Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Changing the Wind

Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners Magazine and leader of Call to Renewal paraphrases one of his speeches in his NY Times bestseller God's Politics in a way that I think connects to artists. He writes about a speech he made to a thousand low-income people, mostly single mothers who had been on welfare, on the Mall in Washington DC -- he was to speak of hope:

I urged the moms on the Mall not to waste any any valuable time when they were in Washington. I wanted them to be able to quickly recognize the members of Congress whom they had come to see. They're the ones, I told them, who walk around town with their fingers held high in the air, having just licked them and put them up to see which way the wind is blowing. It's quite a sight -- men and women walking all around the Capital grounds with their wet index fingers pointed at the sky. The political leaders are really very good at figuring out the direction of the wind, and are quite used to quickly moving in that direction.

It's not a matter of malice for most of them. I've met quite a few politicians, and in fact many came to Washginton because they truly wanted to do the right thing. But after a while, they get entrenched in Washington's ways, and change seems ever more distant. Power and wealth are the real governors here, and people adjust to those realities. Even the ones who really want to make a difference will tell you they can't without public backing, and they don't often find it.

Many of us believe that by replacing one wet-fingered politician with another, we can change our society. But it never really works, and when it doesn't we get disillusioned. We then get tempted to just grumble, withdraw, or give up altogether on ever changing anything. But that's where we make our mistake.

The great practitioners of real social change, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, understoo something very important. They knew that you don't change society by merely replacing one wet-fingered politician with another. You change society by changing the wind.

Change the wind, transform the debate, recast the discussion, alter the context in which political decisions are being made, and you will change the outcomes. Move the conversation around a crucial issue to a whole new place, and you will open up possibilities for change never dreamed of before.

It seems to me that "changing the wind" is where the arts come in. As some of you may know from reading this blog over the past year, I have communitarian leanings. I believe that, while changes in our laws are important and necessary to ensure legal rights and justice, real change happens at the grassroots level where individuals influence individuals. Small communities -- Malcolm Gladwell puts the number at a maximum of 150 people with whom we can have a substantivce relationship -- exert influence within the larger group. Peer pressure is powerful. When it is no longer considered acceptable, or cool, to hold a certain opinion, people change. As Malcolm Gladwell explained in his book The Tipping Point, and Seth Godin did in his book Spreading the Ideavirus, a "tipping point" is reached when an idea is passed from "sneezers" (those early-adopters who have the knowledge and the motivation to spread an idea) to the much larger group of followers who will adopt an idea once it appears to have been endorsed by a smallish group of influential people.

The arts are a way to influence sneezers. When an abstract issue is given flesh and blood, when empathy is created for characters who an audience cares for, attitudes begin to change. This was the underlying motivation of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance such as W. E. B. Dubois, who saw the arts as a way of achieving the integration of African-Americans into mainstream society. By presenting images of African-Americans that countered the prevailing popular images of smiling Sambos, Mammies, and Uncle Toms, his hope was to change the way mainstream white society viewed African-Americans by connecting to the media sneezers of the day -- for instance, the editors of mainstream literary magazines who were convinced to publish the poems and short stories of African-American writers such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Later, plays such as A Raisin in the Sun did the same for the issue of housing integration by creating attractive, likeable characters that an audience could identify with, and who suffered while taking strong moral positions against prevailing values considered acceptable. Such plays created "bridging capital" -- emotional connections between heterogenous groups.

This idea can be broadened to encompass any number of issues and values, not just political. Plays, novels, films, music, visual art -- all influence individual ideas of what is attractive, what is acceptable, what is smart, what is sympathetic. It isn't until much later, after the ball has been rolling for a while, that politicians will institutionalize what is already accepted on the ground.

A recent example might be Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. Scientists have been saying for years the same things he said, but Gore humanized the issue -- and now it is taken serously by the electorate. On the negative side, many believe that TV's 24 increases the public's tolerance of the idea of torture (see, for instance, Jesse Holcomb's editorial "Tortured Logic" in the June Sojourners).

Anyway, the point is that the arts are a part of the process of social change through the indirect process of changing people's way of thinking and feeling. Martha Nussbaum's essay "The Narrative Imagination" in Cultivating Humanity makes a persuasive case for this viewpoint. "Narrative art," she writes, "has the power to make us see the lives of the different with more than a casual tourist's interest -- with involvement and sympathetic understanding, with anger at our society's refusals of visibility. We come to see how circumstances shape the lives of those who share with us some general goals and projects; and we see that circumstances shape not only people's possibilities for action, but also their aspirations and desires, hopes and fears."

The transformation will not be immediate -- as I say, we are part of a larger process -- but it is an important part. And for those who wish to participate in such a process, it gives our work meaning.


Ed said...

Your difinition of Art is that it is an active force in culture not a reflective one. We must provide a point view but that point of view is the authors not the directors or the actors. Theatre artists reflect ideas and give the basis for discussion. We should not be identified as the idea or force our own thoughts on that idea. If we want to do that, we should write or run for political office.

Scott Walters said...

Yes, I do think that art is an active force, not a reflective one. Or at least not ONLY a reflective one. I think the arts have substantial influence on the way people interpret their surroundings and form their values. The arts lead, not follow. Even if we lead into support of the status quo.

As far as ideas originating with authors, not directors and actors, I would say (to some extent, at least) that this is true in traditional theatre (although designers and actors have great influence through their artistic choices -- think of how, for instance, T-shirt sales plummeted when Clark Gable took off his shirt in "It Happened One Night" and wasn't wearing a T-shirt under it: that's a designer's influence). However, there are many forms of theatre in which the production is created by the actors, or the director, or (perhaps most powerfully) in collaboration with the community. There is nothing that says a play must begin with a text.

Finally, I would say that acknowledging our power to influence people at the grassroots level is not the same as being a politician, who influences people at the institutional level. When we say that politicians are the only people who can take a position on "how we are to live," we give up the real power we possess to make a difference in the lives of those around us.