Saturday, July 14, 2012

Planting seeds of change

I haven't written a post in quite a while, I know. It's not like there hasn't been anything happening. Last time I checked, it was still an election year. But...well, I'm not going to go on about why I haven't written in a while. Instead, I'll say that I was going to write a post about the Daniel Tosh rape joke incident. But after writing on quite a few facebook threads and posting a link to this great article, I instead want to turn to a particular retort I heard repeated throughout these conversations, one which I personally hear time and again because of the kind of work I strive to do as a civically engaged academic.

"There will always be people whose minds you can't change." (or some variation)

This is true. And it can sometimes be depressing. I know I get discouraged when after a 45 minute conversation my interlocutor disparages me for thinking I can change anything when most people aren't rational and consensus is an impossibility. But there are a few things I take refuge in during these moments. For example, there are the facts of history. You probably know this famous quote from Dr. Martin Luther King jr.:

"When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."

Now, I may have a slightly different interpretation of this passage from King's. Unfortunately, I cannot ask him. But for me, the "creative force" which directs the arc of the moral universe towards justice is human effort. And I believe this is the case whenever I look at the history of my own country. There was a time when people thought it was acceptable to have a legal form of racial slavery. There was a time when people thought it was unacceptable for women to vote. There was a time when people thought it was acceptable for a teacher to inflict corporal punishment* on their students. But we grew up. Or, to be more accurate, people did the necessary work of actively changing others' minds so that laws, customs, social scripts, and norms would change, so that the arc of history would align with arc of the moral universe.

And this happens slowly, gradually. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was made possible by the work of abolitionists and civil rights advocates (both famous and not so famous) in the nineteenth century, who in turn had at their disposal texts and ideas much older than themselves. We don't always get to see the immediate effects of our efforts, but that doesn't change the fact that we are part of a larger wave of activity reverberating in the arc of history.

That's not to say that those of us who want to see social, political, economic, and cultural conditions change for the better can sit back and rest assured that the arc will bend because there is a force larger than ourselves. The movement initiated by the actions of those who wish to change conditions can be greater than the sum of its parts, but it does not exist without those parts.

So we continue to encourage conversation, register voters, write articles and books, draft and sign petitions, call and write our representatives, and help out in any way we can. Not because we think we can change everyone's mind, but because we think that we can plant a seed in everyone's mind. (Credit goes to a good friend of mine for this metaphor. He in turn got it from someone else, and it actually almost exactly resembles Jesus' parable of the sower in the New Testament). That seed may be nourished and grow, it may remain dormant for years until spurred to growth by a significant event, it may never grow. All we can do is plant seeds and do what we can to create a nourishing environment once those seeds of change are planted. Because some will grow. And once a few start growing, others feed off their strength. Eventually, politicians, teachers, and court justices begin to grow. And then change in cultural attitude becomes change in law. (Note that this linear progression may be a nice image, but obviously over-simplifies things) (Also note: this is why it is in fact a big fucking deal that President Obama voiced his support for same-sex marriage. No, he hasn't actually legalized it on the federal level yet, but his attitude changing is a big, big step)

So I fully acknowledge that as I continue to engage in conversations and write about issues of social justice and cultural scripts I will never be able to change everyone's mind. Such a goal is impossible to achieve. But as a very important professor and mentor said in class one day (and I will NEVER forget this): "Just because a goal is impossible to achieve, that does not excuse one from the responsibility of trying to achieve it."

That quote, along with that repackaging of the parable of the sower and a knowledge of the long process of social change in the United States keeps me focused and keeps me determined to continue the work that I do. I hope to pass these mantras on to others who may feel depressed or discouraged that they'll never be able to change everything they want to change. We may not see it now, or even ever in our lifetime. But so long as people keep doing the work, the arc of history will bend towards Justice.  

*Note: When I originally wrote this, I was under the belief that corporal punishment had been outlawed in all 50 states in the US. I thank my friend Steven for bringing my error to my attention. Corporal punishment is in fact still legal in 19 states.