From reining in Wall Street to preventing the next oil spill and tackling global climate change, we often hold back from taking important public stands because we’re caught in a trap I call “the perfect standard.” Before letting ourselves take action on an issue, we wait to be certain that it’s the world’s most important issue, that we understand it perfectly, and that we’ll be able to express our perspectives with perfect eloquence. We also decide that engagement requires being of perfect moral character without the slightest inconsistencies or flaws.
Gandhi’s grandson, Arun Gandhi, tells the story of how his grandfather’s family mortgaged everything they had–their land, their jewelry, everything of value–to send Gandhi to law school. Gandhi graduated and passed the bar, but was so shy that when he stood up in court all he could do was stammer. He couldn’t get a sentence out in defense of his clients. As a result, he lost every one of his cases. He was a total failure as a lawyer. His family didn’t know what do to. Finally, they sent him off to South Africa, where he literally and metaphorically found his voice by challenging the country’s racial segregation.
I love viewing Gandhi not as the master strategist of social change that he later became, but as someone who at first was literally tongue-tied–shyer and more intimidated than almost anyone we can imagine. His story is a caution against the impulse to try and achieve perfection before we begin the journey of social change.
“I think it does us all a disservice,” says Atlanta activist Sonya Vetra Tinsley, “when people who work for social change are presented as saints–so much more noble than the rest of us. We get a false sense that from the moment they were born they were called to act, they never had doubts, were bathed in a circle of light. But I’m much more inspired learning how people succeeded despite their failings and uncertainties. It’s a much less intimidating image. It makes me feel like I have a shot at changing things too.”
Sonya had attended a talk by one of Martin Luther King’s Morehouse professors, in which he mentioned how much King had struggled when he first came to college, getting only a C, for example, in his first philosophy course. “I found that very inspiring, when I heard it,” Sonya said, “given all that King achieved.”
I was similarly inspired to learn that when union organizer and Montgomery NAACP head E.D. Nixon bailed Rosa Parks out of jail and then called Martin Luther King to help lead the bus boycott, King initially resisted. He was new in town. People were just getting to know him. Since he was only twenty-six, he was reluctant to take the lead. He had all sorts of understandable reasons to demur. But Nixon persisted and when he called him back, King responded, “Brother Nixon, I can go along with you on this.” Had Nixon not approached him, King might never have taken his own first steps toward deeper involvement, on a stage that ended up making him a national figure.
King’s hesitation matters, because once we enshrine our heroes on impossibly high pedestals, it becomes hard for mere mortals to measure up in our eyes. However individuals speak out, and for whatever cause, we can always find some reason to dismiss their motives, knowledge, and tactics. We fault them for not being in command of every fact and figure, for not being able to answer every question put to them, or for the smallest inconsistencies in how they act or live. We can’t imagine how an ordinary human being with ordinary flaws might make a critical difference in a worthy social cause.
Others will also apply the perfect standard to us when we act. At Minnesota’s St. Olaf College, students were sleeping in makeshift cardboard shelters to dramatize the plight of America’s homeless. As one participant recalled, “Lots who passed by treated us like a slumber party. They told us we were cute. But when we kept on for a couple days they began to get annoyed. One girl yelled, ‘Homeless people don’t have blankets. You’re being hypocritical.’ She looked like she’d be satisfied only if we got soaked in the freezing rain.”
In effect, the activists were ridiculed for not being pious enough. Yet even had they demonstrated their commitment by standing in the rain until they became hypothermic, or by launching a hunger strike, odds are the critics still wouldn’t have been satisfied. They would have turned their argument around and accused the activists of trying to be martyrs, of taking things too seriously. Whatever the critique, the approach is the same: Identify a perceived flaw, large or small, then use it to write off an entire effort.
It’s hard enough to be the recipients of perfect standard dismissals. It’s worse to subject ourselves to it. As a result, for instance, we often refrain from tackling global climate change because we’re not climatologists or because we might have to drive to a rally promoting alternative energy. We don’t speak out on homelessness because we aren’t homeless ourselves. Though outraged when moneyed interests corrupt our political system and when the Supreme Court encourages even greater corruption, we believe we lack the credentialed authority to insist campaign financing be reformed–even when terrific models exist, as when Maine, Vermont, Arizona and Connecticut give candidates seriously public funding if they gather enough $5 grassroots contributions.
Whatever the issue, whatever the approach, we never feel we have enough knowledge or standing. Then if we learn more or gain more experience, we simply raise the bar higher, ensuring that it’s always out of reach. We decide that anyone who takes an effective public stand must first become a larger-than-life figure–someone with more time, energy, courage, vision, knowledge or certainty than a normal person could ever possess.
No one is immune to the crippling effects of the perfect standard. In this time of massive technological and economic change, many of us who’ve been active in social causes before feel daunted by both the size and array of contemporary problems. Even when we know better, we sometimes feel we have to tackle everything at once. If our efforts don’t instantly achieve dramatic results, we are quick to criticize ourselves, and doubt that our efforts can matter. And we apply the same impatience toward national leaders, like Obama.
We face a parallel trap in seeking endless information. We can spend our lives trying to gather endless facts and arguments from every conceivable website, blog, Facebook posting, and 24-hour cable news source. Just as our culture has no notion of economic sufficiency, so the perfect standard leaves us with a permanent insufficiency of knowledge–and a convenient way to dismiss anyone who dares take a public stand. As everything that can be known continues to increase, the effort to know everything grows increasingly doomed. We don’t dare speak out unless we feel prepared to debate Bill O’Reilly on national network news.
The perfect standard can also limit our time horizon. In this view, we shouldn’t begin working for social change until the time is ideal–say, when our kids are grown or we ourselves are out of school, when our job is more secure, or when we retire. We wait for when our courage and wisdom will be greatest, the issues clearest, and our supporters and allies most steadfast. Such hesitation is reasonable. We are subject to real pressures and constraints.
Yet when in life will we not be subject to pressures, of one kind or another? When will public participation not require a shift from familiar and comfortable habits? What’s more, the issues that most need our attention will probably always be complex, forbidding, and difficult to address effectively. As Rachel Naomi Remen reminds us, “Being brave does not mean being unafraid. It often means being afraid and doing it anyway.”
Social change always proceeds in the absence of absolute knowledge or certainty. In the 1960s, psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott developed the now-accepted concept of “the good-enough mother.” Winnicott argued that the goal of errorless child-rearing is a destructive and impossible standard that produces guilt and recrimination.As Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn explain in their book about parenting,Everyday Blessings, “There is no question about doing a perfect job, or always ‘getting it right.’ ‘Perfect’ is simply not relevant, whatever that would mean.”
In this vein, maybe we should all aspire to become “good-enough activists,” remembering that though some of our actions will fail, and some will be flawed, our contributions matter all the more because we’ve proceeded despite our uncertainties and doubts, in a way that can then inspire others to take the risk of acting despite theirs.