On Strategizing Progressive Social Change: Start with “It Won’t Be Easy”

“You have to keep on going, not because you know it will work, but because you hope it will work.” –Donald N. Michael, author of On Learning to Plan—and Planning to Learn, Private Communication, 6 October 1995

Change is the order of the universe. The way things are is always only temporary. As Martin Luther King said, “The arc of history is long, but I believe it bends toward justice.” With Don Michael, I “hope it will work”; in this case, I hope our efforts can bend King’s arc toward justice—the quicker, the better.

But, history has persuaded me that it won’t be easy. Even King rendered his statement about history’s tendency as a belief, not as a fact. We may not get there, just as King foresaw his own “not getting there”. Power is like that: People who have it will do what they must to keep as much of it as they are able, for as long as they are able. And they aren’t above paying apologists to indoctrinate masses of people about the “rightness” of their doing so, and paying other mercenaries to protect them from those masses when the apologists fail. No wonder that progressive social change is so difficult!

Heck! Just talking about progressive social change is difficult. If I try to “tell it like it is”, it’s too complicated for many people to comprehend, and for some people who think that anything worth knowing should require no effort from them to understand it. On the other hand, if I simplify things so that people don’t have to put in serious effort, they surely won’t be prepared to take on the paid apologists and mercenaries—and King’s “arc of history” will take even longer to reach Justice. In addition, people like me who write essays that might challenge power expose ourselves to dismissal as “elitists”, or even worse: “vanguards”. I would note that my friend the auto mechanic is expected to share his knowledge, if not with car owners, then at least with their cars; and runs no risk of being dismissed with such terms for doing so.

Those of you still awake out there in reader land may be wondering why I am all worked up over this. Well, recently, in a “sustainability group” I work with—rather than just write about—I suggested some wording for the group’s statement of purpose. I felt like I was channeling my now deceased mentor, Don Michael, when I suggested the following:

“The crux move in the movement toward sustainability does not lie in agreement over what sustainability “is”. Nor does it lie in agreement on any particular “best way” to go about working toward sustainability. And it most certainly does not lie in righteously repeating arguments that one speaker or another among the “already converted” had found persuasive, effectively dismissing other people’s experiences as simple reproductions of those that “already converted” people had themselves found persuasive.

“Rather, the crux move of the movement toward sustainability lies in increasing the number of people who for reasons reasonable to them for their own reasons come to see as at least possibly sensible their asking questions for which “sustainability” can reasonably be advanced for their consideration to them as an equally reasonable answer in their terms. For me, my terms for a reasonable answer would be morally defensible, culturally meaningful, practically effective, and financially efficient in terms that they might not even know are out there to be known, but which they find compelling enough to undertake to learn about.”

This was my first draft, but it was a complete draft. What to do with it? Send it around “as-is” to members of the group for persuasion and feedback? Or, sit on it until I simplified it enough for the next edition of Progressive Social Change for Dummies? In the meantime, I sent it to Scott, a close friend who had introduced me to Don Michael back in the 1970s.

Scott’s reaction was generally supportive. Referring to the second paragraph, Scott wrote:

“Bob, you have hit it on the head. This statement is exactly what needs to be done.”

Then he commented on the complexity of my style:

“Using too many words to qualify your thought, loses people. They don’t want to work that hard.”

Then he offered a suggestion for making my writing more accessible:

“I think that the following is still your thought. ‘Rather, real progress in the movement toward sustainability lies in increasing the number of people who for reasons reasonable to them come to asking questions for which “sustainability” can be advanced, in their terms, as a reasonable answer.’”

Then Scott critiqued his own suggestion:

“Even the above will be too many words for people who aren’t interested, but for those of us who are interested, it’s right on.”

And he finished by identifying the crux practical challenge:

“How you accomplish this is another issue.”

So, I sent my original and Scott’s critique to second reviewer, who reviewed it as a personal favor to me, then wrote back:

“Rather, the crux move…”, or actually this single long complex sentence – while seemingly reasonable is not an easy read to comprehend the meaning or intent. As I mentioned on the phone, I believe we have to be very conscious and considerate of our audience and in my opinion any complex written (or spoken) information has to appeal to the broad audience. Even the subsequent simplified statements seem rather long and obtuse, in my opinion. […] No offense […], just my preference. If this email had come from any other person or was a post to any listserver, I would not spend any time trying to seek out the intent, purpose or meaning.”

What did I learn from all this? Here are some “bullets”:

  • By far most importantly, keep on writing.
  • letcher

  • I prefer Einstein’s “as simple as possible, but no simpler” to whoever’s so-called “KISS principle”—“Keep it Stupid, Simple” (or something like that)—which works better for the apologists I mentioned above.
  • Develop several versions of pitches, keyed to different groups
  • Look for a collaborator or editor—and most importantly
  • Be humble, and listen—and
  • Be patient, for the arc of history is l-o-n-g.

Robert A. Letcher, PhD

Robert A. Letcher, Ph.D describes himself as “an academic with a disability instead of a portfolio, a writer, and a Qigong practitioner who tries to help people learn”.

Published by the LA Progressive on February 27, 2010
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About Robert Letcher

Robert A. Letcher, Ph.D. is a political economist who describes himself as "an academic without portfolio, writer, political activist, and Qigong practitioner who tries to help people learn".