Saturday, October 2, 2010

Social Change

It is funny. The academic theorists and the firebrand "revolutionaries" get all the press about "changing society". But in the real world, it is people. Individuals who sense a change in the air and act on it. And it spreads like wildfire. The academics and the radicals come and feast on it and claim it as their own, but the reality is that it is simply individuals acting in their own inscrutable way and in accordance with their own rhythm. It comes bottom up. It is symbolized by "leaders" but the reality is that ultimately it is individuals making individual choices that powers change.

Here's a wonderful article on the great American Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker:
At four-thirty in the afternoon on Monday, February 1, 1960, four college students sat down at the lunch counter at the Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. They were freshmen at North Carolina A. & T., a black college a mile or so away.
“I’d like a cup of coffee, please,” one of the four, Ezell Blair, said to the waitress.
“We don’t serve Negroes here,” she replied.
The Woolworth’s lunch counter was a long L-shaped bar that could seat sixty-six people, with a standup snack bar at one end. The seats were for whites. The snack bar was for blacks. Another employee, a black woman who worked at the steam table, approached the students and tried to warn them away. “You’re acting stupid, ignorant!” she said. They didn’t move. Around five-thirty, the front doors to the store were locked. The four still didn’t move. Finally, they left by a side door. Outside, a small crowd had gathered, including a photographer from the Greensboro Record. “I’ll be back tomorrow with A. & T. College,” one of the students said.
By next morning, the protest had grown to twenty-seven men and four women, most from the same dormitory as the original four. The men were dressed in suits and ties. The students had brought their schoolwork, and studied as they sat at the counter. On Wednesday, students from Greensboro’s “Negro” secondary school, Dudley High, joined in, and the number of protesters swelled to eighty. By Thursday, the protesters numbered three hundred, including three white women, from the Greensboro campus of the University of North Carolina. By Saturday, the sit-in had reached six hundred. People spilled out onto the street. White teen-agers waved Confederate flags. Someone threw a firecracker. At noon, the A. & T. football team arrived. “Here comes the wrecking crew,” one of the white students shouted.
By the following Monday, sit-ins had spread to Winston-Salem, twenty-five miles away, and Durham, fifty miles away. The day after that, students at Fayetteville State Teachers College and at Johnson C. Smith College, in Charlotte, joined in, followed on Wednesday by students at St. Augustine’s College and Shaw University, in Raleigh. On Thursday and Friday, the protest crossed state lines, surfacing in Hampton and Portsmouth, Virginia, in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and in Chattanooga, Tennessee. By the end of the month, there were sit-ins throughout the South, as far west as Texas. “I asked every student I met what the first day of the sitdowns had been like on his campus,” the political theorist Michael Walzer wrote in Dissent. “The answer was always the same: ‘It was like a fever. Everyone wanted to go.’ ” Some seventy thousand students eventually took part. Thousands were arrested and untold thousands more radicalized. These events in the early sixties became a civil-rights war that engulfed the South for the rest of the decade—and it happened without e-mail, texting, Facebook, or Twitter.
Go read the article to find out Gladwell's theories. He looks at this and other uprisings and considers the role of Twitter and social media. Fascinating stuff. But remember...

He's playing the role of an academic and theorizing. Ultimately change comes from below and utterly mysterious in its timing and its direction. The Green Revolution in Iran last year got me excited, but it fizzled. You simply don't know what will catch and burn and what will flare up and die out. The civil rights movement in the US was over 100 years old in 1960. Why it finally "took hold" in the early 1960s is a mystery. Don't let academics fool you. Their theories are rationalizations after the fact. Nobody was predicting the social change, at least not predicting it in detail, in timing, and in scope.

Malcolm Gladwell digs a little deeper and puzzles over the depth of determination of the activism in the 1960s in the face of brute violence:

GGreensboro in the early nineteen-sixties was the kind of place where racial insubordination was routinely met with violence. The four students who first sat down at the lunch counter were terrified. “I suppose if anyone had come up behind me and yelled ‘Boo,’ I think I would have fallen off my seat,” one of them said later. ...

The dangers were even clearer in the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964, another of the sentinel campaigns of the civil-rights movement. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee recruited hundreds of Northern, largely white unpaid volunteers to run Freedom Schools, register black voters, and raise civil-rights awareness in the Deep South. “No one should go anywhere alone, but certainly not in an automobile and certainly not at night,” they were instructed. Within days of arriving in Mississippi, three volunteers—Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman—were kidnapped and killed, and, during the rest of the summer, thirty-seven black churches were set on fire and dozens of safe houses were bombed; volunteers were beaten, shot at, arrested, and trailed by pickup trucks full of armed men. A quarter of those in the program dropped out. Activism that challenges the status quo—that attacks deeply rooted problems—is not for the faint of heart.
Gladwell's assessment of "Twitter-led revolutions" is that they are a fizzle. He argues that history shows you need personal contacts, real contacts, with other committed people. In other words, a social revolution requires real sociability, real social relations, deeply committed social connections:
The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960.
Gladwell goes on to argue that successful social change is the result of carefully organized, mounted with precision and discipline. I disagree. Planning may make leaders feel effective, but ultimately it is what happens on the ground at the individual level. I agree with him that previous activism creates a matrix in which a spark can catch fire, but ultimately the spark was a unique event planned by four students but the contagion and imitation wasn't "planned". I disagree with this claim:
In the late nineteen-fifties, there had been sixteen sit-ins in various cities throughout the South, fifteen of which were formally organized by civil-rights organizations like the N.A.A.C.P. and CORE. Possible locations for activism were scouted. Plans were drawn up. Movement activists held training sessions and retreats for would-be protesters. The Greensboro Four were a product of this groundwork: all were members of the N.A.A.C.P. Youth Council. They had close ties with the head of the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter. They had been briefed on the earlier wave of sit-ins in Durham, and had been part of a series of movement meetings in activist churches. When the sit-in movement spread from Greensboro throughout the South, it did not spread indiscriminately. It spread to those cities which had preĆ«xisting “movement centers”—a core of dedicated and trained activists ready to turn the “fever” into action.
I don't disagree on facts. I disagree on interpretation. Planning went on. But the contagion was only hoped for. There was no explicit "plan" for it and no central directorate who were saying "here now, then here, then here". There was a lot of spontaneous communication in prepared social networks and it suddenly "caught fire".

I agree with his point that Twitter revolutions don't have the level of commitment and social connections to succeed. But I don't agree that groups like the NAACP "planned" the Greensboro contagion. They hoped for it, but had no real control over it. It just happened because the time was right and the individuals threw themselves into it.

I guess nobody wants to hear about history as "spontaneous events" lacking a cohesive "story" behind it. But in fact that is the world we live in. Just like nobody likes to hear that the quantum world is random and not fathomable by any deterministic models. Science as simple models is now long gone. We are in the age of complexity and disordered aggregations whose "story" only makes sense after the fact. The stories are still useful, but they don't predict and they don't really explain, but they help us find comfort in a very cold, very dark, very large, very indifferent universe.

The Malcolm Gladwell article, like all of his work, is thoughtful and interesting. He has pulled it from researchers and presented it as a "story" with meaning and direction. It is to be enjoyed.

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