Saturday, February 2, 2008

The two obstacles to changing the world

Have you ever listened to motivational speeches? Read inspirational material? These sort of works are meant to inspire action, whether to change your self, or to change the world. How do these works actually inspire action? Well, they tell you that you should get to it, and get to it now, because you have the power and, damn it, this stuff is important! (Obviously, I'd be a very poor motivational speaker.)

Inspirational and motivational material is meant to overcome what I will call the second obstacle to changing the world. We all want to help the less fortunate. We all want to preserve the environment. We all want to cure human disease. But wanting does not translate to action. Sometimes, it's difficult to actually bring yourself to help these causes. It's tempting to ignore the homeless, to toss recyclables in the trash (and yes, I'm as guilty as the rest of you). After all, a single person can only have a negligible effect on the world, so are these things really worth the attention and effort?

As I understand it, this was the whole point of The Lord of the Rings. In the trilogy, Frodo knows that he must bring the one ring to the top of Mt Doom, and toss it into the fires. His path is clear. But actually walking that path is long and difficult.

This brings me to the first obstacle to changing the world. Unlike Frodo, our paths are not always clear. I mean, we don't exactly have a based-on-Jesus Gandalf character to tell us what we must do (unless you count Jesus himself). It is impossible to distinguish temptation from reasonable doubts unless you try thinking about it. Furthermore, even if a goal is obviously worthwhile, there are usually several methods to achieve that goal.

For example, take the goal of helping the poor. Most everyone shares this goal. But there is more than one way to attain it. There is a debate between two methods, known as charity and social justice. Charity seeks to meet the immediate needs of the poor. Social Justice seeks to change the system in order to eventually decrease poverty or lessen its impact on people. Obviously, there need not be a dichotomy between the two methods, but there is still the question of how effective they are. How much should we invest in one relative to the other? The answer to this question usually divides along political lines, with the liberals supporting social justice, and the conservatives supporting charity.

In summary, the first obstacle to changing the world is making a decision. The second obstacle is acting it out. Occasionally, these two are in conflict. On the one hand, we must decide carefully, and on the other hand, we cannot be indecisive.

When there is a conflict, motivational speakers would have you believe that those who hesitate are just cynics and skeptics. As a self-identified skeptic, I can say that there is some degree of truth in this. It is true that I hesitate. That's because I emphasize overcoming the first obstacle. People can be easily mistaken about the correct path. So caution is advised. I've spent too much time reading opinion articles and blogs to think that everyone agrees on goals and the proper means to achieve them. Who, if anyone, is correct? Which actions should we take, and not take?

Does it really make me a cynic when I hesitate? I actually think of myself as an idealist. Case in point, a cynic would have been compelled to point out that not everyone wants to preserve the environment. I tend to assume everyone is essentially good-natured. But I realize that even the well-intentioned will disagree on what to do.

But I'm not here just to give an anti-motivational speech. The solutions to the two obstacles are not always in conflict. You can, for example, support education. Education fulfills a variety of societal needs and helps people better choose society's direction. You can participate in the public debate. Debate helps us make decisions and promotes public awareness and action. And you can vote, making you both a participant in the public debate and an agent of real change.

Of course, I'm probably not one to speak. Here I have a blog that covers controversial topics, but avoids politics. It's so easy to just talk, but the actual doing takes more work...

1 comment:

DeralterChemiker said...

I liked your thoughtful post very much. I hope that your confidence in education will be rewarded. Unfortunately, even education can be placed in the service of an ideology, rather than dedicated to objective, rational thought. Public debate, especially political debate, is very often ideological and not objective. To make progress one must compromise with popular ideologies and subtly attempt to turn your opponents in a more rational direction. In other words, don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good.