Awareness and Quality of Life | An Interview with Dr. Bruce E. Levine

Vision and Acceptance is super excited to present an interview with Dr. Bruce Levine, “Awareness and Quality of Life.”  Dr. Levine writes and speaks widely on how society, culture, politics and psychology intersect and does an amazing job of this with intelligence, eloquence and compassion.  He has appeared in various media and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and AlterNet among others.  The contributors to V and A have been inspired by his work and see him as a soldier for human dignity.  We want to help his message reach as many people as possible especially those who are trying to gain back their power lost to an “institutional society.”  Becoming aware can be stressful and it’s easy to get stuck or lost. Thankfully Dr. Levine agreed to answer our questions and has provided some valuable insights and resources. Thank you Dr. Levine!


1. Becoming aware means learning about things like:

– how children’s curiosity is being labeled and medicated as ADD

– how rebellion against authoritarians is being pathologized and treated as a mental disorder

– how the number of people treated for depression is increasing at an alarming rate, etc.

Does awareness need to come with a warning label? Some people seem to pass on a brand of awareness which has made them depressed so really they aren’t passing on awareness but depression.  If we want to pass on awareness do we need to be conscious about how we create consciousness?

Yes, some people who have this awareness can also be in lots of pain about lies and injustice, and become depressed. And they can communicate with others in a very “downer” way, in a “misery-loves-company” way. This can off potentially receptive people and also de-energize them. It is important to keep in mind that the art of conversation has to do with maintaining a sense of humor, and this is quite possible to do for serious subjects, as people like George Carlin, Jon Stewart, and Phil Ochs showed.


2. The professions can be guards of the systems or they can facilitate well-being depending on who you choose, be it a psychologist, doctor or teacher. What are some practical ways for finding the right professional for us?

Often those of us who love psychology, medicine, or education — those who truly love these areas — will be very much pained and alienated when they enter into the professionalization process, which often is about socializing them to maintain control. So, many of the best potential professionals quit. It’s a difficult call to make, whether to stay in and be subject to a good deal of unpleasantness so as to then be able to be a credible truth teller about the profession, or to get out and have another kind of life. But if you’re going to stay in it, it’s a good idea to have support. 


3. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In terms of schooling we have the public school system which can burn out kids before they are even teenagers, private schooling which is exorbitant in cost and seems to be only slightly better in terms of questioning authority, and then homeschooling where a lot of parents are religious and/or intolerant about being questioned. What are the components of an ideal schooling experience that parents can encourage at home to offset the downsides of whatever path they choose for their kids?

It’s important to respect that different personalities learn differently. In my book Commonsense Rebellion in the Education chapter, I offer some suggestions about this. It’s important to remember that true education is never successful if boring and pacifying, and that a “one size fits all” of traditional schools is dehumanizing for most kids. It’s important that young people read what they really enjoy reading. I also discuss Ivan Illich’s classic book Deschooling Society  where he talks about many aspects of sane education which would include “Skill Exchanges” (Persons list their skills and the conditions under which they are willing to serve as models for others who want to learn these skills); “Peer Matching” (a communication network which permits persons to describe the learning activity in which they wish to engage) and other fun, effective means of education), and other fun, non-coercive, deschooling components


4. This blog is an opportunity for anyone to write and share about what’s made them aware in a creative way.  I notice for some people it starts as a difficult process that causes them hesitation but ultimately is satisfying and empowering once they give themselves permission to be creative. Why do people forego the chance to express themselves and be creative in favor of passive experiences of creativity like television and movies? How can claiming that creative side of us help the movement?

In that same chapter in Commonsense Rebellion, besides Illich, I also talk about the work of John Holt, Jonathan Kozol, Alfie Kohn, and Paul Goodman, who all address your question of how school, for many of us, disempowers us, and destroys our creativity. In The Night is Dark and I am Far Away From Home, Kozol  explains how this numbing is primarily accomplished by a series of disconnections, as in  schools, we are taught to disconnect intellect from emotion, and both of these from any action. Mostly, school is a place where we are taught to obey, to obey certain rules and to obey authorities, and to the extent that you take that seriously, you and your creativity will automatically disappear.


5. Is freedom like a muscle where the more we take advantage of it, the stronger it becomes? Is the problem with representative democracy that our freedoms are exercised by someone else while we are passive? Would having a different version of government matter?

That’s a big question that I try to answer in my last book Get Up, Stand Up. The short answer is that yes — the more we take our freedom seriously and act on it, the stronger we become. And visa versa — that the more we allow ourselves to be controlled, the more broken and weaker we become. And so the more that we are in situations, in our workplace and in our education and elsewhere, where we have some impact over what is occurring, we gain a direct experience of democracy. Certainly, a different kind of government would matter – as right now, most people, if you look at the polls, feel they have little control over what their federal or state governments do, as both Republicans and Democrats support senseless wars and corporate control. In many other ways, a focus on electoral politics, especially at the national level, is an exercise in learned helplessness, where all one learns is helplessness. Real democracy means one has a sense of power over important aspects of one’s life, so we have elections in the United States but it is not really a democracy.


6. Do Americans view taking to the streets as crude while preferring to use the “purchasing power of the dollar” to promote change, or are we really just passive? How effectively are we using our purchasing power?

Taking to the streets, as we’ve seen in other societies, can be very effective in promoting change, but as I discuss in Get Up, Stand Up, Americans no longer do that in the kind of numbers that would worry the government. Does taking to the streets still work? Yes, in certain areas, as I point out Get Up, Stand Up, but not in others. There are a range of options to withdraw cooperation and create disruption and compel authorities to negotiate a more just society that I detail in Get Up, Stand Up. Using the “purchasing power of the dollar” or financial boycotts have been effective in some cases but won’t work in other cases.


7. If you want to speak up against your local school system or even your boss, there is this sense that if you are a “good” and non-angry person you won’t make waves, a go-along-to-get-along attitude wrapped in morality and dipped in chocolate. How is morality being used by our culture as a tool to threaten our sense of belonging and preserve the status quo?

Yes, we need to think critically when it comes to those at the top of the hierarchy’s idea of “morality,” which is often merely a manipulation for us to be so unthreatening that it does not create the necessary withdrawal of cooperation and disruption that will create justice. In that era of American history from post-WW-2 to the 1970s when working people could earning a living wage, buy a house, take nice vacations, they did not get that kind of life by being nice. They had strikes, often wildcat strikes, which are really strikes not only against management but their own unresponsive union leadership. Similarly, gay liberation really happens after Stonewall, which was not about being nice but no longer taking crap from the police. But those at the top want to make us feel that we must act politely all the time, which of course is often ineffective in changing unjust societies.  And they want us to have the kind of work ethic that means we should work our ass off even at alienating, low-paying jobs — buying into that kind of “morality” benefits them and not us.


8. If 25 percent of Americans don’t have a single confidante, how do we attain wholeness when half of what humans typically experience such as disappointment, anger, and sadness are judged and labeled as either sick or ugly?

A study reported in the American Sociological Review in 2006 examined Americans’ core network of confidants (those people in our lives we consider close enough to trust with personal information and whom we rely on as a sounding board), and  reported that in 1985, 10% of Americans said that they had no confidants in their lives; but by 2004, 25% of Americans stated they had no confidants in their lives. It’s important that we find likeminded people, where there is mutual respect and affection. This is more difficult today, especially if you are not religious or don’t go to support groups like twelve-step meetings. At one time critically-thinking people would more readily join political organizations to find those connections, now it’s more difficult. I go into more detail in Get Up, Stand Up about how to overcome this problem of social isolation.


9. Being anti-authoritarian is questioning authority. Religion is thousands of years old. In the pervasive way it is practiced, it can add up to a non-questioning experience of what people believe but have never seen. Is there something in the human psyche that just wants to follow without questioning?

Of course there are lots of examples of people who do heinous things, just following order, just going along to get along. There have been many historical examples, such as Nazi Germany, and many psychological studies, most famously by Milgram, to show that yes, the majority of people obey authority to do some horrific things. That’s true at least in Western Civilization. The more hierarchical a society and the more people are indoctrinated to obey authority, as we are in our society, the more that happens. There are people in every society who refuse to obey illegitimate authorities and who don’t go along. However, Orwell’s point in 1984 was that with enough fear, we can all be broken and obey oppressive authority, and this reality can promote cynicism about human beings. Eliminating or at least reducing fear in all aspects of our life is the antidote to the horrific consequences of blind obedience and going along with everything.


10. When things go downhill for a country it seems that decline is slow and steady and then a revolution can come along that is overturning, fast and yet unstable. Is there some trick that the change-desiring subcultures are not considering that is the key to successful and stable change for taking back our power?

There are a variety of kinds of healthy rebellions and revolutions. Some are at the individual level, some are with friends, some are with a larger group. Some are philosophical, some are spiritual, some are artistic, and some are political. And we can be doing several at the same time, as they all help each other. Whatever we are doing that makes us more whole as human beings, more honest, more authentic, taking actions about things that we have respect for,  acting in ways that bring about greater justice, freedom, and joy – all of these make us more whole and stronger and more capable of taking on something that requires even more strength.


11. Where do you get your drive and energy for creating awareness? Does creating awareness get tiring for you?

I have been inspired and energized by the ideas and actions of many others — famous and not so famous. Also, I have been lucky enough to, early on, find people enthusiastic about what I had to say – this is a great antidote to rejections as all writers receive plenty of rejections from editors and publishers, and must try to retain their confidence. Gaining greater awareness is actually quite energizing, and it is certainly also energizing when people communicate to you that you have helped them gain greater awareness and greater confidence in areas that they hadn’t been able to articulate.



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