I was pondering the other day on the nature of sociopolitical movements.
They’re really weird, don’t you think? But amazingly so. They happen typically from some sort of organic collective of shared emotions, often caused by some inciting incident, and they can wreak all sorts of havoc on the status quo.
Movements today seem to lack that a bit.
Based on cursory knowledge of some of the more successful movements of modern history (the Civil Rights movement, Gandhi’s drive to free India, ending apartheid), here’s what I observed (and I’ll define successful during this):
1) There is a problem some person or group of people wish to fix.
2) They stir up fervor amongst the apathetic, ignorant and disorganized.
3) A leader grows out of the movement.
4) They hammer their disdain for the problem over and over again.
5) There is a martyr of the movement, usually being the leader.
6) They succeed in fixing the initial problem.
Now, I wish I could honestly say that No. 5 was optional, but when I thought about it… Martin Luther King Jr., killed. Gandhi, killed. Nelson Mandela, imprisoned. (Not all martyrs need be killed, after all… right? …Merriam-Webster’s second definition gives me wiggle room. I’ll take it.)
As for success, that’s No. 6. They resolve the problem they set out to resolve. For example, the Civil Rights movement had an extremely specific goal within their general manifesto of “Hey, can we please be treated like equals?”: Desegregate the nation. Now, other sects within the movement had some different goals added to that, but generally, that was the movement’s main goal. Gandhi got India free from the U.K.’s rule. Apartheid ended. These are successes.
So, let’s think of the movements we’ve seen in today’s day and age. The Tea Party movement. Feminism (third wave, I suppose). The gay rights movement.
While some have been working for years (gay rights) and some for, well, a couple of years (Tea Party), none have been extremely successful. Here’s a breakdown.
The Tea Party movement had the organic growth movements need. They’ve gotten number 2 solved (depending on your definition of ignorant). We’ll pretend they’ve even had number 3 nailed. And they’re certainly hammering their disdain for their interpretations of problems over and again. But they fail in a few places. First, they don’t really have any specific problems they want to hit. They do have several they’re upset about, though, so that’s not a huge issue. They certainly have no martyrs, though, no one willing to fully give themselves to the movement and lose everything. And, quite simply, they had too many people they considered leaders, like Rand Paul and Michele Bachmann. But more on that in a bit.
Third wave feminism (I specify third wave because first wave, based on my understanding of it, was a successful movement that afforded women the right to vote.) has yet to succeed because it currently holds too general a manifesto, firstly. Instead of systematically taking out issues one by one, the modern feminist movement rails against all the issues simultaneously. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s noble, and it’s right. But it’s inefficient and ultimately accomplishes little, unfortunately. Or not much very quickly, at least. And due to the lack of specification of goals, infighting has cropped up all over the place, people dictating who is and isn’t a “true feminist,” something I attempted to talk about before and failed miserably at. Fighting from within while trying to target every injustice simultaneously makes it difficult for a movement to truly grow. It stagnates before it can really achieve the third step of gaining a visible leader.
The gay rights movement definitely has the first part: Legalize same-sex marriage. Legalize same-sex adoption. Let gays donate blood. Criminalize harassment via sexuality. A few others, I’m sure, but those are the first few specific examples I can think of. The gay rights movement even had an inciting incident: The Stonewall Riots. Not every movement gets one of those. But the gay rights movement finds itself faltering with no leader and no highly visible martyr. In actuality, Matthew Shepard is that martyr, but with a lack of organization and leadership, that martyrdom has become something only the truly passionate in the movement remember with sadness. Some people that are pro-gay rights don’t even know who Shepard is. And as for leadership, perhaps the most visible leader of the movement is Dan Savage, who is too divisive and confrontational to be a truly effective leader of a movement. As opposed to supporting the movement, he often satisfies himself with lambasting the people in opposition of it, which isn’t how the successful movements found success.
Really, though, I think the Internet might be to blame, partially. When it comes to movements, it’s both a blessing and a curse. On the internet, there is a moment, a brief momentary spark, where your movement can catch fire. For many internet-driven movements, the damage doesn’t have to be massive. A few tens or hundreds of thousands of signatures, a mere drop in the bucket of human existence, on someone’s Change.org petition can get the job done. For movements that need a bigger support system, like the ones I’ve mentioned, the internet can be a bit more of a problem. See, thanks to the internet, things can move quickly. That’s how SOPA got stopped, after all. Things are also mercilessly recorded, allowing for more pointed pettiness and vicious tearing apart. And what’s worse: Everyone can be a leader on their own.
Hell, look at me on this blog. I’m constantly talking about things that I wish would change, things that need to be fixed. And I know there are others that agree with me. But I’m not the leader of any movements. I’m barely even an active member of any. At best, I’m often and intellectual supporter. And why is that? Because on the internet, it seems like that’s all you need. You can get so many like-minded people to swarm upon your opinion and lift you up that you feel like a leader. For years, I was generally considered to be one of the leaders of the gay rights movement… on the Gaia Online forum. And by years, I think I mean two, maybe three or four. The internet moves quickly and unsustained dialogues can be forgotten. For that period of time, my posts, my literature was reposted and debated all over the internet. I had several hundred vocal supporters, and more silent ones. People asked if they could print my posts off and hand them out in real life.
And while I’m not saying that didn’t necessarily help… It’s simply not enough. With the internet, too many people can be too vocal simultaneously. Before that, though, a single person’s voice could shine above the rest of the maddening crowd with clarity and charisma.
For making Progressive or Todd Akin look terrible, or spreading the word about Kony or Trayvon Martin, or getting people to love or hate Chick-fil-A… the internet is great. It’s fabulous for all that. The problems are somewhat general and don’t require much action to fix. Just a tweet, email or share. Some would call it armchair activism, or slacktivism. It can get results, even if the result is eliminating some ignorance, but it simply doesn’t require much.
Other movements need more support, more power behind them. To see women and the GLBT community treated as equals, it takes more than a tweet, email or share. It takes feet on the streets. It takes organization. It takes leadership. It takes vigilance, seeking to destroy the problems facing them one at a time.
…Tweet, email or share if you agree, I suppose.
EDIT: To add to this, someone pointed out that Gandhi and MLK died after the main crux of their movement’s goals were met. They were both still martyrs for their movement, MLK being jailed unjustly and Gandhi going on hunger strike. What their deaths accomplished, however, was permanency of acknowledgement. Now, any movements spawning from the original, or any goals the movements want to revisit, have a permanent figurehead and reminder, a permanent leader to refer back to. Not every movement needs their leader to die, of course. But consider how much stronger and longer lasting those movements have been over the years. Movements like… Well, Christianity.
Just some additional clarification and food for thought.