Today’s Solutions: September 28, 2021

A sense of fun is your best strategy for changing the world

Jay Walljasper | March 2006 issue

Sooner or later every idealist, activist and anyone else interested in changing the world comes face to face with a hard fact: Most people aren’t idealists and activists. There are only a few Gandhis and Rosa Parkses in the world at any one time.

It’s not that people don’t care about a more equitable society and a greener planet. They do—quite a lot. But they’re preoccupied with making a living, caring for their families and, in the time left over, having some fun.

Given the choice between going dancing or sitting through a meeting about toxic waste, the majority of folks from Alaska to Zimbabwe are headed straight to the dance. Or the football game. Or the movies. That’s not likely to change any time soon. It’s as much a part of human nature as sexual desire.

Unfortunately most activists today stubbornly refuse to recognize this. They sincerely believe that inundating the public with overwhelming statistics, frightening scenarios and sensible logic will spur people to take action. This seems especially true of environmental activists, for whom the virtue of the cause has become an excuse to resolutely nag, shame and—worst of all—bore the people they are trying to reach. That’s a reason we’ve heard so much discussion recently about the “death of environmentalism.”

It’s a much better idea to accept people as they are—concerned about the problems, yet busy and distracted—and then build a social-change strategy around that. Everyone welcomes a little incentive to do the right thing, even the most idealistic citizens.

This can be something as simple as offering dessert, childcare and live music at the toxic-waste meeting. But the best incentives are usually psychological. We become involved and stay involved in causes that make us feel better about ourselves. While this sounds shallow, it’s the most effective way of helping people stay committed to social change at a deep level.

As Bill McKibben, the hard-working environmental philosopher who has never been accused of frivolousness, once told me in an conversation about global warming: “It doesn’t work to just tell people to get out of their cars to save the upper atmosphere. Instead we need to encourage them to ride a bike [because] it’s elegant. It’s fun. It will make you feel better.”

Activists in the 1960s successfully drew attention to a whole constellation of important issues because they made working for social change look sexy and exciting. Think of the jaunty tilt of Che Guevera’s beret and the hip leather jackets favoured by students and workers in the Paris ’68 uprising. Compare that to the dowdy clothes and sensible shoes that characterize many activists these days.

James Simon Kunen, whose 1968 book The Strawberry Statement chronicled student protesters who took over New York’s Columbia University, summed up the spirit of those times in a wry remark about one anti-war rally that turned out particularly well: Not only did he have the chance to denounce imperialism in Southeast Asia, but he came away with the phone number of an attractive fellow peace marcher. Throughout history, it is clear that many worthy goals have been accomplished by people with less-than-100-percent-pure motives.

But engaging in good causes today is usually depicted as an admirable duty, like going to the dentist, rather than as an opportunity for some fun. That’s got to change if we are going to see any real progress toward making the world a better place. Overly earnest, humourless activists win few followers to their cause. As the famous quote from feminist and anarchist leader Emma Goldman puts it: : If there’s no dancing, count me out of your revolution.

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