A Simple Idea to Build Sustainable Movements That Can’t Be Divided and Conquered

Re-evaluation Counseling is an international peer-led organization that is committed to eliminating racism, genocide, sexism, classism, and every other form of societal oppression.  It is an audacious goal, but who doesn’t want to be free of the systemic violence, hatred, discrimination, and other forms of bigotry that people have endured for generations?

In working on this monumental task over the last 50 years, we have learned that the harmful effects of oppression go well beyond the tangible forms of mistreatment people have suffered.  Everyone is negatively impacted by oppression; none of us has gone unharmed. Whether we have been targeted by oppression, witnessed it, or unawarely benefited from it because of our position in a dominant group, societal oppressions have left a harmful residue in all of our minds.  Though no two people have the same experience, the residue is quite similar: recurring feelings of helplessness, fear, loneliness, grief, distrust, and hopelessness, and, in some, greed and a sense of superiority.

This damage to our minds is by no means permanent. But, left unaddressed, it holds us back from achieving our personal goals and prevents us from working together effectively to solve the many challenges facing humanity.  The residue of oppression leaves our social justice movements vulnerable to the divide-and-conquer tactics of those who defend the status quo.

Listening as Liberation Practice
Our solution in RC is to create opportunities for people to tell their stories in a safe and confidential environment. When we have a chance to tell our stories, when we have someone who will just listen to us and pay caring attention to us without judging or interrupting, we find that something significant happens in our minds.  We can release the hurtful emotions—grief, anger, fear, sadness, shame, loneliness, a sense of helplessness, hopelessness, or powerlessness—that we have been carrying around with us. Releasing these painful emotions typically leaves us feeling more confident, more powerful, and more connected to others, all of which helps us think and work better, wherever we choose to focus our attention.

We have found this practice works well for people who live and work in villages, as well as for people in big cities. It is helpful for people who work as farmers, scientists, journalists, activists, and for every other kind of person. Painful emotions and the irrational ways of thinking and acting they engender keep us from doing our best work, keep us separate from other people, and prevent us from working together to create better conditions for everyone.

No Human Enemies
I’d like to share an idea that I’ve learned from listening to people all over the world for many years.  It’s a simple idea that I think will help us build social justice movements that are more sustainable and less likely to be divided (and conquered) by oppressive forces protecting the status quo.

There is no such thing as a “human enemy.” The concept that some people are “enemies” who need to be defeated for us to achieve our goals is a fabrication and a lie.

I know that this may sound wrong to some people. We have all been told there are enemies—enemies of our people, country, family, or movement. We have been told that the problems we face, such as poverty, racism, war, and the climate crisis, are the fault of an “enemy” and if we could just get rid of that person or group of people, things would be better.  Some of us have organized campaigns or entire movements on the basis of targeting a perceived enemy.

Ultimately, the problem is not with any one person or group. The problem is with systems of oppression and domination—like sexism and racism, genocide and colonization. Those systems are propped up by patterns of greed, racism, exploitation, and domination—some of the harmful residue described earlier. Such ways of thinking and behaving are irrational and highly destructive, yet are considered an integral component of success under capitalism.

What if we don’t organize against other people, but organize instead against the systems of oppression themselves? What if we stop trying to eradicate people and focus on eradicating the patterns of domination, greed, and powerlessness?  Could we eliminate these ways of thinking from our own minds and help others to eliminate them as well?

Enemies and The Slippery Slope
We all have strong feelings about people in positions of power who are doing harm to other people or the planet. But, if we agree to the concept that some people are “enemies,” and that we can eliminate problems by eliminating people – we open the door for this same mindset to seep into our organizations and movements.

Have you seen this before? An organization or coalition is doing good work but it all falls apart when someone inside the organization attacks the leader and vilifies them over disagreements in strategy or tactics. They blame the leader for a lack of progress. The leader is now the enemy, and the leader must change or be thrown out for things to go well.  

I have seen this scenario many times. But I have yet to see an instance in which vilifying a leader as the enemy has helped that leader improve their performance or lead the organization more effectively. So many good movements have collapsed because of vilification and scapegoating, because some leader was portrayed as the enemy and people organized against that person rather than against the actual problems they were concerned about.

I think we have an opportunity for social justice movements to deepen our integrity—to remember that an individual person is never an enemy who should be demonized, vilified, or scapegoated. The “enemy” is always the patterns of thought and behavior and the systems of oppression that enable and validate mistreatment and exploitation of people.

We Need Our Best Thinking
When we move past the concept that people are our enemies, we will be more effective as social justice activists. If we agree that there are no enemies, all our time and effort can shift from how to get rid of our enemies to how we can build unity in order to transform our society. Isn’t that the real issue?  It is hard to build unity among people if we keep seeking out enemies—if some people are vilified and scapegoated and set up against each other.

We might think of the concept of enemies as part of that same residue we have in our minds as a result of living in an oppressive society.  Can we listen to each other in ways that help us see that we have all internalized unhelpful ideas?  Can we listen to each other as we find ways to free ourselves from hurtful ways of thinking and behaving?

All social justice movements need our best thinking. We need to work together more effectively than we ever have before.  And that will only come from unity.

Azi Khalili