In a conversation recently someone asked how to tell when you’re in a pivotal moment in history. I don’t recall how I responded at the time, but the question has continued to gnaw at me ever since.
What’s bothering me is that there’s a narrative hidden beneath the question, a story about how things change and the part individuals play. Such stories are important because they covertly shape our decisions about whether, when and how to act or speak on issues we care about.
All of us are familiar with the “hero narrative,” which tells us that change happens when an individual shows up at a critical moment and undertakes some particularly courageous act that changes the course of history. In this narrative, for example, civil rights happened because of heroes like Rosa Parks who, tired after a long day, suddenly became fed up with the discrimination and heroically remained seated for her rights. Because of her and Martin Luther King, Jr. and a handful of others who seized the moment and took heroic steps, everything changed.
David LaMotte challenges this narrative in his book, Worldchanging 101. As LaMotte points out, one problem with the narrative is that it is completely wrong. It ignores the years of preparation by hundreds of people, including Rosa Parks, and it misunderstands the quite careful and deliberate choices of time and place. Perhaps more importantly, the hero narrative undermines our sense of agency. It disempowers us because it requires that we wait for just the right moment and then heroically seize it. The result: we do nothing because we have no idea when the moment is and most of us are quite aware that we’re no heroes.
The narrative behind the pivotal moment is related, but also stands on its own. Let’s call it the “ripeness narrative”. It says that there are times that are “ripe” for change and we need to keep our eyes open so we know when to act. Once again, this is actually a very disempowering narrative – it’s the hero narrative without the hero. It again demands that we recognize the “right moment” for action. The subtext, of course, is that action is mostly pointless the rest of the time.
The LGBTQ movement provides an excellent example of how this narrative misses the mark. When same-sex marriage was recognized as legal by the Supreme Court in 2015, to many of us it felt like the change came out of the blue, that a dramatic shift occurred over just a few short years. There clearly had been a pivotal moment in there somewhere!
But look at the graphs of Gallup polling on attitudes toward gays and lesbians and toward same-sex marriage over time. Yes, something significant happened around 2011: the percentage of people supporting same-sex marriage exceeded that against. But it didn’t happen because of some dramatic reconfiguration of things in 2011. It was simply the crossing point determined by the slopes of the lines. Same-sex marriage saw support increase and opposition decrease fairly steadily over more than a decade, and in general attitudes toward gays and lesbians over more than two.
The real question is what determined the slopes of those lines?
In his recent book, How We Win, George Lakey contrasts the LGBTQ movement’s strategy following the conservative revolution of the 1980s with those of other movements on the left:
When Reagan faced a strike by the air-traffic controllers union, he fired the workers — 11,000 of them. It was a shot heard by all the movements in the United States. Organized labor went on the defensive, and so did other movements: women’s rights, civil rights, school reform, environmental. The goals of those movements changed: to hang on to previously achieved gains …
One big exception stands out in the defensive retreat of the left in the 1980s: the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transexual rights. … [E]ven while some homophobes talked about sending gay men to camps to isolate “the gay disease” of AIDS, the movement stepped up to confront Reagan and the medical-industrial complex.
After winning, LGBTQ people stayed on the offensive, demanding equal marriage, then equality in the military. More recently the push is equal access for trans people to public facilities like bathrooms.
The slopes of those lines were the result of steady efforts over decades to change the attitudes of people and institutions; there never was a pivotal moment. In fact, what appears to be a pivotal moment is a time when taking action is perhaps least important simply because the tipping point has already been reached and it really doesn’t make much difference whether you join in or not. It was probably far more important to pitch in when things looked bleak, as they did in the 1980s. As, in fact, they do now.
Which brings me back to the question that sparked this, how to tell when you’re in a pivotal moment. I suspect the question really being asked is something like: how do I know that my efforts matter?
I am privileged to work every day with amazing people, the questioner among them, people who pour their hearts into work that is very, very hard, and that often feels futile. How are we to keep hold of hope when despair is always tugging, to maintain enthusiasm in the face of repeated frustration? It’s hard and we need something to hang on to that assures us that it’s worth it, that shows us how the day in, day out work we do matters.
In other words, we need a story. It’s part of being human.
Unsurprisingly we tend to grasp at the stories that are close to hand, the ones regularly repeated in novels and in the media, in movies and in marketing. They’re easy stories that help us make sense of reality and see that it’s not just a mess.
In reality, though, reality is a mess. We need stories that somehow acknowledge this, but also give us both hope and a part to play, a part that doesn’t require supernatural abilities or an infallible sense of timing.
There is an instructive controversy happening right now around the New York Times’s 1619 Project, and especially Nikole Hannah-Jones’s opening essay. A group of historians, led by Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, submitted a letter to the New York Times challenging the project as having errors “of verifiable fact” and calling on the organization to publish a correction. The editors published the letter together with a detailed rebuttal.
Adam Serwer of the Atlantic explains that the conflict is actually not over facts, but is fundamentally one of competing narratives about American history:
The clash between the Times authors and their historian critics represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society. Was America founded as a slavocracy, and are current racial inequities the natural outgrowth of that? Or was America conceived in liberty, a nation haltingly redeeming itself through its founding principles? …
The letter is rooted in a vision of American history as a slow, uncertain march toward a more perfect union. The 1619 Project, and Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay in particular, offer a darker vision of the nation, in which Americans have made less progress than they think, and in which black people continue to struggle indefinitely for rights they may never fully realize.
The historians’ position is a version of the “progress narrative,” the idea that things inevitably get better and that right and justice win in the end. The best modern formulation is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assertion that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. It’s a narrative that offers hope, although it can also be used to excuse individual inaction.
What’s worse, though, is that it can be easily twisted to discourage boldness in challenging the status quo. It is a classic response of white liberals in America to any attempt to really grapple with current-day racism: things are getting better, what is needed is patience, don’t get loud, don’t rock the boat. It is not really logical, but it allows us to avoid facing things that are truly ugly not just about this country’s past, but about its present. In other words, about ourselves.
Hannah-Jones’s counter-narrative provides a fascinating contrast. She doesn’t simply offer a darker vision of the past; her narrative offers a powerful role for those who have been oppressed by that past. She casts black people as the primary force for the development of democracy in America, “the perfecters of this democracy.”
It’s powerful, but is it true?
I think that’s the wrong question. Historical narrative is always created from a subset of the facts and artifacts available. It can be quite useful for understanding how change might have happened. It can illuminate and inspire. On the negative side, it can fail to fit the facts and in that sense be false. But it cannot be objectively true. Historical narratives are like models in economics: simplified versions of reality that try to illuminate the particular mechanisms that may have led to historical outcomes. They can have explanatory power and thus be useful guides to strategy in analogous circumstances, but they remain highly simplified fairy tales compared to the mess of reality.
But Hannah-Jones’ narrative is less an attempt to explain history and more a way to frame that history as bestowing a special role on African Americans. I could easily argue that it’s accurate. I can just as easily argue that it’s seriously incomplete. But if I see it as an inspiration and call to action, perhaps my best response is simply to applaud and then move on to seek my own narrative. I obviously can’t sign up for this one – not only am I not black, I’m a member of the privileged group that has been the source of oppression.
Which brings me back to the question. How do I tell if my work matters?
As should be obvious by now, I don’t know how to answer that question in an absolute sense. All I know is that each of us needs a story that tells us how the world as a whole works, and then places us as individuals within that larger narrative. This essay is an opportunity to try to articulate and share mine and, perhaps, give you some ideas for yours.
Mine draws from the conviction of King and Gandhi that we are called to participate in an essentially spiritual struggle, and that progress in the struggle requires understanding the world as a set of structures and systems that are created and maintained by people. The spiritual call is to dismantle systems and structures that are unjust and to replace them with just ones.
I suspect I differ somewhat from both King and Gandhi in that I’m not confident progress in the large is inevitable, although I hope for it. What my own spirituality tells me, though, is that progress in the small is always possible and that it matters deeply.
Because I personally draw from a Christian tradition, it’s natural for me to think in terms of Jesus’ kingdom of heaven (which he clearly implied was not something far off and after death, but a reality in the midst of our current reality). However, I have no need to impose that frame on anyone else. Another more secular way to put it might be that I see myself as a collaborator in helping my community fulfill its true identity, one that is naturally inclusive and equitable, interconnected and loving.
For me that is not an abstraction, and it is not something that happens at scale. It’s local and concrete. It always connects the systemic and structural with the personal and frames the bureaucratic processes of institutions as interactions in a relationship with individuals and with the community. And that’s a big part of what makes the work sustainable for me. Sometimes I get to see success and that is wonderful. But sometimes all I have is the opportunity to forge a real connection with a neighbor or a fellow worker. And that’s enough to carry me through to struggle again tomorrow.