Mexie sits down with the Wrong Boys and Brett from RevLeftRadio for the *most wholesome conversation ever had*. We centre the convo around how fantastic it feels to help others and the importance of looking for the helpers in our society. We branch out into discussing the science of empathy and mutual aid, and get into some deep thoughts about dismantling the ego and expanding our sense of self to reflect our interbeingness with all our relations (human and nonhuman alike!).
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F1: [MUSIC] How can we not only discover more compassionate relations with human beings but how can we develop compassionate relations with the other creatures with whom we share this planet?
F2: There’s an us before the wound, there’s an us before oppression, and to me pleasure is the way that we tap down into that.
F3: We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.
MEXIE: Welcome everyone to the Vegan Vanguard. I am Mexie and today we have probably the most wholesome conversation that you are ever gonna hear. The brilliant and always sweetie-pie Wrong Boys of Srsly Wrong invited myself and the always-brilliant and always-principled — remarkably principled Breht from Rev Left Radio to have a discussion about helping others and looking for the helpers in our society. We branch out into talking about the science of empathy and mutual aid, the importance of asking for help, and some pretty deep stuff about dismantling egos and expanding our senses of selves to adequately reflect our interbeingness with humans and non-humans alike. I really hope you enjoy. Before we get into it though, thank you endlessly to our new Patreon supporters TheBootsareOn and Joseph Baldoni Karlik.
We rely on your generous donations to keep the show going, so if you’d like to become a sustaining member, please go to patreon.com/veganvanguard and join our community on Discord. We have community chats there twice per month which are always a great time, really fun to connect. You can also give us a one-time donation via PayPal on our website veganvanguardpodcast.com, and please rate us up on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to us. I love reading reviews and seeing the ratings come in, except one of them; except one of them that we got recently. It was a one star. You know, I’m very open to constructive criticism although I’d say maybe e-mail that in instead of messing up our ratings, but the comment didn’t make any sense. If you left that comment, reach out.
I would love to know because I just couldn’t actually figure out what episode that they were actually talking about. I was left really puzzled about it. Anyway, now we’re at a 4.9, but you, you — everyone out there could help us get back up to that five-star rating by rating us five stars. That actually really does help our content get noticed by more people. Yeah, I just like clean lines, the five. The five looks better than the 4.9. Anyway, I’m mostly kidding, but also it does help us if you do give us ratings and reviews. With that, prepare yourselves for some absolute wholesomeness.
SHAWN: Hello everyone, and welcome back to the Srsly Wrong podcast. We are joined today by Breht O’Shea from Revolutionary Left Radio and Red Menace as well as Mexie from Vegan Vanguard and Positive Leftist News. How’s it going?
BREHT: It’s going great.
BREHT: Yeah, happy to be here.
MEXIE: So happy to have this conversation with you all.
SHAWN: I am very stoked to have this conversation as well, and also of course should mention Shawn and Aaron, Wrong Boys, hosts of the Srsly Wrong podcast; we’re here as well. Hey, how are you doing, Aaron?
AARON: I’m doing great. Yeah, thanks for being on the show, both of you. It’s exciting to have this kind of conversation and to be able to do this with you.
BREHT: I’m excited.
MEXIE: Hell yeah.
SHAWN: The topic that we’ve come together today to discuss is, I guess, broadly speaking, help. Mr. Rogers in an interview talks about how his mother had this advice.
MR. ROGERS: My mother used to say a long time ago whenever there would be any really — catastrophe that was in the movies or on the air, she would say always look for the helpers. There will always be helpers just on the sidelines. That’s why I think that if news programs could make a conscious effort of showing rescue teams, of showing medical — anybody who is coming into a place where there’s a tragedy, to be sure that they include that because if you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.
SHAWN: I’ve always been really touched by this. I can give you hope to focus on where people are taking corrective, positive action. There’s lots of different angles on that feeling of seeing help being needed and giving help. It’s such a human, deep thing; it’s so wholesome. I sort of feel like it’s the point of life. So, we wanted to invite Breht and Mexie on to talk about this subject of help and what it really means, the meaning of help.
MEXIE: I loved that you shared the Mr. Rogers quote in our Google doc before recording this. I was so touched by that. I had not heard it before, and it made me really, really happy. Not to plug my own channel right now, but because I feel like that’s kind of what I’m doing with Positive Leftist News, is trying to find the helpers, ‘cause all we ever see on leftist media is the negative, right? We all know the horrors of capitalism and imperialism and all the rest, and patriarchy and white supremacy, but we don’t spend enough time even as leftists who need the hope and who need the motivation looking for the helpers and celebrating them, right? I feel like that’s kind of what I try to do on Positive Leftist News. Then just seeing that quote just made me feel super warm inside. I just love that. I thought it was just so wonderful.
BREHT: Yeah, absolutely. I completely agree, and I think just outside of the economic incentives to focus on the sensational and the negative, there’s also just an implicit negativity bias in the individual human mind that tends in that direction, particularly when we live in such rough and scary and uncertain times. That is really amplified, and so I really love what Mexie does with focus on the positive aspects of the news, and I think with Rev Left and Srsly Wrong, there’s an attempt at least to inject humanity, inject decency, inject humility, and those things can often also be lacking on the left broadly. There’s sometimes this idea like, left wing people are good-hearted, bleeding-heart people that just want to cooperate and come together, but in reality they’re humans and if you spend even a millisecond in leftist spaces, particularly online, you can see just as much cruelty and egoism and negativity as you would anywhere else in the political spectrum. I think it is a part — it’s a duty, it’s a revolutionary obligation to try and at least emphasize the positive, the wholesome, the cooperative, the good things about life as well as critique the bad. Hopefully we can do something like that in this episode.
AARON: I think, too, especially sometimes for people who are on the left and very aware of all of the ways in which society is messed up and to be a political person and to be aware of these critiques of what’s going on in the world, and you start seeing symptoms of these problems everywhere because they are everywhere. It’s super important to have those critiques and to understand all of that. But I think sometimes just socially, it can feel like if you’re not talking about that, if you are talking about positive leftist news or if you’re talking about something good in the world like a small win or whatever it happens to be, that that — it can feel like you’re distracting from what’s important and what’s important is the problems, and what’s important is we have to fix things, and what’s important is it’s not good enough yet.
But I don’t know, there’s something wrong with that framing of this essential competition between the two. I think we do have to be aware that you don’t want to present some overly rosy picture and it’s all just gonna be better and we don’t have to do anything and everything’s fine. I think that’s the worry, is that it’s gonna demotivate people if you talk about positive things, because then we don’t have to do anything. Positive things are already happening. But like Mexie said, there’s also the aspect of if you don’t look at those things, if you don’t see that there are real good things happening in the world, then you’re not gonna have hope because if all you see is the way things are messed up and wrong and getting worse, it also is demotivating in the opposite way of just like, there’s no point in trying because there’s nothing good happening.
MEXIE: Yeah, you almost buy the capitalist propaganda that human nature is inherently greedy. The revolution isn’t gonna be born from that kind of cynicism. You actually have to believe in people.
SHAWN: Yeah, and actually on that note, to praise Positive Leftist News, is something that I’ve thought about for a really long time, is how we don’t do it enough, just keeping track of all the things that are happening that are good and we’re celebrating. We know from motivational neuroscience stuff you need markers on the road. Like, if you’re gonna run a mile for the first time, you need to keep track of the progress you’re making along that mile, otherwise it’s just gonna seem insurmountably large. What happens in a neurochemical sense is you have all these unresolved dopamine loops and you’re stress becomes overwhelming and you reach the point where you need to give up.
It’s a rational thing that our brain does, and it comes from thousands of years of evolutionary history both as humans and before that. There’s a certain point where the stress is too great and what you have to do is leave. What you have to do is get away, give up on whatever you’re trying to do. I think when we don’t keep track of those markers on the road and we don’t see oh wow, actually some really good stuff, some really cool stuff just happened — obviously there’s a lot that is unresolved at this point; there’s a lot of problems that are unresolved — but people come together and they back each other up and they get things done by coming together and fighting for each other, fighting for other people as hard as they would fight for themselves. That’s always happening and I felt for a long time we need — and maybe this is something that may — day could be in the future. I feel like there should be a yearly event where we can just look at the last year and be like hey guys, let’s not lose sight of the fact that five years ago it seemed impossible that the drug war — that cannabis would be legalized in places or whatever and now it’s just accepted as common sense, happening everywhere, et cetera.
SHAWN: Obviously cannabis being legalized isn’t the be-all, end-all, the revolutionary moment that changes everything in itself, but it is something that we’ve seen in our own lifetimes. There’s tons of things like that that we’ve seen in our own lifetimes because stuff happens really fast. If we’re not looking back and seeing those road markers, we might just look at oh, we’re running this huge mile for the first time and it’s insurmountable. Then people get to the conclusion that they need to leave and they can’t do it ‘cause we don’t have those road markers. I think, Mexie, your project is really a good example of that type of thing, and — but it’s also just like — it’s a really broad thing I think we should strive to do more which is just keep track of the fact of when we win, or when we do — on some — at least some — even if it’s a marginal gain. When people have that sense of confidence that they can change the world, that’s when they really start dreaming about what they can do.
AARON: What you said about weed legalization not being the be-all and end-all is really true, but also at the same time it’s kinda fucked up to deny that it’s good because people who would have been put in jail for smoking weed or for selling weed in the places where it’s now legalized — which isn’t everywhere even in the United States, but it is here in Canada — you can’t send someone to jail for that anymore. Yes, we should let everybody who is in jail for it out and that we have more ground to push for that, but just — it’s better that it’s like this than that it’s not. Another I think really good thing recently that’s just changed so much in our lifetimes, even just in the last few years, is the level of cultural discussion about sexual assault, like really since 2017 in the Me Too movement.
It feels like we’ve genuinely — obviously not fixed all the problems, but turned a corner to a place in society where speaking out about this stuff is a little bit more accepted than it used to be, and you still get all the same reactionary responses and stuff, but people are a bit better equipped to deal with that now. Public opinion is a bit more on the side of listening to people who are victims. I think that’s the direct result of people’s work and speaking out. Yeah, it is important to mark those milestones, those moments when things change.
BREHT: I also think, just to add to all of that, that there’s this sense — particularly on the left but probably more broadly, but you really see it on the left — that to point at something and to say this is good or that this makes me hopeful or there’s some reason for optimism is almost synonymous with being naive, right? The principled leftist stand is to point out that even seemingly good things are actually negative and nothing’s really come of it, and the good and bad are so intermixed it’s kind of easy to do this. A great example is last year’s huge uprisings, Black Lives Matter uprisings across the continent and then it spread internationally around the world.
On one level the sort of cynical and realist quote, unquote “take” would be well, yes, these uprisings were good and this energy is great, but look what actually happened; little to nothing. There might be some local mingling around the edges and reforms but nationally there’s been nothing and really locally, there’s been very little. If you even want to go deeper, you could say that a lot of these police departments have gotten more funding, so what did we really accomplish? I think that goes back to the idea that sometimes focusing on that can be demotivating because we miss out on what was amazing about that, and I don’t think we’ve fully seen the repercussions and the consequences of that uprising fully come into view quite yet.
I think these things happen and then there’s a resettling of consciousness and a reorientation of politics and sometimes that takes a while, but I was always nervous after that that the left would go too far unto well, it didn’t change anything. Then, you know, how demotivating is that? People put their lives on the line. People were brutalized. People were beaten. When all the dust settles, to say it actually gained nothing, nothing important was won, I think is kinda sad and tragic. So, emphasizing the good parts of that, showing how that uprising was truly historical, showing how people came together spontaneously in cities across the country to fight for the same thing, this diverse — for the first time in American history — this diversity in the name of black liberation was seen.
We had this generation of people coming up whose political and social and racial consciousness were radically expanded, if not fully defined and formed in that moment. So, we should be able to critique how the system is irresponsive to these historical uprisings while at the same time saying that those uprisings were historical, they were amazing, they were as heartbreaking as they were optimism-building and that we should take the good with the bad and we should be able to clearly distinguish between the two so that we can continue to motivate, continue to say that there is a path forward; we do have to keep fighting while pointing to the realistic aspects that we still have to overcome. Sometimes falling on the side of pure cynicism is easier, I think, than making those distinctions and trying to pull out the good from the bad.
MEXIE: Yeah. Well, in terms of that, I mean, talking about things that we’ve seen in our lifetimes, I couldn’t imagine years ago having public opinion change so much, hearing people in vast numbers say defund the police, abolish the police, having people from my high school who were apolitical saying things like this. That’s a big change even though necessarily we haven’t abolished the police already, right? Like Shawn said, we do have to measure that benchmark. That is really significant. I can point to ways that it influenced other helpers rising up. In Toronto specifically, there were direct consequences that we can already see and as — Breht, you said there’s so many we haven’t see yet and that we won’t see for years, so I completely agree with you. I think that being a good critic, there’s a point that it just becomes absolutely ridiculous and completely demotivating, so I’m just very excited to keep talking about all the helpers with you all.
AARON: Really quick; sorry to butt in here, but one direct consequence that I think is incredibly timely from those uprisings is the shift in social awareness when it comes to the Palestine liberation movement.
MEXIE: Yes, yeah.
AARON: I think that a whole generation of young people seeing what happened with Black Lives Matter, having their notions of oppression and racialized apartheid and police state violence, all of that was sort of sharpened and formed in the Black Lives Matter uprisings. Then when you look at Israel cracking down on Palestinians, you see the exact same dynamics. It’s much easier for somebody whose political consciousness was steeped in that last year to look at that and have a better take. I think we are seeing a consciousness shift on Israel, Palestine that we have not seen in our lives and that was unthinkable even just a few years ago.
Then the other side of that really quickly is the inevitable backlash which I think can lead people to feeling like nothing was accomplished because every time that there’s a push for progress and movement forward in a society, particularly a settler-colonial white supremacist society, there’s always going to be this often white backlash to it. In the moment it can feel like we didn’t take a step forward at all because now there’s all these reactions against us and that can also lead people to think that nothing at all was accomplished and I think it does take time to settle out. If you look at all other instantiations of this throughout history, there has been this forward progress, then there’s been the backlash, and then there’s — overall, it’s settled into a more progressive state than it was before. That’s the general pattern and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.
MEXIE: Yeah, the backlash is the death now.
MEXIE: The backlash is us winning, right, eventually.
SHAWN: It’s totally true. I saw during the uprising last year people who — like Mexie mentioned — people who I had never seen dip their toe into this stuff being like well, actually, a riot is actually the voice of the unheard. I was like, what the — like, where did you — when did you learn this? That’s amazing. You are not the person I expected to say that. Oh, my god. It’s great. I think your point, Breht, about the way this has affected consciousness in a broader sense and how it affects the way that we had this sort of breakthrough on the way that people talk about Israel and Palestine, where the mainstream is able to acknowledge what’s going on is apartheid and what’s going on is people being deprived of economic, political, and social rights that should be universal.
The way that we’ve seen that spoken about recently is — there’s been a different sort of tone to it. At the end of the day, what happened in Palestine and what Israel did there is not a win for the left. It almost feels vulgar to say it’s a good thing that people reacted to it negatively this time. I think that sort of stuff ties into the sensitivity we’re talking about, about why the negative gets privileged in discussions, is because we’re very sensitive to the idea that we could be indifferent to that sort of suffering. Like, when you look even in the political spectrum here in Canada, Israel/Palestine is the third rail and we’ve had third parties say that Canada should stop selling arms to them.
There’s huge problems with the NDP still, but it’s something I really have never seen in my whole political life, that that threshold was crossed. These things are inadequate and that’s the other thing, is every part of this is — it’s necessary but it’s not sufficient. I think that philosophical construct of something being necessary but not sufficient rather than simply a binary between revolutionary or not or a binary between — those sort of frames aren’t gonna help us understand issues in detail and like Breht was saying, separate the good from bad in a really meaningful way. Notice that the trajectory is in a lot of ways and a lot of contexts moving towards the good.
A lot of that happens from this consciousness-building. I wanted to ask, actually, about when it comes to consciousness-building, it’s a certain type of help that happens. It almost makes me — there’s broadcast educational work like the type of stuff that we do, but there’s also these little conversations where people make these decisions. When I was thinking about this just now when someone was talking — it almost brought me to tears to think about — is there’s these situations where there’s a need for someone to speak out about something. There’s all these incentives to be quiet and there’s all these incentives sometimes where you speak out about something and it’s gonna negatively affect you.
People, because of our sense of fairness, our sense of wanting to help each other, people will rise to the occasion and be the helper in this instance where there might be a social cost to them. I think that’s part of what we’ve seen happen with both the Black Lives Matter uprising as well as the Palestine stuff, is that people who are going to that threshold where they’re being an advocate and who can speak and explain clearly to others what’s going on and help them to understand and help them to grasp what’s happening so they’re informed and they’re fortified and they’re able to then communicate this with others and participate in this movement to more understanding of justice, it’s so beautiful to me and it’s so key to this concept. I wanted to ask everyone about helpers that inspire you. What sort of help is really inspiring?
MEXIE: Well, within this category of consciousness-raisers and people who speak out when it could have a great cost to themselves, I also am often brought to tears. I’m just brought to tears all the time, but especially around help. I don’t know if you all get this as well, but if I witness true empathy or true solidarity or just somebody helping someone, especially when it could come at a cost to themselves, I am weeping. I am just destroyed. It moves me so much. I don’t know, I operate from such a place of empathy and compassion and I think that yeah, following the news and the way that we talk about things so critically, you can almost start to wonder about people’s natures, right? Every time that someone shows me that beautiful empathy and compassion, I’m so moved. I just find it so incredible.
Someone who’s moved me to tears recently, speaking of Israel/Palestine, is someone called Miko Peled. He is Israeli and he’s actually the son of one of the generals who really I guess implemented a lot of Israeli law and Zionist policies. He grew up in a situation where he was obviously being fed a lot of this propaganda. I find it so moving when people have the principle to know that no, that’s not okay, right? He speaks out just vociferously for Palestine. He was recently on the Empire Files. Moved me to tears. I recently saw him; he was participating in an all-day conference. It was live on YouTube and it was mostly Palestinian scholars. He spoke there and his speech, it just moved me. I am actually surprised that he hasn’t been violently attacked or anything in Israel because he is — yeah, he really I think speaks out when it could come at such a cost to him and I just really appreciate that. That’s someone who’s inspired me along those lines.
AARON: Yeah, and I would — I mean, I think we all share this and I think we’ve talked about this behind-the-scenes and probably on episodes in the past of being moved to tears by the humanity of other human beings, often the humanity that shows itself in little everyday ways that aren’t even necessarily getting attention or anybody even sees. When you’re helping somebody in the context of not getting or expecting any sort of praise or reward or a clap on the back, I think there’s something even more profound about it because it comes from such a deep place within you. I had this experience where I will go — we’ve all been, I’m sure, to many protests.
The energy at a protest where you have all these different people coming together, sharing in chants, standing off against police, having each other’s back, handing out water, there’s a communal aspect to that that often brings me to tears. I would find myself so many times — especially last year during the Black Lives Matter uprising — seeing the diversity of people and people coming together from all walks of life to fight for justice. I would find myself standing on the side of the street just trying to hide tears from other people ‘cause nothing specifically happened that should make somebody like me sitting there crying. But it is the cooperation, the coming-together, the having total strangers’ backs.
Even if you’re not black and you could easily recoil into your whiteness and just turn away from the whole thing, but refusing to do that and coming out and standing in solidarity, that’s meaningful to me. It points to something deep in human history and it points to the seeds of humanity’s future. If we are to exist, if we are to take the next step in our evolutionary history and move forward as a global civilization, it’s those seeds of decency, of humanity, of compassion, of love for the other, even the total stranger that are the seeds that we need to water and give sunlight to and help grow and flourish. It’s the exact opposite of the fascist mentality, of the oppressive mentality, of the settler-colonial mentality which actually disconnects you from humanity.
One of the stark examples recently — Abby Martin as we just mentioned did these wonderful interviews on the ground with Israeli settlers and talking about what do we think you should do about the Arabs and the Palestinians? They would just say these horrific things; carpet bomb them, kill the children, et cetera. It really shows you how the dehumanization process where you dehumanize the other, you also simultaneously dehumanize yourself when you can talk about slaughtering children with no moral inclination to say well, maybe I’m going too far. I think on that side of things, you become more of a monster.
Not only are you dehumanizing the other but by doing so, you’re dividing and cutting yourself off from humanity, and you yourself are denigrated, are dehumanized, are made monstrous, and that dynamic I think is alive and well wherever you see oppression, wherever you see racism, wherever you see these dynamics. The oppressor becomes dehumanized in the act of dehumanizing the other. Any time that you see humanity do the opposite I think is really a beautiful thing, especially because all the incentives in our society are really geared towards individualism, getting what you gotta get, go out and get the bag, step on others, do whatever you have to do, blah, blah blah. You’re not only rejecting the stark element of human nature but you’re also rejecting a lot of the incentive structures in society which are pointed in the exact opposite way, and I think that takes courage.
SHAWN: That reminds me of — so, reading for this, I was reading about some studies on what’s called prosocial behavior in psychology which is their name for anything positive. It’s kinda funny; they — within it they’re sort of confused by it. They’re like, we expect people to be more rational than to help each other this much. We need to explain this through studies. But there’s this really fascinating study about how identity and help are connected and how — like with the example of these street interviews with settlers saying these horrible things in Israel, well, they did two studies where they basically had soccer fans. The first time, they prime them on questions about their team, their — like, why their team is the best, this sort of stuff, and then they had them walk to another room where they’d walk past a person who was apparently hurt.
It was an actor pretending to need help. They found that if they prime them about their team and they walked by someone who was wearing the jersey of the rival team, they would stop and help them less often. If they were wearing the same jersey as them, they’d stop and help them more often. I mean, that’s obviously a sad story, but the hopeful part is the other aspect of this study. What they did is they actually — they did a version where they primed people on questions about being a soccer fan and what soccer means to them and why they love soccer. Then in that context when they were primed, when they walked by the person who needed help, the difference between the two groups flattened.
People saw a person with the opposing jersey as someone who was also a soccer fan because they were primed in that sense of identity. Then they helped that person more. It’s sort of sad that we have these barriers at the most extreme turn into very dehumanizing and horrific things to say about other people. But people have the ability to see their sense of identity as larger, and they can expand their in-group to include people on the other side. I find that to be such a fascinating study about the way that people’s behavior can change with such little things as priming them about what group they’re a part of.
BREHT: Not only can that be primed by external conditions but you can also cultivate that. You can purposely set out to cultivate that element of yourself through — I mean, you could do it through service, through moral actions, through spiritual practices, but the expansion, the conscious and purposeful attempt to expand your sphere of concern and who you consider in in your group, you could expand that to all of humanity or all sentient beings in the cosmos itself. This can be something that you can purposefully and intentionally cultivate. Once you start doing that and once you start experiencing that unity with other beings, with other human beings that maybe traditionally or conventionally would be considered an out group, you actually see how it deepens you.
Like I said earlier, how there’s this dehumanization process of the oppressor by his act of oppression, well, the opposite is true as well. By consciously cultivating this other element of unity and connection with other beings and taking seriously the suffering of other beings, you make yourself more human. You are more connected to and engaged in life and things like joy and unity. Those things sort of arise spontaneously and naturally in the space created by that purposeful cultivation. So, I just always want to make that point that if you see that this is possible and maybe you don’t always live up to those standards which none of us do, there are things you can consciously engage in to develop that side of your humanity. You’ll actually find that it makes you a happier, better human being that enjoys your day-to-day existence even more than you did before.
SHAWN: Yeah, I want to second that and I want to give a specific example as well about that feeling of richness, that feeling of deepening yourself through the participation and this process of expanding your understanding and stuff. In particular, during the uprising, Breht, I think I might have mentioned this to you but I listened to an episode that you did that was a collection of black liberation activists from historical periods, and the curation — to put together this group of voices, I can really — I don’t want to overstate it but it connected in a way that has changed the way that I see the world since. That episode of your show literally has given me a sense of purpose about what racism is in society in a way that I never had before, and I feel deepened by it, spending that time connecting with those perspectives and those points of view.
Not only did it give me critical tools to look at the world in a way that I think is more accurate to the experience of people that I consider my cousins, my brothers, my sisters, my fellow people, you know, the more that over the years personally that I’ve tried to expand to include and to understand the difference and to understand other things and deepen the intersubjectivity of my perspective, to bring in perspectives which aren’t the ones that were curated to me when I was a child, the more I felt deeper and more purposeful as a result of it on a personal level. I can just — I want to speak to underline the importance of cultivating that and I also wanted to thank you as a helper in that process of connecting me to these people who had such brilliant things to say.
BREHT: Well, that’s beautiful and I didn’t necessarily think of myself as being a helper in that sense but I’m really glad that it connected with you like that because that’s why I did it. It connected with me like that and like you said, you said it perfectly about giving the curated voices that I’m given in my society. These are not voices that I’ve ever heard but once you hear them, once you read them — and sometimes I would read — if they’re transcripts, I would read them and try to put the emotion into it that you would think would be there if they were saying it because sometimes just reading it deadpan doesn’t make that connection. But once you hear the dignity, the integrity, the decency in those voices, the humanity, you know what the right side of that particular issue is and where these voices are coming from.
It breaks down the divisions between well, I’m a white Canadian and that’s a black American. How could we ever come together and understand each other’s plights or our lives? Just hearing that I think can do that. So, something I definitely try to consciously do and it’s something that has deepened me. The black radical tradition is so fucking important to me. It’s not something that I have to feign or that I have to just put in like a token in my shows. It’s like, it’s a deep spiritual, existential, and political influence on who I am and trying to share that and trying to find creative ways to share that I think is something that we all do in our own unique, different ways, everybody on this podcast right now. In our own humble, unique, and oftentimes creative ways, we try to give voice to different perspectives and build those bridges of humanity across gaps of experience and identity.
AARON: Breht and Mexie, you both mentioned that you had some groups on your mind that you wanted to talk about that you’d been thinking about for this episode, so I’d really like to hear about them.
MEXIE: Awesome, yeah. Well, okay, so, I have a number — I think, okay, I’ll mention four. The first actually my partner brought up to me and was like, this is a really good example, especially right now. My partner is actually a Jewish anti-Zionist activist. Actually, I should say fiance. He’ll probably get mad at me if I don’t say that and he’s listening to this. But yeah, he’s a Jewish anti-Zionist activist and when I asked him hey, who do you think are really great helpers from history, he immediately was like, Albanian Muslims. So, basically, Albanian Muslims hid Jews during the Holocaust to such a great degree Albania emerged from the war with a population of Jewish people eleven times greater than in the beginning.
So, a lot of Jews, thousands of Jews, fled to Albania and then Muslim families hid them at great risk to themselves. This is so significant, obviously, and so significant to him because it dispels these racist tropes that we hear with everything going on right now that Muslims and Jews, they just can’t get along or that Muslims want to harm all Jews or something like that, and just that there’s this whole history of solidarity and mutual aid and compassion and putting yourself on the line for someone at great cost to yourself. I just thought that’s really beautiful. Some other great examples I thought of — Mutual Aid Disaster Relief which started out as Common Ground Clinic.
I’m not sure if people have heard about it, but basically during Hurricane Katrina, the aftermath of that, a former Black Panther, Malik Rahim, put out a call for solidarity and volunteers started coming from all over. They set up a clinic in Malik’s house called Common Ground. They provided free treatment and then people came in from a whole range of different movements like Food Not Bombs, Veterans for Peace, street medic and housing rights collectives. A whole bunch of different people joined together and set up a whole bunch of different things to help people. So, kitchens, they engaged in building takeovers to prevent their destruction, they create additional clinics, built community gardens. You all will love that they established a tool-lending library.
AARON: Very cool.
MEXIE: Shout out library socialism. Yeah, just did all these things; cleaned up debris, et cetera. Then that grew into the Mutual Aid Disaster Relief Network which continues to provide relief for people. They were really present in Puerto Rico. This is, again, something that just moves me to tears. It’s another really big event that happened that I think — I mean, rightfully so people were focused on — I actually made a video about this where I was completely focused on critiquing capitalism and racism and racial capitalism. What was happening to people there, especially in the Superdome, was so unbelievably disgusting. It’s not surprising that we all focus on that and the critique ‘cause that obviously needs to be talked about. But this kinda stuff just completely went under the radar, I think.
To me, this is the kind of stuff that, again, really moves me and gives me that hope and helps me to — as you were talking about — expand my compassion, my universal compassion out further and further and feel the humanity of that. Then I’ll mention the Sikh religion in general. Helping and giving is a really big part of it and in Toronto they always do food serves every week. Yeah, some of my Sikh comrades mentioned that at their holiest place, I guess Harmandir Sahib, they every single day serve 100,000 free meals which are all vegetarian and everyone is welcome. No one is turned away whether religion, caste, race, age, gender, whatever. Just the scale of that is unbelievable. These are the groups I’ve been thinking about in terms of helpers. I love these kinds of exercises.
It’s another reason why I just love doing Positive Leftist News. Doing that every month helps me just as much as it helps other people. I get a lot of comments from people saying that they’re so moved, they’re so excited. I’m like, this helps me, right? Exactly what Breht, you, and Shawn were just talking about, that it helps you not only to focus on this stuff but then to engage yourself in helping, in compassion, and things like that. It lessens your own suffering as it helps others to lessen their suffering as well. There’s nothing better than that, to combat the alienation that we’re all feeling under these oppressive systems.
SHAWN: On that note, I’m gonna throw a link in the description of some evidence from science that says that pro-social behavior reduces the negative effects of stress on your own body. There’s scientific evidence to prove that helping people, being concerned about this stuff and taking action on it helps reduce stress in your body, the things that cause your body to degrade and age and et cetera, the types of stress that you don’t want to have. Secondly, data that shows that pro-social behavior increases the perception of meaning in your life. Again, evidence that shows that people who help each other more, who are more concerned about these things and who take action on it report that they have more meaning in their life than people who don’t, which is a pretty big deal because having a sense of meaning in your life, it’s where people get sort of a grounded sense of who they are and dignity and — their own dignity and stuff like that. This is really, really powerful stuff both for others and for yourself. It’s what we’re wired to do.
BREHT: It’s almost nature’s way of saying you’re on the right path by doing this thing. It’s rooted deeply in our evolutionary history as social beings. None of us would be here if it wasn’t for our profoundly social nature. I always like to point out that the very linguistic structures that you think to yourself in, like, you talk to yourself in your head, you think about yourself; those very linguistic structures come out of our deeply social nature as social beings. If you want to be miserable, if you want to guarantee a life of misery, think about yourself all day long. If you want to work towards a life of joy and meaning and something like happiness, find ways to think about others and to serve others. Maybe we can get more into that as this conversation enters its second phase.
But just to mention some groups; just in this last situation with Israel pummeling Gaza, what you did see — and this goes back to the Mr. Rogers quote and this is sad because it’s become all too routine, but — Gazans coming together to help dig strangers out of the rubble, taking care of each other, holding each other when a parent on camera finds out that their child is dead or this gut-wrenching video of this father going into a morgue to identify his children, and strangers, just random people standing around who maybe are working there or helped to bring the kids in or for whatever reason are there, just sort of holding each other, hugging each other, trying to comfort each other. That is profoundly deep.
We can talk about people hiding Jews from the Nazis or the Underground Railroad trying to get black folks out of the slave south and into the north or even into Canada, nameless, faceless people throughout history who at great cost and risk to themselves put themselves at the service of other human beings when they could much more easily turn away and focus on just keeping themselves safe. In today’s world, two areas of work that I don’t think necessarily get the attention they deserve but are things that really mean a lot to me is people who work in hospice environments and people who work in prison environments, this idea of — especially in our society, our throwaway culture where productivity is all that matters.
The elderly get tossed aside and put out of sight and out of mind and the same exact things happen with prisoners. People that go into these contexts and try to reach out in a million different ways — I mean, there’s a million different programs in these instances or in the hospice context which you’re — people with maybe some spiritual achievements in their life help people to die better, or this new science coming out that psychedelic treatment mixed with therapy at the end of life can do a lot to calm some of the existential anxieties that come with terminal illnesses, for example. These are people that we don’t know their names oftentimes.
They don’t get the pat on the back, they certainly don’t get paid to do this work but who, out of the goodness of their heart, go into some of the hardest and worst parts of society in the sense of the bleakest things you could put yourself in, right, somebody dying or somebody locked in prison for life, and committing your life to trying to help them, trying to keep that flame of humanity kindled and trying to make connections in those environments. Those are things that I am deeply admirable of and are the sort of helpers that I think we’re talking about in wanting to refine this conversation.
SHAWN: Yeah, it’s a really humbling and beautiful thought, and sort of sad in a way to think of all the unperceived help out there. There’s part of me that just wants to perceive it. I want to know what everyone did to help each other because it’s so beautiful and meaningful. You see these little moments — sometimes you’re out in public where someone stumbles and the person next to them — it’s not even that they thought about it. It’s not even they were like oh, it’s time to help someone. In a blink of an eye where they’re already on this person helping them up; are you okay? This sort of stuff. If one person does it, people around them are doing it. This is happening thousands and thousands and thousands of times a day, and often the only people who see it are the people who are there. It’s just beautiful to think about how much that is out there already right now where neighbors are helping each other, where senior neighbors are doing childcare for young families and there’s this sympathetic or there’s this complementary relationship where the elders, their children are out in the world and they enjoy having more social company.
The parents are overworked and they need someone to watch their kids and it works just perfectly, like pieces together like a puzzle. That’s sort of what I think about help as, and the certain level — it’s like, when things just come together so perfectly, there’s a need and then that need is filled or there’s two needs that fill each other perfectly. It’s like a mixture between the satisfying feeling of popping bubble wrap or something, like really systematically doing some repetitive, perfect behavior that –everything in its right place, except it’s this thriving, growing, spontaneous, out-there, 99% Invisible kinda thing where people are just constantly — someone trips and the other person helps them up. It’s not even a thing that they had to think about; it’s just like, it’s what we’re really like on that level.
AARON: I think, yeah, hearing you all talk about these different levels of the way people help — like, we can talk about some of the greatest events of helping in human history like the Underground Railroad Breht mentioned, or we can talk about someone fell down on the street and a couple people rushed over to ask if they were okay. It’s important to see that that is always happening, but just as you were all talking about it, again I had this sense of a potential listener or the part of me that feels this way when it’s like yeah, but is that enough? The sense of chronic insufficiency, feeling hopeless that we can’t actually fix the problems. Then I was also thinking about what you were saying earlier, Shawn, about necessary and sufficient goodness, all these events of helping or whatever.
We could say that’s necessary or it’s a good thing, but it’s not sufficient. When you’re looking at some of these historical ones especially, and returning to what Breht’s saying about the uprisings last summer and thinking about other versions of that in the past and the clearest parallel to the recent Black Lives Matter protest is the Civil Rights Movement in America in the 1960s. I can just imagine the sense while that was going on that everything that people were doing to help to try to fix this problem wasn’t good enough. I don’t quite know how to say this, but I feel like these kinds of things are always gonna feel insufficient up until they’re not, up until something does change and it gets better. Then it’s like, even that’s insufficient ‘cause you’ll nest it inside like the next goal after that.
There’s something about the way the world is that that happens, but you do have to mark those benchmarks and celebrate those wins. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s is a great example because there were real wins there. It wasn’t sufficient; we didn’t end white supremacy but settler-colonial white — that had — that’s a trajectory that’s been happening for centuries and the trajectory to stop it, the movements against it, is still happening. But it’s like, the enormity of what we’re facing can crush our sense of hope or make it feel hopeless, but it can also be comforting in a weird way in terms of — the fact that people pushing for justice have been able to make any gains against something that horrifying that was going on in history for that long, that we have made some progress against it is like — it’s actually really important and really inspiring.
BREHT: One way I think about this, these little acts, they’re necessary but they’re not sufficient. But I kinda view on the grand scale of history and maybe people will disagree with this maybe even teleological view of nature’s development; I view all of us, all beings, everything in nature almost in a Spinozist sense of nature waking up to itself through us. If you look back over human evolution, there is this tendency broadly-conceived, right, starting from when we were just climbing out of the trees to where we are today, there’s this trajectory of expanding the sense of community to larger and larger groups of people.
That is a rocky, precarious process, but you can think of tribal societies, pre-agricultural revolution or even the early days of it where inner-community people are taken care of, there’s a sense of everybody has a role to play, et cetera, et cetera, but there’s also this sense of other communities, the other tribes — there is this constant sense of warfare. Then you get into feudalism and you have these fiefdoms and kingdoms and you have people inside who maybe treat each other pretty well in some respect although all of these brutal hierarchies that have been introduced, but there’s this warring, and then you get to the place of nation states where in the United States, 350 million people in one quote, unquote “community”, well, that gives rise to a whole bunch of contradictions.
When we see something like 9/11 or a natural disaster, people tend to come together although that’s not always true. Covid has this really grotesque signal that we’re a very sick society, where there’s this external virus that comes in and it gives us a chance to maybe come together as a society, but we’re so polarized and broken that that doesn’t really happen. I feel like there’s this pressure on humanity that we have to become a global civilization and a global community. We have to outgrow our quote, unquote “tribalism” which manifests in today’s world as nation states on the international scale but also as racial groups or political groups inside the nation state.
There’s this contradictory movement towards higher forms of community and what these little acts of kindness and selflessness that have always been present in humanity represent to me, at least, are the seeds of what we could become, the promises of what humanity could and in fact needs to become if we want to rise to the higher levels. Perhaps there is a community galactically that you have to over — think about the Great Filter and the Fermi paradox and all of this stuff; what does it take to reach this next level where we could maybe become a global civilization and earn the right to enter into something like a galactic community?
Whether that exists or not, it seems to be that there’s this trajectory that we’re aiming toward which is imploring us to widen our circle of concern and in fact, widen our circle of who we sense ourselves to be, beyond the ego, beyond the little tribalisms of society into a bigger, broader, more expansive sense of self, that I am part of this interconnected web of being and my happiness and safety and wellbeing depends on the happiness and safety and wellbeing of the environment and the people and the beings around me. There is always this insufficiency to these things, particularly when you look at all of the terrible things in contrast to some of the good things. But it’s like, this aspect of our consciousness and of ourselves that we need to continue to cultivate and develop if we hope to reach these higher levels of being.
If you view consciousness as I do, as not outside of nature but as nature waking up to itself through itself, we are a mechanism by which nature comes to greater and greater understandings of itself. It’s pointed in this general direction of expansion of the self to include other beings. I kinda view it like that. Maybe that’s wrong. Maybe it’s just a nihilistic universe of meaninglessness and there is no teleology and there is no trajectory upward, but I sense that there might be. That says to me that we need to continue to cultivate those elements, realizing their insufficiency now but realizing that they are the seeds and promises of what we could become, thinking about it as such and nurturing it as such. Maybe that’s insufficient but that’s kind of how I think about it.
MEXIE: I think that’s exactly right and I completely share your belief about consciousness and nature waking up to itself through itself. I think that’s beautiful and yeah, I’m just really glad that you brought up all of that around expanding the self and moving beyond ego and things like that because as I mentioned before, those are the best antidotes to the detachment and the alienation that we’re feeling under late-stage capitalism, right? That lessens our suffering, as Shawn pointed out, there. I love when there’s scientific evidence to back up these fundamental truths that we’ve known for so long. But yeah, it lessens our suffering and it lessens the suffering of others, and that’s the path to what I would understand as real, lasting happiness rather than the fleeting happiness of being really hedonistic or trying to build yourself up at the expense of others.
But I think that’s why it’s so important to recognize these imperceivable moments that you were all talking about. We need to actually perceive that and be more attentive to it, right? Because obviously the stakes are different when we’re talking about a really important historical event like Muslims hiding Jews in the Holocaust, whatever; the stakes are a lot higher there than somebody — or a group of people seeing somebody fall and picking them up. But the underlying intention to help, to give, to give freely even if it could come at a cost to ourselves, to give freely even if we’re giving something that we value or that we need, that intention is what we need everyone to cultivate if we are going to create lasting change or if we are going to come together and have successful, collective action and solidarity movements and things like that.
That’s actually what we need to amplify. I think the fact that so much of the help that goes on in our society is not perceived by anyone. It lets people come to the conclusion — like, it lets a lot of people come to the conclusion that they are these self-made people, that they didn’t actually receive much help. I guess you see that more often with wealthier people who don’t realize your parents, your family, your friends, your bus driver, your teacher, your doctor, everyone who has helped you along the way, you don’t understand that, you don’t understand your privilege.
Then it also leads to what I think is really interesting; I don’t know if you have all looked into the kind of studies they have around wealthier people and why they actually tend to give less, but there’s a lot of different evidence out there that shows that the wealthier you become, the more antisocial you become as well, in a number of ways. People will say well, it’s maybe unclear whether or not it is money and wealth that actually corrupts, which it probably is, or if it’s just certain individuals or more — they have a higher predilection for hoarding things and they’re people who tend to become wealthier.
There’s probably truth in both of those statements, but the fact that when people kind of reach this state where they feel like they don’t actually need anybody else, that maybe they have all the wealth and power and privilege that they don’t need help from other people, then they give less help themselves because they kind of cut themselves off from that mutual aid or reciprocal kind of relationship with other people and other beings, and they believe that their money insulates them, and it does. It does insulate them to such a degree, but I think that under our capitalist and neoliberal system, we’re fed this ideology that really makes us ashamed. It makes us feel a lot of shame if we actually have to ask someone for help or ask anyone, because that’s supposed to be an individual failing on our part and it’s supposed to be shameful and we attach a lot of pride — we really valorize people who seemingly don’t need any help.
But I feel like if we spent more time perceiving all of these unperceived — probably 90% of all the help that’s going on out there right now, all these people that, yeah, we don’t have names, we don’t have faces, and whatever; if we can start to perceive that more, I think that will help to push back against this kind of indoctrination that we get under these systems that make helping or receiving help this shameful thing and give people this idea that they’re not being helped when there’s no one that’s not been helped from the day that they were born ‘til the day they die. I don’t know if any of that made sense.
SHAWN: There’s so much brilliant stuff in there. One thing that sticks out right away that I just feel is good to mention that you touched on there, Mexie, is that we’ve been talking up how great help is and it might give the impression that that means that in order to be good, you have to receive no help and just give lots of help all the time or something like that. Like, that could be an implicit — if we’re not careful to articulate the full depths of helpiness — because you mentioned such an important point which is that when you need help, asking for help is so beautiful and wonderful. It’s like, asking for help — if you need help and you can ask for it, you’re playing your role so perfectly in this whole beautiful process of what makes humanity have such beautiful potentialities.
We have this sense of that if we need help, it’s embarrassing or we have to put it off or figure out some way to handle everything by ourselves. That sense of shame is so wrong. It’s possible to be overbearing and demanding everyone help you in all these different ways all the time or something like that, and I’m gonna assume that someone who’s anxious about asking for help isn’t in that category, but if you need help and you ask for it, it’s such a — it gives people the potential to rise to the occasion. By asking people for help, you’re actually creating opportunities for people to exercise ethics. You’re creating opportunities for people to live more fulfilling lives, and the system of the help-plex, the way that all this stuff works together, it’s not a unidirectional thing.
It really occurred to me when you mentioned that about — the shame about not asking for help, or the shame about asking for help, I think it’s important to not have shame about asking for help when you need it and actually see it as part of this beautiful process. We’re giving people the opportunity to rise to the occasion and stand up for each other like we just have this tendency to do. There’s this classic meditation I heard on some podcast ages ago; it’s like, a little imagination exercise here, if you’ll join me. Imagine you see an elderly woman carrying all these bags of groceries, too much for her to carry, and she’s about to drop them. She’s maybe dropping them. She’s trying to cross the road; oh, she’s got all these groceries.
The more you think about this, the more there’s this part of you that’s like, I want to grab the groceries. I want to grab one of these — the more vividly you imagine this person struggling with being able to carry this stuff across the street, the more the part of you that wants to help starts firing. It’s like, you can actually meditate on this and really cultivate and focus on that little — maybe it’s a neurochemical, maybe it — but you can actually feel it. You can feel that part of you that wants to help so strongly when you focus on imagining something like this. Then to connect that with the knowledge that it’s not just you that feels that way, and that if you were struggling with your groceries, everyone would have that feeling about you. It’s just so beautiful and true. Yeah, it’s really important to ask for help when you need it because people want to help. If you give them the opportunity to help, you’re giving them an opportunity to have a more meaningful life.
BREHT: Yeah, and exactly what we’ve been talking about; it feels good for you to help somebody, to really be able to help somebody. Then, that’s the same for other people helping you. So, when you’re asking for help, if you’re doing it in a genuine, good faith, and really-needed way, you can think about it not as I’m burdening somebody else with my shit; you can think of it as I need help, I know it feels good to help others, I’m kind of giving somebody else an opportunity to feel good by helping me. That also, I think, requires setting the ego aside because the ego is going to either say I don’t want to burden anybody, blah, blah, blah, my problems aren’t really that serious, or they’re going to say I don’t really need — I don’t need help. Other people need help, but not me.
I think breaking those barriers down and having that communication and that sort of interpenetration of one another I think is an important aspect of this. Speaking to the cultivation aspect, there’s other meditations within Buddhism; there’s metta, loving kindness meditations where it starts off like, you know, think of somebody you really have an uncomplicated, loving relationship with like a child or a partner or a best friend. Bring up those feelings. You really want them to be happy. You really want them to be successful in life and to be safe and to not have worries. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re building it up. Then it’s like okay, think of somebody that you’re neutral to, somebody that you’re not really close to; maybe a coworker or somebody you just randomly came across today.
Those feelings are already dredged up because of the previous person; can you now extend that to this neutral person? Then eventually you work towards a person that you have negative feelings toward or a very complicated relationship with, and it’s this purposeful cultivation of that sense of compassion and love and wanting to help other people. I also find in my own life when you are generous, when you go out of your way to help other people, when you go out of your way to make sure other people are okay, it comes back to you. It almost sounds cliche; you give what you get, but you really are putting something out into the world and when your time of need comes, it comes back in abundance.
I’ve found this in a million small and large ways in my own life, that I will go out of my way to try to cultivate the stuff through acts of generosity and letting go of things that maybe there’s this initial hesitation to let go of, but give it away. Give it to the other person. Practice doing that over and over again and you’ll start to see that when your moment of needing help comes, which it always does, you don’t even need to ask. People will pour in and do that for you, and there is this sort of reciprocal automaticity to that that I think is really fascinating and I really encourage people to experiment with in their own life. Not only just giving help or being generous when it’s asked of you, but actually going out of your way when it’s not asked of you to think how can I make this person happier?
Not in some big way where necessarily — where you need to go out and help somebody in hospice, but even your partner, right? You’re in this relationship. You live in the same house. You go through your routines. You kinda get stuck in these routes where you’re thinking about yourself a lot. Yeah, when something bad happens you have each other’s back, but it’s actually really interesting to experiment with what can I do right — out of the blue for no reason to make my partner happier, to remind them how much I love them, to go out of my way to make their day a little bit better? Then to try to find ways of doing that with random people in your life.
Not in an overbearing way where you’re like, you’re my project today, but in a sincere, authentic, I’m sort of not wanting to think about myself and my needs and what I want to do next all day. I’m actually going to purposefully cultivate this intention to everybody I come across in a day; how can I in the smallest ways, in the small, everyday million little ways can I make their day better, can I serve them in this moment? Sometimes it’s as simple as some kind words. Sometimes it’s as simple as a thoughtful gesture. But by doing that and you do it over and over and over again, it does become automatic and you get to see this reciprocosity that comes automatically from the people around you when you cultivate that in your life and in your relationships. It’s really, really beautiful and it’s really profound. I really encourage people to experiment with that.
AARON: Yeah. I think it’s really important to be cultivating these kinds of things just because — I’m just thinking about how you can’t have a society that isn’t built on people helping each other and doing things for each other because we can’t survive by ourselves at all. Like, you can’t. You can maybe live for a while in the woods by yourself, I guess, if you’ve had all these skills that you got from society and other things that you — it’s an absurd idea that you could be okay just by yourself. But the neurosis or illusion of capitalism or of the way that we’ve set things up is that whenever you’re doing something that’s useful for society, the immediate goal that’s been placed in front of you is to make money for yourself or to build your brand or to build skills that will be useful in the marketplace, ultimately reflecting back on you, your career’s success or how much money you have in your bank account, or how many likes you can get on your posts on Instagram or whatever.
Even when we’re doing things that are beneficial to other people, there’s this layer in front of it of how is this benefiting me? How is this affecting my bank account? How is this affecting my ranking on the myriad of ways that we’ve designed to rank ourselves against each other and to measure ourselves against each other and to be better than this person or not as good as that person or not as good as we should have been or just constantly turning the focus back on yourself. It does take intentional cultivation sometimes to think about doing something for other people when you’re not getting paid for it or when they’re…you can’t post it on social media and get likes for it, or whatever the thing is, because we’re so trained in that other direction. But we do have both of those potentials inside ourselves.
I think that’s also what causes, in some sense, the rich person to think that they never got help from anyone because they were just an individual interfacing with the system. They made money, they spent money. All the people helping them who made the things that they bought or who brought the thing to their house or built their house or whatever, that’s all invisible or it’s covered up by this veneer of well, yeah, other people technically did it but I did it for myself because I made the money and I paid them. It’s like, it’s this — the way we’ve set up the game that we’re playing for each other is not an expansive sense of self. It’s in a very limited self-reflective — just constant self-conscious, self-awareness self.
But then at the same time, we’ve developed all this technology that’s allowed us to not only communicate with people around the world like the internet, the more recent technological advancement, but even in the last hundred, two hundred years, three hundred years; steam engines and then airplanes and the ability to make these physical borders and these nations, this previous limit to the sense of self that we set up that in some sense is maintained by the inability to move around the world easily or to communicate around the world easily. The technology that this society has been building has been poking all these holes in these borders of identity and identity groups that we’ve had by allowing people to connect with each other and empathize with each other and see the humanity in each other.
It’s just this moment of extreme tension between these two things because they’re both happening at the same time, this huge acceleration of numbers and ranking and who’s better than who, and the top ten billionaires and oh, Elon Musk got unseated by the French guy or — it’s, ugh. But then at the same time there’s this growing, expanding consciousness of the various struggles of people all over the world and growing global solidarity among all of these different groups. It’s slow and it’s growing slower than feels sufficient, but the horror of how bad the individualist mindset of capitalism can seem I think is not sufficiently matched yet, but the pieces are falling into place of how we can get past that, how we can expand that sense of self.
You work on it on two levels; you can cultivate it in yourself in your day to day experience, helping the people around you. It’s important to stay focused on what’s right in front of you on one end and then on the other end to also think about it on that bigger scale and the human family and global struggles and all of us together in this thing, on this — on spaceship Earth that we have to pilot together.
MEXIE: I’m really glad that you brought up the need to cultivate this. Shawn, you brought up that we can really feel how others feel and how people — because of this sense of being able to feel how others feel or empathy are driven to act in compassionate and — kind of ways, and that that feels really good, right? It feels really good to help others in that way. Yeah, I just wanted to mention that the neuroscience behind this is really, really interesting because there’s been so much advancement in the science that we know now that when we are feeling empathy or when we witness something happening to others, we’re not just activating the visual cortex; it’s actually activating the same neural pathways in our brains as if we were experiencing that stuff ourselves.
To me, that’s really, really fascinating because it’s this mirroring that happens. Really, all it takes is just observing a person and what’s going on with them, and then the exact same neural pathways in our brain will light up as if that is happening to ourselves. One example is if you see somebody get pricked with a needle on their hand or something like that, the exact same order and sensory areas are activated in your own brain. I just love that. I love when science comes through to prove these, again, kind of I think really old and fundamental truths that we know but that people are still — tend to be kinda skeptical about because we are indoctrinated with this kind of, you know, oh, humans are just greedy by nature and that kind of thing.
But in terms of cultivating it, maybe this is a weird thing to bring up, but recently I fell down this YouTube rabbit hole and I’ve been watching people who have antisocial personality disorders. I guess they would be called sociopaths or psychopaths and whatnot. I actually found some research — I mean, first of all, they’re talking about the stigma and whatnot and that they can, too — they don’t actually feel empathy in the same way that neurotypicals do, but they can consciously choose to behave in social ways and that they can still feel good about that. I just found this all really interesting. Then I found some science that went along with this.
Basically it’s — a bunch of studies found that people who I guess would be classified as psychopaths or people with antisocial personality disorder, if they observe somebody harming another person, they do exhibit a lot less brain activity than neurotypical people. But when those same people are asked to attempt to empathize with the person, then their brain activity goes back to baseline levels. It suggests that even people — ‘cause the videos that I’ve been seeing are for people who — they suffered really intense traumas when they were children and that’s what led to their antisocial personality disorder, so it suggests that they probably have the same amount of ability to be empathetic or to understand that feeling; it’s just, it doesn’t happen for them spontaneously.
I found this all really fascinating because I think that a lot of times in our society when we think about people who don’t give or who are really selfish, greedy capitalists, heads of state and things like that that are just committing war crimes and all these atrocities, we kind of just look at them and we think oh, those are just sociopaths or those are just psychopaths or whatever. Shawn, you said before that if people see that someone is in need, then mostly everyone will have that emotional, empathetic reaction, but some people don’t. Then we kind of take that to be like oh, well, those are the people running everything. There’s no hope, right?
But I think that it’s really interesting that actually no, not at all; that there can be this conscious decision to have empathy and to act that way no matter what has happened in a person’s life and that therefore, for everyone — because I think everyone is, to some sense, desensitized to what’s going on in the world because we’re just fed it all the time and it’s hard to have empathy, it’s hard to have that deep feeling of empathy over and over and over, seeing all of the atrocities that are happening in the world all the time especially if you feel like oh, well, that’s in another country; those people aren’t quote, unquote “my people”. But I think it’s important to know the extent of this, that even someone who doesn’t have this innate feeling that they can generate spontaneously that we would call empathy, that you can still drum that up consciously, right?
I think that for everyone, no matter where you are, neurotypical or what, yeah, I think as we’ve been talking about, the cultivation of this is so important. To me, this just gives me hope that it’s like, no, there aren’t people that are just evil. You know what I mean? There are people who have suffered a lot and who might now have differences in terms of empathy and how that effects their behavior, but none of this is ever set in stone and we can, all of us, work to cultivate this more broad sense of self and this more broad sense of the collective. Yeah, I just feel like that is so hopeful. Maybe that’s a weird place to have taken it, to start talking about psychopaths, but yeah, I just find that really interesting.
BREHT: I also think — really quickly — the cultivation of systems with incentive structures that are geared toward pro-social behavior can do a lot. There’s this tendency to individualize a systematic incentive structure. Actually, the CEOs and the politicians, they’re just sociopaths individually. Well, actually, the system itself is sociopathic and it gears people toward sociopathic ends. If you want to climb the ladder in a sociopathic system, you have to embrace quote, unquote “sociopathic elements” within yourself to advance. While we want to build communities and individuals that are healthier, we also want to build systems that have incentive structures in the pro-social direction. I think that’s where critiques of capitalism and imperialism are absolutely necessary.
MEXIE: Hell yeah. Thank you for that, yeah. Great point.
SHAWN: Institutionally, we want to be able to help the helpers and facilitate these things within us about helping to create institutional forms that can reflect this and bring it to a higher level, take these aspects within us, these things that are potentials within us that we do on an individual level and create institutions that allow people to supersize their impact by giving them access to resources or direct democratic duocracy kind of way that people can come together and do things and have the resources behind it. It feels like a political plateau worth pursuing along these lines, the institutionalization of the helping spirit within us. But I really appreciate the bringing up of sociopaths because — I think this is what Eugene Debs was talking about when he said I’m not one bit better than the meanest on earth.
He wasn’t just talking about people in prison being criminals or whatever; he was actually asserting this universalness to his politics and his humanity and saying I want to extend sympathy and understanding to the most unsympathetic and the most non-understandable of the human species because that’s my responsibility. It’s a political responsibility but it’s also — I think it’s a spiritual sort of truth. It’s something that — it’s a sense of meaning inside of us that — it transcends what we typically think of as politics, of these competing teams of — or flags or people that you’re voting for or whatever, or the hot takes of the week or something like that. But it’s this deeper sense of all these things that we’ve been talking about, about the way that we are connected to each other and we can see ourselves in others and we want to expand our human community to the largest scale.
What I’d say as someone who personally — at this time, I’m an atheist. I feel pretty strongly that the universe isn’t in the shape of a god. That’s how I feel, but the — at the same time, I’m very interested in the evidence as we know it in these fields. What I can report is that all of the evidence that I’m familiar with or all the evidence that I care to remember — maybe there’s some contradicting stuff out there, but all the evidence that I care to remember and that I can list off the top of my head really, really does back this theory that what goes around comes around, these truths that are — like Mexie said, old truths, and we’ve got these new ways of validating them. One mechanism, for example, that we could say; why does what goes around comes around — we can map this out in a very materialist kind of way.
We can say well, Breht mentioned when he does more good things for people, more good things happen to him. Well, what could cause that? Well, first of all, could have a good reputation. People are like oh, that’s the guy that helped my friend with so-and-so or whatever like that, so that’s one material connection. Another material connection might be Breht’s attitude because we have evidence that shows that people actually get happier from giving things away than from receiving them, literally. They report that they’re happier and children report that they’re happier when they give things away, too. We think of kids as these greedy little — dirty hands, stealing toys from each other; not what the evidence shows. In this scenario, Breht’s helped someone. He’s feeling good about it.
If you’re feeling good about it, subtle things change about the ways the muscles are sitting on your face, your posture, things like that. You’re more open up, so then you — more opportunities might open up where someone sees oh, this is an approachable person; I’m gonna say hi to them on the bus or whatever, or I’m gonna notice that they dropped their wallet on the ground and tell them to pick it up and this sort of stuff. There’s this — we can track if we want to from the most hardcore atheistic perspective that we want or even antagonistic to spirituality if we wanted to go that far. We can still trace all of these things as principles which have a material basis. Albert Einstein; famous for his participation in science, famous for being a genius. He invented genius hair. Albert Einstein was a socialist and Albert Einstein said something really beautiful that I got — this is — actually, I got from reading this Ram Dass book How Can I Help? Been thinking about this episode and Ram Dass was a new age guy.
BREHT: I love him.
SHAWN: This is what Albert Einstein said; a human being is part of a whole called by us the universe, a part limited in time and space. They experience themselves, their thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of their consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Obviously, also Carl Sagan; we are a way for the universe to know itself. These are heavyweights. These are titans. This is Mr. Science himself. I just — I don’t see these ideas as being in contradiction at all.
I’m probably gonna keep on throwing out more studies that I found out about or I have in front of me here because they’re fascinating. But I think both of these ways of understanding this topic with or without the citations and the processes behind that and all that sort of stuff, they’re both valid ways of approaching this topic and coming to the right conclusions about our universal humanity. But just for example, I just want to mention this study ‘cause it’s wild. It’s about — says something about who we are as people at the most fundamental level from a young age. Babies as young as six months, they do this study where they show them a video of a circle struggling to roll up a hill and then a yellow triangle comes and helps the circle get up the hill.
Then another triangle comes, a purple triangle, and pushes the circle down the hill. The babies will watch this video over — this — you have to understand what babies are understanding ‘cause they can’t talk. You have to figure out these weird ways to do it. So, they watched this video over and over again until the baby loses interest, and then they present the baby with a scenario where there’s the yellow triangle and the purple triangle, the helpful triangle and the unhelpful triangle. Any guesses which one the babies tend to pick?
MEXIE: Helpful triangle.
SHAWN: They pick the helpful triangle. These are proto-humans that are so — all they’re doing is looking at things and eating and crying, you know, and crapping. They’re not — they haven’t experienced culture yet, really, except in this passive sort of way, and they’re already — through a brief experiment, they’re picking the helpful triangle over the — they’re like, this one is a friend. Like, this one helps out circles in need. I prefer it. That’s so deep in us and for me is more evidence not just of the specifics but also of this broader, spiritual truth about our interconnectedness, our responsibility to each other, our responsibility to step into and be as much as we can, our place, our role within this system, this co-help system, this mutual aid system that defined our evolutionary trajectory and defines our potentials for the future of who we can be both on an individual level but most crucially on a societal level.
How are we gonna come together and have a world that works for everyone, a world that recognizes that none of us are one bit better than the meanest on earth and that recognizes that helpers need the help to help more, and as long as we stop preventing people from helping each other, there’s enough help to go around? It’s spiritual but it’s also hard science and Albert Einstein agrees with me, so — that’s weird, you disagree with Albert Einstein? That’s the word we use sarcastically when someone’s not smart. That’s how smart he is.
BREHT: Yeah, no, absolutely. If we take seriously this idea that through consciousness nature comes to know itself, and that’s just kind of logical and scientific as well, right? Because consciousness doesn’t exist outside of nature. Consciousness is a product of nature through the manifestation of evolution via natural selection, and as consciousness gets to these higher levels, the consciousness of a human, for example, is in some ways deeper, more profound than the consciousness of lower animals. This consciousness move upwards is also sort of synonymous with this movement toward unity, toward caring about others, toward this more holistic conception of the world and one’s place within it.
So, yeah, science reveals to us that there’s this deep aspect of caring, and evolution explains to us how humans in particular developed this capacity to care about others, but even as human consciousness develops more and more, there is this breaking down of barriers of division. We start seeing it in our philosophy, in our science, in our morality, this push towards breaking down division and moving toward unity. Nature itself is a totality. The cosmos comes out of the Big Bang, an infinitesimal point. Space and time itself can be traced back to a combination so finite it’s smaller than an atom and it explodes out into all its particularities and specificities. Then there’s this evolutionary movement toward a coming back to a recognition of the inherent unity of all beings.
It has to happen through consciousness because consciousness is how nature becomes aware of itself and becomes aware of that totality and that unity. So, yeah, I think it’s incredibly interesting that we can see that at such a young age in children themselves. You can explain it particularly through evolutionary theory, but I think there’s also this deeper movement towards the comprehension of unity that exists within nature. I would not be surprised if we do come across alien life and their way of being is a more advanced form of this recognition of unity. I would be very surprised if we came across an alien species and they’re super individualistic and are constantly at war with other aliens. That’s a projection of humanity onto the cosmos. We should be scared if aliens come ‘cause they’re gonna fuck us up and take our land and resources, ‘cause that’s what we do to everybody else. I don’t know, I don’t really know what I’m saying. I don’t know if I’m being as articulate as I want to be there, but…
SHAWN: I love that you brought up aliens, though. The first time you brought up aliens, I was like fuck yeah.
BREHT: Also, I love Ram Dass. Also, Einstein said I believe in the god of Spinoza. Spinoza has the famous quote, “God or nature?” He’s like, you can call it either thing. It is the same thing. It is a totality. We are all participants in it and for that, Spinoza got called an atheist and a pantheist. But it’s interesting because the same trends that bring science and spirituality together whether it’s pantheism or atheism or whether it’s the expansion of the self or the negation of the self, through these opposites there is a unity and I also find that incredibly fascinating.
MEXIE: Yeah, and that’s — it’s just all the more reason why we need to struggle so hard against this sociopathic system as you described it, Breht, because yeah, I mean, what greater tragedy than to have that beautiful unity that we see in children just completely beat out of us by the system and to desensitize us and bring us further and further away from our humanity and who we are, you know? It’s just all the more reason to struggle so hard against that because yeah, the beauty — this is why I get so moved to tears when I see people exhibiting that in real life. It’s so beautiful and yeah, it’s unbelievable the systems that we’ve developed that are just so contrary to who we are on a really deeply fundamental level.
HOST: With me is Ram Dass, a noted spiritual teacher and author. Well, you suggest in your most recent book How Can I Help? that through service one finds a path to god or to enlightenment. I sense that in all religions, there is this path of service and that seems to come as close as religion really gets to political action.
RAM: Yeah, but the difference is where you do the service from. There are an awful lot of religion — religious organizations that do service but they do service like we’ll help the poor. It is a way that reinforces roles and the helped is disenfranchised and the helper is empowered. That’s not exactly karma yoga. The use of serving somebody to transcend the dualism between the server and the served; it’s not the act itself. I can take this cup of water and I can offer it to you in a way where I build myself up and put you down by doing it, or I can offer it in a way where it’s our cup of water. You need it? You drink from it. I need it? I drink from it. Then you’re just doing what you’re doing ‘cause you’re doing what you’re doing. You are the help; you’re not the helper.
You’re the help, and it’s the question of whether you identify with the role or not. When you identify with a role, it ends up being divisive. It separates people. There are plenty of people in hospitals who are surrounded by well-meaning people who do good, and the person feels isolated and lonely ‘cause everybody’s busy loving them but they’re loving them as an object, helping them as an object. The art is being with somebody as subject, not as object.
HOST: You often use the phrase hanging out together.
RAM: Hanging out, yeah. Who’s getting helped remains open to question. If you’re not getting helped by being a helper, forget it. You must be standing in the wrong place.
HOST: What you’ve done in this book is you’ve attempted to really address that question for people who sincerely want to help. When they come up against it and realize there’s so many of the things that we do that we think are helping and not working.
RAM: But it doesn’t mean not to help. It means to use your experience of helping as a way to grow. There’s such potential growth in helping another human being if you’ll be truthful about it all. Watch yourself get entrapped in a role and then sit down and quiet down and see what you did and come back in again. Losing it is part of the journey. You lose it, you get up. As Aurobindo says, you brush yourself off, you look sheepishly at god, and you take the next step. It’s a lovely image. Then you fall on your face again. Helping is just a beautiful art form because we have such a natural compassionate heart and what we are really afraid of is our own heart because our heart would give away the store. The heart says here, take it. You need it? You take it. Take my life, take my money, take my car.
The mind is saying now, watch it; think about tomorrow. Christ’s image; be like the lilies in the field. That’s like, be the heart. Just trust it all. Open. It’s okay. Realize you can set limits without having to close yourself down from yourself. Instead of averting your eyes from pain and suffering, turn around and embrace it into yourself without being afraid you’re gonna be drowned by it. We are so frightened of that that we have built stuff that has ended up starving us to death. We are starving because we’re afraid of our own hearts. There must be another way. That’s what you do — helping to explore, how you can allow that spontaneous compassion and spontaneous generosity to express itself.
AARON: There’s one last thing that I was just thinking that I wanted to throw in here ‘cause I think it’s also important when we’re talking about helping people and helping each other, and especially when we’re talking about that in terms of not being so individualistic and not centering ourselves so much in how we’re seeing the world. Kind of on the note Breht was saying about unity and opposites, there’s also a thing that happens a lot in our society where we don’t just turn in on ourselves and don’t help other people anymore because we’re so focused on this individualism and these numbers and these rankings; we also kind of stop helping ourselves or being compassionate to ourselves because all of our energy is directed towards — the things that we’re doing is — these external validations of yourself; the numbers, the bank accounts, et cetera, but not what you actually need.
It’s like, there’s — ends up being overlap there because a big part of what you need is to help other people, but sometimes you also need to extend that compassion and that caring and that willingness to just do something nice for someone for no reason to yourself, because we can be our own harshest critics and we can be really kind of cruel to ourselves in ways that we wouldn’t do to other people partially because we’re whipping ourselves so hard to meet these standards of whatever we need to do to get by in this society, and partially just because it’s the other side of that coin of this game that we’re all playing of ranking ourselves constantly. This individualistic ego-driven perspective is that you’re either a winner or you’re a loser.
When you’re thinking about things in those terms, even if you think you’re mostly a winner, then you’re just afraid of becoming a loser. Yeah, if you think of — Donald Trump’s the perfect example. He has all the money, he has all this success, he’s the president of the United States, but he’s clearly overcompensating for a fear of being a loser. For all of the ego — talking up about how great he is and how much he’s a winner and all these wonderful things he’s — like, someone who’s really okay with themselves and thinks that they’re good enough doesn’t need to do all of that kind of stuff. That gets into all of us in bigger and smaller ways and whatnot, and I just think it’s a bit of a trap sometimes that we can — when we’re thinking about helping others, we can start beating ourselves up for not helping others enough. You have to be kind and compassionate to people but yeah, also to yourself.
BREHT: The other side of ego is insecurity and when you turn up the dial on ego, you’re simultaneously turning up the dial on insecurity. They are literally one in the same and that’s why egoism and machismo is always undergirded and betrayed by insecurity and vulnerability at the end of the day. It’s always an overcompensentory mechanism for that sense of insecurity. As you said, truly confident people who are okay with themselves don’t need to wildly project constantly in that way. I think the same thing is true for self-compassion. If we take seriously this idea that the self is in the other, the other is in the self, where do you start with the cultivation of compassion? You start by treating yourself a little nicer because you are the other and by treating the other nicer, you’re treating yourself nicer.
These things cannot be separated. In Buddhism for example, when we talk about these things, we talk about the cultivation of a enlightened heart and the awakened mind, one of the first things that meditation teachers will tell you is don’t beat yourself up when meditation gets hard. You have to approach this practice with a sense of love and compassion for yourself because that’s actually a necessary prerequisite to really be able to effectively have compassion and engage in compassionate action towards others. It’s actually by observing your own insecurities, the imaginations of your own mind, how your own ego manifests itself, that you come to a better understanding of how that operates in other beings.
That opens the door to feeling compassion rooted in real understanding, not just an over-intellectualizing or abstraction but clear seeing within yourself how these things operate. You can clearly see how they operate in others. Take seriously this idea that there is really no separation ultimately, that separation is an illusion, and the idea that you should feel compassion for yourself as a necessary aspect of feeling compassion for others, it becomes as obvious as the sun in the sky. I think that point that you made, Aaron, is really, really important to remember. We are very hard on ourselves and I know so many really good-hearted, loving people who want to make the world a better place who have internalized low levels of self-worth, negative self-talk, always putting themselves down. That’s a tragedy and it also, I think, prevents you from making that connection with others and being effective in your altruism and being effective in your compassionate action. So, that’s an albatross around all of our necks that we need to dismantle in the process of dismantling all the other illusions that we’re conditioned to have.
SHAWN: Definitely. You often hear people say things about themselves or express concepts that it’s like, man, if someone else was saying that about you, I’d be pretty mad at them. If someone was saying that about you in front of me, I’d be like, why did you bring this horrible person here?
BREHT: Exactly. My son’s name is Maddox and sometimes he’ll be rough on himself, you know. You can see that negative self-talk maybe coming out in his speech. I’m like, be nice to Maddox, to him. I was like, nobody’s mean to my Maddox, not even Maddox. I’m trying to teach him that, like, be easy on yourself, bud. Yes, I definitely, definitely feel that.
MEXIE: Yeah. It’s something that we’re not taught, right? I struggle with this a lot, the negative self-talk and whatnot ‘cause yeah, growing up under the patriarchy, under the male gaze, under capitalism, whatnot, it’s — you’re taught how to do this. You’re taught how to criticize yourself all the time because of course that’s gonna make other people money, right? It’s effectively gonna keep you down within these hierarchical systems. Yeah, I love that you’re doing that with your son, Breht, and I love — I’m — my partner and I are thinking of having kids in the future and I’m just — I — it’s so amazing now I guess looking at how — all the things people have learned in how to raise kids within this system to fight back against, like you said, the antisocial nature of the system. I’m just learning so much and I just — I’m really hopeful.
I think the young generations are already kind of getting it ‘cause they’re — I think that beautiful solidarity and mutual aid that you talked about in the triangle experiment, I think fewer of them are having that beat out of them and more of them are becoming radicalized like these incredible moments that we mentioned, the BLM uprisings. I’m just incredibly hopeful for the next generations that they hopefully won’t have to struggle so much with this stuff that I think a lot of us and older people have internalized.
AARON: Every generation has to advance the ball and I have a preteen daughter and a teen niece who I’m very, very close to and I’ve always sort of taught these things to and tried to introduce them to feminism and stuff. There’s lots of reasons to be optimistic with this next generation. There’s an automaticity to their egalitarianism, to their disdain and repulsion of misogyny and racism. I think Millennials, we did advance the ball in our society specifically in some ways and I think Gen Z is gonna do it even more. It’s kind of a beautiful thing to see these new minds come up in this slightly more enlightened age. Every time I interact with my nieces and nephews and kids, I have a shot of real optimism that things are going to fucking get better, you know? It’s not gonna happen overnight but the kids are alright.
SHAWN: I want to share a little bit of a theory on this that I’ve been thinking about recently about why we see these increasing ethics over generations and specifically in the current day. I was looking at some data around gender in society and public polling on the standardized questions they’ve been asking since the forties or something like that, things like it is good for the woman of a household to have a job and basic stuff like that. You can see this general trend upwards until about 1989 when it flatlines. In the nineties there’s a little bit of up, a little bit of down, but it’s mostly a flatline until about 2004. It actually — sort of at the end of it, it’s starting to go down. When you mentioned us Millennials, I was like oh yeah, I’m part of the 30’s squad. We got the 20’s squad backing us up now and that’s dope.
But like, us in the 30’s squad, we saw the nineties firsthand and in retrospect it makes so much sense to think about how there was this regression during this time and how we saw all these really, really horrible, stupid narratives were really mainstream in the nineties. The sense of humor of the nineties was this really sort of grotesque often sense of ironic detachment cruelty stuff. But then in 2004 it starts going up again. Basically, here’s the two theories that I have, is that one is the degrading of the nineties came from — in the United States there was the deregulation of the Fairness Doctrine and the rise of right wing talk radio which was drowning out and had money behind it and there was way more right wing talk radio than there was left wing talk radio because of the cost of operating it and where money is in society.
But in 2004, of all times for the transition to happen in the opposite direction, what’s happening then is Web 2.0. What’s happening in Web 2.0 is people going online to BBSs, IRC, this sort of stuff, early internet stuff. People in 30 crew remember; we used to have pseudonyms and little avatars. We had this whole different internet infrastructure then. But around that time when we started building collaborative information commons where people were talking to each other outside of the context of their lives and were in this sort of peer space where on the internet no one knows you’re a dog so you’re just this avatar and you’re Jetsons1992 and your avatar’s the Jetsons or whatever; but then — this is the proto-version of it, the start of this collaborative knowledge and ultimately ethics commons of people coming together in these digital spaces and where we see year after year the internet and these search engines that we have and the websites that exist.
If you know what to search for and you’re part of the communities that value this type of thing, the internet over time has become a more and more continually deeper valuable resource for education, knowledge, relevant experience. For example, when the uprising was happening in 2020, it was like, I was going to the pirate libraries to download relevant reading. It was like, I was thinking about it and I was like oh yeah, I can just go to the secret illegal but should be illegal, actually; should be not just legal but funded, but we could get into that later. These internet depositories of information that exist for us are so great now, so we’ve got this collaborative information commons which is accelerating the natural development in this direction.
You look at the early data from this gender polling; there’s still this steady upward tick just from magazines, radio, all this old media stuff, but in the current day when you have these collaborative information spaces, you can just sort of jettison upwards. I think the potential right now of people alive today, the potential of having massive sea change not just in public opinion but in the structures of society in a way that doesn’t leave anyone behind and in a way that makes the world work for the maximum amount of people in the minimum amount of time with minimum ecological impact for the benefit of all is something that’s really within our grasp in great part because of these collaborative information commons that we have.
They’re so crucial and which is also where a lot of the education that I’ve got which I’ve been able to pass on through the show and other means has actually come from. I’ve thought a lot about — without these collaborative information commons, without Web 2.0, I don’t know what I’d be doing with my life. I don’t even know. I guess I probably would have went to college or something or I would have tried to — I would have given up at an early age. But I had all this hope in my heart ‘cause I kept on seeing these things around the world. Information commons are basically intellectual communism. Actually, the earliest — from my understanding, from this book The Hacker Ethic, the first time we ever recorded use of the word ‘communism’, it was actually referring to the notion of sharing scientific knowledge with one another rather than having ownership of knowledge; all sharing it.
That’s an early, proto-definition of the word ‘communism’. All this to say, I agree that the kids are alright but I also want to make it sort of not about the kids in a way, because I just don’t want to — I see what’s happening to the Zoomers as being sort of what happened to us, which is that people tell us opposite things about us all the time that make no sense, that have nothing to do with our lived experience. They’re like, I saw a video of a Zoomer doing this. Oh, I guess Zoomers are like this. It’s like, I just don’t want to participate. After the way they did us Millennials dirty, 30 club, I learned a hard lesson and I just don’t believe in generational politics that way. As far as I’m concerned, we’re all Web kids. We’re all Web 2.0 digital information commons people, and some part of me wanted to get that out.
I’m worried about the Millennialification of Zoomers either for good or bad. Oh, you Millennials are gonna save the world. Oh, you Millennials ruined the housing market by not buying houses. Oh, you Millennials are ruining the housing market by buying houses. Oh, you Millennials failed to save the world. What’s wrong with you? I don’t want to do this shit with 20 club. 20 club is chill by me.
BREHT: Great point, yeah. Definitely we don’t want to reify generations too much, just the point that there is this movement that’s interesting. But yeah, the opening up of the intellectual commons, all the contradictory elements of the internet; you know, people are like oh, the techno-utopians of the nineties were wrong. Look how terrible it is; the internet’s been co-opted by corporations and it’s a vacuum and an ability to spread conspiracy theories, et cetera, and all those things are true because progress is this messy, contradictory, spirally thing, not this clean, linear march towards progress. But it’s really fascinating and it really made me think when you said that about how it changed you and who would you be without this aspect.
So much of what I learned about politics, for example, and literally who I am as a attempted political educator and I have these shows, et cetera, where would I be in my knowledge without that intellectual commons, without the internet? I don’t think it would have been possible. You see this thing that allows you to radically expand yourself. I remember before the internet. I remember not having a cell phone, not having an internet. The kids coming up this next generation, it’s part and parcel of their life. Like, from birth they’re having tablets and YouTube and things like that. There’s downsides to all this stuff but there is this breaking down of barriers, these rising up of new voices.
We would not be having this conversation right now if it were not for this sort of opening up of the internet space because none of us would get signed on a local radio station and get funded by major corporations and advertisers to talk the shit that we talk. So, it’s really fascinating to think about that theory and the opening up of those spaces, how they deconstruct barriers of division, and how they — as we’ve been talking throughout this conversation — allow unity, allow a coming together in a new and exciting way. I think it’s gonna have interesting implications for the rest of our lives and well beyond.
MEXIE: Yeah, and I mean, even just the — not to bring the material conditions, but yeah, even just the changing material conditions because I feel like I was radicalized even before the internet just because the conditions of my life weren’t — it’s like, what people were telling me about the system that I was living in didn’t really translate into what I was seeing or feeling on the ground, just the fact that jobs are getting more and more precarious, wages are stagnating, the environmental crisis and things like that; I feel like even though that’s all terrible stuff, revisiting mutual aid and the science of mutual aid as well, that actually in these crises situations, people do tend to come together more. I just feel like there’s so many things that combine to create progress and definitely I think the informational commons is one of them. The material conditions are not gonna allow for things to keep going the way that they’re going, so, I don’t know. I just, for all of these reasons, hope is the way forward, I think.
SHAWN: Absolutely. Well, this has been an awesome discussion about a variety of things here, really important stuff. This topic, I really feel like we did our best to get as close as we could to describing something profound. It’s one of those things that you can sort of describe around and try to get at it and get at that deep point together from these different angles and I feel like we’ve maybe successfully done that and how this all connects together. I was thinking maybe here for the wrap-up and last question, in our current moment we have this situation where young people and the next generation of young people this would be even more true for, are recognizing that there are limits to our system that are hard material realities.
They fear rightfully so that they may not have a future on planet Earth if we don’t readjust and retackle the institutions that uphold our system. I think it’s a really reasonable thought. It’s something that I feel and I feel like the younger you are in relation to this process, the more and more severe it’s gonna seem and feel, so that material conditions information commons intersection around the climate crisis and inequality is gonna get more and more profound. I think the people listening to our show probably really feel in their heart this tugging sense that they want to be of help. I thought maybe that we could just end on the note here of how to think about approaching that goal of helping the world. It can be an overbearing — it can be a really large thing to think about how to try to tackle.
We sometimes have this sense of I have to be this hero, this helping hero, I have to be this self-sacrificing person, I need to put everything in my life aside for the good of the revolution. These types of things are endemic ways of thought about this. I thought maybe we could end a little bit of talking about what we can do to help here fourteen, fifteen months into the Coronavirus crisis, in this stage of capitalism which is facing an ecological crisis just around the corner. I mean, the ecological crisis is already here but we’re facing it in more and more increased ways. Sometimes it feels I guess like there’s so much to do and it’s hard to know what to do. I imagine that people listening are probably to some degree sitting with this feeling of how can I be of help. I wanted to open the floor to talk a little bit about that.
AARON: Sure. Well, maybe I can start with my closing thoughts. Getting involved in your community is always a good option. Organizing, joining a religious group that feeds people, having some organizational connections, getting involved in solving the problems at a local level because it’s very temping and in our modern, hyper-connected world, very alluring to think of things on the global and the national scale and then to feel completely helpless in the face of institutions and systems and inertias that you have no control over. But at the end of the day, everything is nested within everything else and doing meaningful work in your community is a step in the absolutely right direction. We cannot rely on huge governments and rotten corporate politicians to solve our problems for us.
That doesn’t mean that we need to bite off more than we can chew or try to save the whole world, but it does mean that we can be part of the solution by actively engaging in projects and organizations on the community level that alleviates suffering and move us in the right direction. More and more people will be funneling into those activities as these contradictions of late capitalism become more and more intense and as people, as you say, get more and more of a sense of the lack of a future if action is not taken. But on top of that, I would just always like to remind people that outward, political, external transformation is not separate and cannot be separated from the work of everyday internal transformation.
There’s a million different paths, wisdom paths that you can engage in to try to, as we’ve talked about throughout this conversation, cultivate selflessness, cultivate self-compassion and compassion for others, and to try to at the same time you’re transforming the external world transform the internal world because these things are deeply and dialectically connected. We’re not going to be able to simply change the external world and do no work on ourselves and think that we’re gonna solve all the problems. There’s a million ways that you can do that but one little, tiny thing that I would recommend is, as I gestured towards earlier, find the little ways, everyday, small ways that you can serve other people. Operate within your sphere of influence.
You don’t need to have a big platform or be somebody that’s well-known to have an impact. All of us exist within families and friend groups and communities, and we can make a difference in that sphere of influence. You really gotta take that seriously and not convince yourself that you need to have more to do something meaningful in the lives of people around you. I think one step that that really requires is it requires taking seriously the idea that you should try to get away from thinking about yourself all day long. We are conditioned to constantly have these self-referential thoughts, this inner chattering all day long; what am I gonna do? What’s my mood like? What am I hungry for? What could I do? What’s my plan for the day? How do people view me? What should I post? Do people like what I post?
That constant, incessant inner dialogue that is hyper self-referential is a sort of veil that separates you from the world around you. I think trying to consciously become aware of that, to notice how often you think about yourself is the first step in deconstructing that veil of illusion that we’re all sort of conditioned to operate through and see the world through. I think that is a step that one can take on the path to self-transformation in dialogue and in engagement with social, political, and economic transformation. I think that gives us the best hope for actually solving these problems on the scale and in the timeframes that we need to do that.
MEXIE: Absolutely beautiful. I love that you brought all of that up, especially the internal revolution that we need to have, the external revolution. I’m glad also that you made it clear that you don’t have to be wealthy to give, you don’t have to be anything to be able to give. I think a lot of people, because of the overwhelming nature of everything that we’re fighting, we can have a lot of anxiety around what can I give and just feeling like we don’t have anything to give. But really, we do, we always do. We have time, we have attention, we have compassion, we have understanding. Play to your strengths, right? We all have ways that we can give and help to secure the happiness and wellbeing of others even in really small ways.
So, I know if you have a disability, a chronic illness like I do, if you’re an introvert and whatnot, some of this stuff can feel kind of overwhelming. But just know that — try to operate from this abundance kind of a mindset that you always have something to give and that it feels so good to give and there’s so many ways that you can do that. So, yeah, in terms of playing to your strengths and thinking about what can be done or what you can do right now, I think there’s a lot of really amazing activism and mutual aid and stuff going on with covid and some things that are happening in Toronto that I think are really awesome. People are organizing food serves, there’s the People’s Pantry that’s kind of a mutual aid pantry for people experiencing food insecurity during covid.
People are organizing a solidarity fund because our ridiculous premier Doug Ford has only given people three paid sick leaves during the pandemic that obviously wouldn’t cover you if you had to quarantine and self-isolate for fourteen days or whatever. People are coming together on that, people are coming together to protect people from eviction. People are standing up and putting their bodies on the line for their neighbors to make sure that they don’t get evicted during this pandemic. It’s so incredibly moving. Actually recently in PLN, I reported — I think everyone probably heard about it in Scotland where hundreds of people flooded the streets and made sure that this Home Office van couldn’t deport two people in the community.
There’s so much activism going on, and so, just try to connect with whatever’s going on in your community. Find out what’s going on. Find out where people need help. Ask questions about who might need help at what point and then how you can play into that with whatever your skills are. Just always know that you — there is a way that you can help. Like I mentioned before, of course the stakes are really different when we’re talking about certain historical big moments of these amazing historical helpers. The stakes are higher for certain actions than others, but the intent behind it — because, like we’ve said, you do so much of that self-transformation when you do give and when you do de-center the self and think of others and whatever. The intent behind that I think is so powerful. Even if you’re doing that on a small scale within your small sphere of influence, I think that you should think of that as progress and as something that’s really wonderful, and then try as much as you can with whatever skills you do have to push that even further outwards. As I said, I think there’s a lot going on in terms of solidarity around covid that you can probably tap into wherever you are.
AARON: Yeah. I just want to echo what you both said in a very general way which is that sometimes it can feel really overwhelming with how many problems there are in the world. It can also kinda feel like, what can I even do about it? Who am I? Or that negative self-talk again I think can actually prevent people from helping sometimes because we put ourselves down so much. But if you think about it, each of us has these unique aspects about ourselves and that we have our own life experiences and our own strengths and weaknesses. We live in our particular community and we have our particular friends and family relationships.
All those very particular things about you and your life and where you are and what you have the ability to do, somewhere at the intersection of all those things are things that you can do to help. We can throw out suggestions and specific examples. It’s I think useful to do that to pump people’s intuitions and whatnot, but ultimately as a experience of the world. When we all exist in our lives, problems present themselves all of the time. Things that need helping present themselves to us all of the time. If we’re looking for them and if we’re thinking about what we can do, and if we have taken care of ourselves well enough that we actually — that we’re open to the world and seeing that and maybe have the — we’re not hangry or whatever and we can have that compassion in that moment to do something or the energy to do something or whatever it is, then those things happen because you’ll want to. It’s a question of preparing yourself to be able to help cultivating this perspective and also just being aware of your strengths. You do have them, and then seeing what problems are around you and thinking what can I do.
SHAWN: That’s really — that’s sortpilled. That’s really sort — we talked about tubes and sorting on our episode a year back and we’ve been joking around recently about being sortpilled meaning getting your desk space clean and stuff like that, having advantages, but it also — it just occurred to me when you were talking that — what you’re saying about people’s specialties, their — where people are at sorting the — sorting what makes us us; our skills, our strong points, sorting that with the help that is complementary with those skills is such an awesome principle. Look at this whole thing ‘cause we all have different backgrounds, locations, vocations, and jobs, we’re connected to different social groups and all this sort of stuff, and all these opportunities arise in all these different contexts.
The work of being a helper is a big part, like looking at that context. There’s another point that I wanted to make about the little help versus the big help. We can talk about big help, like people helping Jewish people to escape Nazis and this historical moment of this big — this opportunity for help that is big and world-historic and meaningful. But there’s also the little help of the stuff like seeing that your neighbor’s having trouble with their groceries and then lending a hand to them or noticing that someone — one of your coworkers who you aren’t necessarily close with seems to be in a mad mood or something and wanting to comfort or cheer them up and that natural thing.
The interconnectedness between these things — and I feel like this is something that Breht touched on is that these things are sort of embedded within each other in a way and that when we’re looking to — we can build our way up from building a pro-help disposition to the world where we’re trying to actively bring a helpfulness to our day-to-day life on that world of the small help. It trains us in a way of interacting that’s gonna make organized, structural help the way that Mexie was talking about more effective and easier to deal with because we know from — we’ve got studies that show having more small, positive interactions in your day is good for your wellbeing and stuff like that.
People who are part of more vibrant social communities that have a variety of people with different degrees of intensity of relationships and that are all positive; it’s good for your wellbeing. You’re building up those neural pathways on how to connect with people in these short periods of time, how to have these short, positive interactions and stuff like that. As those skills build, not only is it nourishing to you and helping those around you, it’s helping build skill sets. I think this is the place where us Web kids could use some help or thinking about this. We’re a very anxious group of people, very screen-oriented people and stuff in general. It’s like, what — you’re building up these skills around talking to people and meeting people around you and you can thread them together into organizational structures.
The small help heads in that direction of these organizational structures that can help people to help and do these larger-scale things and facilitate societal transformations. But it also means that when there is a moment, and hopefully there’s never a moment quite like the Holocaust in our lives where — I hope that goes without saying. But there are things that happen. I mean, there’s things and stuff happening right now that we could say is — has the moral weight. In retrospect we’re gonna look back and say the moral weight of things that were happening during our lifetimes were as significant as the Holocaust.
There’s things that are happening, maybe not individual things, but we could look at a system and say this system easily — the amount of deaths of deprivation from lack of food, shelter, and so on even though we have it, for example, far exceeds the death toll of the Holocaust. It’s not a conscious individual choice by so-and-so historical Hitler or whatever, but there’s systems that are happening now that have moral impacts that are large and huge, and there’s gonna be moments in the future where how we’ve facilitated the development of our own compassion, our own connectedness, and our own capacity and willingness to help others are gonna be tested. We’re gonna make — have to make choices in our lifetimes about helping people which really matter.
Hopefully none of them — hopefully we’re not put in these situations where you have this world historical enormous amount of self-sacrifice and so on. Hopefully everything goes hunky-dory all the time. But I mean, with the stuff that we’re facing around the world, it seems likely to me that the more that we cultivate this sense of helpfulness and the boundaries of help and the way to ask for help and the way to give help and what our strengths are in the periods where the world is relatively stable, it means that when we’re hit by a crisis like the Coronavirus crisis, economic crisis, ecological crisis, we have the tools and the mindset and the connections and the social disposition that is ready to rise to that occasion and give that world historic help, not just the small help.
The two of them are connected and part of that for everyone is also asking for the help because if you ask for help, you help facilitate these skills in others. If you talk about help and have these conversations and have conversations about what our responsibility as people are with our family, with our neighbors, this is something that we’re embarrassed — oh, I’m sort of a hippie or whatever; we’re all interconnected, cruelty is wrong. But it’s not an unpopular idea. We’re embarrassed ‘cause it’s cliche or whatever. Sometimes something’s cliche because it’s so profoundly true it needs to be reiterated in every generation as long as there’s humanity.
I just wanted to sort of tag that onto all these brilliant points that have been made in the same sphere, is that by facilitating this in ourselves and focusing on one step at a time through this process, the network of help can become stronger, institutionalized, and help facilitate us in a transition to a system that isn’t gonna brutalize our neighbors, that isn’t going to bring us to tears because of how brutally people that we care about as humans — but that also we could have the opportunity to really care about as individuals if we knew them. I think that’s part of what is so horrible about seeing tragedy where you don’t know the people involved. You can still feel it because you know that it’s possible to know them. You know? They’re not just numbers on a sheet or something and they’re not just pictures in a newspaper; they’re people and they have all the depth of the people in our lives.
It doesn’t matter where they are in the world and it doesn’t matter if they have some individual reactionary view or something like that. It doesn’t matter if they’re neurodiverse and they don’t experience empathy without thinking about it. They’re all part of our family and we’re all connected to them. The more that we can be part of that all together to tackle the problems that face us, I think the better off we’re gonna be because we’re not headed for calm waters as a society. The more that we build up our capacity when the waters are relatively calm, the better.
BREHT: Hear, hear.
MEXIE: That just gave me shivers. We’re gonna win, guys. We’re gonna do it, we’re gonna do it.
SHAWN: This has been the Srsly Wrong podcast. Thanks everyone for listening. Mexie and Breht, do you want to shout out where people can catch more of your stuff? I guess I’ll start by shouting out; you can check out our show at srslywrong.com. It’s S-R-S-L-Y-W-R-O-N-G.com. We’re also on Patreon, Twitter, and so on with all that that entails.
Breht: Yeah, and everything that I do can be found at revolutionaryleftradio.com
MEXIE: I have a number of different things, I guess. You can find my podcast, the Vegan Vanguard, at veganvanguardpodcast.com. You can find Positive Leftist News on YouTube. If you just Google Positive Leftist News, you’ll find it. I think the handle is youtube/c/pln_mex but if you just Google it, you’ll find that. Then I also have a YouTube channel, Mexie; that’s M-E-X-I-E. I recently deleted Twitter, so you can find me on Instagram.
BREHT: Good for you.
SHAWN: Thanks again for coming on the show, Breht and Mexie. This has just been a stellar, amazing conversation, really enriching, and I feel a sense of warmth for our human condition in a really, really tough time from this conversation. I really appreciate that.
MEXIE: Yeah, thank you so much for having us on the show. Honestly, this has been the most wholesome conversation. I’m gonna be riding high on the good vibes of this conversation for days, so thank you for that. Yeah, I hope everyone gets something out of it when they’re listening. So, yeah, just thanks, thanks again to everyone.
BREHT: Yeah, I couldn’t have asked for better folks to have this conversation with and I genuinely love and admire all three of you, so let’s do it again sometime.
MEXIE: I’d love that.
SHAWN: Yeah, I’d love to.
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