To answer as simply as possible, we can start making a difference in our world – NOW and with what is already in our hands.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” – Edmund Bourke
A lifelong pursuit of these questions – I have read so many books and articles on this topic, and listened to countless hours of inspired and inspiring talks over the years – has distilled into that basic principle. It is a simple but profound reminder – much like the ‘think global, act local’ mantra of many activists/ organisations.
(For more discussion and detailed ideas/ principles I have shared in previous New Year posts, see this)
Why does the world need changing?
I would simply say: Open your eyes – look around you!! Everywhere there is suffering, injustice and inequality. As human beings, we have a keen sense of injustice, and a great capacity for empathy and compassion.
That the world needs changing appears to me to be so self-explanatory that I can’t understand why we still allow these horrendous things to continue when we have the means to end much of it – e.g. people dying of preventable diseases in many parts of the world.
Even as a child, I noticed that the world was not as it should be. I suppose growing up in South Africa at the height of the apartheid regime’s cruelty (the 80s), it was inevitable that I would be faced with issues like racism and the misuse of power, at an early age. But many, less ‘sensitive’ than me, didn’t think or feel too deeply about what happened outside our privileged white bubble…
I didn’t understand why our domestic worker was only allowed to use her own plate and cup, for example – and I wasn’t satisfied with the answers I received when I asked questions. The most common response was: “that’s just how it is”. Some would even say something like: “you can’t change the way the world works”! But I vividly remember standing in our bathroom, with my head just as high as the towel rail, drying my hands and talking to myself (since no one really listened to children in those days): “one day when I am big, I am going to change the world”!!
This was the beginning of a lifelong habit of questioning authority, the status quo, the dominant paradigm… and I am so grateful to have found my ‘fire’ early in life. Without it, I would simply have ‘swallowed’ the lies – not just of apartheid, now a thing of the past, but of every other oppressive and exploitative paradigm still running amok in the world today….!
As I grew up, I held up all possible life paths and vocations for examination against this core value: “how would this job/ career/ choice change the world?” My conviction that changing the world is essential and urgent, and that this was what I should do with my life, has never wavered.
A bit of intellectual depth at this point for those who are interested – Stuart Hall, a renowned communication and cultural theorist explained this brilliantly with his ‘encoding/decoding’ theory of communication. Messages are manufactured or ‘encoded’ by the communicator, e.g. government, corporations, media (and are intended to convey their own meaning and further their own agenda of course).
But then messages are received and ‘decoded’ or interpreted in very different ways by various people or groups –
- Many will receive the message almost passively – believing the dominant or ‘hegemonic’ position;
- Some will slightly modify some aspects of the message to better suit their own worldview or personal experiences, arriving at a negotiated position or ‘reading’ of the message; and
- Others will reject the message completely – due to conflicting beliefs, views and experiences, they do not (or cannot) agree with the meaning and intention of the message itself, or its communicators.
So as I left behind the naivete of my childhood and teen years, I knew with even more certainty that the world needed to be changed. But given the scale and the scope of the necessary changes, I also realised I should reword this a bit more modestly – my question has since become: “How can I contribute towards change in the world…?”
Who should change the world?
Us. Of course. We can’t assume change will just ‘happen’ or that those in power have our best interests at heart and change will come from them…
However, not all of us are educated, ‘well read’ or well travelled enough to realise and understand what is going on in this ‘cruel, crazy, beautiful world’ (as an aside, more about this beautiful song by South African Johnny Clegg & Savuka here)… To these people, I would say again: “Open your eyes! Look around! Get educated – knowledge is power! Go travel around a bit – broaden your horizons! When you expose yourself to different cultures, worldviews and experiences, you will certainly change, learn, and grow as a person!”
Then there are the many who do see, and even experience some of the injustices first hand – but do not feel empowered or able to act on these feelings and thoughts. Some of those are simply too busy trying to survive – they have no resources or energy to direct at solving the core, structural and long term problems. All the more reason why I feel the rest of us need to shoulder the responsibility for bringing about change – be the ‘voice for the voiceless’…
Maybe we are not all ‘rich’, but we certainly have many resources at our disposal – personal and collective. We are the educated ones, with ‘social capital’, personal networks to draw on, and many ‘platforms’ from which to speak or act (including this one, the internet).
There are of course also people have become so numbed or jaded (by personal or collective experiences, by over-exposure to disempowering media and so on…) that they don’t even feel or think or care…
Others still have been actively discouraged from caring or even seeing the full truth. This is certainly the case in cultures or countries with oppressive regimes, propaganda and structural injustice (i.e. where injustice and inequality are so built into the culture, structures, and media/ discourse/ communication, that alternatives cannot even be imagined).
These are only some of the ways one can explain the apathy and complacency of many people in the world today. The dominant paradigms, cultures and structures have ‘stunted’ or ‘warped’ people’s development – we are not all the full, free, beautiful human beings we could be. After all, empathy, compassion, integrity and self-sacrifice in pursuit of long-term goals… are some of our ‘highest’ faculties as human beings.
Most educated people today will recognise Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – the diagram above illustrates his theory that we need to achieve basic physical needs (food, water, shelter) before we are able to pursue more lofty goals like love and so on…
Some now look to spiritual solutions like ‘enlightenment’, and believe only some of us have/ can reach these ‘higher levels of consciousness’… They usually rely on yoga, meditation and other passive paths which focus inwardly and aim to change ourselves first. While I agree with Gandhi’s “Be the change you want to see in the world” – we cannot stop there. We need BOTH self examination/ growth AND ACTION to help others.
For those, like me, who have looked into all of this from a multidisciplinary/ transdisciplinary perspective, it has become clear that we are NOT all able to reach our full potential on this planet simply by ‘self-actualisation’ or increased AGENCY (our capacity or ability to act and change our own lives). Due to the unequal power structures and vested interests that have sadly dominated human history through the ages, it has NEVER been a ‘level playing field’!!!!
How can we change the world?
Now it may seem an impossible task to bring down corrupt or oppressive governments …And it is too overwhelming to even contemplate how one would go about attempting to unravel centuries of injustice and oppression all over the globe simultaneously (with intersecting issues at multiple levels: economic, social, environmental…) … Yet it has been possible to win various battles along the way already – ending slavery and ending apartheid are two examples that spring to mind.
Perhaps even more importantly, the cultural and structural injustices (referred to as ‘cultural and structural violence’ by peace studies theorist Galtung) are the more insidious everyday culprits that we can all play a part in dismantling.
At the most basic level of ‘activism’, we can simply live lives that support and model social justice (instead of perpetuating the existing injustices or oppressive cultural norms). We have more power than we realise in our everyday lives – buy or boycott products and services; support or withdraw support from various social groups and organisations; volunteer in our communities; invite and include a wide range of people in our world; socialise and educate our children differently; and vote!!
Stop for the ONE. That person crossed YOUR path. HELP them.
Wherever you see injustice, stand up for the oppressed, the marginalised, the overlooked. Be the ‘voice for the voiceless’.
In this way, like the person on the beach throwing stranded starfish back into the ocean, we WILL make a difference to our world, one person, one issue, one community at a time.
(Images in my blog are usually my own but these have been sourced from internet stock images- I cannot locate copyright details, so please let me know if I am infringing on copyright of your work!)