One of the questions we ask people most often is “What do you think a better society would look like?” or some variant thereof. One of the most frequent answers is “more kindness”, “people being nicer to each other”, or something similar. Last year, when people gave this answer I was thrilled. It’s completely true that we make the world a better place every time we treat someone with a bit more compassion or friendliness. If everyone did so, consistently, we would have a much better world.
But now, every time someone gives that answer I feel like there’s more going on, and it’s not enough to just agree and leave it there. I can’t ignore that there are limits to the way our individual attitudes toward one another shape our lives, or that these individual attitudes (kindness, indifference, snarkiness, whatever) are in significant part products of the society we live in. And the forces in society that shape how we act have a very large structural component.
By the way, this is not meant as an indictment of the people giving off the cuff, positive answers to questions some strangers with backpacks are asking. I think this is worth blogging about because it reflects a broad trend in our society that goes mostly unnoticed. People propose solutions based on independent, individual choices to problems that have significant systemic components.
Being nicer to one another in our day-to-day capitalist, hierarchical interactions is not going to provide an education for single mothers stuck in the projects or 2,000 calories a day for the malnourished in Malawi. Additionally, even treating people more like humans and expressing genuine care for one another is hampered by a society based upon competition, one that views each other as instruments rather than ends, and can’t tell the difference between worth and wealth. The CEO who really puts people over profits doesn’t change the world. He gets fired and replaced by someone willing to follow the logic of unmitigated pursuit of profit. That’s structure. It includes laws made for capitalism and enforced by the power of the state.
So what do we do?
If we accept that significant structural or systemic change is necessary, both to change the things that kindness can’t and to create a society whose basic values help promote individual kindness and solidarity, we need to act in ways that change the structure of our society. I might be missing something, but it seems to me that the most likely way we’ll effect this change is through organized, collective action. People doing good individually makes someone’s day. People doing good together changes the world. Remember, the American Revolution wasn’t a bunch of people taking individual, uncoordinated action against British domination. That puts you in prison, not in power. Likewise, the civil rights movement wasn’t a bunch of individuals choosing to defy segregation and pressure the government on their own. It certainly didn’t hope to end segregation by convincing the owners of lunch counters that segregation wasn’t nice. It was people acting collectively, giving each other strength and knowledge and actively challenging the oppressive structures in place.
I’m sure we’ll write a whole lot of words about how we think organizing to build collective power can or should happen, but I’ll leave it here for now. I disagree with the me of a year ago. I still strive to become a kinder person every single day, and I think that’s an incredibly valuable thing for individuals to work on, but isolated individual acts alone will not build or alter structures in order to end poverty, protect the environment, or build a society whose logic is based on cooperation instead of competition. For that, we’ve got to be kinder AND we’ve got to work together, build organizations, and take collective action.
¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!
from Indialantic, FL (with great people in a great place for splashing, running, and thinking)