Allies on the Inside

I was delighted to read Kwame Anthony Appiah's opinion piece in The New York Times, Stonewall and the Myth of Self-Deliverance. He raises a point that I have been making privately for a while: social movements need allies on the inside.

If you're willing to seize the reins of power by force, maybe you don't. You simply forcibly remove those who oppress you, and voilĂ ! You're done. Except, of course, it's not that easy. Violent revolution involves collateral damage—including both direct victims of that violence and unforeseen consequences, such as abuses of power, should it succeed. It also requires substantial moral and physical support from a public that may be unwilling to sacrifice whatever comforts it now enjoys (including peace!) for a hypothetical future gain—a support that may be particularly hard to get when that gain is one that directly benefits only a subset of that public.

Most modern social movements, at least in the Western world, are not looking to forcibly overthrow the system of government but rather to improve it: to gain social and political recognition for a group of people that has been denied a place at the table (for example, in the American context, women, African Americans, Native Americans, LGBTQ folks). The aim of social movements is to get on the moral radar of the powers that be and prick their consciences so that change happens and they can take the seat they deserve among their peers. They do this by the very necessary work of becoming visible, raising awareness, organizing, marching, and campaigning. They seek to convince two sets of people of the moral necessity of their demands: those already in power, so that they can enact the necessary legal measures, and the public at large, so that they can bring pressure to bear on those in power, possibly by voting in candidates that espouse these moral causes.

For example, women's suffrage in the US did not happen and could not have happened by women simply storming polling stations and casting ballots. It happened by the suffragist movement convincing men in power and men who could vote that it was the moral thing to do. The Civil Rights movement could not have happened by blacks merely enforcing what should have been their rights in an extra-legal way. It needed to raise awareness of the abuses and instill moral outrage in order for a white government to pass much-needed protections.

Social movements are very necessary for a functioning democracy: it's how our collective conscience grows. The way they get social change codified is by convincing those with access to power, who may initially be outside of the movement, to support them. As they succeed, they come to share power and be duly represented. That is how we build a better society for all.


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