators never endorsed Trump. Hillary Clinton got more votes than Trump did. Only about 25% of the electorate voted for Trump. Most of his voters did not do so because they supported any specific policy that he advocated. Rather, they are mad as hell and had a primal scream. And I pray that his desire to be loved will restrain his fascistic tendencies. Regardless, if Autocratic Trump prevails, and the resistance remains largely nonviolent, I trust the American people will prevail.

In the meantime, collaborating with him when he supports something positive makes sense to me. Others disagree. They refuse to “give Trump a chance” and are unwilling to seek any “reconciliation.” On Nov. 10, the New York Review of Books blog posted Autocracy: Rules for Survival, by Masha Gessen, who was a guest on the Rachel Maddow Show. Gessen recommends: “Believe the autocrat….Do not be taken in by small signs of normality…. Institutions will not save you…. Be outraged.... Don’t make compromises….Remember the future….”

If the Autocratic Trump asserts himself full bore, Gessen’s advice may be warranted. And when he pushes oppressive measures, Warren’s uncompromising approach will be justified.

Otherwise, what other options are on the table? Trump crushed what was left of the Democratic Party Establishment, which I argued here and here has long been more myth than reality. Hopefully progressive populists will fill the void left by Clinton’s defeat and transform the Democratic Party into a grassroots activist organization that fights for its platform year-round, as I argued here. Merely electing progressives to public office is not sufficient. The Party needs to redefine its purpose and modify its structure. If Keith Ellison is selected to head the Democratic National Committee, taking over the Democratic Party is a possible focus for effective progressive activism on the local level.

The Next System offers another option. Three days after the election that project posted, “Dark times call for brighter new visions of the world we want to see.” In that statement, they declare:

We must defend what we mistakenly thought was secure, or what we already knew was in jeopardy.... At the same time, we must not allow ourselves to be trapped on the defensive.... Our response must begin with a new politics but also recognize the need to build a new system – one that offers a new vision and new institutions to support a new politics as we go forward.

Backed by an impressive group of supporters, The Next System has announced:

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be introducing you to some of our work to date, including a series of papers that elaborate on possible models for the next system, short format videos that highlight critical elements in alternative system models, and ways to engage with us to help bring about the next system.

Supporters can subscribe to their newsletter and sign their statement of principles at their homepage, as I have. I believe they’re doing great work, especially in terms of spreading the word about community-based alternatives.

But as is the case with most people who talk about “the system,” they address only the economy and the government. And I still favor a holistic approach that aims to better understand how the System consists of all of our major institutions, our culture, and ourselves as individuals, who reinforce the System in our daily actions. According to that perspective, we need personal, social, and cultural change as well as political and economic.

So I continue working with colleagues to write a statement that articulates that perspective and presents a proposal for action. We are focused on answering this question: What is “the system” and how can we help build a national grassroots movement that is powerful enough to transform it? The current working title is “Transform the System with a Purple Community.” The latest draft will always be at You are welcome to share feedback and attend our next meeting, Saturday, Nov. 19, 11 am. Please let me know if you’re interested.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Transforming the System

The 2016 campaign shows the need to answer this question: What is “the system” and how can we change it?

Several colleagues and I have formed a team to help answer that question. By posting a comment here, you can join this effort, share your own answer, or refer us to other answers.

Election campaigns are money-making machines. They generate income for the media, campaign consultants, other professionals, and elected officials who use their status to enrich themselves. As discussed in “Seven Other Nations That Prove Just How Absurd U.S. Elections Really Are,” other Western democracies demonstrate sensible alternatives to that madness. Options listed in that article include:

  • Make elections shorter
  • Limit how much money can be spent
  • Limit television advertising
  • Use public financing
  • Automatically register all eligible voters
  • Hold elections on weekends

Our election system is one element of our larger social system. During a speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Elizabeth Warren brought the crowd to its feet when she declared, “People feel like the system is rigged against them. And here's the painful part: They're right. The system is rigged." During the 2016 election, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump built campaigns based on that theme.

When most people address “the system,” they only talk about the government and the economy. But some sociologists and other systems thinkers adopt a more comprehensive perspective. That approach makes sense to me.

As I see it, the self-perpetuating System consists of our major institutions, our culture, and ourselves as individuals who support the System in our daily lives. Those elements of the System fit together, overlap, and reinforce one another.

Americans can best restructure the System by reforming all of its elements and shifting American society away from the drive for money and power toward compassionate action.

Our greatest division is top-versus-bottom, not left-versus-right. As Arlie Hochschild addressed in Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, most Republicans, Democrats, and Independents agree on many proposed changes in national policy that would move us in the right direction.

Yet, despite widespread agreement on those  “crossover issues,” the American people are fragmented and have a gridlocked Congress. Countless activist organizations are doing good work on many specific issues, but they rarely unite to focus on a priority demand and build the sustained pressure that is needed to impact Washington.

If enough organizations and individuals, while continuing to work primarily on their own particular issues, choose to devote some time and energy to working together to promote legislation that is supported by a majority of Americans, we can grow a Purple Community that is powerful enough to persuade Washington to respect the will of the people. We can win victories, build momentum, restructure the System, and transform the United States into a compassionate community.

Forging that unity will require activists to acknowledge and control personal weaknesses that foster division -- such as arrogance, dogmatism, and prejudice. Dealing with such issues can happen internally, with each individual addressing issues of concern to them. But it often helps to talk about one’s mistakes with trusted friends or family members. Regardless, learning how to work with others respectfully is essential to serving as an effective activist.

Building a Purple Community will not be easy. But my colleagues and I are determined to help make it happen. We’re talking about the following five-step process:

  1. Write a 1-2 page proposal-for-action that addresses: What is “the system” and how can we change it?
  2. Meet in small groups to discuss drafts of that document. The next meeting is Saturday, November 19, 11 am.
  3. Seek online feedback.
  4. Convene a workshop with community leaders to evaluate the proposal.
  5. Convene a public forum with nationally prominent speakers to gather more feedback.

Throughout that process, we’ll incorporate feedback into our 1-2 page proposal-for-action. At some point, we may invite potential supporters to sign a pledge to participate in this project if and when a certain number of others sign the pledge.

Eventually, a separate, fully inclusive team may organize a national Purple Community founding convention, with highly regarded speakers who will lend credibility to the project and help attract participation.

Along the way, I’ll post links to related resource material and, with help from my review team, write a small booklet that elaborates on the thinking behind this project.

What do you think? If you might like to join in this effort, please let me know.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Build A Purple Revolution: Transform the System (plus more)

You’re invited to help write Build A Purple Revolution: Transform the System, a forthcoming booklet that addresses the question: What is “the system” and how can the American people change national policies to transform it? 

During a prime time speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Elizabeth Warren brought the crowd to its feet with electric excitement when she declared, “People feel like the system is rigged against them. And here's the painful part: They're right. The system is rigged." During the 2016 election, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump built campaigns based on the same theme. Clearly, concern about “the system” is widespread. 

But when people discuss the system, they usually only talk about the government and the economy and how those two institutions overlap. The premise of this booklet is that the System is more complicated than that. It involves all of our major institutions, our culture, and ourselves as individuals. Gaining a clearer understanding of those realities will help us change the System fundamentally. 

Our greatest division is top-versus-bottom, not left-versus-right. Most Republicans, Democrats, and Independents agree on many proposed changes in national policy that would move us in the right direction. Despite that widespread agreement, the American people are fragmented and we have gridlock in Congress. If we unite, we can persuade Washington to respect the will of the people. 

We need a strong focus on Washington because national policy is key. The federal government has available resources to facilitate dramatic improvements in the nation’s quality of life. 

When a good first draft of that booklet is complete, my associates and I may convene a workshop with a panel of community leaders to discuss and evaluate it. At the  workshop, we may divide the audience into small groups and ask them to agree on written suggestions for changes to the booklet. The full workshop may then consider those suggestions. After incorporating that feedback, we may convene a larger public event with prominent speakers to further improve the booklet.

At some point, the workshop may also convene additional events to discuss and evaluate related work, such as:

If interest emerges, I would prefer to collaborate with others as co-equal authors, perhaps by using wiki software that would enable multiple authors to participate. That partnership could post online both supplementary resource material and documentation of points made in the booklet. Until then, with input from others, I’ll make the final edits.

Build A Purple Revolution: Transform the System is not presented as the final word or as a blueprint for action. Rather it offers a framework and some specific ideas that others may find useful. As more people become involved in the writing, hopefully it will be improved. Perhaps it will prompt someone or some team to start from scratch and compose an alternative proposal that is similar yet wiser, perhaps extracting ideas from Build A Purple Revolution: Transform the System.

Regardless, I’d love to share alternative proposals concerning that booklet’s focus: What is “the system” and how can the American people change national policies to transform it? Please bring any such proposals to my attention.

In the meantime, I’d appreciate your assistance with this project, which is being composed online as Google Docs. At present, the contents are:

  1. Preface
  2. A Purple Strategy 
  3. A Scenario 
  4. A Vision 
  5. The System 
  6. Principles
  7. Problems
  8. Steps
  9. Other Proposals
  10. Wade Hudson and Associates

The homepage for the set of documents is at, which includes links to content that has been written. Feel free to email me your feedback, comment directly on the documents, or download them and send me your comments as an attachment. Please bear in mind that we want the booklet to be as brief as possible, while including essential material.


I've recently posted the following on Wade's Wire:

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Labels, Blame, and the System

My wailing increased with the shock of the knowledge
That I often have needed something out there to blame. ...I'm nobody's saviour, and nobody's mine either
I hear the desert wind whisper "But neither are we alone."


Words matter. One of my taxi passengers recently said to his co-worker, “Tom is a terrible person. No. I shouldn’t put it that way. He’s a terrible team member because….” He then described specific behavior that hurts the team.

That distinction is important. Judging someone as a person -- as Trump did when he called Clinton “a nasty woman” -- is much different than judging their actions. One’s personhood is not defined by one’s behavior. When we label others, we don’t fully know their soul.

When I’ve asked my passengers what they think about Clinton calling one-half of Trump supporters irredeemable deplorables, most of them initially replied, “She was right.” But when I’ve commented on problems with labelling, they’re agreed with me.  

This issue is not merely semantics. Unnecessary labelling hardens divisions, which makes unified grassroots action more difficult.

Labels are necessary. Calling a rock “a rock” is no problem. Describing the color of a person’s hair is rarely controversial. Objective reality is subject to scientific verification.

But subjective reality cannot be measured.  The human spirit is not an object. Human behavior is not determined by simple cause-and-effect. Biological factors play a role, as does social conditioning, the unconscious mind, and other factors, such as free will. Countless factors “cause” our behavior. And over time, we evolve. We act differently.

Labeling personhood distorts reality by simplifying it. The human spirit can’t be described or confined by pigeonholes. But labels can be self-fulfilling prophecies that nurture the behavior they describe.

Another reason to be cautious about labels is the role they play in perpetuating social inequality and class domination (which persists from generation to generation, largely without resistance - or even much awareness of the advantages that certain people hold over others). Before we rank, we label.

Many sociologists have written extensively about “labelling theory,” which examines how the self-identity and behavior of individuals is influenced by the terms others use to describe or classify them.  Ă‰mile Durkheim was the first to argue that labeling “deviants” helps to control behavior. People learn to conform in order to avoid being stigmatized and considered less reliable, even less human.

George Herbert Mead explored how our self-image, which is derived from what we think others think of us, is affected by how the group labels those who offend their norms.

Frank Tannenbaum studied how labelling juveniles “delinquents” leads to more “delinquency.”

Edwin Lemmert introduced the idea of “secondary deviance.” Labeling a deviant because of a deviant act can encourage more deviance by affecting self-image: “I do these things because I am this way.”

In his classic book, Outsiders, Howard Becker argued, “Instead of the deviant motives leading to the deviant behavior, it is the other way around, the deviant behavior in time produces the deviant motivation.”

In The Colonizer and the Colonized Albert Memmi described the deep psychological effects of social stigma:

The longer the oppression lasts, the more profoundly it affects him (the oppressed). It ends by becoming so familiar to him that he believes it is part of his own constitution, that he accepts it and could not imagine his recovery from it. This acceptance is the crowning point of oppression.

In Dominated Man, Memmi wrote:

Why does the accuser feel obliged to accuse in order to justify himself? Because he feels guilty toward his victim. Because he feels that his attitude and his behavior are essentially unjust and fraudulent....Proof? In almost every case, the punishment has already been inflicted. The victim of racism is already living under the weight of disgrace and oppression.... In order to justify such punishment and misfortune, a process of rationalization is set in motion, by which to explain the ghetto and colonial exploitation….Central to stigmatic labeling is the attribution of an inherent fault: It is as if one says, "There must be something wrong with these people. Otherwise, why would we treat them so badly?"

Erving Goffman, who served as President of the American Sociological Association, wrote several books on labelling. He lamented what he called society’s growing emphasis on the so-called “normal human being” and examined the complications that emerge when “normals” and “deviants” interact:

What are unthinking routines for normals can become management problems for the discreditable....The person with a secret failing, then, must be alive to the social situation as a scanner of possibilities, and is therefore likely to be alienated from the simpler world in which those around them apparently dwell….

[As] a resident alien who stands for his group,... it requires that the stigmatized individual cheerfully and unselfconsciously accept himself as essentially the same as normals, while at the same time he voluntarily withholds himself from those situations in which normals would find it difficult to give lip service to their similar acceptance of him…. A phantom acceptance is allowed to provide the base for a phantom normalcy.

Thus, whether we interact with strangers or intimates, we will still find that the fingertips of society have reached bluntly into the contact, even here putting us in our place.

And that is key: persuading us to accept “our place” in the social hierarchy. The primary driving force in our society is the urge to climb the social ladder, which involves looking down on those who are below. Society divides us in countless ways. In particular, assuming an arrogant air of moral superiority, we throw around labels, become judgmental, and resolve to defeat our “enemies.” Misled by the American Dream, we ignore our advantages, assume we have earned what we have, and blame the designated-enemy-of-the-day for our troubles.

The main problem, however, is our self-perpetuating social system. Once we accept that reality, we can no longer justifiably direct our anger at any one individual, group of individuals, or nation. Having no scapegoat removes an easy mode of release. But it is also liberating, for it opens us to compassion.

And fortunately compassion is another, deeper driving force in our society, one that is rooted in our 200-million-year history as cooperative hunter-gatherers. Modern society has suppressed that countervailing force, which many sub-cultures have kept alive. Our challenge is to bring it to the fore and make that which is now secondary primary. To do so would be a revolution that turns the table upside down.