Fairly recently, screwtape2 and I had a debate in the postwhorehouse on Interference. The outcome of the debate was insubstantial: we ended up going around in the same circles, talked past each other a lot, and I don't think either of us really learnt much from the discussion. It would have been nice to have reached a conclusion or some kind of shared understanding, but in the end we abandoned the topic and moved on. Yet it's recurred in various forms since then, and it came to mind earlier when I was staring at a blank update screen. I don't mean for this post to be some attempt to present my side of the debate at the expense of Screwtape's perspective or anything like that. I just want to use it as a launching pad for my own reflections on why I am struggling to write.
Our conversation was about social apathy and the role of social activism. It was based around the observation that in the 1960s, universities were often a hotbed of political discontent, social protests, student movements, and the like. Then through the 1970s and 1980s we saw groups like Greenpeace and Amnesty International gain credibility and prominence in the mainstream. But now, all around me at university, I see apathy. When people try to promote some cause, whether it's the Socialist Alternative or the Young Nationals or the Greens or whoever from whatever side of the fence, it seems most listeners just roll their eyes. "Oh, here goes the Socialist Alternative again!" Or people will personally agree with a protest, but be unwilling to attend - they don't want to look "stupid". There seems to be this attitude of "well, mate, quietly, I agree with you, but tone it down, OK? You're making us all look crazy." Nobody wants to be perceived as a fringe loony. Perhaps it is a tendency to the centre, to moderation, or if you want to look at it more negatively, to some uninspired, conformist shade of beige signifying nothing.
I think an important factor is the matter of results, and this is where my own writing comes in. Essentially, people don't want to waste their breath if there isn't a realistic chance of achieving their goals. I look at protest movements: people stand in the street and shout a bit in the hope it will influence politicians, but does it? Generally not. Politics goes where the money and influence takes it, and any clever politician can spin their actions sufficiently so that the electorate swallows it and votes them back in. On the little issues, sure, it can play a role, but on the serious stuff, hell no. When it comes to problems of structural magnitude, the people who have the power to make the changes are those at the very centre of the current structure, and in the overwhelming majority of cases, they have a vested interest in keeping that structure just how it is, thank you very much. I look at all the people on the Barack Obama "change!" bandwagon - and while I bloody well hope the guy kicks McCain's arse this November, anybody who actually believes Obama is going to initiate some kind of political paradigm shift is absolutely delusional, since anybody able to get as far as being a US presidential candidate is inextricably tied to the present political structure. (Yeah, now I've just doomed the comments to some Obama discussion, haven't I?)
To cut a long and potentially theoretical discussion short, my point is: you don't have the power to change anything. Well, maybe you do, if you happen to be somebody at an elite level of governmenr or business able to shape policy. But chances are, that's not you. It's certainly not me. I'm an undergrad uni student about to doom himself to that most scholarly but uninfluential of disciplines, history. I can sit here and tell you all about the problems with the world. I used to! I could talk until I'm blue in the face and type until I'm blue in the fingers. I could tell you all about political repression in Zimbabwe, I could rant about the callous stupidity of the junta ruling Burma, I could rail endlessly about the need to completely rethink our interaction with the natural environment, and I could put forth any number of proposals for how we could develop a more socially equitable society. But what's the point? There is none. It is pointless hot air. I would be preaching to the choir or arguing with somebody equally as uninfluential as myself. An argument about universal healthcare between a 21 year old leftie Kiwi albino and some 35 year old Republican guy who spends eight hours a day pushing paper in any one of a million bland offices in Bumfuck, USA isn't exactly going to achieve anything even if one of us convinces the other of a particular point.
We can talk all day, but to no results. I can summon all the righteous indignation I can muster about social injustices, but saying "THIS ISN'T RIGHT!" on my blog or joining some protest or printing pamphlets isn't going to do much since I don't have access to the levels at which meaningful decisions can be made. So what's the point? I don't need to keep proving I'm an idealist with nice, leftie ideas of how we can all live in harmony. If you think something needs to be changed, don't just tell me why or how; tell me how you will actually, realistically achieve this goal. Fuck talk; let's get some results. You want to solve world poverty? Right, give me your neat list of steps you can actually take and decisions you can actually make. You want to end racial discrimination? You want to put an end to homelessness? You want Robert Mugabe out of Zimbabwe? You want the Victorian government to fund public transport projects? Right, give me your neat list of steps you can actually take and decisions you can actually make. Oh yeah, you can't. You're probably just a university student or an average middle class office worker. It's enough of a challenge for you to actually, realistically take steps and make decisions that will get you that house you've always wanted, let alone change the socio-political structure of society.
You can't make a difference. You will not change anything. Talk as much as you like and solve all the world's problems in fifteen minutes; you will never be in a position to actually implement your good ideas. And if you somehow do acquire an influential role, chances are you'll be tied to the system and have a vested interest in not making changes. So you won't make a difference, even if you could. It's harsh, yes. But it's a harsh world.