Inciting Democracy: A Practical Proposal for Creating a Good Society
Questions and Concerns
E: Would the Vernal Project Distort Progressive Change Movements?
1. Would the Vernal Project Create an Elitist Vanguard?
Would Vernal activists become an elitist vanguard?
Because of their greater experience and higher level of skills, Vernal activists would naturally be prominent in many movements for social change. Still, I hope that Vernal activists would see themselves only as being different from other activists, not particularly special or privileged.
Nevertheless, because of their unusual situation, they might have a tendency to overtly or subtly assert their “superiority” over others, to huddle with others like themselves, to become rigid in their political dogmas or actions, or to dominate others. This would be detrimental to positive social change. It is essential that they not be elitist or oppressive.
To minimize inappropriate behavior, I expect Vernal staffmembers would constantly remind Vernal students of the dangers of deliberate or inadvertent domination or rigidity. Staffmembers would encourage graduates to provide “leadership from below” rather than to assume prominent leadership positions. I hope graduates would develop and promote a strict code of responsible behavior and an effective feedback system to restrain any tendency toward elitism, domination, rigidity, or self-righteousness.
2. Would the Vernal Project Foster a White, Middle-Class Movement?
If the purpose is to improve society for all people, a large-scale project must include all people (not just token representatives of minority groups). Would the Vernal Education Project actively recruit and involve a racially diverse group of staffmembers and students? Isn’t the Vernal Project oriented toward white, middle-class people?
I expect each center would be committed to diversity. I assume that Vernal staffmembers would actively recruit and involve a cross-section of all people in their community including racial minorities, men and women, rural people, working-class people, gay, lesbian, and transgendered people, younger, older, and middle-aged people, and so on. Scholarships and stipends would make it possible for low-income activists to attend a Vernal session.
Nevertheless, because the program would charge tuition and would require students and graduates to support themselves, I imagine that it would appeal more to those who were financially better off. Thus, it might attract a disproportionate number of activists from financially stable, middle-class and working-class backgrounds. There might also be a relatively higher proportion of students from wealthy backgrounds, though the number of rich people — especially those who desire fundamental progressive social change — is not large.
Still, I do not expect the imbalance to be large. I expect the students and staffmembers of the Vernal Project would be reasonably representative of the larger population.
More importantly, I assume Vernal graduates would be able to reach out to all parts of the American public. I assume the social change movements they worked with would cover a broad cross-section of society. Remember that the Vernal Education Project is not a social change movement, but a support program for other social change efforts. I believe the social change movements supported by the Vernal Project would be very diverse and representative of the U.S. population.
3. Would the Vernal Project Create a Cult?
In many ways, the Vernal Education Project sounds like an indoctrination program for a cult. Would the Project be a cult? How would you prevent it from becoming cultish?
People working primarily as social change activists have a tendency toward cult-like behavior. Working long hours and earning little money, believing themselves to have a better answer to how to live, and constantly attacked or ignored by regular people, activists can easily become separated from the mainstream. Under these circumstances, it is easy for them to fall into cultish or “groupthink” behavior. Furthermore, to actually accomplish significant social change, activists often admonish each other to be “disciplined” — which often means to adhere to a strict code of behavior that may or may not be rational or ethical.
The Vernal program would not endorse or support isolation, overwork, or other cult-inducing activity. Staffmembers would teach students about cult mind-control and groupthink, and they would do their best to interrupt rigid, elitist, or sectarian behavior. They would point out the dangers of being dogmatic “true believers” in a cause.
Moreover, Vernal staffmembers would strongly encourage Vernal activists to:
- Practice humility and abstain from self-righteousness
- Value every person
- Stay connected to relatives, friends, neighbors, and co-workers
- Think for themselves and value their own opinion
- Speak openly and keep few or no secrets
- Look at things from many different perspectives
- Seek information from varied sources and view all information skeptically
- Critically evaluate every idea, no matter its origin or promoters
- Encourage dissent and multiple points of view
- Avoid mystifying jargon
- Realistically accept bad news or setbacks (not naively deny or avoid it)
- Not dwell on bad news, setbacks, or apocalyptic visions
- Not buy into paranoia or excessive fear
- Avoid conspiratorial thinking
- Be realistic and avoid fantasizing about impossible scenarios
- Express their emotions
- Avoid guilt tripping, shaming, or humiliating themselves or others
- Refrain from attacking or demeaning others
- Avoid making irrevocable commitments
- Accept uncertainty
- Continually think — flexibly and open-mindedly
4. Do You Think You Know What Everyone Should Do?
You seem to think you know what everyone should do. Do you have an agenda for us all?
Insanity without ambition is like a machine gun without bullets. — Graffiti at Stanford University, 1990
Since I am trying to create a good society, I would like a large number of people to do many things. I promote my ideas and hope that others will pick them up for the same reasons I picked them up from other people —because they seem to make sense and they might work. That is the essence of my social change strategy and why I have structured the Vernal Project as a dispersed educational program instead of as a hierarchical cult, religion, or army.
I am open to changing my ideas. I hope this book starts a dialog about the best way to bring about progressive change. As we discuss these ideas, I hope that we all learn and grow and that we come up with increasingly better ideas.
5. Isn’t the Vernal Education Program Rigid and Dogmatic?
With the level of control you seem to intend in the Vernal education program, won’t it be hierarchical, rigid, dogmatic, and propagandistic?
I have tried to design an education program that has some structure so that it can contribute something valuable to the effort to create a good society. However, I also intend it to be very flexible. I have tried to build democracy and openness into every aspect of the structure. I have tried to avoid rigidity and dogmatism of every kind.
In this design, everyone who attended an education program would do so voluntarily. As I conceive it, the program has much less structure than a typical undergraduate degree program, and it only lasts a year. It would have no graduation requirements and every activity would be completely voluntary. Many of the study topics would be student-generated and the rest could (and probably would) be altered to suit the students’ interests and concerns. If students wanted to revamp the program totally, I would support them as long as they understood the implications of their actions.
As I envision it, the study group readings would be diverse and include both mainstream and conservative perspectives — though the readings would emphasize a variety of progressive perspectives. Students would be exposed to a large number of perspectives by working with three separate and diverse internship organizations, their own social change organization, as well as a social service organization. They would also interact with twenty-nine fellow students and at least four different staffmembers. Students would choose all their internship programs and social service activities.
I hope that the staffmembers would spend less than a quarter of the time in which they interacted with students making presentations to them. When they did present lectures, I would expect them to lay out multiple perspectives (albeit, most of them probably progressive perspectives). I hope the staffmembers would spend most of their time asking strategic questions, setting up roleplays that enabled students to consider many perspectives, and challenging students to develop their own ideas.
I developed a detailed education program to show that it is possible to meet all of my design criteria with a reasonable one-year program. I am open to changing the curriculum, the format, or even the whole concept. I only desire that, however the program eventually develops, it meets the design criteria.
Note that graduates of the education program would be completely free to do whatever they wanted to do. I hope they would work assiduously and passionately for fundamental progressive change — at least for a few years — since I expect that society can only be transformed if most of them do so. Still, they could do whatever they pleased. No matter what they chose, I hope that the staffmembers would be understanding and supportive, though we might be frustrated if graduates chose activities we thought were frivolous or counter-productive.