For some time now, I’ve been inclined to say “I don’t believe in progress.” I think if I were to be more precise, I would say “I don’t believe progress occurs in a linear fashion.” The word progress has its etymology and literal definition in the action of walking forward. Figuratively it means achievement to higher stages. Of course, I believe in development – in the sense that we can develop who and how we are being in ways that are more beneficial to ourselves, each other and the planet. We can progress. But we do not do so by walking forward in a straight line. And sometimes we don’t walk forward. Sometimes we walk backwards. But I’m not simply thinking about a two steps forward, one step backwards paradigm. No, I’m thinking we sometimes zig-zag, go sideways, on the diagonal. What’s for sure is that we are always moving – even when we think we are stuck, I believe we are moving – just perhaps imperceptibly. The Zapatista movement has a symbol for this reality – the reality of change that occurs slowly through perseverance that includes conscious movement: El Caracol – the Snail. But perhaps more on that later, because my main point is less about pace and more about direction. What does it mean to think about social change from a non-linear perspective?
Since I’ve been here, I have had three conversations (most recently, one this afternoon) where we focused on how it is that the Zapatista movement is not an attempt to hark back to indigenous living in pre-colonial times. The idea is not to idealize the past. The idea is to learn from traditions, e.g., traditions of living collectively, traditions of using herbs and plants to heal, traditions of being interconnected with each other and with the land and animals, traditions of being resourceful, traditions of being creative. At the same time, the idea is also to adapt and modify. This refers not only to work with technology, e.g. modern medicinal practices and tools, but also to the need to reflect on how we are living and have been living in terms of our relationships, e.g. between men and women.
People work together to create a different future. If I understand correctly, at its heart, the Zapatista movement is a collective creative process wherein people are doing their best to live the change they/we want to see in the world. This change has strong roots in the values of autonomy, dignity and mutual respect.
What has always been a form of resistance, is also a form of transformation. The Zapatista movement – as I understand it – is on the one hand about resistance to the cosmologies, ideologies, economies, political and social relationships/dynamics that foster inequities, injustice, disrespect and on the other hand is about a process of transformation in which people shift from one way of living to another – from an ugly caterpillar (no offense caterpillars!) to a beautiful butterfly.
This transformation takes time. Takes work. Involves a breaking down of what is, in order to create what can be.
Inevitably, in this creative and transformative process, people experience conflict. Anyone who has sought internal transformation will be generally familiar with this, will know the experience first hand of how difficult it can be to change – no matter how strong our intentions. The challenges we face as individuals mirror the challenges we face as in collectives/in communities.
I have heard stories of how stopping violence against women is integral to the Zapatista movement and how sometimes doing so requires abandoning certain aspects of tradition. It requires a breaking down of what was in order to create new dynamics, new forms of relationships. I have heard about how diversity within the collective is a reality that must be acknowledged and respected, but then the question is how to work with that diversity – and this is an ongoing work in progress. I have heard about how sometimes elders want to share their wisdom and also welcome fusion of the traditional with the modern, while other times elders become almost proprietary and/or purists and choose to hoard their wisdom rather than ensure it is passed on to others.
I imagine that in Zapatista communities, tensions between old and new or between one way and another are inevitable. Sometimes the answer, the resolution to tension or a conflict, is simply and quickly found. Other times, people must travel on a longer journey together to create their next steps in harmony with who and how they want to be collectively. In this journey, people are guided by principles rather than specific outcomes – what the future looks like, what success looks like is unknown.
The key is, people – we – need allow are themselves/ourselves to move and create in this way – slowly, with a huge degree of uncertainty, and with movement in many directions. Last month, someone explained to me that in Zapatista communities they seek to resolve conflict through dialogue and consensus. Easier said than done, you might be thinking. I would agree. To date, I have not learned more about how this process has worked in practice in Zapatista communities, or I would give a concrete example. However, as a mediator, I think I have some inkling as to how it might work. And also how it might be very challenging– though maybe it would be less challenging than it would be in communities dominated by different ideologies, economies, forms of social relationships, power dynamics, belief systems. At its heart will be dialogue that covers much ground and allows for the unknown or unseen to appear unexpectedly.
In any collective creative process, we move this way and that. We make what we think of as mistakes – though in the moment we acted they felt like the ‘right thing to do.’ We laugh, we cry, we struggle, we overcome. We remain open to discovering, encountering that which we do not yet know/see (but often can help us immensely!) – in our individuals selves, in others, in the group dynamic. We do not really know the exact route to our destination, we rely on principles and intuition to guide us with each step.
What we don’t do is walk in straight line from A to B. This is a powerful myth that readily disconnects us from our creative selves and limits who and how we can be.
In what ways are you viewing and living social change, social activism, your life as a linear construct? What are the implications of doing so? What changes would you make in these arenas if you began to view them and live them – if you began to accept them – for the non-linear collective creative processes that they actually are (and yes, from my point of view, you individual life is a collective creative process)?