Joaquin Phoenix Wakes Up the Woke
By now nearly everyone has heard or read Joaquin Phoenix’s acceptance speech at the Oscar’s. It was a wonderfully crafted speech that inspired with a vision and avoided the usual pitfalls of condescending or shaming. He delivered his words with a raw, openhearted grace, rarely seen in our world of image and punch-counter-punch debate. There’s a lot to be learned from his approach.
His speech was broadcast to 23.6 million viewers, and viewed by at least that many via YouTube (shown below) and TV network web videos. While tens of millions watched or read about it, the people he was mostly speaking to were social justice fighters, those who already were in action (words or deeds) to widen the circle of inclusion.
We’ve all heard speeches by Hollywood celebrities about racism, sexism, workers’ rights and climate change. These are all human-centered concerns (yes, most are primarily concerned about humanity when it comes to climate change). But Phoenix used his three minutes to highlight the plight of a dairy cow and her calf, as they are torn from each other so we can enjoy milk in our coffee and cereal every day. He didn’t even go into the repeated inseminations of females and slaughter of male babies and low producing teen moms. He spoke a single sentence about the anguish of a mother when her baby is taken from her. And in that sentence, he moved the goal from taking care of our own (humankind) to taking care of all kinds - all beings who suffer by the hands of a larger system.
It takes guts to bring to light something that practically no one can see and that if seen, would disrupt our everyday lifestyles and sense about ourselves as being compassionate and fair people. It opens the messenger to an extraordinary amount of push back in its myriad forms including misrepresentation, misunderstanding, conflation, projection, mockery and disdain. And of course, that’s a lot of what Phoenix got, after his words soaked in a bit. It’s what any consciousness pioneer gets. It’s the price we pay to awaken humanity to its next moral frontier. But the price is worth it, because some people do wake up, and the world gets a little bit kinder.
I’ve been crafting my own message for years, succeeding at times and failing miserably at others. The message of Compassion for All is nearly always met with resistance because we live in a culture of normalized violence toward animals. We like our food, entertainment, medicines, cosmetics, accessories and clothes, even if animals are exploited in the process. The biblical edicts, “Thou shalt not kill” and “Love one another” are assumed to only pertain to our human family. But some of us see further than that, and are called to deliver a more inclusive and compassionate message, searching for those who might also come to see. And when we do, we are often tempted to don psychological armor to protect ourselves from the slings and arrows that might get launched before we even start. We may puff ourselves up, get rigid, defensive or even offensive. We may take a superior stance on the high ground, slinging our own arrows as we look down at the one facing us with a different view. It takes a lot of practice (and moral defeats) to learn that the armor never works. It tells our audience we are up for a fight. It hides our true nature. Our message is one of Nonviolence after all, so the armor must come off. The raw, authentic and vulnerable self is up to bat on this one. And it is scary.
Phoenix came to the stage with no armor. That’s why it was so beautiful. Even if people resisted or misunderstood his message (did his Hollywood audience get it?) most were moved nonetheless. Because it is rare to see someone’s honest heart, and a privilege to bear witness to one.
I don’t know if he had a deliberate plan, but he took the listener through steps that were quite effective. He started with humility, then established commonality. While reminding his audience that they all share the same values, he also masterfully tapped at their awareness, stretching them to see beyond their woke boundaries.
The most confronting part of his message had a punch to it. But rather than beat that drum, he chose to deftly move on, allowing the image of a crying mother to quietly burrow itself in minds and hearts. He didn't point fingers and make people wrong, but chose instead to gracefully pivot to the amazing nature of humankind and our ability to create. Change is scary to us, but we are at our best when we get about the business of creating something new -- with Love as our guide -- that works for everyone. It’s a universal and optimistic message that we can all get behind if we believe in our highest nature.
He concluded his short address by reminding us that we are not at our best when we stand against and cancel each other. There is so much of that in today's world and it advances nothing. Instead he encouraged us to support and give each other grace, to be each other’s educators and guides as we find our way to a better world. And that, he said, is the best of humanity.
Thank you Joaquin Phoenix for three beautiful minutes of authenticity, awakening and inspiration. And for the grace you showed the following day.
We can do this.
© carol saunders 2020
The Speech Broken Down
In a nutshell, Joaquin Phoenix offered a blueprint for any of us who yearn to be more effective messengers. Let’s take a look.
1. Start with humility.
This is always a good place to start. It helps make the speaker approachable and non-threatening. Phoenix opened by putting himself at the level of his audience – not talking up or down to them. It created a very effective opening. He also started to make a connection with his audience right away, focusing on what he shares with them.
“God, I'm full of so much gratitude right now. And I do not feel elevated above any of my fellow nominees or anyone in this room because we share the same love, the love of film. And this form of expression has given me the most extraordinary life. I don't know what I'd be without it. But I think the greatest gift that it's given me, and many of us in this room, is the opportunity to use our voice for the voiceless.”
2. Establish and grow a connection. Speak to the interconnectedness of common goals.
Next, he spoke more deeply to commonality. No matter who we are trying to bring new information to, it’s important to first find the space where we intersect. What do we both (or all) love or care about? What values do we share? Even with the most unlikely ‘others’, there is always some commonality. In this case, the commonality was social justice and fighting against the dominater principle. With another audience, it might be more of a stretch, like sharing a love for family, life or sustainability. Without this common vision, the listener feels distant at best and condescended to at worst.
“I've been thinking a lot about some of the distressing issues that we are facing collectively. I think at times we feel, or we're made to feel, that we champion different causes. But for me, I see commonality. I think, whether we're talking about gender inequality or racism or queer rights or indigenous rights or animal rights, we're talking about the fight against injustice. We're talking about the fight against the belief that one nation, one people, one race, one gender or one species has the right to dominate, control and use and exploit another with impunity. I think that we've become very disconnected from the natural world, and many of us, what we're guilty of is an egocentric world view — the belief that we're the center of the universe. We go into the natural world, and we plunder it for its resources.”
So far no one in his audience would take exception to any these statements. Everyone is with him, and he kept everyone connected to him through his use of ‘we.’ No one is sensing he’s on a soapbox preaching. His heart is wide open and he has successfully opened everyone else’s.
3. Present something new (the core idea) that connects to common goals.
This is where his boldest statement is so far. It is carefully sandwiched in the middle after everyone is nodding in agreement about their common values and goals. But no one is expecting him to bring up the plight of a dairy cow, because that is outside what is normally included in the social justice advocacy circle. For me, I wanted to hear more, but I’m already on this wagon. For his audience, it was just enough. These two brief statements ended up being the focus of attention in the days to come.
“We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow, and when she gives birth, we steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable. Then we take her milk that's intended for her calf, and we put it in our coffee and our cereal.”
4. Inspire with a vision.
With the prior two sentences reverberating in our collective psyche, he next inspires with a vision. Human beings are not wired to be excited about or even welcoming of change. When our comfort is threatened, we either go to cognitive dissonance or resistance, because change and seeing what may be true can be just too dang hard. Phoenix eloquently speaks to the idea that we are the best versions of ourselves when we leave systems of oppression behind and create new ways of living that are loving and compassionate. He inspires us with our own divine potential because somewhere deep down in the consciousness of each of us, we remember that we are all One.
And I think we fear the idea of personal change because we think that we have to sacrifice something, to give something up, but human beings, at our best, are so inventive and creative and ingenious. And I think that when we use love and compassion as our guiding principles, we can create, develop and implement systems of change that are beneficial to all sentient beings and to the environment.
5. End with humility and grace (and with a splash of inspiration).
The speech concludes with Phoenix vulnerably laying out his own shortcomings and expressing his gratitude for the grace people granted to him throughout his live. We’ve all been scoundrels in our lives in some way. Being willing to expose that and say, “Yep I’ve messed up and I’m grateful for a second chance,” takes any audience to a place of vulnerable acceptance. No one likes someone who ignores their faults and only sees faults in others. Phoenix did neither. Instead he humbly spoke to what is possible for humanity. He reminded us that when we are at our best, we take care of each other and seek to guide each other, even if we are on different sides. Only then can we go through the gates of redemption. In other words, we must be our best selves and use Peace to bring about Peace.
Now, I have been, I have been a scoundrel in my life. I've been selfish. I've been cruel at times, hard to work with, and I'm grateful that so many of you in this room have given me a second chance. And I think that's when we're at our best, when we support each other, not when we cancel each other out for past mistakes, but when we help each other to grow, when we educate each other, when we guide each other toward redemption. That is the best of humanity.
And so it is.
© carol saunders 2020
To learn more truth about dairy, here are some resources:
Rev. Carol Saunders
I am an ordained Unity and Interfaith minister, speaker, writer and lover of all life. In 2010 I founded a spiritual community in Deerfield, IL, a suburb of Chicago, and led it through mid-2021. In my current ministry I host a podcast called The Spiritual Forum. Being a voice for the animals and a light for the spiritually-inclined who are willing to seriously examine the self and begin to awaken, are what Spirit has called me to be. I am here to support anyone who wants to move toward living in closer alignment with their deeply held spiritual values - i.e. sovereignty, freedom, love, peace and kindness. We have the power to change our world by changing ourselves. A first step is identifying and releasing all the cultural conditioning that normalizes cruelty and violence. Be Love. Be Peace. Be Kind. Today.
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