There's a difference between making noise and making change
It is quite easy to make noise in our culture. The internet and online media are like a giant echo chamber, and within a few days one angry tweet can turn into an ear-splitting feedback scream of indignation. Because of that, we can become entirely focused on making noise in our culture - getting retweeted, getting on the news, getting publicity somehow or other. Anything to get the public’s attention for a moment. But making noise is not necessarily the same as making change.
Let me compare two revolutionaries: Seebohm Rowntree, and Russell Brand.
Seebohm Rowntree was Joseph Rowntree’s son, and eventually succeeded him as chairman of Rowntree’s chocolate company. Like his father, he was also a passionate campaigner for social justice. He wanted to improve the lives of British workers. He did this by quietly and pain-stakingly building an evidence base for higher wages.
He and a small team of researchers focused on working conditions in York. They investigated how many calories a person needed to eat to avoid malnutrition, and how much it cost to get those calories, as well as the basic fuel, clothing and household items necessary for survival. Anyone who could not afford these basics lived below the Poverty Line.
His team then visited every working class family in York - 11,560 families, or 46, 754 individuals in all - and interviewed them about their living conditions and income. His team discovered that 27.84% of the working class lived below the Poverty Line - they were not paid enough to avoid malnutrition. He also showed how many working-class people fell below the Poverty Line at the beginning and end of their lives - the so-called Poverty Cycle.
Rowntree published his results in a 1901 book, Poverty, in which he argued that employers should raise their wages and give sick pay and health insurance, while the state should provide unemployment insurance - otherwise, as soon as adversity struck, a family was plunged below the poverty line (if it wasn’t there already).
Andrew Marr, in his History of Modern Britain, writes:
Rowntree’s book arrived like a bomb in British politics. It showed that at the heart of the Empire, with all its pomp, wealth, and self-satisfaction, around a third of people were so poor they often did not have enough to eat, and many were sunk in utter poverty as bad as that of the Czar’s empire against which the communists raged. It did this clinically and statistically, in a way that was impossible to refute.
Rowntree’s work changed things. He worked closely with the Liberal government of David Lloyd George (1906-1914), which introduced many of the welfare provisions which Rowntree advocated. It also inspired (or shamed) many companies around the world to follow the example of Rowntree’s and introduce higher wages, sick pay, health insurance, free medical and dental consultations, employee pension schemes, and councils for consulting employees on management decisions.
Russell Brand has just as good intentions as Seebohm Rowntree, although I suspect he is more of a narcissist than the shy Seebohm was. Brand doesn’t just want social change, he also likes revolution as a pose, a look. He was calling for revolution on his radio show a decade ago, long before he had any idea what it would involve. It just sounded good, it felt cool, it felt naughty. Calling for revolution on Radio 2, fancy that!
Then, last year, he published a manifesto in the New Statesman calling for ‘total revolution of consciousness’, for a ‘spiritual revolution’. This year, he expanded it into a book. Sounding like Thomas Traherne in Doc Martens, he declared that greed, power, capitalism, time itself were just ideas in the mind, and as ideas, they could be changed in an instant. We should ‘meditate, direct our love indiscriminately and our condemnation exclusively at those with power. Revolt in whatever way we want, with the spontaneity of the London rioters, with the certainty and willingness to die of religious fundamentalists or with the twinkling mischief of the trickster.’
Well, OK. But why ‘focus our condemnation exclusively at those with power’, as if all the evils of the world come from the Illuminati? Isn’t that letting us, the public, massively off the hook? Who is perpetuating a culture of shallow narcissism? We are! Who is perpetuating a female-denigrating patriarchy? We are! Who is putting our short-term consumer demands above the long-term survival of us and every other species? We are! But it feels so good to demonize ‘those with power’ and project our guilt onto them - it makes us into the heroic warriors of light, truth, justice and righteousness, just like those righteous ISIS dudes.
And saying ‘money is just an idea’ is not necessarily going to free us from that idea. Consciousness-change can happen in an instant, but usually it takes a lot longer. It takes strong evidence to make your argument the consensus rather than just a passing gesture. But when Brand went on Newsnight, he angrily waved away any contrary evidence or data: ‘I ain’t got time for a bloody graph!’
Brand doesn’t know the difference between making noise and making change. Imagine Seebohm Rowntree saying ‘I ain’t got time for a bloody graph’. Without evidence, you merely have rhetoric, gesture, charisma, warm sentiment and good intentions. And that can help you make noise, but not real worthwhile change.
I’m thinking about this because I’m wondering how those of us working to revive Greco-Roman philosophy (and ancient wisdom in general) can not just make noise, but make change.
It’s relatively easy to make noise, as a practical philosopher. Sometimes if you're lucky you can get on the media for a few minutes, write some articles, visit some schools, sell some books, do some cool stuff, make an OK living. But how do you really make a long-term difference rather than short-term noise?
My visit to Boston last month, for the Mind & Life Institute’s International Symposium of Contemplative Studies, was a real wake-up call. It seems to me that the people involved with Mind and Life - scientists and philosophers like Jon Kabat-Zinn and Richard Davidson - have over the last 30 years made genuine change. They have established mindfulness as a serious and evidence-based intervention, widely used now in medical schools, in higher education, in schools, in prisons, in mental healthcare, in business.
I’m particularly struck by the success of Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course. Kabat-Zinn established a course that was easy to follow, and easy to replicate. He started to build up an evidence base for its success in lowering stress. He let other people use the course and test it out - he put the promotion of the intervention above the promotion of his personal brand.
He leveraged the credibility of his institution - UMass medical school - to help bring his research into the mainstream. He built up alliances with other key change-makers in his field, through the Mind and Life and other organizations and networks. He wrote both journal articles to make his case in academia, and popular books to make his case to the public.
That’s how to do it.
I feel that those of us working in practical philosophy (such as the Stoicism Today team) are at the beginning of that process. Like the mindfulness people 30 years ago, we’re trying to marry ancient wisdom practices with modern evidence-based psychology, and then take that out into different contexts - schools, prisons, mental healthcare, companies. We’re doing well - next week, Stoic Week is happening for the third year, with over 1000 people taking part in the online course (you can read the handbook in preparation for next week here). And we’re just about to sell out all the 300 tickets for the modern Stoicism event in London, so this will be the largest Stoic event...er...ever!
We’ve got Stoicism into the cultural conversation again, which is great. And I think a great deal of Stoicism Today's success, perhaps all of it, has been because of partnerships - putting the movement before the promotion of our personal brands. That’s how to make change.
But we need to think about how to make more long-term change. Speaking personally, this year has been great fun, but everything has felt quite ad hoc - working with a rugby club one month, then a school the next, then a prison, then an accountancy firm. I personally feel the need for more of a coherent long-term strategy.
We need, I suspect, to establish a centre, within a university or several universities. There are mindfulness centres in many different universities and medical schools, but as far as I know, only one centre dedicated to the revival of ancient Greco-Roman philosophy (at the University of Warsaw). We need more partnerships with clinical psychologists and neuroscientists. We need more simplicity and replicability in our course materials, so it’s not just about our personality. And above all, we need to build up a stronger evidence base, so the case for learning wisdom practices becomes 'impossible to refute'.