Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Hell and spankings.

I came to this class (Social Change) I took last semester with a strong desire to change the world. I assumed that I would learn about topics on which I already held a working awareness and that social change meant change for the future, not analysis of the past. I did not, however, have definitions in hand of what change meant, any idea of how to affect change, an idea of what world I was trying to change, and knowledge of what exactly needed changing in the first place. The literature and discussion throughout the course has demanded that I create definitions, that I defend my positions, that I make use of history, and that I develop a broader understanding of the system that is in place before I go trying to shake it up. One cannot affect social change single-handedly, without reference to how things came to be the way they are or without knowledge of alternative ways to live. It is not the world that needs changing, only a certain culture. It is rash to charge headlong into tipping something upside down without first researching why it is that way in the first place.

Alan Ehrenhalt's The Lost City (1995) provided me with a background on how we came to be this way, at least the last fifty years of how we came to be this way. I had a vague notion of the way that community has changed from then until to now, but hadn't mulled it over in such detail. The knowledge I gleaned from this book was reinforced in the class discussion and even more so in dialogue with people in my life. I spoke with my grandparents, my bosses, and my friends from other generations than mine. I learned that what Ehrenhalt spoke about was not simply textbook material, but a real and tangible memory of American life. My grandfather's family used to be so poor that they would have to steal coal from the trains to heat their house – of course, their parents would send the children to take the coal that fell from the trains, not to actually steal coal. When a patrolman caught his brother in the train throwing coal on the ground to claim, he whipped him and sent him home to his mother to be punished for stealing. This is just one of many examples of what Ehrenhalt describes – a community raising (and disciplining) the neighborhood's children communally.

My mother reminisces that her brother who had developmental disabilities would be able to go into any store in town and take what he liked, and that the store owners would let it go due to his illness. She said that some of them came to my grandfather to complain and my grandfather said, "Well, then don't let him take it!" Ehrenhalt describes this same phenomena – "It was a tacit assumption in the alleys and on all the streets of the neighborhood that one child's parent was every child's parent, equally responsible for the behavior of the children on the block, and equally authorized to mete out small doses of justice" (p. 95). These days, a child would never be permitted to wander around unattended by parents, never mind permitted to take what they wanted from the local store without being disciplined, and neighborhood figures would never dream of disciplining another parent's child!

I am still confused about why things changed so drastically from the community-minded neighborhoods of Chicago in the 1950's to the individualism of today. I put the largest blame on television and the ever-increasing influence of the media. We are much more likely to trust the commercials and talk radio and magazine ads than we are to trust our own neighbors. Psychology is being used against us to get our money and we have fallen for it, head over heels. In the past fifty years we have become frightened, run inside, locked our doors to our communities and cupped our ears to the TV set for answers to our fears. I certainly won't pretend that I'm a saint and don't glue my brain to the set every time I'm in the same room as one – however, I do my fair share of yelling at the television when they try to sell me a hamburger by showing me a busty woman. I don't think we'll ever throw our televisions out the window beating our chests and screaming for freedom, but I think that if we can relearn to think critically, then we will be able to resist what we're constantly being sold.

I had a discussion with my coworker about Lipton Green Tea. He mentioned how he liked the commercial for it, but that didn't mean that he was following it around drooling, brainwashed by the company. However, he was drinking it – he had paid his hard-earned money to the Lipton Company so that he could drink their chemical-ridden sugar water that holds absolutely no health benefit whatsoever. We need to think critically and to recognize when we are being advertised to. If we can do that, someday we may again unlock our doors and venture out to our stoops to converse with our neighbors.

If you compare today's youth with the youth of the 1950's, you will see that children today are afraid of nothing. There is no consequence for poor behavior. My boyfriend is a teacher and his experiences reinforce this theory – he has tried every single form of discipline he can dream up and the children simply have no fear. Of course, this sounds nice, that our children are fearless, but it makes for a society in virtual anarchy! Ehrenhalt pointed out in his chapters on St. Nick's Cathedral that people were easier to control when they were afraid of something – in this case, and in many, that fear is implemented through religion. It was also implemented through corporal punishment. These days, we do not spank our children, and we do not believe in Hell. Without Hell and spankings, nothing is keeping us from doing exactly as we choose! This is a dilemma I am still up in the air about. I think that children without fear is a beautiful concept, but in practice it is a disaster. People without fear are people run amok, and that is not the way an ideal society is to be run. How is an ideal society to be run, though?

In Benjamin Barber's book Jihad vs. McWorld: Terrorism's Challenge to Democracy (1995), I found a lot of opinion and not a lot of fact. The opinions were actually so leftist and angry that I, a self-proclaimed bleeding heart liberal wanting to "change the world", felt myself playing devil's advocate to his tirades. Barber's rants sounded much like my own against this "world" I was trying to change, but the book read like propaganda to me, failing to present any solid argument based on fact. I questioned his sources and began to come to the conclusion that anybody can find anything to back up their own opinion if they look hard enough. I agree with Barber on his comparisons of McWorld to Jihad, concluding that they are both destructive forces that are similar in their goals for world domination on a planet that requires biodiversity to thrive. If we were all of the same mindset, our lives would be meaningless. The world requires diversity.

Bellah, et. al touch on "lifestyle enclaves" in their book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985). "Lifestyle enclaves" is a term for categories of people, whether it is "Italian-American New Yorkers" or "Upstate Rednecks" or "Southern Businessmen" or even "Americans" or "First World Citizens". There is nothing wrong with lifestyle enclaves themselves. However, the problem lies in that people within those enclaves identify as members only of that category, not members of the entire human race. Daniel Quinn points out in his Ishmael series (1995, 1997, 1998) that we tend to think of history as that which is taught to us in school. But the history that is taught to us in schools is not the entire story. It is the history of one culture. We say that the agricultural revolution, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, were significant points in the history of mankind, but these events are significant in the history of only one culture out of thousands. We don't even know the history of other cultures because we do not deem them important. And why is this? Because they are not us. We can look beyond our lifestyle enclave of being upper middle class. We can look beyond our lifestyle enclave of being educated. But we never know how limited our views really are until we research the history of all of mankind, not just the history of our culture.

I did some relevant reading on my own as well in my quest to learn about social change and my role in it. Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation (2001) enlightened me with supplemental history. I felt empowered with the newfound knowledge of the history of America's changing food habits, habits which tie in to Ehrenhalt's metaphor of the remote control. We are always thinking that there is something better out there, and we flip and flip and flip hoping to find that better thing, rather than settle with what's in front of us to enjoy it completely. With food, we always want what's faster and what's easier, rather than focusing on the quality of the food. We would rather have huge, genetically mutated, chemically coated and potentially unsafe tomatoes than normal sized, normal colored, chemical-free tomatoes "the way God made them". When you break it down, society really does function around the most basic animal need – food – and the fast food revolution has drastically changed our society. Seeing how things snowball like this actually gave me hope. It is a meme that spread through people, and if a meme can spread the way fast food has, then perhaps a meme to get us back to center can spread the same way.

The rapidly expanding "green" revolution fuels this optimism of mine. Technology such as compact fluorescent light bulbs and solar panels are becoming the mainstream. There is a real push here for social change, a revolution of environmental awareness, and I am proud to be a part of it. The weight of the pressure I had put on myself as a potential catalyst and martyr for social change has lifted. I don't have to start this reform myself – it's already begun.

Yes, things are desperately wrong right now. Yes, the oceans' temperatures are rising. Yes, we are exporting our garbage to Third World countries. Yes, eighty percent of the world's forests are gone. It's devastating and mind-boggling to really take in how much destruction we have done. But it isn't over yet. We can make a difference. The loudest way to make a difference in a capitalist society is with your wallet. I feel empowered every time I buy organic or vegan products. I see the impact I have made as a consumer in this consumer-driven society every time I walk into the chain grocery store and browse through the ever-expanding "natural foods" section. I feel proud that I am contributing to this social change, this movement that is under way right this very moment, because I have figured out the way to use the system against itself.

Daniel Quinn, in his book Beyond Civilization (1999), explains that social change comes about through memes, self-replicating trends that spread like wildfire. Some memes are short-lived, fads that come and go within a generation. Some memes are long-lasting, and survive generation after generation with little to no infidelity to the original thought. In Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point: How little things can make a big difference (2000), he explores epidemics – and not physical epidemics like diseases, but societal epidemics like bellbottom pants or fast food. Humans are hardwired for synchrony – they mimic those around them without even knowing it. The next time you're talking to somebody intensely, try leaning in to the conversation. You will see that they will also lean in. If you cross your arms or tilt your head, they will follow your motions. It is in these subtle and built-in ways that memes reproduce, spreading like wildfire.

So it is by thinking critically to resist those undesirable memes – choosing NOT to cross one's arms at the suggestion of another, or NOT to buy a bigger car to keep up with the Joneses – and by gaining a broader knowledge of history that we can assess where we are and where we wish to go from here. My boss at work (with whom I've discussed social change extensively) holds that we will never stray too far from the middle, that society moves back and forth like a pendulum. I see that the pendulum is swinging back to center, and I am throwing all my weight into that natural re-centering. I have a newfound understanding for what social change is, and what my role in this revolution is. The re-centering is the natural way that the world corrects itself, but it is not with ease that the correcting occurs. It requires people who are willing to step back from their own singular lives to take a good hard look at the larger picture. It requires people like me enrolling in courses like this to be able to focus attention in either direction in time and realize, as Barber says, that History is not over. We are on the timeline; we are not the end point. We can look beyond civilization to something new, and we are always in control of our own destiny.

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