Friday, November 16, 2007

Can we change the world without getting "dirty"?

I recently attended a Maude Barlow public lecture. She was great - very articulate, informed, passionate, persuasive, at times comical. The audience was the usual mix of students, academics, activists, members of various advocacy groups and organizations. I didn't notice many pastors there, come to think of it, but there might have been some. Certainly there were people of faith who are concerned about the environment and our stewardship of the planet. All in all it was an interesting and informative evening.

There was a Q and A time at the end and the questions were also interesting, covering a variety of issues and events. The last question has really stuck in my mind. It was a fairly young man asking the question - 20 something - probably late 20s or maybe even 30ish. He had the manner and style of a political activist and his question boiled down to this: "how do you get people to the place where they have the courage to get involved and they're not afraid of getting arrested or tear gassed for the cause?". I should mention that Maude Barlow had made several passing references to protests and actions which resulted in arrests, pepper spray, tear gas, etc. - my mind flashed to the media images of G8 Summit protests and anti-war demonstrations turned nasty. I can't remember Maude's response to the young man's question, but I've been thinking about the issue ever since. And I wonder, can we change the world without getting "dirty"? Without getting arrested, tear gassed, pepper sprayed, etc.? And, are those effective ways of advocating for change within the current Canadian and global context?

In the midst of my ponderings I've recalled a quote by Abraham Lincoln who said: "Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed." I confess that I'm a bit conflicted. On one hand, I admire the Maude Barlows of the world who have been such passionate advocates for social and political change and I think they have often changed the timeline on change. But on the other hand - and maybe this is largely a personality quirk - I'm not convinced that the positive change they're after might not happen - and happen even more effectively - by other means. I know. I know. You're probably thinking of all kinds of cases throughout history where it seems that without the activists things would NEVER have changed. Slavery. Apartheid. Women's rights. All kinds of other "rights". And I've talked about this before (the gist of that post being that we really don't know what would have happened in the absence of a particular action, since social change is a consequence of SO MANY variables).

So back to the Lincoln quote: "Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed." Generally speaking, activists try to force a government to do the right thing. Most of the time - at some level at least - everyone KNOWS it's the right thing but the politicians lack the political will. That means that there's a cost - often the cost of their own position of power and influence - that's at stake. A pretty tough disincentive to doing the right thing. But what if we spent our time and energy as activists, not in doing outlandish things and getting arrested, but in the quieter, less glitzy work of raising awareness and gradually - I admit, often PAINFULLY SLOWLY - influencing public sentiment so that politicians would not be putting their political future on the line every time they might be inclined to "do the right thing."

There MAY be room for both approaches - my gut feeling is that there IS room for both - the political activists putting issues in the headlines and the rest of us coming in behind with the awareness raising stuff. But honestly, as I sat in that auditorium, it really hit me that Maude was "preaching to the choir". She doesn't get to influence the "average voter" because the average voter probably is intimidated by her and doesn't come out to hear her speak, even though she has so much to tell them and she really is a very effective communicator. I suspect that the audience that night already knew much of what Maude had to say because we're already interested and already informed. We probably subscribe to the same magazines and periodicals and have the same podcasts on our ipods. We read the same books and sign the same petitions. We're already trying to reduce our carbon footprint and we're already trying to eat locally produced food. We're sensitive to the negative effects of globalization on low income countries and are ready to vote for politicians who share those concerns.

But where are the hordes of people who haven't yet heard that there is great inequality and injustice on this planet, as it spirals on the brink of environmental and ecological destruction? Well, I suspect that they're home indulging in the comforts provided by a consumer capitalist economic and political system - or maybe they're headed south of the border "to shop 'til they drop" while the loonie is soaring above the American greenback (well - soaring may be a bit of an exaggeration!).

I enjoyed hearing Maude Barlow. I admire her and am thankful for her insights and her energy. But as for the question "can we change the world without getting 'dirty'?", I'm more convinced than ever that the answer is YES! So, if you've been holding back because you simply don't want to join in with the activists who have taken to the streets, hold back no longer. There actually is a large and powerful force of people - like you and I - who want to change the world through gentler means. So, let's get to it - let's start influencing public sentiment, even if it's just one person at a time! Who knows what the history books will eventually say...

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