We can’t let others do all the work of change. The problems we face demand contributions from everyone.
Through much of recent history, driving change was something that society and organisations could rely on a few individuals to deliver. Most people went on with their life unaffected while a few dedicated change agents worked to make change happen. Often, this was possible because the changes impacted only a few people, often those who were creating the problems or who were less privileged and needed change to improve their position. Small scale changes to grant rights or enable capabilities for a few can make big social change without widescale social participation. Most people will acquiesce and go along with not much changed.
The changes we need to tackle the major social challenges of this time impact a much wider community. The pandemic will survive as long as even a few individuals fail to follow the simple steps to help protect the whole community. Individual risk appetites and actions can impact the safety of the community as a whole. Climate change will involve a widescale restructuring of our economy and our lives to a post-carbon state. We have waited decades and can wait, but it only increases the risks of catastrophic change and the size of the subsequent dislocations. Challenges like racism, sexism and respect generally can’t be solved by the grant of rights centrally, they depend on the development and practice of social norms collectively. One bad apple sustains the impact on those discriminated against to the detriment of us all.
Much of the social stress, toxic behaviour on social media, and extremist political behaviour is driven by the fact that we are facing change that has a widescale influence on how people live their lives and work. There is a backlash of scale from those who want nothing to change, for their lives to be undisturbed and, at times, for things to go back to distant ages when many of these issues weren’t on the radar, let alone concerns. At the same time, those seeking change have lost patience and want a faster wider scale escalation of societal transformation. Throughout history conflict and stress in society has risen in periods of demands for major social change. Conflict comes with the territory.
As always, community will settle on new norms that are sustainable and likely do not reflect the views of either extreme. Some will remain unhappy that there is not enough or too much change. For those who are concerned about these issues, the path forward is not to disengage but to focus instead on reinforcing the norms that matter and those that facilitate an effective civil society to the benefit of all and the ongoing dialogue about where we want to go next:
- Recognise the right of people to have an opinion but ask them to support that opinion with evidence.
- Look for opportunities to make connection between people at the higher order of goals and values.
- Make the small changes you can make. We need to avoid freeze or flight as responses too.
- Treat everyone with respect, even where they may be extreme differences. Othering adds nothing to the chance to make the changes required.
- Oppose intolerance, abuse, bullying and personal criticism.
- Work to sustain hope and optimism that change is possible. Defeatist and threat language is the heart of extremism, not change.
Societies rise and fall together. We can’t rely on the few. Ultimately, it is up to us collectively to shape the future in ways that matter to us all.