May 15, 2017

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

The social world is always changing. Norms, values, ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions—all of these things shift over time. Even what we know to be “true” is often re-evaluated and amended. For example, people used to think that women and people of color should not be allowed to vote in the United States because they didn’t have the cognitive capacity and were not seen as fully human. Fortunately, those notions are no longer deemed to be true.                  

Even though the impermanence of the social world seems like an obvious and easily understandable point, we don’t always embrace the idea that things are in a constant state of flux. Many of us resist change, especially when it might shake up our taken for granted reality. We would much rather cling to familiar ways of doing things and seek out stability, predictability, and permanence. But like it or not, the only thing that is really permanent is impermanence.

If you find the idea of this constant state of flux somewhat discomforting, keep in mind that there is an important lesson and an even more important choice in knowing that the social world is always changing.

The lesson is that we are responsible for the impermanence. Human beings are the engines of change. The social world does not evolve on its own. It is only through the social interactions of individuals like you and me that change occurs. As we question established norms, challenge existing ideas, imagine alternative possibilities, and learn about other people and cultures, we create new ways of doing and being.

And knowing that that social world is always changing and that we are the driving force behind these changes leaves us with an important choice: We can play an active role in creating these new realities and help shape what changes occur; or, we can be spectators of the change and allow others to determine how these new realities will shape our lives. To use a phrase from W. E. B. Du Bois, we can be “co-workers in the kingdom of culture” or we can be idle onlookers as the social world gets shaped around us.

But as the title of this post suggests, neither choice is neutral. Deciding to be a spectator is just as much of a conscious decision as deciding to be one of the shapers. The main difference is that the shapers are creating and dictating the new realities through their actions while the spectators have the new realities imposed on them because of their passivity and silence.

This post is named after the late Howard Zinn’s memoir: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. Zinn is an educator, activist and historian. He has been in news lately because of a recent bill proposed by a state senator in Arkansas to “prohibit a public school district from including in its curriculum of course materials books or any other materials authored by or concerning Howard Zinn.”

If you are not familiar with the works of Howard Zinn you may be wondering why such a bill was ever proposed. Zinn’s most famous book is A People’s History of the United States. Unlike most standard accounts of American history, which usually tell the story of the United States from the perspective of the wealthy white males, Zinn’s book explores how this nation came to be from the perspective of women, people of color, Native Americans, immigrant laborers, poor factory workers, and other forgotten groups.

Those who object to Zinn’s retelling of American history often accuse him of being biased and subjective. No doubt, this is true; however, it’s true for all accounts of history. How is history from the standpoint of the oppressed any more biased and subjective than history from the standpoint of the oppressors? As Zinn himself once acknowledged, “If you look at history from the perspective of the slaughtered and mutilated, it is a different story.”

Critics of Howard Zinn seem to think that it is possible to be neutral on a moving train. They are making an assumption that if an account, in this case U. S. history, reflects and reinforces the status quo then it is objective and impartial. But if an account like Zinn’s history of the marginalized and oppressed tells a different story from a different perspective then it must be subjective and prejudiced.

As I followed the recent issue concerning Howard Zinn I was reminded of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, another scholar-activist who has been influential in my life as a sociology professor. Echoing the title of this post, Freire once pointed out that, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

The ideas of Zinn and Freire are on full view these days. Since the election of Donald Trump, millions of people across the globe have participated in marches, protests, and other acts of resistance. These everyday activists subscribe to the idea that being neutral is not an option. Whether it’s been the Women’s March, the Day without Immigrants, the Tax March, the March for Science, the Peoples Climate March, the upcoming March for Truth, or any of the other marches and protests that have sprung up around the world, the sentiment is clear that those in power should not be the only conductors of change. Mt1

Photo courtesy of the author

To put this in sociological terms, we might say that the election of Donald Trump has ushered in a new era of wide-scale social movements. Social movements occur when large groups of people organize to effect social change. Although many of the social movements that are occurring today existed prior to the election of Trump, their coalescence (which is when the movements galvanize their popular support, leaders emerge, and strategies are laid out) has clearly been bolstered by the strong opposition to Trump and his policies.

But despite the pervasiveness of these social movements in our everyday lives—in news reports, on social media, on bumper stickers and billboards, and most obviously in public spaces during marches and rallies—there are still many individuals who prefer to be spectators than be co-workers in the kingdom of culture. Whether it’s because they are uninformed or uninterested, disengaged or disgusted, or just apolitical or apathetic, such individuals are giving up their agency and letting others determine their fate.

As sociologically aware citizens, it is our duty to inform these inactive and uninvolved individuals about the impermanent world we live in and the subsequent lesson and even more important choice that follows. If everyone knew the world is always changing and that ordinary human beings are the creators of the change then I would hope this would be a wake-up call for people to be begin exerting their agency.

If they need one last bit of motivation to become conductors of the moving train it might help to remind them of the sage words of anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

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