We are all familiar and grateful for the tough synthetic resin of “Teflon” that coats our cooking utensils and prevents food from sticking in our pans.
But “teflon” is also a term used to refer to someone or some system that is consistently able to withstand criticism and change with no apparent effect. Politically the term goes back 40 years in reference to Ronald Reagan’s facile deflection of criticism and accountability, and most recently it refers to Donald Trump's seemingly miraculous ability to do the same in spite of all the "icky stuff" that should ordinarily "stick to him.” It’s a fascinating concept that some people somehow appear to easily shuck criticism and accountability, and it’s helpful to have a term that captures that ability and to name it for how it impacts community irresponsibility.
But then the public and the political establishment in general is unfortunately also imbued with the ability to resist serious accountability for the messes we create and resist correcting them. The psychological base of “teflon resistance” is a toxic combination of fear, greed, and privilege. All of us have some mix of these in our souls that make it difficult for us to seek and welcome change even though we know it is the right thing to do if we are to address the suffering and loss our injustice creates. And politicians, of course, can exploit these feelings to reinforce our resistance to change. The “teflon” effect can explain in part why is it so difficult to move people to reckon with the icky parts of our histories that impair and shame us and prevent us from “cleaning up our act” and moving forward.
I need to say at the outset that I am truly amazed and grateful that, over the years, I have witnessed and participated in several crucial advances in social justice. As we honor this weekend the 60 anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, I celebrate the advances we have made in racial justice and voting rights, for example. And as I watched and celebrated the athleticism of the recent women’s soccer championships I am aware how the now-established recognition of women’s role in all level of sports was made largely possible through relatively recent Title IX legislation. Yes, society can and does break through the “teflon” resistance to change.
But I am also increasingly impatient with the world's sadly effective resistance to crucial changes that can and must be made to avoid certain levels of suffering and loss if we continue to resist the imperatives to change.
The obvious issue is whether or not world governance can establish the determination and fortitude to confront the threats of climate change, for example. The “teflon” strategy works on behalf of the status quo and the corporate interests to resist accountability. And in my work in prison reform and anti-war work I am often so discouraged by how grudgingly the powers of the Department of Corrections and the military establishment maintain their privilege in spite of the overwhelming evidence and research about the waste and suffering their policies cause and their resistance to making them right.
I acknowledge the human resistance to change is a major factor throughout written history. The ancient prophetic messages of the Bible admonish humankind for their “hard-heartedness and stiff necks” and their neglect of the poor and warn them of the need for “repentance” and change. And as we slowly reckon with the history of slavery and the resistance to abolition that resulted in a civil war we are so deeply saddened that a practice so obviously evil was allowed to persist for so many years. The list could go on of other tragic examples of resistance to address and prevent so much suffering.
So what is the antidote to the harmful effect of the “teflon resistance" to accountability? One way, of course, is through violence and physical removal of tyrants and oppressive regimes. As has been apparent since Viet Nam especially, and through the wars of the Middle East, I would argue that not only is violence and war intolerably destructive of human and planetary life, it is the ultimate defeat of the human spirit.
As an alternative to violence and war there are established and rising initiatives of nonviolent practices. Although we may not always recognize it, in a political democracy we have a choice of voting someone out of office or proposing and passing legislation that addresses a needed change in policy and practice. The democratic process, as faulted as it may be, provides an established practice that counters the “teflon” protection employed by totalitarian regimes. A reliance on the “force more powerful” of nonviolence may still be at its very beginning stage. Within my lifetime humankind is just now learning to build a substantial and effective combination of astute training and strategy for peace building such as Gandhi’s independence campaign or MLK’s willingness to risk dangerous nonviolent resistance in the civil rights movement. (For more information see the Friends Committee on National Legislation Peacebuilding citation below.*)
Ultimately the antidote to “teflon resistance" to change and accountability is to work nonviolently through the heart with compassion and love for humanity and life itself which often involves a willingness to work through sacrificial love to address injustice and establish lasting change. And structurally our nation and other parts of the world are learning to use the “truth and reconciliation” process to work beyond the hatred and distrust in the aftermath of violence to rebuild community and trust.
May your life hold a sacred trust in the power of compassion and truth that can overcome the personal and societal “teflon resistance" to change and accountability.
*See FCNL https://www.fcnl.org/resources/invest-peacebuilding