Today’s reflection stems from an ever-present, looming threat of mass murder, given the terrifying backdrop of recent school shootings. This weekend, we will watch thousands of students from around the nation march on Washington D.C. advocating for increased gun control. But sadly, I’m sorry to say, their effort will fail.
Yes, it’s impossible to stop the inevitable. But despite the doom and gloom of my forecast, I do have a constructive aim in mind for this post.
Predicting the inescapable failure of a monumental cultural situation may seem downright destructive, perhaps superficial by some ulterior motive. But in truth, I do not endeavor to satisfy some basic intellectual curiosity or need for prophetic validation. Instead, I think it’s important to improve our understanding of why contemporary social movements like this one typically fail, which will aid in the discovery of more powerful ways to enact meaningful change in the future.
That said, real briefly, “failure” is relatively hard to define. But I think it’s safe to say that political palliation (like increasing the age of gun ownership to the age of 21, for example) does not satisfy a reasonable definition of success. To be clear, any result other than a substantial decrease in mass shootings would prove the current (and any future) effort for gun control a failure. In the end, fewer dead, bullet-filled bodies is the goal.
Moving past that rather crude image, though, why is failure so inevitable? Occupy Wall Street, Tea Party, Black Lives Matter. These are all examples of recent American social movements that resulted in little-to-no change. They even demonstrated incredible advantages, such as significant media attention and sheer group size; yet they ultimately failed in the end. Why?
REASON #1: LACK OF CLEAR PURPOSE
One blog suggested that Occupy Wall Street failed due to lack of consensus on the movement’s objectives and goals. What was supposed to be the end result of an attack on the 1%ers? Higher taxes? Wealth redistribution? Increased regulation on banking practices? No one really knows.
But one lesson we learned from that public spectacle was that it’s hard to go the right way if you don’t know where you’re going. Make no mistake, Occupy was never going to land a house on Wall Street, since quality of vision can never make up for what lacks in strategy.
Interestingly, the co-founder of Occupy wrote an article for The Guardian explaining why protests fail to have the positive net result often expected by participants. Micah White astutely noted that there’s simply no guarantee that social movements will succeed even when objectives are clear. Communication of clear purpose is only half the battle. For White, what really matters is the power of the electorate.
White maintains that it is actually morally better to use voting power to enact meaningful change. But there’s many significant problems with his way of thinking. First of all, his rather antiquated and establishmentarian approach fails, especially as it relates to the case of the Occupy movement, since voting power usually tends to favor those with capital power (a.k.a. wealth). Adding to that, as America grows in size, the statistical value of an individual’s vote actually decreases. We’ve already long-known that our votes don’t matter for much, but it’s even getting worse.
And finally, when’s the last time we voted a conglomerate of Congressional leaders in who, in the end game, actually enacted legislation that benefited a particular social movement? Probably 1964, with the Civil Rights Act. That was more than 50 years ago.
Though White rightly sees protest as a generally ineffective tool for social change, his solution is irrefutably not the morally correct answer.
REASON #2: LACK OF AUTHORITY TO ENACT CHANGE
Another blog, written by an academic devoted to the study of social movements around the world, concluded that social movements fail due to lack of clear authority. When political or economic power juxtaposes with charismatic leadership, politics or money usually wins. And we see this all the time, whether we’re talking about major social change like gun control or time-off policy change in a small- to medium-sized corporation.
Occupy’s failure most certainly stemmed, at least in part, from this issue of authority. Despite the existence of strong leadership by several key spokespersons, especially that of Micah White, the movement failed because it didn’t have the right kind of power to reduce the wealthy class to appropriate levels (according to the Occupiers). Influence is one thing, but authority is another. When the majority of Congressmen and women demonstrate long-standing effect by corporate interest, it’s easy to understand why a movement like Occupy would fail to gain governmental authority to enact real change against the 1%. They were simply not the decision-makers.
The concept of “authority” is nebulous, though, to be fair. Who really has authority to enact meaningful change in our complex world? Is it only Congressional leaders? The President? The “people”? It remains generally unclear what degree of consensus is actually needed to achieve net positive results. Some folks think that local, community-oriented efforts to mobilize bite-size efforts for change are generally more effective in the long run because the span-of-control needed to achieve results is more practicable. But then, if all efforts were only local, what complex problems would still remain in the aggregate that we don’t even have now?
Evidently, despite the immense weight of these reasons, we can be relatively certain that the root cause of social movement failure remains undiscovered.
REASON #3: LACK OF INTELLECTUAL RIGOR
Based on my own observations of recent movements, many efforts fail to have the smarts to round out their strategies. It occurred to me the other day, while watching several of the statements by high school students reflecting on the Florida school shooting, that intellectual immaturity plays a role in predetermining the inevitable failure of social movements.
Not to be too critical of those daring young people, justly enraged by the appalling nature of their circumstances and fearful of future events, they spoke without carefully understanding what their words signified. “Never Again” does suggest a clear objective, yes, but their motto is undoubtedly unrealistic and emblematic of immature, un-rounded thinking. The outrage after Columbine in 1999 sparked a similar public sentiment (yet not quite to the extent of mass protest), but came up short in the end when it came to increased measures of gun control.
Listening to the student speeches on TV, I realized it was more important for most of the kids to (near incessantly) reiterate the importance that such a travesty should never occur again than to discuss specific policy alternatives. In the place of intellectual discourse, their rhetoric was generally empty, excepting their passionate resolve to hate the crimes against them. The fact is, these students simply haven’t developed the kind of knowledge, in the face of an already more-than-ever knowing world, that can supply and sustain a social justice movement facing the all-powerful political giant of interest-based representative government. They prefer passion over pragmatics—which is not just symptomatic of their age, but rather the era in which they’re living.
Wow, what a mouthful! But it’s now the prevailing cultural sentiment to welcome personal stories over professional solutions. We’ve finally come ‘round to the end of a negative analysis on “expert opinion,” such that we rely more heavily on feeling and story than ever before. The fact remains, unless a higher degree of intellectual rigor is applied to protest, social movements will continue to experience failure.
REASON #4: RESISTANCE TO POLITICAL RECALIBRATION
That’s just my highfalutin term for describing our collective reticence to redesigning the way our governmental and political system works. Reiterating my opinion that gun control (and numerous other issues) rests on much larger systemic governance issues, we will simply not see meaningful change come from protests, period. We quite literally need to rethink the laws and institutions that govern us before we will ever see long-lasting change in matters similar to these. But that doesn’t mean protests don’t shape public sentiment; in fact, over time they do play a large role. Protests have a way of galvanizing support at the same time they educate other non-interested parties from afar. Even if some groups of people stay clear of the protest fray, they nevertheless, in our technologically advanced age, see the existence of alternative views when protests make the news. So, protests should go on; but don’t expect change from them.
No effective future governance will come without intellectual rigor, without granting authority to the masses, or without clear purpose. But if at the same time as we protest issues like gun control we also embrace the need for political recalibration, we may yet see the changes we desire.
It does seem, in the final analysis, that we’re walking through a time in history when the mass of Americans feel real collective pain and are willing to show it. If this were not true, why would we see such vibrant cultural outcries against injustices? The pain in our bloody leg is getting needled, deeper and deeper, and we’re trying desperately to alleviate the feeling. But it’s time America stops drugging itself up with short-term band aid fixes…because what it really needs is a surgical overhaul.