A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
As widespread oppression and violence rise up, people of good conscience wonder what we can do to help move the country in the right direction. It is natural at a time like this to look toward leaders who will guide us, but by putting our faith in people who are necessarily flawed, we may be misunderstanding how democratic popular movements happen.
In the clip above, Noam Chomsky addresses the question of what ordinary people can do in the face of seemingly insurmountable injustice. Things change, he says, “because lots of people are working all the time… in their communities or their workplace or wherever they happen to be, and they’re building up the basis for popular movements.”
In the history books, there’s a couple of leaders, you know, George Washington or Martin Luther King, or whatever, and I don’t want to say that those people are unimportant. Martin Luther King was certainly important, but he was not the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King can appear in the history books ‘cause lots of people whose names you will never know, and whose names are all forgotten and who may have been killed and so on were working down in the South.
Chomsky says, “people like me can appear, and we can appear to be prominent… only because somebody else is doing the work.”
For Martin Luther King, the issue of social action is one of putting love into action. In a 1963 interview, he responds to criticism of his methods by drawing a distinction between nonresistance and nonviolent resistence. In other words, we need to take direct action in a firm, but peaceful way:
I think of love as something strong and that organizes itself into powerful, direct action…. We are not engaged in a struggle that means we sit down and do nothing. There’s a great deal of difference between nonresistance to evil and nonviolent resistance. Nonresistance leaves you in a state of stagnant passivity and deadening complacency, whereas nonviolent resistance means that you do resist in a very strong and determined manner.
Both Chomsky and King are insistent that people need to act on their own and not rely on movement leaders. Engaging in informed debate with family, friends, or coworkers, writing letters, making donations to activists and organizations, documenting injustice, or taking to the streets in protest — all of these actions make a difference. These small individual acts of conscience, when coordinated with the actions of thousands of other people, make social change happen.
This article is adapted from an essay by Josh Jones writing for Open Culture.