Why individual change isn’t enough

Image source.

In response to our post answering a question about campus discourse, a reader posted a question that we thought might be a useful way to think through and write more in depth about some of the concepts we discussed in the post. We begin with a shorter version of the comments, you can read the full comment at the foot of the post.

“I am not sure what being a “structuralist” entails…It is people who produce structures. You can change the structure, but if the people do not change (i.e., if their attitudes and beliefs remain exactly the same), then another (bad) structure will inevitably replace the previous structure. Both individuals and structures have to change, which is exactly why discourse needs to improve. By talking to each other in beneficial ways, we come to understand each other. The hope is that such conversations will cause real change at the individual level. I am also not sure what you mean by saying that individuals are necessarily complicit in oppressive structures. There are always ways of opting out, though sometimes it requires serious sacrifices to opt out. A lot of structural changes have occurred on the heels of a single individual doing a powerful thing — e.g., Rosa Parks. Again, it seems like the way forward is both individual and structural change, because one bad structure will inevitably mutate into another bad structure, if people’s beliefs and attitudes remains fixed.”  

Figuring out the relationship between structure and individual agency and how change happens encapsulates much of what the social sciences and humanities are all about (possibly also the sciences but we’ll speak for the two areas we’re most familiar with!).

First, let’s go back to our hypothetical example of tenure cases at Carleton. If we found that a disproportionate number of faculty of color were not getting tenure, we would not jump to the conclusion that individual faculty of color just happen to be less qualified, and therefore faculty of color just need to do better. We  would argue that the system of tenure is set up in a way that disadvantages faculty of color and therefore we need to examine that system and change the system, as opposed to arguing that individual faculty of color should change to fit the system. What is the system here? There is a set of evaluative moments that are understood to be neutral and objective; one of these is the student evaluations gathered by our institutional research office. However, at the national level, there is quite bit of evidence that there are disparities in student evaluations between faculty of color and White faculty. In other words, educational institutions depend upon any number of systems that are supposedly neutral but that actually invoke and use metrics based on the experiences of the White academic elite. We agree that we want to get to a place where such disparities don’t exist by changing the racist attitudes and beliefs of students about the capabilities of non-White faculty. And two of us certainly try to tackle racist attitudes and beliefs in our classes. However, we also think that advocating to change the system of tenure and how much value student evaluations are given are also important and more immediate steps to take.

More broadly, we agree with Dr. King’s take on the need for both legislation and education/dialogue as ways to combat the insidious effects of racism:

“If we are going to solve the problems facing mankind, I would be the first to say that every white person must look down deep within and remove every prejudice that may be there, and come to see that the Negro, and the colored peoples, generally, must be treated right, not merely because the law says it, but because it is right and because it is natural. I agree with this 100 percent. And I’m sure that if the problem is to be solved, ultimately, men must be obedient not merely to that which can be enforced by the law, but they must rise to the majestic heights of being obedient to the unenforceable.

But after saying all of that, I must go on to the other side. This is where I must leave [those]…who believe that legislation has no place. It may be true that you can’t legislate integration, but you can legislate desegregation. It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law can’t change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law can’t make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me. And I think that’s pretty important also.”

King’s answer to the question of what leads to necessary, immediate change and fairer structures is legislation, i.e. changing hearts and minds takes a long time; changing the legal structure can provide immediate relief to the oppressed.Your mention of Rosa Parks brings up some interesting questions about how change happens. You write about how Parks being an example of “A lot of structural changes have occurred on the heels of a single individual doing a powerful thing….” It’s certainly true that Rosa Parks’ decision on a single day did lead to more collective action. However, Parks was already part of a larger, collective movement of struggle and resistance at the time she decided to take a stance. She was the secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP and she has recently returned from attending  the Highlander Folk School, a Tennessee center for training activists for workers’ rights and racial equality. She absolutely did have to make a decision that day to take a courageous stance in light of all she knew about how she might be treated in the legal system as an African American woman–however, we do want to point out that her individual action had a greater impact because of her involvement in a larger structure of resistance.

Thinking about a larger structure of resistance brings us to the final point we wanted to discuss about your question–the question about whether it’s possible to not be complicit in histories and ongoing systems of oppression. We think that it’s pretty difficult, probably impossible, for people to live outside of oppressive systems. For example, we live, work, run, and play on land that was stolen from the Dakota people. The two of us were not responsible for the colonization of the Dakota but we benefit from it. It is not possible for us to make enough sacrifices to get ourselves out of being complicit in the historical and ongoing legacy of settler colonialism (maybe other than not living in the U.S. perhaps but still anywhere we could think to move to has been touched by histories of imperialism and colonization!). Similarly, living in the United States means that we are caught up in a capitalist system that is impossible to get out of.

Adriana was chatting (online) with a Jason Lewis supporter recently; he didn’t announce his political party, but he seemed to lean libertarian. As he denounced taxes and government, she pointed out that we all benefit from state and federal government oversight and funding of all aspects of our lives. Getting off the grid–making your own clothes, growing your own food, refusing to travel on state/federal roads, riding a bike–might get you closer to not being beholden to and party to these institutions. However, the histories of these lands, of these places, of these materials would still embed us within structural formations of race, capital, etc. In other words, hard as we try to extract ourselves from pre-existing structures, they are omnipresent and we are deeply rooted within them.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t take individual actions to live lives that are closer to our ethical and moral principles, and when our individual principles conflict with structural expectations, we do think that sacrifices are necessary. Rosa Parks lost her job, for example! Yet that sacrifice can’t remove a person from histories and systems of oppression and exploitation. Indeed, the loss of the job confirms the continued working of the system. And we both continue to believe that honest, critical dialogue can change hearts and minds, helping to fuel people to continue fighting for structural change.

P.S. The whole structure/individual agency question is definitely one that sociologists obsess over, so if folks are looking for texts to read that address that question in a nuanced way, Anita highly recommends Jay MacLeod’s Ain’t no makin’ it!

 

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