Activism is a societal awareness trigger

I’ve wanted to explore the intersection of awareness and society for a long time. I have a hunch that there’s a rich and valuable line of inquiry here, and it seems that the best way to mine it is to simply start digging, so here we go.

First, I need to reiterate one of my main talking points, which is that you can’t make choices with respect to something if it lies outside your awareness.

My quotidian example is that of being in an hours-long flow state, when suddenly you ‘come back to yourself’ and realise you needed to use the bathroom some time ago. The sensations of pressure were there all along, but somehow you weren’t able to notice them or, therefore, to act on them.

That state of being unable to notice is critical and is overlooked as a fundamental and common part of our day to day experience. In general we are released from it by some outside influence, like the flow state ending on its own, being interrupted by a colleague or notification, or the biological necessity increasing to the extent that it becomes salient.

Only then are we able to relate to the thing in our awareness. Until the moment the spell is broken and our awareness expands, it’s impossible to do anything about it.

Consider that every time you make a choice — to move, to speak, to eat, even to think a particular thought — you must first be available to the idea that you could do any of these things. The expansion of awareness to include the notion — the idea that you might make a choice — always precedes the choice itself.

This simple observation is why I wholeheartedly believe that developing conscious control of awareness is a crucial skill that gives us the capacity to make new choices and free ourselves from stuck patterns.

Let’s now scale this up.

A society is made of individuals, and while the whole tends to be greater than the sum of its parts, it seems reasonable that characteristics of the parts will influence the whole. Thus, if individuals experience collapsed awareness, which is a state of reduced availability to the landscape of possible options, then so can the societies that they create.

This collapsed awareness state leads to a kind of ‘stuckness’ in which certain pathways for action become closed. Consider the societal equivalent of being unable to go to the bathroom until it occurs to the society that perhaps it should and indeed could go to the bathroom. Until something frees the society from that rut, expanding its awareness to new options, it can’t do anything but stay stuck in its rut.

Fortunately, societies are made of diverse, heterogeneous individuals, each with an awareness and perspective of their own. Some people may have the capacity to notice that new choices can and should be made, and others may also notice, even if not articulated in these terms, that many people around them seem incapable of seeing what they’re seeing.

In this frame, the role of activism then becomes clear and necessary. The role of the activist is to point out to society at large that it may be literally unable to notice and act upon something vital. The activist seeks to expand society’s awareness to include the thing that concerns the activist.

Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

Of course things are never that straightforward and the situation can get loopy. Awareness has a habit to collapse over and over again in response to what happens within us or in the world. Indeed, this is what true habits are: the collapse of awareness during behaviours that prevent other behaviours from happening, for better or for worse. This saves energy, so makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, but it has the unfortunate side effect of creating a rigidity that leads us astray in rapidly changing environments or when the initial learned behaviour was unhelpful.

This is why activists need to keep being activists over and over again, because where society’s awareness may initially expand in response to the activist, it quickly collapses again. It’s also why activists need to change their messaging all the time, because the tricks that expand awareness at first rarely work for long. New tricks are required to break the spell.

It’s also worth noting that the activists themselves can get stuck in their own collapsed awareness, perhaps unable to see that their tactics aren’t working, that what they aim to point out is actually of low importance, or that things are in fact being done in response to their concerns.

All this suggests that conscious control of awareness — to be able to break free from the limitations in perspective, choice and agency that collapsed awareness creates — is vitally important in those for whom the use of these capacities affects society.

But until this skill is widespread, let’s remember the existence and implications of collapsed awareness and seek to re-expand the awareness of others where we see them stuck in choice unconsciousness. In this way we can all serve as activists for each other and, hopefully, become better able to wisely navigate our path forwards together.

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Michael Ashcroft

Michael Ashcroft


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