Easy-Peasy: My Manifesto for Social Change

Once upon a time, I wrote this as a response to a classmate, who made the mistake of wondering out loud how I thought we could create social change.  I’m posting it because I still agree with most of it.  Quotation follows, with names removed to protect the innocent and not-so-innocent alike:

Baldly stated, I think that the answer to my second question is key to nothing less than the survival of civilization.  If we can achieve a point at which we, as a species, can successfully plan for the long haul, we’ll make it.  If we can’t, we won’t.

Part of the problem with finding the answer is that we might be asking the wrong question.  As Westerners generally, and Americans specifically, we tend to have a (collectively subconscious) progressivist idea about change.  We react to our environment in an effort to make things better, the story goes; and if we react successfully enough times, we will advance.  We know more than our fathers did, they say, and because of this we are better equipped to deal with problems.  They tell us that we see further because we stand on the shoulders of giants.  That’s the story, anyway.

With that in mind, I propose that the quintessential Western sociological question is “How can we change this or that aspect of our society to make it better?”  I think this question is considerably less relevant than might typically be assumed.

Professor D— believes in the power of the social movement; I do, too, but I don’t think that social movements are very successful at creating change.  I think they are only successful at implementing change that has, in large part, already happened.  I believe that successful social movements are an excellent measure of the difference between the wider society and the few elites who inevitably seek to control it.  I’ll bastardize that famous Gandhi quote by saying that you must be the change that has already been.

I further propose that there might not always be an answer to that quintessential question I posted about two paragraphs back.

The reason I say this is because I think that most of social change, like biological evolutionary change, occurs as an adaptive response to our environment.  Our environment includes obvious structural things, like the things and methods we use to live our lives, but it’s my proposal that it also includes less obvious but more powerful things–like behavior, values, ideas, and myths.

It’s fairly well documented that we respond to structural change with social change–when we start to live in urban environments, for example, we alter our society to better fit our new environment–but it’s less well documented that we also respond to the less tangible things with equal degrees of change.  When myths change, for example, people will again change their behavior to accommodate their new environment.

In short: in order to change society, the environment of society needs to change.  I don’t think a social movement will, on its own, make this happen.  (Here’s a caveat: a social movement that arises from a fundamental social change will definitely help codify and cement the change; but that’s very different than trying to use the movement to create it.)

How then, does the ideological aspect of our social environment change?  Well, to begin with, Piotr Sztompka, a sociologist with UCLA, has set out a theory of social change based on social trauma.  He proposes that when a society experiences a significant trauma (which, as he enumerates them, appear like an abridged version of the Book of Revelation: wars and rumors of war, occupation by an enemy, pestilence, famine, disease, and so forth) it rocks the ideological foundations upon which society bases its beliefs.  Then myths change; ideas change; values change.

And society changes in response.

I think he’s on to something.  I think that trauma spurs non-structural change.  I don’t think that trauma is the only thing that spurs non-structural change; it may be the only thing that consistently spurs sudden non-structural change, but society is always constantly adapting, evolving, and changing.  In order to engineer change, you have to tap into the motivation behind it all.  Trauma is one way of doing that.

Here’s the painful truth as I see it: if you want sudden social change, our society has to undergo social trauma.  If we run out of oil in the next 20 years, there will be plenty of trauma to go around.  In that event, I guarantee that you will see rapid social change.  If you live through it.

But if you want extensive social change without extensive social trauma, you’d better get ready for the long haul.  You’ll need to change values, ideals, and write new myths; and good luck with that.  The good news is that social elites already do this, so you know it can be done.  The bad news is that they already do this, so they’re really good at it.  And you’re not, yet.

To start with, you’ll need artists.  Really good artists, not (with apologies to Occupy, which has the greatest of intentions and the poorest of formulations) a collection of folks pooping in a park.  Really good artists connect with people on the level you’ll need to connect with them on.

You’ll need effective evangelists–people who care transparently about other people and who live their lives as a witness to their faith.  (If that sounds religious, it’s because it is.  Religion is incredibly effective at creating functional myths; and those people are the kind of people who create effective religions.)  On that note, too, you’ll need the religious establishment: ministers and priests and rabbis and imams who will buy what you’re selling, and sell it to their congregations.

You will not need legislation that outlaws certain kinds of light bulbs or mandates a higher minimum gas mileage.  That’s worse than useless, because it gives the illusion that something good is happening without actually causing something good to happen.  Further, you will not need poor disenfranchised people to rise up and defy authority.  All that will do is get them put in jail, beaten, or shot.  (It will also cause much of society to associate violence and social disruption with your cause, and you don’t need that stigma.)

You need to connect with millions of people on an inspirational, emotional, and mythical basis.  Society needs to believe in your myth.  You need to persuade society that the myths it has previously built itself around are outdated, non-functioning, and disconnected from reality; and when society discards those myths, you’ll need to have already provided a feasible alternative mythology.

Then you’ll have real, significant, lasting change.  Here’s my answer, such as it is, to the quintessential sociological question: you cannot significantly change any single aspect of society without tearing much of what it believes up by the roots.

Easy enough, right?


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