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Equity & Diversity Opinion

Hypothesis #2 for Successful Social Movements: Love and Boldness

By Greg Jobin-Leeds — May 23, 2012 3 min read
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In this post Saulo Colon continues sharing the hypotheses that He and I see as critical for successful social movements. Please share your thoughts. -- Greg

Hypothesis 2: Love and Boldness: Transformative change requires self-assured, daring tactics that are, at their heart, driven by love for the community of fellow humans and rage against the denial of human rights and against the system that perpetuates exclusion.

Transformational change requires bold individuals and groups to take strategic risks to bring about social change -- or make significant symbolic statements of the need to overturn the status quo.

The Civil Rights Movement had many instances of courageous civil disobedience--from Rosa Parks strategically refusing to sit in the “colored only” section of a city bus to those refusing to leave whites-only lunch counters.

Such boldness also underpinned the Arab Spring’s rebels in Tahrir Square, the “Indignados” in Plaza del Sol in Spain, and the Occupy movement in NYC and Oakland. Protesters fighting against longstanding inequality and a lack of democracy defied authorities by peacefully amassing in public.

In Egypt and Tunisia, the people overthrew despotic regimes using techniques of civil resistance, including workers’ strikes, student demonstrations, and mobilizing the population through a combination of classic organizing tactics and social media. In Wisconsin they attempted to do the same.

An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law." --Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sometimes the laws in question may seem trivial, but sometimes they are the ones that maintain an edifice of misery over an entire class of people. In the pre-Civil War south, a complex, decentralized network of abolitionists coordinated the systemic violation of slave laws: freeing, hiding, and defending slaves who escaped their masters. (In today’s Orwellian “war against terrorism” world, the Underground Railroad would no doubt be described as “guerrilla warfare operations.”) Turn the clock forward a century. When NYPD raided the Stonewall bar, gays, lesbians, and trans folk were outraged and bravely fought back against the police, deciding they would not take such oppression any longer. In a society founded on such structural iniquities, it took acts of courage like these to make large-scale change.

Martin Luther King, Jr. -- like Gandhi and Thoreau -- spoke of the moral imperative to violate unjust laws. Inspired by the Abolitionist movement, Thoreau wrote Civil Disobedience in 1848 and spoke of the need to boldly defy unjust laws and ruling authorities. Antigone, in Sophocles’ eponymous play, says she must put her conscience before the law. John Milton, in 1645, wrote: “Men of most renowned virtue have sometimes, by transgressing, most truly kept the law.”

The Boldness of Empathy

No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite." --Nelson Mandela

Transformational movements, at their core, stem from love for humanity and compassion for the suffering or disadvantages faced by groups of people. The inspiration for change comes from a humanistic ideal, a love for people and what their world could be.

The objects of this love may be poor kids who lack the opportunities for a good education. They may be women in many cultures who are denied the rights of men. They may be people suffering from preventable diseases. Or they may be so many other subgroups of humanity. Transformative leaders need to see the world through the eyes of those who are oppressed or disadvantaged.

But, ultimately, and considering how climate change impacts us all, isn’t everyone a part of some group whose well-being could be improved through social change? That is why social justice movements must be based not on a pitying compassion but rather on an empathic recognition that we share a common humanity--that we all should have basic rights and opportunities, and that our world will not be free of conflict until we all do.

Love and rage, boldness and empathy must not only guide a movement’s broader efforts, but also must be practiced within a movement. Good causes are compromised if those who lead, or are part of a movement, treat their compatriots cruelly or oppressively. The lack of love and empathy within a movement, in the long run, will doom it.

And when transformative movements win, take note: traditionally marginalized groups (e.g. women, people of color, radicals, queers, the young and the aged) have often been excluded from power in the new reality, even though they were at the barricades when it counted. The mainstream media conveniently leaves them out of the retelling of heroic tales, and so their value is diminished. Then the character of a transformative movement is truly tested.

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