Life life

incrementalism

Can you think of a happy revolution?

It’s not a rhetorical question. It occurred to me during the whole “Feel the Bern!” rhetoric of the Democratic primary. I kept hearing people calling for “Revolution!”, and I began to think about all the revolutions I could remember from my history studies.

They all had two things in common:

  • A lot of people got hurt or killed
  • The goals of the revolutionaries were not realized, but were replaced by a follow-up government.

Sometimes that follow-up government was very similar to the goals of the initial revolutionaries…but usually not so much. And before you go saying something like “What about the Industrial Revolution?” or some contrarian stuff like that, let’s acknowledge a couple of things: I’m talking about political revolutions, and also, there are some pretty similar phenomena in those kinds of revolutions, as well. Or do you think that the pioneers of the Industrial Revolution actually intended for the air in Beijing or Denver or L.A. to be unbreathable a significant portion of the time?

Revolutions. French? The Terror. Russian? Led to Stalin. Hitler came to power through a rather peaceful revolution in the German government. Haitian revolution had perhaps the noblest of intentions, but hasn’t worked out so well. Pol Pot? Bad news. The United States? Ask the Native Americans just how “wonderful” that revolution was for them. Sorry, you can ask the DAPL protestors how wonderful it is for them. And buy them something, while you’re at it.

The Revolution is About You

Thing is, revolutions are not the only way things change. There’s a whole school of thought called “incrementalism” that is about doing things in small steps. There’s a recent Freakonomics Podcast about it, and even a thrilling novel about a secret group of incrementalists working to save the world!

The problem, as the podcast points out, is that we tell ourselves stories about these great moments when everything changed. Bunker Hill! Tianmen Square! The Million Woman March (the real one, not the sad copy)! We hear that we should do our part, that we need to do more, and so we imagine ourselves in those stories – a part of the Revolution!

We all like a dramatic story. But things don’t happen out of the blue, and it’s so interesting to get a true picture of why change happens, rather than this sort of phony all of a sudden picture. – Linda Hirshman

The fact is, most things that change do so incrementally. Civil rights. LGBTQ rights. Gender equality (yes, I know it’s still not great. But it is better than it used to be, and it is improving – at least, in some countries). As a grandpa, I see this all the time – especially days like today (it’s my grandson Harvey’s birthday). But what holds true for kids holds true for everything. The frustration that a lot of people have about the process, though, is the danger that incremental change can become an excuse to do too little, or even nothing at all.

I can accept that as a danger – it is a requirement for vigilance, certainly. For constantly asking yourself “What have I done today to make things better than yesterday?” But the alternative – to look at a shining, noble goal far off on a hill and say “I don’t care who gets hurt, I don’t care what it takes, I’m going to get us there!

That’s ego.

That’s you deciding you have to be a hero in the story. That you have to be the one to see the change happen. That dammit, it’s not happening fast enough for you, and you’re stamping your metaphorical foot (or maybe literal one) and saying “Hurry up with making the world a better place, dammit!

Never Be Satisfied

Now I’m not saying that we should be satisfied with things the way they are – hell, I wouldn’t have started this blog three years ago if I was all about “Life is good, just take it as it is.” But I think it’s worth trying to take your ego out of the equation – to be your own secret cabal of people who are trying to make the world better, bit by bit.

Sure, big changes are sometimes necessary. But they’re also painful, and they reveal some pretty awful things about the way things are going. Read through Quinn Murphy’s excellent tweet stream on the subject:

Don’t be a hero. Be something better: an agent of change, knowing that you are making things better, bit by bit, every chance you can find, and take the ego out of it. It’s not about you. It’s about all of us doing what we can for those of us who need it most. If you keep your head down, inching towards daylight, when you lift your head up you’ll find that you’ve come further than you think.

But you’ll also notice that we still have a long way to go.

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