Class of Nonviolence
Lesson 8, Reading 5
By Frances Moore Lappé
How did you get interested in food? How did you come to write Diet for a Small Planet? Countless times I have been asked these questions. Invariably I am frustrated with my answers. I never really get to explain. So, here it is. This is my chance.
I am a classic child of the 1960s. I graduated from a small Quaker college in 1966, a year of extreme anguish for many, and certainly for me: the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the War on Poverty. That year was the turning point.
While I had supported the U.S. position on the Vietnam War for years, finally I became too uncomfortable merely accepting the government’s word. I set out to discover the facts for myself. Why were we fighting? I read everything I could find on U.S. government policy in Vietnam. Within a few weeks, my world began to turn upside down. I was in shock. I functioned, but in a daze. I had grown up believing my government represented me—my basic ideals. Now I was learning that “my” government was not mine at all.
From that state of shock grew feelings of extreme desperation. Our country seemed in such a terrible state that something had to be done, now, today, or all hope seemed lost. I wanted to work with those who were suffering the most, so I did what people like Tom Hayden suggested. For two years, 1967 and 1968, I worked as a community organizer in Philadelphia with a national nonprofit organization of welfare recipients—the Welfare Rights Organization. Our goal was to ensure that welfare recipients got what they were entitled to by law.
Then, in the spring of 1969, I made the most important decision of my life (next to the decision to have children, that is): I vowed not to do anything to try to “change the world” until I understood why I had chosen one path instead of another, until I understood how my actions could attack the roots of needless suffering.
The first struggle for me and for so many of my friends has been to reconcile our vision of the future with the compromises we must make every day just to survive in our society. If we attempt to be totally “consistent,” eschewing all links between ourselves and the exploitative aspects of our culture, we drive ourselves—and those close to us—nuts! I still remember my annoyance as a friend, sitting with me in a restaurant in the late 1960s, scornfully picked the tiny bits of ham out of her omelet.
Who wants to be around someone so righteous that they make you feel guilty all the time? But while self-righteousness is not very effective in influencing people, this does not mean we should not try to make our personal choices consistent with out political vision. Indeed, this is exactly where we have to begin.
If the solution to needless hunger lies in the redistribution of decision-making power, we much become part of the redistribution. That means exercising to the fullest our power to make choices in our daily life. It means working with other people to force the few who have more power to share it with the majority. It also means preparing ourselves to share responsibility with others in areas that we now leave to unaccountable “experts” and politicians.
All this implies taking ourselves seriously, which for years I found difficult. In part, taking ourselves seriously means taking responsibility for how our individual life choices either sustain our challenge the antidemocratic nature of our society.
What do we eat? What we eat links us to every aspect of the economic order. Do we allow ourselves to be victimized by that structure, or do we choose a diet that the earth can sustain and that can best sustain our own bodies?
Where do we shop? Do we support the handful of supermarket chains that are tightening their grip over food? In more than a quarter of all U.S. cities, four chains control at least 60 percent of all sales. That right control means monopoly power and monopoly prices. In 1974 Americans were overcharged $660 million due to concentration of control by supermarket chains alone. Or do we support the growth of a more democratic alternative, the mushrooming network of consumer- and worker-managed retail food cooperatives, which already have more than three million patrons? Their consumers have much greater influence over what is sold and where the products come from.
In school, how do we study? Are we studying to please the professor, or to hone our knowledge to heighten our own power? Are we studying toward a narrow career path, or to prepare ourselves for a life of change?
How do we try to learn about the world? Only through the mass media, whose interpretations and choice of stories reinforce the status quo? Or do we seek alternative sources of information that discuss the lessons which we might learn from our counterparts here and abroad?
Where do we work? One of the greatest tragedies of our economic system is that few people are able to earn a livelihood and still feel that they are making a meaningful contribution to society. So many jobs produce either weapons of destruction or frivolous nonessentials. Therefore, our struggle is first to find a livelihood that reflects our vision of the world. If that is not possible, then we can do what more and more people are doing-find the least destructive job that pays, and then devote our creative energies to unpaid work. (Some of the volunteers at our Institute have chosen this path.) But just as important are these questions:
How do we work? Are we challenging the arbitrary hierarchies that we were taught to accept? Are we struggling to create structures in which responsibilities are shared and accountability is broadened-so that we are accountable not just to one boss but to one another and to ourselves?
Do we work alone (as I tried to do for too many years)? Or do we join with others to learn how to share decision-making power and to experience the excitement of collaborative work? (All the projects I have undertaken in the last six years have involved teamwork, and I’m convinced that the whole is greater than the sum of our individual contributions.)
How do we choose our friends? Do we surround ourselves with people who reinforce our habits and assumptions, or do we seek out people who challenge us?
Obviously these are only some of the questions that we must ask ourselves as we become part of the redistribution of power. Every choice we make that consciously aligns our daily life with our vision of a better future makes us more powerful people. We feel less victimized. We gain confidence in ourselves, the more convincing we are to other people.
The less victimized we are by forces outside us, the freer we become. For freedom is not the capacity to do whatever we please; freedom is the capacity to make intelligent choices. This implies knowledge of the consequences of our actions. And that is what this book is all about-gaining the knowledge we need to make choices based upon awareness of the consequences of those choices.
Overcoming Hopelessness: Taking Risks According to a 1980 Gallup Poll, Americans are more “hope-less” than the people in any other country polled except Britain and India. Fully 56 percent of Americans queried believed the coming year would be worse than the past year. These findings come as no surprise. Hopelessness is a growing American malady. Increasingly, Americans feel alienated from “their” government—witness the lowest voter turnout since 1948 in the Reagan-Carter contest. Americans increasingly perceive that their government operates in the interests of a privileged minority.
This hopelessness is born of the feelings of powerlessness I have been talking about. Consciously working to make our lives more consistent is the first step in attacking the powerlessness that generates despair-but only the first step.
Taking more responsibility for ourselves—and for the impact of our choices in the world—we start changing ourselves. This is the key to overcoming hopelessness. Unless we experience ourselves changing, can we really believe that illiterate peasants in the Philippines, El Salvador, or Chile can change? (After all, they face much greater obstacles and much stronger messages telling them of their own incapacity.)
I, then belief that “the world” can change depends on changing ourselves, how do we start? I believe there is only way-we must take risks. There is no change without risk. The change, we must push ourselves to do what we thought we were incapable of doing.
What Do We Risk?
We risk being controversial. Personally, I hate being controversial! I hate it when people attack my views—or, worse, attack me. I remember burning inside when a well-known university president tried to dismiss my views on U.S. support for the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. “What does she know?” he said. “She’s just a cookbook writer.” I was outraged when a speaker sympathetic to agribusiness who shared the platform with me several years ago in Minneapolis tried to dismiss my positions by suggesting that I was getting personally wealthy from Diet for a Small Planet royalties and therefore was a hypocrite. (Royalties have allowed me to work full-time on food and hunger issues, and have helped pay the bills at the Institute for Food and Development Policy. The money I earned from speeches goes directly to the Institute.) I grew up wanting everyone to like me (preferably, to love me!), but to change myself and to try to change the world, I have to accept that many people will not like me.
We risk being lonely. Maybe this is even harder. Changing yourself often means taking independent positions that those closest to you cannot accept. For me, this meant deciding I no longer wanted to be married. At the prospect of being on my own, I experienced the greatest pain and terror I had ever felt. I can’t deny that I do feel lonely sometimes, but I came to realize that many of the most important things I wanted to do, I could only do alone. Yes, I do work in a team. I enjoy our meetings, making plans and reacting to each other’s work. But when it comes right down to getting the words on the page, it is me and the typewriter. I cam to learn also that there is a reward for being alone in order to do what I believe in: I feel connected to others who share my vision, not only to others at the Institute but to a growing network of people throughout the world.
We risk being wrong. Taking controversial positions is hard enough, but how do we deal with our fear of being wrong? Part of the answer for me was discovering that those learned academics and government officials—whom I believed—are wrong. They may be mostly correct in their statistics, but how useful are statistics if their questions are the wrong questions? Those “experts” intimidate so many of us and use their graps of trivial detail to avoid asking the important questions. (In Rome in 1974, all the experts were asking, “How can we increase food production?” But I had already learned that many counties were increasing food production faster than their population grew and yet had more hunger than ever.)
In learning not to fear being wrong, I had to accept that to ask the important questions is to ask big questions—and this inevitably entails crossing many disciplines. If you have read our book Food First, you know what I mean. The material spans dozens of disciplines, from anthropology to climatology to nutrition to economics. When you ask big questions, it is impossible to be an “expert” in everything that you study. But instead of being paralyzed by that realization, I try to keep in mind the advice of a wise friend. “If you ask a big question you may get something wrong,” Marty Strange told me. “But if you ask a small question—as most narrow academics do—it doesn’t matter if you’re wrong. Nobody cares!”
My positions have changed as I have learned. In process, I have become more convinced that acting out of sheer emotion, even genuine compassion, is not enough. If we are serious about committing our lives to positive social change, we must always be learning, and accepting the logical consequences of what we learn as a basis for what we do.
Yes, we must be able to risk-risk being controversial, risk being lonely, risk being wrong. Only through risk-taking do we gain the strength we need to take responsibility-and to be part of the redistribution of political and economic power essential for a solution to needless hunger.
But How Do We Learn to Take Risks?
Few people change alone. As I have already suggested, we must choose friends and colleagues who will push us to what we thought we could not do. But we must select friends who will “catch” us, too, when we push ourselves too far and need to be supported. Wherever we are, we must not be content to work alone. Only if we experience the possibility and the rewards of shared decision-making in our own lives—in our families, our schools, our community groups, our workplaces—will we believe in the possibility of more just sharing of decision-making in our government and economic structures.
Second, we must learn to associate risk with joy as well as pain. Despite my parents’ struggle against racism and McCarthyism through the Unitarian church they founded, the cultural messages were so strong that I grew up believing that the “good life” we all are seeking would be a life without risk-taking. This was my “sailboat” image of the good life. First you work to acquire your sailboat (husband, kids, etc.), then you set your sails, and go off into the sunset. Of course, I assumed that you might have to adjust the sails now and then. But, short of hurricanes, I thought of life as a continuous and relatively riskless journey.
Well, at the age of 37 my view of the good life is different. I discovered that a life without risk is missing the ingredient—joy. If we never risk being afraid, failing, being lonely, we will never experience that joy that comes only from learning that we can change ourselves.
Third, we can gain inspiration from our counter-parts around the world whose lives entail risks much greater than ours. But this requires our seeking out alternative news sources, because the mass media rarely show us the courageous struggles of ordinary people. Learning about our counterparts around the world, we’ll come to realize that we do not have to start the train moving. It is already moving. In every country where peole are suffering, there is resistance. Those who believe in the possibility of genuine democracy are building new forms of human organization. The question for each of us is, how can we board that train, and how can we remove the might obstacles in its way?
But none of what I have presented here makes much sense unless we develop a perspective longer than our lifetimes. Glenn, a volunteer at the Institute, joked with us before he moved to the East Coast. “For a while I considered getting into your line of work—you know, trying to change the world—but I decided against it” he told us. “The problem is that you can go for weeks and not see any change!” We laughed. Glenn was right. It took hundreds and hundreds of years to create the web of assumptions and the unchallenged institutions of exploitation and privilege that people take for granted today. It will take a very long time to create new structures based on different values. But rather than belittling our task, this realization—seeing ourselves as part of a historical process longer than our lifetimes—can be a source of courage. Years ago I read an interview with I.F. Stone, the journalist who warned Americans about U.S. involvement in Vietnam long before antiwar sentiment became popular. He was asked, “How can you keep working so hard when no one is listening to you?” His answer: “I think that if you expect to see the final results of your work, you simply have not asked a big enough question.” I’ve used Stone’s answer I several books and probably too many speeches! For me it sums up an attitude we all must cultivate. I call it the “long-haul perspective.”
A book on how our eating relates us to a system that destroys our food resources and deprives many of their right to food would seem, on the surface, to carry a message of guilt and self-denial. But not this book!
I don’t think the solution to the tragedy of needless hunger lies in either guilt of self-denial. It lies rather in our own liberation. If we do not understand the world, we are bound to be its victims. But we do not have to be. We can come to see the tragedy of needless hunger as a tool for understanding.
We can discover that our personal and social liberation lies not in freedom from responsibility but in our growing capacity to take on greater responsibility.
This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537.1372