Mass Social Change
July 27, 2005
Change happens. Today is not the same as yesterday, and both are far different from a few decades ago. Nevertheless, most of us look at the troubles of the world and feel more or less hopeless than any social change will ever lessen the suffering and degradation of more than a small handful of any given populace. But change does occur. Legalized slavery was abolished in the United States. Citizens stopped hunting for witches. Democratic movements swept over the Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon. Gandhi and King preached non-violence, and with non-violence achieved at least the first vital steps toward realizing their dreams. How this change comes about is the topic of an excellent essay, albeit one in need of some tightening, called The Six or Seven Axioms of Social Change.
The essay begins with Margaret Mead's Axiom, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” The author goes on to suggest that social change is a networked, non-linear process wherein that small group creates an environment succeptible to change until a "tipping point" is reached (to use Gladwell's phrase). I count 5 specific axioms of social change laid out:
- Change happens
- A stuck system is like a black hole
- The first move towards change is usually undemocratic
- The group is smarter (but not braver) than the individual
- Ideas (and viruses) acquire people through small worlds
I'll let you read the rest for yourselves. I'm getting lazy. Or just tired.
Grassroots and Leadership
The interplay between grassroots and leadership (in the traditional sense) would be an interesting one to explore. Thinking about Lincoln, for example: we know there was a strong grassroots abolition movement, and we know that this movement effected (infected?) Lincoln through his wife. But it was the vision of Lincoln that pushed the idea over the hill. It was his added strength, from a (humble) position of power that made the end of legal slavery in the USA possible. The group may have been smarter, but it was useless without him.
Is this universally true? Will the grassroots ever be capable of tipping the balance without one (or a few) key people from positions of power lending their support? Perhaps the Bolshevik revolution shows a fully grassroots-induced mass social change (please correct if I'm wrong), but that was through violence and it exacerbated massive suffering for people already ground down by the Tsar and wars with Japan, Britain, and Germany. Questions about the worth of communism aside, I pre-suppose that "violence is not the answer."
As a bonus for reading this far, here's a great page of spiders on drugs.