Comedy is not the opposite of seriousness. David Shrigley

"Changing the world doesn't have to be monumental"

Change is all around us. John-Paul Flintoff believes in the power and contagiousness of individual agency. He sat down with Martin Eiermann to talk about social change and the ethics of eating meat.

The European: We’re here to talk about activism and social change. I want to start out with a broad question: How do you define agency?
Flintoff: It’s very scary and frustrating to think about agency, and people like to think that there’s only so much an individual can do. That’s a terribly disempowering thing, because your only way to act individually is as an individual. You might require other people to join in, but you can contribute no more than your own best. You can only be yourself. If you set a good example, you will make a difference. Other people will copy you. Sometimes you can start with very tiny and playful things. Some researchers did a study on the psychology of smiling; they wanted to see why we smile more when we see other people smiling. So they put up signs that looked like regular road signs but said, “Ten Smiles an Hour Zone.” There was a huge ripple effect: The signs made people smile more, and they encouraged others to smile. I tried it in my own neighborhood until a traffic warden sadly tore down the signs. It works! Changing the world doesn’t have to be about something monumental. You don’t have to be Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King. Small acts of kindness can have a large effect on other people. Regardless of whether our species will make it through the next century, let’s focus on making it through this day. Let’s focus on having an effect right here and now.

The European: Your current book has the rather ambitious title “How to Change the World”…
Flintoff: I first thought of it as kind of a joke, and I asked myself: Am I really making that big of a case? But yes, I think I do. You don’t have to change the whole world, you only have to change the world around you. The American political theorist Gene Sharp has made the very good argument that non-violent protest often starts with a few people. They resist, and eventually dictators are toppled.

The European: That argument suggests that the main obstacles are internal and psychological, rather than external and related to structures of power.
Flintoff: I am instinctively inclined to side with the argument about internal obstacles. But there are external impediments as well, it’s not an either/or question. But here’s an interesting point: If an awful regime holds a gun to your head and says, “dig a hole,” they won’t get their hole unless you decide to start digging. They can shoot you, and you will be dead, but they still won’t have a hole. It’s up to you to decide. Nations have armies and pass horrible laws, but people also break laws all the time, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for selfish ones. Why should we not coalesce around the idea of habitually breaking bad laws?

The European: One counter-argument goes like this: You can choose to ignore threats of punishment, but you can’t necessarily overcome positions of disadvantage. Rising inequality might prevent us from exercising our agency. One’s background becomes one’s destiny.
Flintoff: I do think it’s important to talk about rising inequality and about the social consequences of that. But I don’t think that being born into a disadvantaged group prevents you from having a significant impact. It’s a different impact in a different context. The way history plays out, we tend to remember those who come from a position of relative prosperity. Mandela and King weren’t the lowest of the low by any means. I am convinced that people who are told that they can’t have an impact tend to undervalue their ability to actually make a difference.

The European: One of Gene Sharp’s great insights arguably was that you don’t have to be a committed pacifist to see non-violent protest as an effective political tool…
Flintoff: Sharp and Gandhi have a very hard and clear-eyed view of power. They aren’t sentimental people who want everyone to be nice. Far from it: Sharp wants everyone to realize that you can use many different levers to undermine political power, and you don’t have to have a principled belief in non-violence to do that. That’s a great relief! “Non-violence” is an abstract noun and a negative – nobody is inspired by that. But if you can identify a particular problem, and if you can be creative in your thinking, you can choose the right strategy and then the right tactics.

The European: What price can an individual be expected to pay to prevent bad things from happening, or to make good things happen?
Flintoff: It’s a very self-balancing process: You will be willing to pay the price that is right in a given context. It’s wrong to talk in the abstract and say, “we should all be willing to die for our ideals.” I might think that they should lower the Tube prices in London, but I’m not willing to give my life for that. In other cases, you might consider resigning from your job to take a principled stance. And often you can have a huge influence by quietly refusing to join in. When people start ignoring a figure of perceived authority, all that authority goes away and the person just looks powerless. Is that really a sacrifice or a price, or is that just living by what you really want to do? Hume suggests that we should do what we want to do, as opposed to the Kantian argument about acting out of a sense of duty. Hume is great: just do what you care about and what you believe in.

The European: Pushing for radical change can have fairly unpleasant consequences. So what if you look around and say, “I’d rather not, really”?
Flintoff: When you change your opinion, people accuse you of being a hypocrite. But what’s wrong with changing your mind? You want your enemy to change their mind, and you should allow yourself that freedom, too. Hypocrisy means that you are saying and doing different things at the same time. But it’s okay to say: “Hey, I’ve changed my mind.”

The European: In most democracies, we have settled on the idea that the best way to exercise agency is through established channels and procedures: Get yourself elected, file a petition, et cetera. So what about dissident, non-traditional forms of political action?
Flintoff: It’s a massive tragedy that we place so much importance on procedures, because it leads to such disappointment – we tend to believe that it’s sufficient to go through the procedures. The flaws of the electoral process are quite obvious: When you vote for one party, you endorse their whole platform and reject the platform of the other party, even though you might like bits of it quite a lot. Disappointment leads to the erosion of an individual sense of agency. You vote, and you seem to achieve nothing. That’s a double tragedy in our advanced democracies: We undoubtedly have more freedom than people in most other countries, and then we tell ourselves and everyone else that we’ve got it right. So a person living under a repressive regime dreams of being like us and thinks, “if we could only have democracy, everything will be alright and we’ll have agency.” But we all have to accept that we won’t always get what we want. Agency has to be exercised all the time. I’m a big fan of using the political process in more targeted ways instead of just voting. I know a woman who sends handkerchiefs to her representative with the message, “next time you vote, remember that your constituents want you to be the best person you can be.” That’s such a touching and lovely message. Politicians receive an awful lot of criticism, so as well as voting we can do much more – you can use the system to give out a bit of praise and be listened to.

The European: Arguably, the history of labor organizing is one of confrontational and disruptive tactics, not of tactics that are predicated on sympathy.
Flintoff: Yes that’s true. It doesn’t really do it for me, partly because at a very deep level, I feel ambivalent whether I know best. I am not completely sure that I should force something on others. Isn’t that the point of our democracy, that everyone should be entitled to choose? I grew up in a Labour household, but both of my grandfathers were Conservative. Am I supposed to dislike one generation? I believe in trying to seek common ground instead. Most people want the same things, and disagreements are often rooted in a sense of fear of “the other.” I have tried to persuade my parents to invite the local Labour and Tory councillors for dinner – it hasn’t happened yet!

The European: What do you do when people don’t want the same thing, and when their respective values or aims are really irreconcilable?
Flintoff: I hope I’m not being super naive, but there is evidence that deep down, we are quite willing to give up something in order to help others as long as we feel that we are being listened to. Restorative justice is the best example: An urchin might break a neighbor’s window, and then they sit down afterwards with the neighbor and the boy and his parents to talk and say sorry and how bad they feel about it. And then an interesting thing often happens where the neighbor might say: “You’re really a nice boy, and I don’t want to see you punished too much.” And the urchin’s parents might respond, “No no, he really did something wrong and must be punished for it.” So both sides are outbidding each other and trying to show some kindness to the other party just because they have been heard.

The European: Let’s try to see whether we can apply that logic to actual political conflicts.
Flintoff: The conflict between Israel and Palestine is a hard one. Everyone feels like they’re not getting a fair shot at the resources and the land, they are scared and feel under threat. If we want to move beyond that, we’ll have to agree on some fundamental realities.

The European: This seems to me like an example of a process where you have a lot of structural obstacles: Powerful lobbies that try to push more extreme views and prevent dialogue, for example. Everyone seems to agree that a two-state solution is the only solution, but merely repeating that slogan hasn’t gotten us any closer to seeing it implemented.
Flintoff: There are absolutely structural issues that have to be addressed. Part of that is holding different parties to account by asking them: Do you actually want a solution, or are you in this for something else? I think we’re seeing a lot of self-interest in Israel and Palestine, and people who think that they’re doing everything could certainly do more. I’m not waving the finger, but we won’t find a solution unless more people do more.

The European: An ad agency recently put up posters in London that rhetorically asked “how do you influence your world?” and answered: by working and shopping and then talking about your experience. Does it worry you when the language of agency becomes in a way trivialized by consumer culture?
Flintoff: It doesn’t really worry me because I guess that all advertising functions on that basis. I don’t take it very seriously, but sometimes advertising people point us towards very important topics. The same goes for journalism, too. But the wider point is this: There’s a strong yearning in most people to flourish more – that is why the language of agency is so attractive to many of us. You can’t go around numbing yourself and pretend that everything is alright. If you want to find a solution, you have to start by naming the problem.

The European: One of the big themes you discuss is the link between non-violent resistance and Buddhism. What role can religion play in the debates about agency and political change?
Flintoff: Unfortunately we have a tendency to practice our own faith but ridicule everyone else’s religion. That’s a real shame. When religious practices are done properly, they can be immensely valuable, but they can also be part of a system of fairly entrenched power structures. The important question is: What can we take from a religion that is helpful, that isn’t predicated on the notion of disproving adherents of a different religion? Every religion includes some variant of the golden rule: treat others like you want them to treat you.

The European: Do you think there’s more overlap between different religions than we generally think?
Flintoff: Yes. So much culturally specific material has crept into religion – when Christianity came to Northern Europe, for instance, it inherited all kinds of pagan rituals – so that it’s very hard to tell what is fundamental about it. The fact that all religions have the golden rule is a great reminder of ecumenical power. If you can break bread with someone, it opens up a whole new range of possibilities.

The European: You’re someone who has written about making your own bread and your own clothes. Tell me a bit about that.
Flintoff: I’ve always been very open to my creative impulses. And it dawned on my that what I considered as the problem really became part of the solution. I started out from the position of necessity, and then it became just really great fun. And then I thought: Wow, what else is there to do? As a journalist, that’s normal thinking. So I started teaching myself more things, and I started teaching myself not to worry how they turned out, to enjoy the process for its own sake. One of the things that people kept saying to me was, “isn’t it awful when it goes wrong?” No, of course not. Whenever something does go wrong, you can learn from it. We only learn from mistakes.

The European: With that kind of thinking, does it even really matter what you’re making as long as you’re making something that’s interesting?
Flintoff: I think it’s really important to live life to its full potential, to really have a go at things. You won’t be brilliant at first, so go ahead and fail happily! That’s a form of agency, too: You can paint a picture and not be held back by your own misgivings. What a dismal thing self-imposed misgivings are. Let’s face it: We now all agree that Picasso’s paintings are very special, absolutely brilliant, but truth be told they look rather wacky. If you allow yourself the kind of agency Picasso allowed himself, you’re living a richer life.

The European: When you take the whole do-it-yourself idea to an extreme, you’re ending up with a sort-of subsistence economy that doesn’t seem very practical. But I wonder whether there’s something to be said for a less demanding approach that is less about retreating and more about educating yourself about your footprint.
Flintoff: If you eat meat, I wonder if you ought to be in theory capable of killing an animal. My wife strongly disagrees, but I believe that you really should have an understanding of how an animal dies and where the meat comes from. I don’t want to argue from the point of duty and tell others what they have to do, but I think that everyone might consider the consequences of their actions. If you eat meat, you are supporting a world in which animals must die. That’s a hard issue to think about. One of the people who brought me back around to the idea of eating meat is Simon Fairlie. He comes out of a pretty dark-green environmental direction, but he makes an argument for responsible cultivation of animals. Eat meat, he says, but don’t eat too much.

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