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This article was written on 08 Aug 2016, and is filled under Uncategorised.

Protest, society, the individual and me

Someone shared a picture today of a Suffragette being arrested while petitioning for the right to vote. Suffrage is a complicated issue because wherever it has been extended, there has been concomitant social change, which sets experts wondering which came first. Women’s suffrage finally, and with embarrassing tardiness, came after the First World War when women had proved their mettle by doing work of men who then went off to fight. But which way round is it appropriate for us to see it?

As we don’t have several parallel universes, all running in tandem and allowing for infinite tinkering, we can’t hope to know. But at the heart of the issue for me is a question of how much the individual is ever an agent of social change compared to wider social forces. Had the Suffragettes, say the woman in the picture, not existed, would women have been given the vote anyway by a grateful government, or was there a sense that revolution was in the air and they needed to head it off? A canton in Switzerland finally gave women the right to vote in local issues in 1991, which seems faintly terrifying.

When Martin Luther King emerged as the most eloquent leader of the Civil Rights movement, he had a movement to lead, thousands of individuals who had all come to the separate conclusion that eating at separate lunch counters, drinking water from separate fountains and sitting on separate benches was visibly unjust and a violation of everything that America supported to stand for. Did he need to do this, or would change have happened anyway?

If you were black and living in the America of the fifties and sixties, what would you have done? I like to think I would have stood with Dr King, but part of me also knows that I probably wouldn’t. I’d have seen what little I had and, rather than risking it, in Kipling’s words, on a game of pitch and toss, would have kept my head down and tried to hang onto it, troubling the powers that be as little as possible, lest I incur their wrath.

Most people, I think, did just that. But a big minority didn’t. A big minority did risk it all and, in some cases, lost it. People got together to form, say, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, all organisations which lobbied for change and which were willed into existence, again, by individuals. And it’s this mechanism that fascinates me. How do they know that other people have come to the same conclusion? How do they find each other? Does the first spark come from one person, or from many simultaneously?

And again, in the background to all of this, is the idea that wider social change leads to the overturning of bad laws. What would have happened if there was no Dr King? What if the SCLC, SNCC and NAACP, like the Suffragettes, had never existed? Would people still be eating at separate lunch counters, or would such a vivid and obvious symbol of inequality have had to be removed by a country which rightly saw them as being in utter contravention of the creed it was supposed to live and die by?

I don’t know. And, moreover, to arrive at my final question, what avails any movement of my participation in it? I am but one person, the thought comes to mind, and what if I didn’t exist? In the overall sweep of humanity, nothing. I’m not Dr King and have led no movements for social change. Any difference I have made is on a tiny, personal level and doesn’t translate to the wider sphere at all. When I vote, I’m at my most irrelevant, voting for left wing parties in Tory areas. And I don’t vote precisely for that reason. Nicholas ‘Wardrobe’ Soames will be elected whether or not I go down to the church hall and put a cross next to the Labour or Green candidate.

Somewhere between these two things, between the uncertainty as to how change happens and the place of the individual within that, I’ve designed myself out. If social change happens anyway, I’m not needed. And if individuals need to turn up in sufficient numbers to affect that change, I know that I’m not in the right country. This is a right wing nation that thinks, does and vote for right wing things, as the referendum proves. Whether change happens anyway or whether it’s propelled by individuals, the conclusions are the same. I’m either not needed, or else in the wrong place.

For the first time in my adult life, I realise that I’m utterly and magnificently irrelevant and solely in charge of my own destiny. The collective will not help me, for it doesn’t know I’m alive and has other ends in mind, at least in Britain. Like Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness,’ I’m moved to think that we live as we dream – alone, and that we must work out our own destinies. If society calls, tell it I’m not interested. And, moreover, that I don’t need it.

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