Traps and Game Over

A review of Keith Raniere’s “Creating Social Transformation through Recasting” with Tiffany Persons

I know exactly what you mean. Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?
— Morpheus, from the film The Matrix (1999)

This quote struck a chord the first time I heard it seventeen years ago. But it wasn’t until recently that I was able to take it from from the elusive to actual explanation. And it’s thanks to a conversation between Keith Raniere (a scientist, among other things) and Tiffany Persons (a leader of an international non-profit). If the idea of breaking out of glass prisons is part of your bucket list, you’ll want to keep reading.

In an earlier segment, Persons asks Raniere how people can effect social transformation. In this video, Raniere suggests using a tool he calls “recasting.” He first describes two psychological studies on authority/obedience (the Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison experiment). Both document how people can be “cast” in a role and run with it to the point where there’s no objectivity. In effect, a person ceases being a “person,” instead believing themselves to be the “role.” Add one or more roles (people) into the system, and the roles keep each other in check by mutual reinforcement.

The concept of casting can be traced back (at least) to the Yale and Stanford experiments during the 60’s and 70’s. What Raniere accomplishes, however, is applying it to broader human perception. He proposes that how we view ourselves and others is how we effectively cast and entrap all people in roles: the murderer exists because of the victim; the victim exists because of the murderer; they each exist because of how they view themselves as murderer and victim. (As a note: Raniere uses the rise of violence in Mexico as a context here; I have it on good authority that he has spent countless hours examining solutions to violence and organized crime since founding the non-violence movement In Lak’ Ech in 2008.)

At first, the distinction seems simple—and it is—but it’s also paradigmatic. In my estimation, Raniere brings a sci-fi vision into practice: Instead of playing out our roles unto death, or being somewhat aware of the perceptual trap with no way out, he proposes a solution: recasting—taking roles and casting them in a different way. If we see that roles are the problem to begin with, then every person has the potential to shed theirs like a piece of clothing and say, “Game Over.” And if someone is particularly wed to a role that harms them or society, people can help by empowering them away from the role.

Again, Raniere’s achievement is what this proposition implies for personal freedom, compassion and non-violence in a practical sense. He has a well-developed body of knowledge, including methodologies and practices, to effect recasting. However, what he covers in this talk is just a teaser, so the “How do we recast ourselves?” is not something he details or makes explicit. But, personally, I'd rather walk around with the question, than with that amorphous, maddening feeling of being trapped in an insoluble problem.