small change: not just for parking meters

Please excuse me for stepping up onto my soapbox for a minute. I’ve noticed that I’ve been saying the same thing in a bunch of places lately, so it’s probably time to try to write one coherent post. I’m talking about “change” mostly in the sense of progress in the fights against racism and other sorts of prejudice, but this probably applies to any sort of large-scale beneficial change.

Let me be clear: I am not advocating settling for small changes or aiming for small changes or achieving small changes and deciding that’s good enough. What you’re engaged in a big fight, you need to keep big goals in mind or you will never achieve them.

What I am saying is something more like the words of Rabbi Tarfon in the Pirke Avot: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either” (2:16)

Because this has happened to all too many idealists, who became embittered when they weren’t able to achieve their goals. It happened to the first wave of feminists fighting for women’s suffrage in the 1840s through the 1860s, and again to the generation that came of age in the Woodstock years fighting for freedom and love and equality for all. They fell short of their goals and some of them stopped fighting; the feminists, most of whom were also Abolitionists, weren’t able to keep up two battles at once and so chose the most desperate one, while many of the hippies gave up and settled for a consumer life.

Thing is, both groups made real change. Women wouldn’t have gained the vote in 1920 without the groundwork done before. I wouldn’t have been able to go to engineering school and have a career; it’s not hard to trace my freedoms directly to their struggle. I also owe a lot of that to the fighters for feminism in the 1960s and 1970s. On another front, President Obama wouldn’t be in office without the Abolitionists and the Civil Rights fight in the early 1960s and all the later fights to make sure those laws made de facto changes, not only de jure ones. And this is despite the perceptions at the times that many of those battles were never completely won.

OK, so now a lot of us are realizing how strong institutionalized systems of racism (ablism/sexism/anti-Semitism/homophobia/ageism and other sorts of prejudice are). A lot of people realized one part of it all along and are now seeing the other parts. Some people saw all of it. And the proper goal is to dismantle these systems of prejudice, so that everyone has at least an equal chance to be taken seriously. Maybe that fight will succeed – you can only win a battle if you’re fighting in it. Maybe we’ll see huge changesin the next couple of decades. But if not, if the fight isn’t completely won, if people can only change the views of one invidual here and there, then that’s still worth struggling for. Because populations are made of individuals, ripples propagate, and some big changes are composed of smaller ones.

Step by step, the largest march can be won….

(By the way: I finished my marathon on Saturday. 42195 meters, 3:57:54 – or two hundred thiry-seven minutes and fifty four seconds.)

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1 Response to small change: not just for parking meters

  1. l'empress says:

    Point well taken. My worry these days is that, when the economy goes sour, fear divides people into “them and us.” And no matter which side you’re on — or both — this can get truly ugly.

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