Peace and Twenty-Somethings

Over on Non​vi​o​lence​.org, I’ve posted some­thing I orig­i­nally started writ­ing for my per­sonal site: Where is the grass­roots con­tem­po­rary non­vi­o­lence move­ment? It asks why there’s no the kind of young, grass­roots cul­ture around peace like the net­works that I see “else­where on the net.”

The piece speaks for itself but there is one point of con­text and a few obser­va­tions to make. The first is that the grass­roots cul­ture I was think­ing of when I wrote the piece was the “emer­gent church,” “young evan­gel­i­cal” move­ment. Thirty years ago the kids I’ve met at “Cir­cle of Hope”, a Philadel­phia “emer­gent church” loosely affil­i­ated with the Brethren could eas­ily have been at a Move­ment for New Soci­ety* train­ing: the cul­ture, the inter­ests, the demo­graph­ics are all strik­ingly sim­i­lar.

(MNS was a national but West Philly-centered net­work of group houses, pub­li­ca­tions, and orga­niz­ing that forged the iden­ti­ties of many of the twenty-somethings who par­tic­i­pated; Non​vi​o​lence​.org is arguably a third-generation descen­dant of MNS, via New Soci­ety Pub­lish­ers where I worked for six years).

The obser­va­tion for Friends is that retro-organizing like the relatively-new “Pendle Hill Peace Net­work” [web­site URL long since dropped & picked up by spam­mer] will have a really hard time act­ing as any sort of out­reach project to twenty-somethings (a main goal accord­ing to a talk given my monthly meet­ing by its direc­tor). The grass­roots peace-centric com­mu­ni­ties that were thriv­ing when the Net­work spon­sors were in their twen­ties don’t exist any­more. Rather pre­dictably, the pho­tographs of the next two dozen speak­ers for the Pendle Hill Peace­build­ing Forum series show only one who might be under forty (maybe, and she’s from an exotic locale which is why she gets in). I’m glad that a gen­er­a­tion of sixty-something Quaker activists are guar­an­teed steady employ­ment, but don’t any Quaker insti­tu­tions think there’s one Amer­i­can activist under forty worth lis­ten­ing to?

I think the best descrip­tion of this phe­nom­e­non comes from the mil­i­tary. They call it “inces­tu­ous ampli­fi­ca­tion” and define it as “a con­di­tion in war­fare where one only lis­tens to those who are already in lock­step agree­ment, rein­forc­ing set beliefs and cre­at­ing a sit­u­a­tion ripe for mis­cal­cu­la­tion.” I sus­pect that peace activists are so wor­ried about their own rel­e­vancy that they have a hard time rec­og­niz­ing new peers or changed cir­cum­stances.

These num­bers and the lack of speaker diver­sity explain why I rarely even bother with Quaker peace con­fer­ences any­more. I wouldn’t mind being over­looked in my peace min­istry if I saw other activists my age being rec­og­nized. But I can’t take my invis­i­bil­ity as feed­back since it’s clearly not about me or my work. The homo­gene­ity of the speak­ers lists at most con­fer­ences sends a clear mes­sage that younger peo­ple aren’t wanted except as pas­sive audi­ence mem­bers clap­ping for the inspir­ing fifty- to seventy-somethings on stage. How much of cur­rent retro peace orga­niz­ing is just self-stroking Boomer fan­tasy?

The in-group inces­tu­ous­ness has cre­ated a gen­er­a­tion gap of rel­e­vancy. When insti­tu­tions and move­ments become myopic, they become irrel­e­vant to those locked out­side. We have to go else­where to build our iden­ti­ties.

The inter­net is one place to go. From there it’s clear that the insti­tu­tional projects don’t have the “buzz,” i.e., the sup­port and excit­ment, that the Gen-X led projects do. The inter­net alone won’t save us: there’s only so much cul­ture one can build online and computer-mediated dis­cus­sions favor argu­men­ta­tion, ratio­nal­ity, and ide­o­log­i­cal cor­rect­ness. But it’s one of the few venues open to out­siders with­out cash or insti­tu­tional clout.
But what about the con­tent of a twenty-first cen­tury twenty-something peace move­ment?

Many of today’s twenty-something Quak­ers were raised up as sec­u­lar peace activists. Our reli­gious edu­ca­tion pro­grams often de-emphasize con­tro­ver­sial issues of faith and belief to focus on the peace tes­ti­mony as the uni­fy­ing Quaker value. Going to protests is lit­er­ally part of the cur­ricu­lum of many Young Friends pro­grams. Even more of a prob­lem, older Friends are often afraid to share their faith plainly and fully with younger Friends on a one-on-one basis. The prac­tice of per­sonal and Meeting-based spritual men­tor­ship that once trans­mit­ted Friends val­ues between gen­er­a­tions is very under-utilized today.

Almost all of these Friends stop par­tic­i­pat­ing in Quak­erism as they enter their twen­ties, com­ing back only occa­sion­ally for reunion-type gath­er­ings. Many of these lapsed Friends are out explor­ing alter­na­tive spir­i­tual tra­di­tions that more clearly artic­u­late a faith that can give mean­ing and pur­pose to social action. I have friends in this lost Quaker gen­er­a­tion that are going to Bud­dhist tem­ples, prac­tic­ing yoga spir­i­tu­al­ity, build­ing sweat lodges and join­ing evan­gel­i­cal or Roman Catholic churches. Will they really be won back with another lec­ture series? What would hap­pen if we Friends started artic­u­lat­ing the deep faith roots of our own peace tes­ti­mony? What if we started tes­ti­fy­ing to one another about that great Power that’s taken away occa­sion for war, what if our tes­ti­mony became a wit­ness to our faith?

Why are a lot of the more thought­ful under-40s going to alter­na­tive churches and what are they hop­ing to find there?

Don’t get me wrong: I hope these new peace ini­tia­tives do well and help to build a thriv­ing twenty-something activist scene again. It’s just that for fif­teen years I’ve seen a suces­sion of projects aimed at twenty-somethings come and go, fail­ing to ignite sus­tain­ing inter­est. I worry that things won’t change until spon­sor­ing orga­ni­za­tions seri­ously start includ­ing younger peo­ple in the decision-making process from their incep­tion and start rec­og­niz­ing that our focus might be rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent.

I share some obser­va­tions about the dif­fer­ent way insti­tu­tional and out­sider Friends use the inter­net in How Insid­ers and Seek­ers Use the Quaker Net.

UPDATE: The Pendle Hill Peace Net­work was laid down in late 2005. The cited rea­son was “bud­getary con­straints,” an empty excuse that side­steps any respon­si­bil­ity for exam­in­ing vision, inclu­sion or impli­men­ta­tion. It’s forum is now an adver­tis­ing stage for “free mature porn pics.” It’s very sad and there’s no joy in say­ing “I told you so.”

UPDATE: After twelve years I laid down Non​vi​o​lence​.org and sold the domain. I never received any real sup­port from Friends.