For thirty years, I affirmed a “radical” activism and rejected “liberal” piecemeal reform. Then, one day, while listening to some recordings of speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one comment struck me like a lightning bolt. Dr. King’s point was simple: movements need to focus on winnable demands. I concluded that we radicals had been wrong when we attacked Dr. King for compromising.
Mahatma Gandhi, who influenced Dr. King profoundly, adopted a similar approach. He called it “evolutionary revolution.” This visionary pragmatism acknowledges the value of short-term reforms that improve the quality of life for people who have been oppressed — as part of an ongoing, never-ending process that can eventually lead to the fundamental restructuring of our entire society. This evolution involves change in our way of thinking: a change of paradigm.
This perspective is not “either/or.” It integrates both liberal reform and radical transformation. It balances the short-term and the long-term, giving equal importance to each. Gandhi and King were neither radical nor liberal. They were both.
In biology, species are defined by their ability to reproduce themselves through interbreeding. Over time, biological evolution produces new species that become so different they can no longer breed with their predecessor species.
In a similar way, human societies evolve in ways that constitute a “revolution,” or transformation — a sudden, fundamental change in how we live, work, or govern ourselves. These transformations produce societies that are so different they feel “new.” They change the composition, structure, outward form, and appearance of a society.
Transformation, however, can also be taken to mean “to change (something)completely.” The butterfly emerging from the caterpillar is commonly used as a metaphor for this type of change. This definition of transformation is dangerous.
New species remain similar to other species within the same genus, including their predecessors. They are distinct, but they are not totally different.
Sustainable revolutions do not create new societies (or individuals) that differ from their predecessor as much as butterflies differ from caterpillars. That metaphor suggests change that is total, complete, not lacking anything, having all necessary parts, not limited in any way, not requiring more work, entirely done or completed, fully carried out, absolute, perfect.
This attitude is prone to totalitarianism, black-and-white thinking that demonizes opponents and attempts to use physical force to impose its will.
When we speak of transformation, we need to avoid language that implies “total” change. Individually, when we are “reborn,” we may feel like a new person, but we are not completely new. When we transform a community, it may look new, but it is not totally new. Transformation does not destroy. It builds on what preceded.
Gandhi and King were more than willing to compromise. Reconciliation and community were their ultimate goals. They saw revolution as a never-ending process. For them, “shut it down” was not a goal in and of itself — a reactiveoutrage against an injustice that would somehow spontaneously lead to revolution. Rather, such actions were part of a calculated, proactive strategyfor specific improvements in living conditions.
Their long-term vision was the beloved community. Their short-terms objectives were, respectively, independence and desegregation.
We need to update their vision by articulating it in contemporary language, and unite behind concrete, winnable demands concerning public policy that help us steadily transform our global society. To be winnable, demands must be measurable. It needs to be clear when we have achieved our objective. Movements build momentum with victories.
As I see it, the primary shift our society needs today is to move away from a selfish commitment to climbing the social ladder to a commitment to the common good of the entire Earth Community — the entire human family and all life. And we need to achieve that vision by democratizing our entire society with new public policies that establish new structures.
This transformation would discourage both selfishness and self-sacrifice. It would affirm that we can both love ourselves and love others. It would not reject ambition, the desire for economic security, and getting promoted to further one’s career. Rather, it affirms a balance between both self-interestand the common good, solidarity rather than isolation.
What specific reforms can best help us achieve that vision is another question. The list of demands forwarded by Ferguson Action in response to the death of Michael Brown is suggestive. For instance, with regard to the use of deadly force by police, they call for “the development of best practices…, [including] the development of specific use of force standards … [and] a Department of Justice review trigger when continued excessive use of force occurs.”
When an officer feels threatened by someone who is 8-10 feet away, can the use of deadly force be justified? Aren’t there other options?
Thus far, most of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations are primarily acultural phenomenon that enhances awareness of important realities, as did Occupy. Hopefully consensus behind specific demands will soon help that movement develop into an effective political force.
Briefly blocking traffic and shutting down business gains publicity. But if that tactic becomes used more widely without a focus on winnable goals, it will backfire as resentment builds. Potential supporters want to know: what do the protestors want and how do they plan to get it?
Rejecting the need for incremental reforms is divisive and undermines unity. One correspondent, for example, recently told me:
The policy making process .. has rarely done anything good for [the marginalized]. …It has been curtailed, crippled, and suppressed into ineffectiveness. I do not think that we make sustainable progress with piecemeal policy change. What ever policy changes that are done to make liberal amendments to the current system are not sustainable because the whole structure and foundation is riddled. The whole house is burning; integration with that won’t get it.
Alas, however, in the foreseeable future, integration is inevitable. We cannot escape so long as our society does not completely collapse. That catastrophe may happen eventually, and we need to prepare for it as best we can. But to wish for it or try to help precipitate it would be morally irresponsible, due to the greatly increased suffering that would result.
In the late 1960s, we demanded “no more business as usual” and tried to achieve our goals by inflicting widespread inconvenience. Our primary accomplishment was the Reagan Revolution.
I would prefer to learn from those mistakes and push for specific reforms that steadily lead to the transformation of our global society into a compassionate Earth Community dedicated to preserving and enriching all life.