A strong theme of individualism informs English speaking, capitalist societies. Perhaps because of that, the personal development and wellbeing movement that’s evolved is very focused on the experience and identity of the individual. Teachers instruct you to focus on who you are, what you want to manifest, and what your dreams are for your life and for your family. In some yoga and meditation classes, Eastern teachings will guide you to open your heart and set an intention for the planet, or to practice loving kindness to all beings. But on the whole it’s, ‘Manifest this to be more wealthy, use this exercise to be more happy, try this to be more healthy’. It’s mind boggling in its self absorption.
In a world where even those who are trying to live a more conscious life are driven by self interest, unconscious blindness is easily perpetuated. The impact of systemic inequality is ignored and people become disconnected from the suffering of others even as they vigorously pursue personal development.
This became blindingly apparent to me last year when some of the greatest examples of mansplaining and white washing occurred by people who’d been steeped in personal development for many years. A couple of men I thought of as ‘good guys’ fought vigorously to explain to me that the collective experiences of women being expressed through the #Metoo movement were either exaggerated or evidence of a victim mindset that we needed to overcome. Never did it occur to them that when a group of people have been silenced for centuries, speaking up en masse about their experience isn’t a sign that they’ve fallen into victimhood, it’s a sign that they’re liberating themselves from it.
Similarly, I saw many white women patronising women of colour who spoke up about their lived experiences of racism. They disregarded their perspectives as invalid – because as white people they had never experienced racism – and they were offended that women of colour were continuing to use their voices to speak up, arguing that they were being divisive and not expressive of a ‘higher consciousness’.
If I learned anything from those experiences, it was that the personal development world has a glaring hole in it. In focusing so closely on the experiences of the individual, it has completely ignored collective experiences and the collective consciousness that arises from the operation of systemic inequality.
The reality is that in addition to our individual experiences, we also inherit a collective consciousness as a result of our belonging to a certain group of people; women, men, LGBTIA, a particular country, skin colour, or religious group. These groupings impact significantly on our perception of the world, on our willingness to be visible, and on the opportunities that come our way.
And the stories told about those groups – be they Muslim people or Indigenous people, women or transgender people – are group stories, rather than individual stories. They’re more pervasive and they’re more difficult to free yourself from. Because while you might choose to do years of work to free yourself, millions, if not billions of people continue to reinforce those stories every single day.
You turn on the television and hear all Muslims referred to as terrorists or all Mexicans as lazy. You see women washing dishes and caring for children. You see men mowing the lawn and fixing cars. You tell yourself these images don’t affect your perception of the world but of course they do. The level of unconscious bias that each of us is carrying around is breathtaking.
It’s also why it matters so much when the President of the United States ridicules a woman’s account of sexual assault. In a world where we only just gained a smidgen of ground around having our stories of sexual harassment and assault believed, the President single handedly tried to push women right back into the pre-Metoo days. To convince his country and the world, that women are not to be believed. That we’re unreliable. That we’re untrustworthy.
This is an old story. It’s been used to discredit women since at least the writing of Genesis in the Bible. It’s a story which keeps us second guessing ourselves and each other.
So this has become one of those moments in time. A time when we can shrink back or we can step further forward.
I believe it’s imperative that we step forward.
Liberation from individual oppression requires one person to decide that striving for freedom is more important than dealing with the consequences that might ensue. Liberation from collective oppression requires thousands, perhaps millions of women to decide that striving for freedom is necessary at any cost.
Of course, I completely understand why women in some parts of the world, in violent relationships, or suffering under extreme oppression would not make that choice. But there are many women who don’t suffer from that level of oppression.
Many don’t speak up because they’re afraid of trolls and harassment, of people disagreeing with them, or of getting into an argument. And while I understand the fear, I don’t think it’s reason enough to stay quiet. Because when you start to look at life collectively – not in terms of the benefit you’ll gain by speaking up, but at the benefit that flows to all women from you choosing to speak up – then you see that those fears are worth facing.
Personally I don’t pursue visibility for its own sake. I don’t speak up because I have a desperate need to be heard. I don’t. I’ve never dreamt of fame and I’m not desirous of lots of attention. I speak up because I want others to feel safe to do so. I want them to see that it’s possible and to be inspired to do that same.
In this lifetime each of us has a choice; you can stay small and quiet or you can realise that your sisters are relying on you. That they need you to step forward and pave the way for them to step forward too. They need you to do the work of clearing the collective consciousness that sees far too many women hung out to dry, on their own, speaking up against authority and having their lives and reputations destroyed as a result.
This is precisely why we do so much work on the collective consciousness at The School of Visibility. Because we need to work at both the level of the individual and the level of the collective.
Systemic change is only ever made possible when perspectives also change. I truly believe that if we work together on breaking down the patriarchal mindset and the collective consciousness that had kept us quiet, discrete, and easily disregarded for thousands of years, we’ll rapidly break down systemic inequality. If we can expand the perspective of the personal development movement beyond the needs of the individual and look also at the needs of the collective, we can make great strides in human evolution and speed up the societal change that will inevitably follow.
And that’s what we’ll be doing soon in The Visibility Challenge. It’s a chance to clear both collective and individual visibility blocks. To work with other women to release all women from the weight of thousands of years of silencing. To lighten your personal load and the collective load just a little bit more, not just for yourself, but for all. Because as Audre Lorde taught us, ‘I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own’.