Wednesday, April 19, 2017

How to Actually Make a Difference

Once again, I have to apologize for not being a faithful blogger. Six months ago, I was working on a series on pacifism, and then life happened... I haven't had a chance to get back to blogging until now. I intend to pick that pacifism series back up in the next few days. But before that, I want to address an issue that is a little more timely and in some ways overshadows it [E1]: how do you make a difference in the world?

Of course, there are many ways to make a difference, [E2] but I am asking specifically how you can fight against the deep, systemic problems in our society, such as racism, inequality, and the climate crisis. Despite the fact that many people agree that these – along with other issues – are major problems, we can’t seem to uproot them. Part of the problem is that we don’t know how to uproot them. Whenever we try to make a difference, there are people who argue that our efforts are pointless, ineffective, and naïve.

For example, SNL recently did a sketch making fun of people who share articles on Facebook and count it as activism. [E3] Fair enough, but it raises the question, what would SNL prefer for those people to be doing? Perhaps the answer is to have them “hit the streets.” We have all been inspired by the protests and marches of the Civil Rights era, so perhaps that is what real activism looks like. [E4] But marching has been done so often over so many issues in the last year, that some argue that it has become nothing more than an act of self-expression. [E5] So what’s a better alternative: should we write our legislators? Nah, in most cases the letters don’t even reach them. [E6] Perhaps the key is voting, so that you can put people in office who listen to you? But there are several people out there who claim that your vote doesn’t matter. [E7] So where does that leave us? What can we do that would actually make a difference?

The problem with that question is that it gets us looking for a single deed that we can do that will make a difference, an activity that you participate in, after which you can step back and say, “Wow, I changed the world!” [E8] But the reality is that society is complex, and in order to change it, we have to be willing to engage in complex ways. That’s not to say that it’s impossible, but I would argue that there are five key elements to really making a difference. If we just do one or two of them in isolation, they won’t be effective at bringing about change, but when combined, they almost certainly make an impact.

1) We Must Change Our Thinking

Beliefs matter. The way that we think about issues shapes the way that we respond to them. As long as people continue to believe various myths about society – for example, that wages are low in the United States because immigrants are taking “American” jobs or that African-Americans are imprisoned at a higher rate than whites because they are more prone to criminality – as long as these kinds of myths exist, nothing will change. So we have to do the work of educating ourselves, of unlearning destructive myths that we have internalized and of learning new ways to think about the world. This comes from reading books and articles, listening to people who are marginalized, engaging in difficult conversations, and carefully studying and fact-checking controversial claims.

In Isolation: As is true for all of these strategies, there is a danger in changing our thinking if it is done in isolation from these other actions: that thinking might become a substitute for speaking and acting. There are some people who feel that they can’t engage social issues until they “have it all figured out first,” but the problem is that they never get to the point where they feel satisfied enough with their knowledge to act. You have to learn as you go, doing this alongside of the other steps that are necessary to bring about change. [E9]

2) We Must Change Our Lifestyles

Progressives have a tendency to blame elites for all of the problems we have in our society. They point the finger at corrupt politicians and business executives who put profits over people, etc. Certainly, elites bear a disproportionate amount of responsibility, but their power depends entirely on the complicity of the everyday choices that average Americans make every day. If we really want to make a difference, we have to be willing to make that difference in our own lives: such as refusing to buy products that may have been produced by forced labor, avoiding the kind of wastefulness that ruins the environment, paying attention to our own prejudice and correcting our tendencies to discriminate, etc. We must be willing to live into the new realities we are demanding. We must be the change we want to see in the world. [E10]

In Isolation: Conservatives have a tendency to argue that personal changes by themselves should bring about change, and that if we want to address climate change or income inequality, we should do it solely within the boundaries of the free market. But this reasoning fails to understand how powerful forces in society influence individual decisions, often coercing them to make choices that are destructive to everyone. Tackling big issues shouldn’t be an “either-or” between personal changes and public advocacy but a “both-and.”

3) We Must Speak Up

The myths and narratives that justify injustice flow through society like blood flows through the veins. They are the default mode of thinking. Systems and institutions have been built around them. Most people accept them without thinking. In order to make any kind of difference, you have to speak out against them. You have to find platforms on which you can be heard and be willing to ruffle some feathers. This is where marches and protests can be really valuable. Protesting, when done correctly, is a way of calling attention to an injustice. The best protests are those that expose the evils they are fighting against. [E11] But “speaking up” takes other forms as well. It can come in the form of Facebook posts or personal conversations with friends and loved ones. Whatever gets the message out there, whatever challenges the dominant narrative, is worth saying and doing.

In Isolation: When speaking up is not rooted in fresh thinking and when it is not followed by action, then it becomes background noise. Anyone who speaks up in any form will be called to account for their own integrity, so it’s essential to be connected in other ways as well.

4) We Must Organize

In order to move from speaking to acting, you have to work together with other people. Politicians and business executives have neither the time nor the interest in listening to every single complaint, but once you reach a critical mass of people who all agree that a certain change is needed, then they have to pay attention. How do you do this? You organize. You find out who else is working for change in your community, and you brainstorm together about what you can do. This is hard work. It requires the initiative to go out in find people whom you didn’t know or work with before. It requires the commitment of meeting together and working out a plan. It requires compromise in order to honor everyone’s values. But if you do this work, then you’ll find yourself emboldened to take on the powers that be, now that you are not just an individual but part of a community.

In Isolation: Done in isolation, organizing will naturally draw people into the grooves that are already dug deeply in our society. In the United States, our two-party system really pressures people to buy into either-or thinking: there’s a liberal way and a conservative way, you’re a Republican or a Democrat. And if we fall into that, we won’t change the system. We’ll end up reinforcing it. We need to change our thinking, change our lifestyles, and engage new voices that are speaking out to bring about real and substantive change.

5) We Must Follow Through

If you do the work of organizing, a plan of action will naturally emerge. New policies will be proposed, new responsibilities will be assigned, and everyone’s help will be needed. This can be very exciting – at first. But it’s hard to keep up the momentum over time. It takes discipline to follow through on what you agreed to do, but this is the final step in bringing about change.

In Isolation: There are people who are very good about following through because they have developed habits: they always vote, they always contact their representatives, they always engage in certain ways, etc. But the system is clever enough that it can co-opt any of our habits and use it for its own good if we are not vigilant. For example, if you always vote for the Democratic or Republican candidate at every election, then there is no accountability for that person. Candidates will eventually start running under those labels without honoring the principles of those parties because they know they have your unquestioning support. Without the other four elements, even your political faithfulness can be undermined.

In Conclusion…

Any one of these strategies, when done in isolation, is not likely to make a dent in the system. But when these five elements are combined, then you will make a difference. Guaranteed. You may not win every political battle, but even in losing, your actions make ripples: you push the conversation in the right direction, set boundaries for how far destructive forces can go, and create precedents that pave the way for future generations to finish the work. So if someone tries to tell you that something you are doing is a waste of time, respond by saying this: “If this was all I was doing, then you would be right. My words and actions by themselves are as light as a straw. But when combined with all of the other ways I am engaging, this very act could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.


End Notes

[E1] It has been hard for me to talk about nonviolence in the Trump era, not because I have stopped believing in it, but because it is a negation of action, an insistence not to be violent, at a time when action of some kind is needed. So I felt compelled to write this article first, as a way of jumping back into the conversations.

[E2] In a broader sense, nearly everything we do makes a difference. If you make someone smile or hurt their feelings, if you paint a picture or watch a YouTube video, if you work hard and make innovations or stay at home and live as simply as possible, all of these have impacts on our society. But these aren’t kind of actions that change the rules of the game, the fault lines along which we all live our lives.

[E4] This is a largely result of public education. Due to the emphasis that many schools place on Black History Month, students get a very small dose of black history, which usually focuses on a few key themes such as the freedom riders, Martin Luther King Jr., sit-ins, and the March on Washington. That’s better than nothing, but rarely do public schools spend time studying these changes extensively (in the way that we study the Revolutionary War, for example), and this results in an understanding of activism that is superficial at best. That’s how you get things like the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad: with a superficial image of activism. If you look more carefully, you’ll find that all five of the elements I list here were brilliantly engaged by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, along with several other groups that don’t get as much attention in public schools.

[E5] Here is one of several recent criticisms of the Women’s March: I tend to sympathize with this article, but I wouldn’t put all marches in the same light. The Black Lives Matter marches have been specific, focused on a certain goal, and paired with specific policy objectives ( This has been, in my opinion, a very effective and appropriate use of protest. On the opposite extreme, the protest at UC-Berkeley against Milo Yiannopoulos was counter-productive, as it ended up expanding his platform. The point: protests must be connected to a bigger response if they are intended to be effective rather than therapeutic. 

[E7]  I have some nuanced ideas about voting myself, but not quite along these lines. I’ll save that for another time.

[E8] Let me qualify this: Whenever you participate in a political activity that is orchestrated by some group, that group will do everything in its power to make you feel like you did something that mattered. If you voted, you get to wear a sticker. If you attended a rally, the leaders will credit you with a policy change, etc. There’s some value to celebrating these things as minor victories, but take it with a grain of salt when people tell you that any single act changed the world.

[E9] Or, on the opposite extreme, there are people who feel “enlightened” after they have read a few books or articles, and they begin claiming that they are “allies” or advocates of justice just because their views have changed. Although this is the opposite of always needing more information in some ways, they both share the same mistake: they let preoccupation with thought substitute for meaningful action.

[E10] That last line came from Gandhi, not me.

[E11] This reveals one of the differences between the Civil Rights protest and modern attempts to imitate them. Sit-ins were a particularly effective tool because they exposed how hateful those policies were. People could argue that they were just about business rights or a separate but equal segregation until they saw crowds attacking people or police forcibly removing people from doing nothing more but sitting down. The power in that was that it exposed evil. I’m not convinced that the die-ins that some people do today, which were modeled after sit-ins, have the same effect. They are a dramatic gesture, but they don’t necessarily reveal or expose anything about the people whom they are targeting. (Feel free to push back on this.)

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