Video: Will humanity survive? The philosophy of john a. powell

Video

August 05, 2021

This previously unreleased video from May 2018 features Othering & Belonging Institute Director john a. powell on the urgent need to create a world of greater belonging and avoid the impulse toward smaller and more fragmented "we's."  Recorded as part of a conversation with the 2018 summer fellows, this talk is a wonderful distillation of his basic philosophy and is filled with revealing anecdotes and insights. With nearly 30 minutes of Q&A, watch as our summer students raise difficult questions about how we rise to the challenges we face.

Video Transcript:

john powell:

I don't know if everyone saw it, there was an article in New York Times about Trump supporters. And about Trump himself. It was a series of articles. A number of them were written by Tom Edsall, but others as well. And the gist of it is, this particular article, and what they're speaking in reference to, is that Trump supporters are not just the marginal, poor, uneducated, unemployed whites, it's happening across the board. And, in fact, based on some research, the support is greater among well off upper-middle class whites. Which is interesting. Because that was also true of the Tea Party. And people forget that.

john powell:

That there's this narrative around, you know, people losing jobs and they don't have health insurance, and whatever. And that's why they're supporting, that's what's driving people to Trump. And it's not that that's irrelevant. But it's not the main driver. It's actually much broader than that. And I think the reason that it's so important is that, if we're, in many ways, trying to solve the wrong problem. And that's especially true, I think, among, without being disparaging, liberal white Democrats.

john powell:

So they really want to make the issue around, mainly, economics and jobs. And, to some extent, they also sort of, you know, their foil is the cultural ware, identity war. Basically saying, "We gotta stop focusing on identity and these marginal issues. The blacks and Latinos or Asians or, excuse me, gays and lesbians, and really focus on the hard bread and butter issues." Which translate into economic issues.

john powell:

And a really positive powerful example of that, of course, is Bernie Sanders. Who eventually got around to talking about race, but begrudgingly. And I had some relationship with the senator's campaign. And advised him about the need to talk about, quote unquote, identity issues. That they only came too late. And, again, seeing as the big issues. And those of you know who know my writing will know that I suggest that the big issues are also identity issues.

john powell:

That politics is almost always about identity. And there's a book called Belong, by Sapolsky. And he makes the observation that many struggles and including many wars have been fought over symbolic sacred symbols. Not necessarily material. But sacred symbols. And he said sacred symbols are much more important than we acknowledge. And every group has a sacred symbol. Even if it doesn't recognize it as a sacred symbol.

john powell:

So you can imagine one sacred symbol in the United States is guns. And I really do think guns is a sacred symbol. It means something beyond what the physicality of guns. It's guns, certainly don't provide protection, or all these other things, it's a symbol for something else. And we could guess what that symbol is or try to figure out what that symbol is. So then what's going on?

john powell:

If the economy is not driving Trump supporters, what is? And I also want to come back and, I assume, maybe wrongly, but most of the people in here are not Trump supporters. If I'm wrong, I can leave now and enjoy my lunch by myself. So there's a flip side to the Trump supporters. And that is that, and this wasn't covered so much in the article, but ... So Trump represented an attack, not only on blacks and Latinos and Muslims and gays and anyone who doesn't fit some kind of narrow normativity, but he also represented an attack on normative institution like democracy, like voting, like law and order, like separation of powers.

john powell:

Many of our institutions that we have actually take for granted. What I want to suggest is that the liberal, or not even liberal, the left actually has similar, not the same, but a similar antipathy towards those institutions. We tend, from our perspective, to be overly cynical. We actually wrap it up in radicalism. So oftentimes young people refuse to vote because they think it's buying into a corrupt system.

john powell:

And this is not just a phenomenon in the United States. Kavita's here. The program we were running is anti-black racism. Addressing anti-black racism in the United States and South Africa. You see a similar phenomena in South Arica. And I would dare say in many other parts of the world.

john powell:

So what's going on that these phenomenons are expressing themselves differently, but expressing themselves in Europe and India and in Asia, in Latin America? What's going on? Well, I want to suggest a few things. And then maybe, after a few more comments, have a discussion. Again, the received wisdom is that there's economic uncertainty. And that just simply doesn't hold. It's neither economic uncertainty is not an issue, but it's not the issue.

john powell:

And it's, at best, one among many issue. And I would say the issue is something else. So what do we find present in all of these expressions of right-wing populism, right-wing nationalism? And one is this pernicious framing of the other. And, along with that, the populism is kind of authoritarianism. And so it's this idea of a strong leader that somehow is not hamstrung by either norms, himself, and usually it is a man. But there's some contradictions. And, when you look at things, they're almost always contradictory. Because the literature authoritarianism suggests that what generates, or what release as authoritarian tendencies, is attack on norms.

john powell:

And, yet, these leaders themselves are attack on norms. So it's not a straight line. It's a little bit more complicated than that. So Trump would say, "I'm not an ordinary leader. I'm not an ordinary politician." And so you always hear this, like, people are tired of, you know, traditional politicians. They wanted something different. And so, you know, it's like, "so a neo-Nazi, oh that's different. How about, you know...," but it's difference in a certain direction. It's not a progressive difference. It's a difference in terms of redefining a very narrow, usually either religious base, or race based, and gender base, heteronormativey leader, right?

john powell:

So it's not saying if you had, you could have a revolutionary who would be different. But it's not. And it's almost always based on a fictitious past. So it's like let's go back to. And, of course, there's no going back to. There was never a time that past actually existed. But these are issues that actually activated at a cultural and a psychosocial space. So it's not historically relevant. So if you were to go back and say, well, no, no, no, that's not accurate, it wouldn't matter. It wouldn't shift people's position at all because there's something more fundamental going on.

john powell:

You may say, well, what's more fundamental than actual history or facts? And there are a number of things. One is ontological grounding, which is a big word. It's more available concept is our spiritual grounding. Our sense of meaning and purpose. People need to have meaning in their lives. And, not individual meaning, but collective meaning. So what Trump really represent is the anxiety that conservative whites feel about this space in time in our history.

john powell:

So much so that they're basically saying, "Can we stop history? Can we turn it back?" Now, again, it's not a straight line. 'Cause no one's saying, "I'm gonna become an Amish, and I'm not gonna use electricity, and I won't give up my cell phone, I'm not gonna drive my car." So it's expressed in, along very particular lines. Thomas Friedman has written a book called Thanks for Being Late. And he wrote the book because he said he, a lot of times, when he's at a café, and he's waiting to interview someone, and they come late, and his life is busy that, when someone's late, he has a minute to himself.

john powell:

So instead of a person coming and saying, "I'm sorry I'm late," He'd say, "No, I'm glad you were late. It gave me five minutes to catch my breath." But, in this book, he argues that we're in a time of accelerated change. And what he's playing on is the idea that we can only process so much change along important dimensions without creating crisis for us.

john powell:

And he's saying that the amount of change that we're having to process is accelerating. And very interesting factoids, and I'll come back to my essential thesis in a minute, but one of those interesting factoids is that, in Europe, in the United States, we're the highest number of robots exist per capita. Tends to be the most reactionary. So that there's a relationship between robotics, maybe, and people having reactionary politics.

john powell:

Now, again, but no one's saying we should stop having robotics, you know. So when they say build walls, no one's saying let's build walls and keep the robots out, you know. They just frame it in terms of people. So the through line, so we have change in terms of globalism, change in terms of the politic economy and global politics. Change in terms of the speed of change in terms of technology. The way we do our lives. The way we organize our lives. All of those changes.

john powell:

And then one of the changes that is most salient is the change in terms of where people live. So, by some accounts, there are probably close to 400 million people who are living outside of their home country. And the number is growing. So, now, it's not any change. It has to be change that's important. Change that actually, in some ways, is disruptive.

john powell:

And some of you may ask what is that change? It's not given. There's no natural change. There's no, we don't know beforehand. We don't know, literally, the human organism, probably all organisms, can only change so fast before they become destabilized and even die. But the social change that we're, you know, we're not gonna be killed, necessarily by a cell phone, although it is interesting that, again, interesting factoid, last year was the highest number of killings by sharks in human history. Did anyone tell you? You all know that? Interesting. Well maybe not.

john powell:

But here's something even more interesting. Last year, more people were killed by selfies than killed by sharks. So there you have it. Keep away from your phone and the beach. And it's sort of interesting because, you know, for those of you who watch movies, if I just hum the tune, "Da, na, na, na, na, na, na, na." You know what? You're gonna think Jaws, right? And so there are this, there are all these movies about you gotta be afraid of sharks.

john powell:

So the number of people killed by sharks last year, by the way, was 15. Right? Exactly. It's just creating some fear in your mind. In fact, interesting, what's the most deadly thing that kills humans on the planet?

Speaker 2:

Humans.

john powell:

What?

Speaker 2:

Humans.

john powell:

Other humans? No.

Speaker 3:

Isn't it food?

john powell:

What?

Speaker 3:

Like food.

john powell:

No. Anyone else?

Speaker 4:

Not sharks.

john powell:

Mosquitoes. And, yet, there's no horror movie about mosquitoes. Right? No, zz, zz, zz, zz. You know? Literally, hundreds of thousands of people die every year because of mosquitoes. But just not that interesting. And, of course, most of those mosquitoes are someplace else. So I'm trying to tie all this together to suggest that we have to manage change. We have to have a story about change. We have to have a narrative about change. And what the change is actually representing is two things, in a way. And they're related, but they're not the same.

john powell:

One thing is what does it mean to be human? And the other thing is who are we? Is who are the we? So you could say, in a sense, every national story, every religious story, every ... Is a story about who is the we? Who are the people? And so there's the social theory, and there are sort of three divisions for this. One is bonding. That is, which actually means you like your own group. You bond with your own group. Your family and your immediate extended family.

john powell:

The other is bridging, which means you relate to people who are not in your immediate family. And if you do that at a deep level, you actually end up creating a new family. So when you relate deeply to, you know, people they actually become your people. They become the new we. Then you enlarge the way. And you think about hunger-gatherers, an average hunter-gatherer tribe was about 200 people. So it used to be our families, or the we was never larger than 200.

john powell:

Modern society, now people think of being French or American or Christian or Muslims, and so it's thousands, millions of people who, in some way, we have some social connection to. And then the third is breaking. Where there's a group that's not your group, and they're perceived as a threat to your group. And the threat can be on multiple levels. But the most severe threat, I would argue, and I ... Is the ontological threat. So that threat is actually more pronounced than economic threat.

john powell:

If you think someone is going to actually destroy who you are. Now, not necessarily kill you as a person. You may still exist. But your purpose of life, your definition of life, your spiritual grounding is gone. So, as you know, there was just a vote in Italy. And the major issue from the popular right was to stop the Islamophobia of Italy. So it wasn't more jobs. It wasn't austerity. It wasn't ... It was very specific. Now, there are a lot of people coming to Italy who are not Italian. But it wasn't saying stop the Germans from coming. It wasn't saying stop the Brits from coming. It was saying stop the Muslims from coming.

john powell:

So it had a particular focus. So, again, it's not change write large, it always is more particular than that. Who is defined as the threatening other. So, a couple of things. Implications for that, for us, is huge. Right? It means that in the fragmentation and polarization that's going on is actually quite important, but actually also is misnamed. Because the way the press covers it is that the left and the right are polarized against each other. And then when you're polarized against each other it's, like, there's an equation, right?

john powell:

It's that if, it's like Fawn doesn't like me, and I don't like Fawn. So we don't like each other. Actually, I love Fawn, and she loves me, so we love each other. But, anyway, the point is is that it's basically saying it's equal on both sides. So we have to sit down the Trump supporters and the Trump detractors. They are somehow of equal value. And, actually, that's not right. And it's not right for a number of reasons. It's like saying the Nazis and the Jews just have to sit down and learn to get along. You know?

john powell:

Well, the Jews weren't saying, "Let's kill all the Germans." It was the Germans who were saying, "Let's kill all the Jews." And there was a power differential. And so to just perceive it as polarization, or tension between two groups, is misunderstanding what's going on. And, now, notice that the attack on groups is also an attack on institutions. So it's not just attack on blacks or Latinos or Muslims, it's attack on democracy. It's attack on voting. It's attack on the courts. It's attack on our structures.

john powell:

And most people don't notice how those things are related. Or they misunderstand the importance of it. Now, I'll just say a couple of things, and I'll stop. One explanation is that those institutions are solicitous toward the other. So why don't I like the courts? I don't like the courts because they've been captured by blacks. Now, that was the rhetoric in the '70s after the Civil Rights Movement, that blacks had been able to capture the courts. The Warren Court was perceived as a black court.

john powell:

And so Nixon ran with the promise that he would take the courts back. Notice the language. Takes the court back and remove them from Civil Rights. He appointed four judges ... Justices. And, in a sense, they ended the Civil Rights Movement in law. And we're still living with that. Two other pieces of that. What people didn't realize though, is that taking the courts back from Civil Rights, gave them to corporations.

john powell:

So the courts became, really, the instruments of neo liberalism and corporate power. Those two things go together. Again, most people don't see those things as related. So what does that mean for us here at Haas Institute? What does it mean for you? Well, so here's what I think the challenge is. And I think it's quite big. I think quite important. If this continues, this right-wing ethnic right populism, or religious populism, I think, not only will it be an attack on anyone who is perceived as not normal, or embracing the norms that are articulated, but it'll be attack on all the institutions themselves.

john powell:

That's internally. But, externally, it'll also be an attack on ... So it's not a coincidence that the United States is solicitous toward Russia and picking a fight with China. And I think it's partially racial. And partially religious. Russia is seen as both white and Christian. China is not white nor Christian. And we'll tolerate Japan and all those other countries because they're supplicants. And what's most threatening of China is China refused to stay in its place. To recognize the dominance of the west.

john powell:

And there was a New York Times piece about three years ago saying we're heading toward a period where the first time, in over 350 years, the world's leader, in terms of the economy, and maybe even culture, will be a non-white, non-Christian country. Meaning China. And the implication didn't say, basically, you should be afraid. How can the world be led by a non-white, non-Christian country? And this is before Trump.

john powell:

But there's already this anxiety about this order to the world. And China is threatening the order. And they're right. China is threatening the order. And part of it China is saying the order is not whites don't get to dominate, Christians don't get to dominate. So here's the challenge. It means, in a sense, we have to actually be about constructing a larger we. And the tendency, on the left, liberals, well not liberals, but more on the left, is to construct small wes and maybe even try to use those small wes defensively to guard against the Trump kind of vitriolics.

john powell:

But we do it in a way that actually makes it impossible for us to succeed. So, for example, if we say all whites are Trump supporters we just, you know, probably ... There's probably about 26% of whites. So what happened to the other 74%? We just lumped them all together. We can't distinguish between the Trump supporters and the non-Trump. It's like all whites. And even go smaller.

john powell:

We say, well, it's, they're not, I'm concerned about Muslims. I'm concerned about African-Americans. I'm concerned. So my we becomes small and fractured. So here's my prediction, if that continues, that we don't survive. That we will literally have endless wars. We'll destroy the planet. And the world as we know it, and maybe humans, simply don't survive. Now that may seem like hyperbolic and exaggerating, but it's not.

john powell:

If you think about the EU, the reason Europe moved to the EU is they said, with a bunch of little countries fighting over resources, within less than 50 years we've had two world wars. Two. And so part of the integration of the EU was say can we do something to create a larger we? Can we create a European identity so we can stop killing each other? Because each war becomes more deadly.

john powell:

And the capacity that existed in World War II is nothing compared to the capacity that we have now. So our challenge then becomes can we, both at a structural and institutional level, create the institutions that support the governance of a pluralistic but people who are connected across cultures, religion, whatever indicators we think are important? Or not? And, right now, for the most part, I would say we're not seriously engaged in enterprise except to oppose Trump.

john powell:

So we don't realize how we are complicit in the enterprise ourselves by, one, refusing to think about what are the institutions for a large, diverse, connected society? And how do we then create relationships that support a larger, more inclusive we? So I'll stop there and get your thoughts and comments. Yes?

Speaker 5:

I was just interested by your comments about how EU, the whole movement towards unification was a movement to create a bigger "we." I'm not sure how that framework could be used in the context of the U.S. since, the way that I see the EU integration is that the people race-wise are more homogeneous. Or they all share the same explicit or racial identity so that makes it easier for them to integrate, whereas, in the U.S., culturally, or racially, there's such a divergence across the country. So what ... So do you think, to what extent, can we learn something from that, from the EU, approach unification? Is that even remotely helpful in terms of our approach to creating a bigger.

john powell:

Okay, great. A good question. There's a book written by a professor at Harvard called, the name of it is What Difference Does Difference Make? And there point is that there are no natural differences. And, similarly, there are no natural similarities. So if we go back to when France was starting to become a country, there were several different, quote unquote, races or tribes in France. Most of them didn't speak French and most of them didn't think of themselves as French.

john powell:

The fact that they were all the same phenotype was irrelevant. It's only in retrospect that we say they're, and now, of course, we have France. They actually constructed a people. There's a book by Anthony Marx called Making Race, Making Nations, that ... And so, again, in the 19th and 18th century, or even before, right? Europe didn't exist as a space. Europe is an idea. There's not a physicality to Europe. That is actually constructed.

john powell:

And when it's first constructed it's constructed because there are all these different people who are organized. Samuel Huntington's written a book called Who Are We. And he argues that we were settled by, he said we're a settler society, not an immigrant society. And we're settled by two groups. And the two groups, Huntington argues, were the Anglos and the Saxons. And everybody else, if you're from the islands, or from Britain, if you're not Anglo or Saxon, you're a different race.

john powell:

The fact that you have similar phenotypes is irrelevant. Think about the war in Ireland that's been going on for a very long time. Think about Rwanda. Tutsis and Hutus. It's, like, they literally are the same genetic stock. And in many cases the same religion. But at the point that they decide to divide, not only are they dividing, they decide to commit genocide against each other.

john powell:

How did they even recognize that this person is the other? And sometimes they did it by the number of cars you had. And so, and again, your questions a good one. But it's important to recognize the differences are, themselves, socially constructed. And the meaning of difference. So there's not really homogeneity in Europe. We can think of it as homogeneous. So why would the Germans and the French and English literally killing each other? They saw each other as a different race. They saw themselves as radically different. And they saw the other as not human.

john powell:

And now, when they're successful, then they can say, "By comparison to the Chinese, or by comparison to the Muslims, we're the same." Not really. And I was talking to someone and I was saying diverse cities in the United States. And you may or may not know this, but one of the most diverse cities in the United States, and this was a few years ago, is San Francisco. And the person looked quizzically and said, "What do you mean?" I said, "It's the most diverse city in the United States."

john powell:

And they said, "Well, a very small black population. Only a few Latinos. What do you mean?" They have, so, as you know, 60% of the world is Asian. And it's an incredibly diverse population. To an American, except for maybe Indians, or maybe Neapolis, all Asians are the same. So Chinese and, of course, one of the great, one of the reasons China respected Mao so strongly is that he unified China.

john powell:

China is a huge country and it's extremely diverse. Now, it's diverse with all Asians. But it's very diverse. Different languages, different religions, different cultures. So, again, both the homogeneity and difference have to be thought about in a little bit more complicated ways. And I don't think, at least, and I talk about this, I say the challenge for other-ing is not same-ing. So you don't get a homogenous ... You don't get a country that's working well just because everybody's the same. In fact, I don't even know what that means, really.

john powell:

But it's, like, how we talk about sameness and differences and how we relate to each other. And how we, and our dynamic, engage with each other. The last example of this, in the United States, in California, by some accounts now, I think about 2020, or 2025, half of the family formations will be inter-families. Meaning that someone in the family will be a different race or ethnicity than someone else.

john powell:

So that, literally, this is 40 million people, and by 2025, half of the family formations will be at least one person, with people marrying somebody of different ethnicity, or different race, or adopting a child of a different ethnicity or different race, or different religion, and it's the family structures.

john powell:

These will actually create new families and probably new identities. And we actually don't talk about that. But don't actually say, "Well, you know, adopting this child that's different than me, how can they be part of this family?" It's, like, no, it actually changes the whole family. And I was talking to my sister-in-law the other day, and I'll stop at this, and she's white. And her daughter. My niece just graduated from college. And she was adopted from China.

john powell:

And someone was offering my sister-in-law a job in Sebastopol. And my sister-in-law wouldn't even consider it. It's, like, there no people come to there. And so her sensibilities, and I'm not saying every white person, or other white people would say the same, but, to her, her family formation, it'd be inconceivable to go live in an all-white area. Right?

john powell:

So, in a sense, you could say her adopting my niece has actually changed who she is and her sensibilities. And would probably say more about her than she would like. But, when she was, she's a little bit older now, but when she was dating she would, there would be a filter in terms of who she would date. So she wouldn't date someone who was uncomfortable in that kind of multiracial, multi-ethnic environment. So it is a challenge. But it's not resolved or exacerbated. At least, you know, in some respects by homogeneity or heterogeneity.

Speaker 6:

So my question looks back a little bit to the last session where you also talked about this, like, the bridging that Nelson Mandela did with the general. So the thing that I've been thinking about is how, like, I feel like it's impossible to bridge with someone who, on some level, doesn't shift. Right? So it can't be that, like, obviously, Nelson Mandela mentioned, like, Nelson Mandela could have affected, his bridging would not have been a success had the general not chosen to pursue the treaty, right? Like, I don't know if we would have referred to it as bridging if, historically, that decision hadn't happened.

Speaker 6:

And so I have two questions. So the first piece is this. It's, like, how do we, like, what is a way to think about bridging that, like, brings that in? Because I feel, like, remember when you mentioned about, "Oh, we feel like, as people of color, we feel like the burden is on us to bridge." Which is definitely true.

Speaker 6:

But it's, like, how do I talk, like, how do we think about the, how do you talk about that? Where it's, like where we can say, like, "No, the burden is not, like, to simply just, like, bridge and, like, and you're just putting yourself out there." But it's that you're actually calling on the other person to, like, to change. And it's, on some level, it's a belief in, like everyone's humanity. But, on some level, it's also an expectation that you may not, you know, that person may still, like, not, you know, not want to stop [inaudible 00:35:14]. so that's the first thing.

Speaker 6:

The second piece is about this, like, the constructing of the we. And you mentioned this too. Like, in a lot of political theory talks about how, like, when you want to identify something, you're always identifying something opposition to something, right? Like, the Orient, I was, like, in opposition to the opposite end. Like, by understanding the Orient you understand the opposite. How do you construct a we that doesn't have, like, that doesn't have an other?

Speaker 6:

And, again, like, I know that you said you don't want it to be that we're, like, same-ing. But, so, but even in that context of difference, and say all of us in this room, like, we can expand our notion of we to include all of us. But there's still some level of opposition. And, I'm so sorry, there's a part, second part of this question.

john powell:

Yeah, two questions in three parts.

Speaker 6:

I know. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. But it's, so, like, that's the identity piece of it, right? Like, how we think about it. But then there's also, for me, like, the politic question of, like, I can't, I personally cannot believe that includes Zionists. I cannot personally include a we that includes, like, someone who wants to murder me or anyone who's in my we, right, like? For no reason. So that idea of, like, building a we that also takes into account that there are people that, like, you don't agree with. Does that make sense? Like, without eliminating opposition?

john powell:

Yeah.

Speaker 6:

Okay, cool. Sorry. That's all.

john powell:

So. I have three parts to your answer, to your question. No, so great questions. And really important questions. So this, and a lot of subtlety. So you can't ... In terms of building a bridge, or wrecking ... So there's a slightly different thing. One is, like, recognizing someone's humanity. And the other is having a certain kind of relationship with that person, right? So those two things are related but not certainly the same.

john powell:

So building a bridge, or being open to a bridge, or recognizing someone's humanity, doesn't mean, one, you agree with them. Two, are they gonna agree with you? Or, three, that you're gonna be friends with them. Or even, so if you, like, if I recognize someone's humanity, and they don't recognize mine, what do I do with that?

john powell:

So here's a break. In the United States, and this is probably true in many parts of the world, but it used to be, before Trump, they said 15% of Americans believed in social dominance. I think they were talking about, whatever. Because you would think that number might actually be higher if you think of it in terms of gender.

john powell:

But, whatever the number is, there's some percentage of Americans believe they have the right to dominate others. Well, to me, that's a nonstarter. You don't have the right to dominate anyone. You certainly don't have the right to dominate me. And I'll oppose that very strongly. But, in opposing it, can I do it without denying your humanity? You're an errant human. You're maybe, you know, but you're still a human, right?

john powell:

Whereas, if you think about, like, what Trump has done, when he talks about, you know, the gang from Mexico, or the woman who just kicked out of the program, she wasn't saying, "I disagree with Obama. I'm gonna oppose his policy." She's saying, "These people are apes. They're not human." And I think that the challenge is, obviously, she should have lost her job. But she should not lose her humanity.

john powell:

Now, she is actually denying your humanity. And so it would be very easy for me then to deny her humanity. That's what I'm saying. No, don't go there. You know? So, yes, you can protect yourself. And if someone's killed, you know, anyway. So that's part of it. Also, in terms of bridging, we have so little practice at it. And Takiyah was talking about this earlier. So we start with the most difficult. Start with the easiest. You know? Start with, you know, the person who, I mean, it's subtle on so many ways, right?

john powell:

I mean, literally, I moved to ... From Minneapolis to Columbus, Ohio to teach. And this black guy, who had heard of me, he came up and he said, "So, I was talking some people, some black people in Minneapolis, and they said you're a bad dude. I should work with you." And this is actually the guy who's head of the Urban League. And so we talked. He said, "But then they told me you ain't really black." And I said, "Well," he said, "yeah," he say, "any vegetarian." But he wasn't joking. Right?

john powell:

It's, like, and we worked together. And I don't know if he ultimately thought I was black enough. But we break in so many ways, right? So the extreme, I have a friend, Pastor McBride, and he'll say, he always says, "Do I always have to bridge for the Devil?" I say, "No, don't start there. Don't start the hardest, most difficult one. Start with the easiest one. Start with the vegetarian. And then work up from there."

john powell:

And as you start, I think, we'll find, and this, as an ... It actually changes us in some interesting ways. At a deep level, I would go so far as to say, wherever we break, in a strong way, in an ontological way, not necessarily a political way, an ontological way, it's where we actually are showing the limits of our humanity.

john powell:

That it really is all about can I actually, as Gandhi said, "Can I become human? Can I become humane?" And there's interesting stuff. I mean, sort of some of the western philosophers say that to respect someone means that you punish them appropriately. That actually punishing one is actually showing, it's appropriate, not viciously, is actually a sign of respect.

john powell:

And, to your question about do we need, does someone need to be outside? And this is a debate that's been going on for a long time. I think the answer is no. But we don't know. And, actually, I was just walking across campus to get some coffee, or hot chocolate, and I was stopped by a couple of people, and they probably sat out there. They were putting up, they were asking people where they were from. And they had stickers, and they'd place them around the world, where they were from.

john powell:

And they says, "Where are you from?" I said, "Detroit." And I said, "So where you from?" And they tell me. The guys, I guess from Kentucky, and the woman's from Alaska. And then I said, "So, why are you doing this?" And they say, "Oh, we're Christian. And we are trying to get people from all around the world to sort of engage in the Christian faith."

john powell:

And they said, "Can we ask you your religion?" And I said, "Yeah." And they say, "Are you Christian?" And I said, "No." And they said, "Are you atheist?" And I said, "No." And they said, "Are you agnostic?" And I said, "No.' They said, "So what are you?" And I said, "Well, it's funny you should ask, but I have to get back over here and talk to you guys." And I said, "I think the world needs a new religion. And that's what I'm working on."

john powell:

And they said, "Oh, well, will you come back and talk to us?" And probably won't. But my point is that part of what we can do is we can't live without categories. And categories, by their nature, include and exclude, but we can make the categories multiple and porous. And I think one of the most interesting and exciting things, in this area, is recognizing our internal multiplicity.

john powell:

Now, there's some work already on this. So the people who tend to be authoritarian tend to have the most difficultly recognizing their internal multiplicity. But then you look at people who are gender fluid. Or people who, and all of us, right? It's, like, because our identities are situational, we go to different situations, our identities shift. So ordinary person basically says, "I only became a black girl when I became around white girls." Right? "Other than that I was, you know, I was something else. I was something. But it wasn't a black girl."

john powell:

And so part of the thing is can we begin to actually appropriately engage in multiplicity. I think if we do that, it actually creates a different empathy for others, right? Because the others is already in me. I can imagine myself in different roles. I can see different parts of myself. Parts I like, parts I don't like. And who was I disliking and not liking? So I think this is a long journey.

john powell:

But I think, given the way that the world is becoming smaller, I don't think we have a choice except to figure it out. And so I'm serious about a new religion. Because religions have been giving us meaning. But they give us meaning largely when we were separate from each other. So I could have a world religion in Detroit without ever leaving Detroit. And, you know, it's only when I left Detroit that I realized the people in Chicago had a different world religion.

john powell:

And they were making universal claims and claims about all eternity, just like me. And that kind of hard edge can no room for real engagement. And we talked about Kavita and she's here to help in constructing curriculum and Takiyah and Stephen and we talked about the difference between debate and inquiry. That inquiry requires that I really listen to you and understand you to some extent. Not fully, 'cause you'll never understand anyone fully. But I really pay attention to what you're saying.

john powell:

But debate is where it's my position, it's our position, boom, boom, boom. So what's happening in the world today is a lot of debate and almost no inquiry. Yes?

Speaker 7:

I have a question thinking back to our first day of orientation. You were talking about targeted universalism. I didn't have that language until reading on that and starting this fellowship. And, before, I thought that those ideas were equity. And I guess some ... Well, my question is, when thinking about doing, like, equity work now, and targeted universalism, the problem I feel, like, often, what we run into is that, when there aren't enough resources, or there is perceived to not be enough resources, is when there's that break. And so you're, like, oh, okay, I can think about why, you know, this particular group that I view as an other might need this resource.

Speaker 7:

But if I also need a resource, then it's threatening to me. And I don't want to play, you know, and so how do you, I guess, how do you respond to that or how do you navigate that when it's perceived that there's not enough resources for us all to win?

john powell:

Yeah. It's a good question. A few things. What I'm suggesting, the reason I started off by talking about the lack of, the inadequate for economic scarcity explaining Trump, is that it's clear that the planet produces enough to feed or clothe or shelter the whole planet. And we don't do that. But we have enough. We certainly have enough here in the United States.

john powell:

And, yet, first of all, we're not doing it. And, secondly, if that was really was driving what we were talking about, then the narrative is that these poor white people in Appalachia, and rural, who are supporting Trump, and it makes sense from economic perspective. But what about the wealthy white person who's doing just fine. Why are they supporting Trump?

john powell:

Are they ... And it's two things about this. One, what this change produces, a certain degree of anxiety. Anxiety is unlimited. In other words, it's not like, you know, if you have two cards, you're not anxious. Or if you have two houses, you're not anxious. It's, what the Buddhists call, the Hungry Ghost. You can never feed it enough. It becomes a spate of ... So you have to, sort of, come at it a different way. There's a lot of writing suggesting that, in a, quote unquote, mature capitalist society, a mature healthy economy, it doesn't have to be capitalist, people use stuff as a badge of membership.

john powell:

And the conservatives sort of miss this. They say, "What we mean poor people in the United States? everybody in the United States has enough food to eat." Not true. Bt what they're saying is that everybody has enough stuff. Even poor people have a television. That's literally what the conservatives say. The most important good, and I've written about this, is not stuff. The most important good is membership. And what people are trying to do with stuff is buy membership.

john powell:

And they're being denied membership. And so, think about it, you know, like, when people said, "Why do you need $100 pair of sneakers? Air Jordans?" Because these other pair of sneakers don't buy membership. I'm not cool if I show up with, you know, Converse. You know, nobody where's Converse. I'll never have a date, you know? And we need to belong.

john powell:

And so the thing is can we construct these things so abject poverty and abject lack of stuff is important? But that's not necessary. And, you know, I haven't seen it, but the movie about, based on a true story of John Paul Getty, when his son was kidnapped, I don't remember if you remember the movie. And Getty was right here in the Bay area. But, anyway, and he, at the time, he was the richest man in the world.

john powell:

And, true story, his wife was, the rest of his family was, like, "They're ransoming the son. They're saying they're gonna, would like to cut off his ear and send it in. We're gonna kill him unless you give us a million dollars." And he had billions. And he said, "I'm not doing it." And one of the things said, "You're the richest man in the world. You can afford a million dollars." He said, "I don't have enough." And he said, "I still need more." And his ideal was that, No matter how much I have," he said this, "it's not enough. It's not enough."

john powell:

And, in that sense, and that's partially the scourge of the United States and it's, like, we never have enough. We never have enough. Because what we're really after is not stuff we're after. It's something else. We're looking in the wrong place. And that's why I say, also, this is partially a spiritual thing. It's not just a material thing.

john powell:

So I think, if we can recognize our connections to each other, first of all, already, much better off. Without any more stuff. And so you look at all the medical stuff, medical journals, people who live the longest are people who are people who belong. Real simple. And there's a book called Happiness Raw. And the author sort of looks at longevity as a bunch of things, and well being. And she has some terms. I forget the name of it. I was on a panel with her.

john powell:

And it tracks economic well being up to about, I think, you know, $150,000, or whatever. So people who have more money are better off. But then, as one ringer group, and she does this in, like, 30 different countries, the group that was best off, based on one of her indicators, were older, poor, black Americans who are deeply religious.

john powell:

And when I asked her initially, she couldn't explain it. It's, like, it's inconsistent with all the data. You know, as they say, don't have a pot to piss in, or one to throw out of. So why are they doing okay? And this was self interviews as long as life longevity. Not young African-American. Not middle class African-American. Low income African-American. Not people who went ... And she did more research. She said, "These people went to church, on average, four and five times a week." She said, "Their religion wasn't something they did on Sunday. It's something they did every day. And they were in community every day."

john powell:

And that's what made them better off. And so, again, do they need, yes, they need a pot to piss in and one to throw the water out. But they also need community. They also need to belong. And, to some extent, that's the fight in the United States and in Russia and in England, who belongs? Who does not belong? It's not simply the Muslims are coming in, they're gonna take our stuff.

john powell:

What they say in Italy is that the Muslims are coming in and they're gonna take our identity. And that's the scariest thing of all. And we have to be able to talk about that in a way that that there's a future. Because, if we can't talk about that, there's no future. If we can't talk about that, then, to some extent, the right-wing is right. And I understand we're going back to an imaginary past. And the problem with that imaginary past is it doesn't exist. Which means we're going to oblivion.

Speaker 8:

Wow.

john powell:

Anything else? I mean, I have a granddaughter. I don't want to go to oblivion. So I'm depending on you guys to fix this mess. But, I'm serious, but to fix the right mess. And the right mess is not a new iPhone, or a new computer, or a bigger house, or a self-driving car, all those things are fine. Maybe. But what we do need is a story and a practice and institutions and structures that reflects a more inclusive we.

john powell:

And a we that actually is multiple and fluid. Can shift. And share. And, if we can't do that, the fracture is not just outside, the fracture is inside. That is if I can't integrate the different aspects of the world, it means I can't integrate the different aspects of myself. And I'll tell you a story and then I'll let you go.

john powell:

I had, and in the book I wrote about this, I asked the students in Minnesota, I said, "So, let's do this exercise." And I said, and these were mainly white students, probably 95%. And I said, "How many of you have ever dreamt you're an inanimate object, or non-human species?" And virtually everybody raised their hand. And then we went around the room and I said, "Tell, me what you," and one person, "I was an eagle, and I was flying. And I was looking down, soaring."

john powell:

Another person, "I was a stream and I was, you know, flowing down." And, "I was a fox and I was chasing, you know," so okay, great. And then I said, "So how many of you have ever dreamt you were a black woman?" No hands went up. Not one. And the students pushed back. And I said, "Wait, a minute, doesn't this strike you as odd?" And they said, "No, not at all." And I said, "Why not?" And they said, "I'm not a black woman." And I said, "You're not an eagle either."

john powell:

And what I was saying is that, in your imagination, in their multiplicity, they could play with different identities. But, even in their dreams, there was boundaries and segregation. And so I challenged them. And we did some more exercise and I said ... And, by the end of the year, virtually everybody had had a dream that they were something else. And there was one student who called me, like, five years later. And he said, "Can I take you to lunch?" And I said, "Sure."

john powell:

And he said, "You know, that was one of the most powerful exercises, and I just loved that exercise." I said, "Great." And he said, "And I just, I just had a dream, and I haven't told anyone about it. I haven't told my wife, or my therapist, but I want to tell you because you helped me have that dream." And I said, "What's that?" And he said, "I dreamt that I was gay. But I'm not. I'm not." Right?

john powell:

And so he was still struggling, to me. And I said, you know, "Whatever." You know, it's, like you know, "You probably are personally gay. It doesn't mean you practice it. It's just that you have the multiplicity." But he was struggling with the ... Even then, when he had the dream, it was creating this tension for him, right? But he also sought me out. So it was important to him. It was important to share with somebody. Not his wife.

john powell:

So I think it's, as really healthy beings, first of all, I think healthy beings only exist in relationship to other healthy beings. That we don't exist in relationship alone. But that our multiplicity and diversity is both an internal and external project. And then we have to actually make structures and systems that actually help and support that in some way. So then we do we still need another? I don't think so. But not necessarily.

john powell:

Not, and just by telling one of my students here a very sharp, and some of you are Berkeley, and some of you are not, and all of you are sharp, but one of my students said, "You talk about this circle of, you know, of belonging, where everyone is included." He said, "By definition, if you have a circle, isn't something outside of it?" And I said, "Good question." But the answer is no. And the obvious example, circle or sphere, is the universe. The universe is a sphere. There's nothing, at least by astrophysicists would say, there's nothing outside the universe, including nothing. All right, I'll let you guys go.