Change agents

dormgrandpop weighs in with a thought-provoking post about strategies for promoting change. He references Ibsen's play Enemy of the People, in which an idealistic doctor is frustrated in his attempts to produce an improvement in the health of the townspeople by their resistance to his claims -- and by his stubbornness in sticking to them, and in brooking no compromise. While the play is often read as a warning about how the majority can turn on an outspoken voice and label her or him an "enemy," dormgrandpop inverts this by asking whether the idealistic doctor "has failed the people of the town" by failing to actually get the reforms implemented, even though this might have required compromise and negotiation. After all, dormgrandpop argues, "the activist and change agent must also be effective."

I have to say that after thinking about this for a few days I disagree -- not with the observation that the idealistic doctor's ineffectiveness might not have served the needs of the community very well, but with dormgrandpop's suggestion that this is a problem, and that the doctor either should have known better or should have acted differently. The implicit assumption here is that the doctor was trying to act as a "change agent" -- and that might not be the case. [Needless to say I am not making a claim here about Ibsen's play per se; I haven't read it in years, and don't know it well enough to see whether dormgrandpop's reading of my reading would be a better one. but dormgrandpop wasn't talking about the play per se so much as suing it as an example, so I think I'm within bounds here.]

To assume that everyone who speaks up about a problem is trying to affect practical changes to address it is to assume that -- to use the Weberian language of which I am quite fond -- everyone has a vocation for politics. I'm stretching the concept a bit here, since Weber is quite concerned to limit the term "politics" to matters dealing with the state; this is vital to Weber's indictment of committed idealists who enter politics and compromise their ideals by using violence to achieve their ends, since the "idealists" he is concerned with are non-violent socialists and pacifist Christians. But Weber's basic point -- that politics is about the pursuit of power in order to effect change, and that the only appropriate way to judge a politician is on his effectiveness in achieving his aims -- holds true for spheres outside of the properly political. Indeed, for any organization, we might define a "change agent" as someone who is trying to affect the policies of that organization and to redirect them onto a new course; this covers persons inside the organization, outside of the organization, and persons occupying various other points in between. It follows that all "change agents" are politicians, and should be evaluated accordingly. Did a strategy work or did it not work? Did change result or not?

Now, the problem here is a subtle one, and very easy to overlook -- particularly in a world more or less completely dominated by the notion of efficacy. The (measurable) contribution that some strategy/tactic X makes to outcome Y is the implicit standard that we use to evaluate the worth of just about everything, especially everything that looks like an effort to bring about change. If I loudly express my dissatisfaction with (for example) the cable company's tendency to schedule service appointments at weird, obscure times, or with the tendency of my cable service at home to suddenly stop working for no apparent reason periodically and then appear to be functioning normally when the technician does in fact materialize, this is often taken to be the beginning of an effort on my part to change something about the way that the cable service operates. [Note: this is not an entirely random example. You probably figured that out already.] But is that necessarily so?

Let's distinguish for a second between two possible meanings for the determination: either the desire to change things motivated the outburst, or the desire to change things was intended by the outburst. The first is a deeply problematic contention, since motives are not observable facts and there's no way to tell what actually motivates anyone, even oneself. So let's set that aside. The second is more complex: to say that an action intends something is to situate that action within a larger framework oriented towards some specific goal. But real actions are generally ambiguous enough to allow them to be situated in any number of frameworks, making just about any assignment of intention a contentious one. Which means that sure, we could read an expression of dissatisfaction or a statement calling attention to some undesirable phenomenon as part of a strategy pursued by a "change agent," but we need not do so.

How else might we read it? I am not fond of the idea that we should regard such things as "blowing off steam" or as being generated by some kind of murky deep psychological process(es); neither of those strike me as all that interesting. Instead, I can think of at least two other things that public presentations of this sort might be. First, drawing on Weber, would be to regard a statement or dissatisfaction as a scientific claim, an observation deriving from the disciplined application of a set of standards rather than a strategic intervention designed to alter a practical situation. Thus, a lawyer saying "this is illegal" might simply be stating a fact -- with the caveat, of course, that "fact" always means "from a certain theoretical point of view." Second, and related, we might regard a statement of dissatisfaction as bearing witness, which does not mean simply reporting events but instead means publicly characterizing something in certain terms for the sake of calling attention to it. Hence, witnessing a genocide, or racism, or an exercise of capital punishment, means calling it to mind and reflecting on it, not merely reporting that it happened.

In neither of the two latter cases is the person acting as a "change agent." The point of scientific inquiry is not to change the world, but to generate defensible knowledge about it. And the point of witnessing is not to change the world, but to call attention to something -- and, in many cases, to simply leave it at that. Witnessing is usually tied to faith of some kind, and for most faiths this means leaving the outcome in the hands of God or Nature or Fate or something like that. Indeed, for most faiths, taking overmuch responsibility for outcomes is an act of hubris, to be avoided at the cost of one's soul.

Obviously, the lines between these ideal-types blur and fade in practice: witnessing can be part of a strategy of political change, scientists can put aside their rigorous investigations and simply witness (as many of the atomic scientists did after the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945), and so forth. People who didn't mean to be "change agents" can even end up generating change, and actions that were not intended to affect political change can even end up doing so. But it does not follow, as far as I am concerned, that it is right or proper to evaluate all actions in such a political way. Nor does it follow that "success" for all actions means a positive contribution to social change; for witnessing or for scientific inquiry, the standards are rather different.

I'm not even sure that I'd agree that the more politically savvy action is always the one that is of more benefit to the people (however defined). After all, as Weber points out, the committed Christian enters politics and uses its power-laden means at the cost of the salvation of her or his soul -- and it takes a special sort of person to do that, a person who is utterly committed to the ethics of responsibility. Not everyone is -- and hence not everyone should be a politician. For people whose vocation is not politics, perhaps the best service that they can render -- the service that doesn't utterly betray their ownmost inclinations -- is to witness, or to conduct scientific inquiry, or to otherwise avoid political efficacy? After all, there's nothing quite as frightening as a pure idealist with power, is there?

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