Saturday, November 08, 2014

Be the change?

"Be the change you wish to see in the world"--It's no wonder this saying (let’s call it BTC) has become so popular. From its sense of immediacy to its spiritual turn of phrase, BTC hits all the right notes. It doesn't hurt that it is commonly attributed to Gandhi, even though, as writer Brian Morton has noted, the closest Gandhi came to BTC was a passage including these words: "If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change." 

Although BTC echoes some of Gandhi’s themes, its phrasing and emphasis are notably different. What is clear is that its concise form delivers a potent message about the potential for transformation--and this provides us with a window into contemporary values.

BTC suggests that if, for example, you wish for more patience in the world, you should be more patient yourself. Presumably if you succeed in becoming more patient, then you have increased the global level of patience. Furthermore, your example may encourage others. This appears plausible, and in cases like this BTC seems to provide good guidance.

What if you seek a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions? You can’t “be” less greenhouse gas emission, but following the spirit of BTC, you should aim to produce less emissions yourself. But suppose you want an improvement in the human rights situation in Burma? How can you “be” such a change? Here, there isn't much guidance. BTC is sometimes interpreted to mean “If you want to see change in the world, then do something.” But this is too broad. BTC is more than an encouragement to take action--it’s about personal change as a vehicle for transforming the world.

Like many sayings, BTC is a mixed bag. To its credit, it encourages each of us to examine the role we play in larger-scale problems, and it calls us to take action. But troublingly, BTC hints that any problem can be solved by changing individual behaviours. Thus, the problem of greenhouse gas emissions could be solved if we carpooled and used public transportation, used less energy to heat and cool our homes, and so forth. But while individual lifestyle choices are clearly important, the problem is much more extensive and complex than this. Greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed not only to individual choices but also to large-scale industrial and agricultural operations, not to mention military activities. It might be argued that such factors can ultimately be traced to individual lifestyle choices: companies only produce what customers demand, governments simply respond to the public will. But this is simplistic: companies may be driven by the market, but they also affect the market through advertising and political influence; governments respond not only to the public will, but also to powerful people and corporations.

Regardless, we still face the question of how best to effect change. BTC encourages each of us to change ourselves. But even in problems where individual behaviour plays a central role, broader issues are often involved. For example, automobiles are a major producer of greenhouse gases. But our reliance on them is part of an intricate web of social and economic factors, such as urban sprawl, public transit options, tax policies, and government regulations. If complex problems are seen largely as personal lifestyle issues, structural factors may not get the attention they deserve. At its worst, a focus on personal lifestyle can become a fetish, and broader issues may be ignored.

During the American civil rights movement, many wished to see an end to racial discrimination. BTC would suggest that those people should have worked to end their own discriminatory behaviour. But discrimination was more than an individual behaviour, it was an entrenched institutional problem. The civil rights movement used political action such as protest marches to press for structural changes in American society, such as desegregation of schools and the outlawing of discriminatory employment practices. Of course, in many cases personal transformation and political change go hand in hand. However BTC tends to encourage--and reflect--a belief that personal transformation is sufficient.

Another interesting aspect of BTC is the distinctly spiritual tone in the words "be the change", echoing the transformative themes so common in religious traditions. The notion that transcendent meaning may be found in personal change need not stand in opposition to an understanding of the mechanisms by which broader change can be effected. But BTC conflates personal change with change in the world, hinting that in some mystical sense they are the same thing.

Equating personal and societal change obscures the mechanisms by which change is actually brought about. To understand these mechanisms, we need to pay closer attention to the messy connections between our efforts and their outcomes, including the role of other contributing factors, barriers to change, possible synergies, and the unanticipated consequences that our actions may produce. A commitment to change requires considering the pros and cons of various choices in the face of inevitable uncertainty. Unfortunately, BTC may cut this process short.

The popularity of BTC reflects a concern about our role in the problems of the world and a desire to bring about change, but it also reflects our society’s preoccupation with self-improvement, which sometime veers into self absorption. BTC deftly substitutes personal transformation for global change. The risk is that even as it empowers us to transform ourselves, BTC threatens to further disengage us from the world.
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