Through the generations, society has been transformed by the actions of individuals who understood that if they didn’t like something, they could change it—and change the world.
We all want to live in a better world, but sometimes it feels like we lack the ability to make a difference. In How to Change the World (Picador, 2012), author, broadcaster, and journalist John-Paul Flintoff offers a reminder that big change happens small and the power lies within each of us. Combining fresh new insights from history and other disciplines, this book will give you a sense of what might just be possible, as well as the inspiration and the courage you need to go about improving and changing the world we live in. The following excerpt comes from chapter 1, "Overcoming Defeatism."
How can I, one individual in a world of billions, hope to change anything? There are many reasons why this kind of defeatist question comes so easily to us. They include the way we have been brought up, a lifetime of putting up with things that frustrate or dismay us, and painful memories of failed attempts to Do Something.
But the fact remains that we are all making a difference all the time. The real problem is that if we’re only affecting things unconsciously then we are probably not producing the effect we would wish for.
Some people may find it hard to believe they are making a difference all the time. In which case, it may help to abandon the global perspective for a moment and zoom in to our daily human interactions—in which we spend every moment either deciding what must happen next or going along with somebody else’s ideas. Either way, our actions are all purposeful, and all produce effects. Our day-to-day lives are hardly the stuff of history, you might argue. Certainly not compared with Julius Caesar invading Britain, Genghis Khan sacking Baghdad and Christopher Columbus discovering America. That’s how many people understand history. ‘The history of the world is but the biography of great men,’ wrote Thomas Carlyle. But the ‘great man’ theory of history has been on its way out for years. Nowadays, we recognize that those men couldn’t have done what they did on their own. And we identify historical significance in hitherto overlooked episodes.
The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy was one of the first to observe that history should more accurately be considered to consist of the combined effect of the many small things that ordinary individuals do every day: ‘An infinitely large number of infinitesimally small actions’.
As Tolstoy saw it, we are making history from the moment we get up in the morning till we go to bed at night. And it’s not only the things we do that make history, it’s also the things we don’t do. That’s obvious when you think about, say, voting in an election or not. But taken to its logical conclusion it also goes to show that we are making a difference even after going to bed: because we are sleeping instead of, say, working all night on some earthshaking political manifesto, or patrolling the streets to feed the homeless.
And that’s fine, by the way: we all need to sleep. But Tolstoy’s insight requires us to recognize that we are all responsible for the way things are. ‘We are each absolutely essential, each totally irreplaceable,’ says the Native American activist Leonard Peltier. ‘Each of us is the swing vote in the bitter election battle now being waged between our best and our worst possibilities.’
And yet the old idea ingrained in us throughout school, that history is about the actions of dominant individuals, is hard to shake off. Indeed, it seems that, even in democracies, it is positively encouraged.
On the twentieth anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down, ‘world leaders’ flew in to Germany to deliver speeches to the listening masses.
It was striking that they came to take credit for this particular historical event, because world leaders had had very little to do with the Wall’s collapse. In reality, the barrier between East and West Berlin was pulled down because many ordinary Berliners did something very small. Having witnessed ‘people power’ effecting significant change in several neighbouring countries, and following massive protests elsewhere in East Germany, they merely turned up at the border to see what was going on. Soldiers at the control post, overwhelmed and likewise conscious of what had recently happened in neighbouring countries, opened the way for them to cross freely from one side of the city to the other. Soon after, the wall having ceased to be an effective barrier, it was pulled down. The fact that ‘world leaders’ took the credit does not diminish the achievement, but does suggest that, when changing the world, we can’t necessarily expect recognition for it.
When we talk about the ways the world frustrates us, we often reach for terms like ‘the system’ or ‘the status quo’, and, shrugging, complain that we are powerless. We might do this if a great wall were built through the middle of our city, preventing us from seeing friends and relatives, but also in the face of much lesser hardships. Let’s imagine for a moment that we want to hold a street party, but find ourselves obstructed by petty civic regulations that were drawn up for entirely other purposes: we give up. With terms as abstract as ‘the system’ and ‘the status quo’, it can be hard to see our own complicity in the problem. The truth is that we have a choice. We could try to change the regulations that obstruct us, or even disregard them. The choice is entirely ours.
To put this into terms that a child could understand: imagine for a moment that the status quo is a powerful king. Shut your eyes and try to picture him. How do you know he’s a powerful king? Is it because he has a big crown? A golden throne? No, those only tell us that he’s king. How do we know that he’s powerful? It’s the other people nearby, lying flat on their faces and trembling. It’s their behaviour that makes the king seem powerful, not his. If they got up off their faces, turned their backs and started to tell jokes, or smoke cigarettes, or have a snooze, the same imaginary king, with the same big crown and golden throne, would no longer seem very powerful at all. Now imagine the powerful king is an actor on stage, and that those prostrate before him are also actors. An actor lying flat on his face before a seemingly powerful king knows that there is an alternative: at any moment, he could get up and do something else, with tremendous effect. In real life we also have the ability to step outside of our normal role and do something else, but we often forget it—if we ever knew.
This is partly because conventional wisdom, and the kind of kings-and-queens-and-presidents history taught to children from a young age, hold that power is vested at the top. Like the Wizard of Oz, parents and teachers encourage children to believe that they, and other ‘authority’ figures, are all-powerful. As we grow into adults, we are encouraged to believe that employers and governments are all-powerful too. And for as long as we believe it, they truly are.
It may seem bizarre to dress up this everyday business as turning our backs on a powerful king, but many people around the world do indeed feel powerless in the face of bullies—whether they are rulers or employers or indeed friends or family—and it can be liberating to remember that, whatever the consequences, obedience is entirely our own choice.
Tolstoy was baffled that people did not recognize this. He couldn’t understand why ordinary Russian peasants, having joined the Tsar’s army, were prepared to kill other Russian peasants, perhaps even their fathers and brothers—just because the Tsar told them to. Troubled by this and other questions of social justice, Tolstoy gave up the fashionable life and retired to his farm. While he was there, he was contacted by a young, politically active Indian man then living in South Africa. Tolstoy wrote back, and subsequently published his ‘A Letter to a Hindu’.
Describing the subjugation of India by the British East India Company, Tolstoy wrote: ‘A commercial company enslaved a nation comprising two hundred millions. Tell this to a man free from superstition and he will fail to grasp what these words mean. What does it mean that thirty thousand people, not athletes, but rather weak and ordinary people, have enslaved two hundred millions of vigorous, clever, capable, freedom-loving people? Do not the figures make it clear that . . . the Indians have enslaved themselves?’
The young Hindu Tolstoy wrote to was Mohandas K. Gandhi, who had a privileged background like him. But Gandhi had felt for himself the humiliating effect of injustice when he was thrown off a train in South Africa for having dark skin. From that moment on, he devoted himself to fighting oppression. Moving back to his native India, then under the control of Great Britain, he started a nonviolent campaign for freedom.
Gandhi emphasized the importance of a change of will as a prerequisite for a change in patterns of obedience and cooperation. There was a need for (1) a psychological change away from passive submission to self-respect and courage, (2) recognition by the subject that his assistance makes the regime possible and (3) the building of a determination to withdraw cooperation and obedience. Gandhi felt that these changes could be consciously influenced, and deliberately set out to bring them about:
My speeches are intended to create ‘disaffection’ as such, that people might consider it a shame to assist or cooperate with a government that has forfeited all title to respect or support.
The moment the slave resolves that he will no longer be a slave, his fetters fall. He frees himself and shows the way to others. Freedom and slavery are mental states. Therefore the first thing to say to yourself:
‘I shall no longer accept the role of a slave. I shall not obey orders as such but shall disobey them when they are in conflict with my conscience.’
Naturally, the British were outraged. Still today, some people find it hard to accept the legitimacy of civil disobedience. The law must be respected, they might say. But to take that position is to argue that, once Hitler’s regime came to power, it was the duty of all Germans to obey it completely. Few today believe that. On the contrary, most believe that under certain conditions, disobedience and defiance are absolutely justified.
The daily reality is that obedience is never universally practised by the whole population. Many people sometimes disobey the law, or break lesser regulations, and some people do so frequently. Some do it for selfish reasons and some do it for nobler ones. Dramatic instances of mass disobedience are only more visible evidences of this general and everyday truth.
If you have picked up this book because you already have an idea for changing the world, involving, say, the manufacture of a cheap and comfortable shoe, you may be a little alarmed by the turn things have taken: Gandhi’s talk of mental slavery, and my own reference to Hitler. What has this to do with you? Well, it’s true that we do not need to believe we are slaves, or live in a dictatorship, in order to take part in changing the world. We need only to believe that something is seriously wrong (the cost, and discomfort, of shoes currently available?) and to resolve that we are not willing to put up with it any longer.
All the same, I mention Nazi Germany for a purpose. I want to argue that even if you think your efforts may not be decisive, it’s imperative that you try.
Sceptics often say that ordinary people’s nonviolent political efforts could not have defeated the Nazis. Are they right? Hypotheticals can never be proven, one way or the other. Rather than get bogged down in debate about whether non-violence ‘might have’ beaten the Nazis, Gene Sharp encourages us instead to consider how the Nazis actually were opposed non-violently, both within Germany and in occupied countries.
An academic who has held tenure at Oxford and Harvard, Sharp published his first work in 1960, with a foreword by Albert Einstein. In the first volume of his magnum opus, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Sharp demands that we remove our blinkers and recognize that political power is our own power—and that it does not reside only in the ballot box. In that book and elsewhere, Sharp provides a stunningly comprehensive account of non-violent resistance to the Nazis, often overlooked by military historians.
There are too many instances to list here, but the following paragraphs hint at the variety of approaches.
When prisoners started to escape from a Polish prison, a young woman telegrapher risked her life by simply failing to send a message calling for reinforcements.
In Norway, citizens looked right through German soldiers, as if they didn’t exist, and refused to sit next to them on public transport. If this sounds mild, it seriously rattled the Germans: it became an offence to stand, on trams, if there was a seat available. Who could have imagined that Nazi morale was so fragile?
In Denmark, when Danish officials were instructed to round up Jews for deportation, they let the information get out, allowing plenty of time for people to go into hiding. Many Danes simply disregarded the Nazi-imposed curfew, staying out at night as long as they liked.
In Holland, some 25,000 Jews successfully went into hiding, many of them with help from non-Jews.
In Germany, a group of non-Jewish citizens protested publicly after their Jewish husbands and wives were taken away. The protest took place at the height of the war, and in the centre of Berlin. Incredibly, the protesters got what they wanted: their spouses were returned home and remained safe for the rest of the war.
Twice, German field marshals walked out on Hitler during meetings.
Doctors who disliked the regime exempted young men from military service. (They came to be known as ‘Guten Tag’ doctors, because that was how they greeted patients, instead of saying ‘Heil Hitler’.)
German musicians undermined the prohibition on playing American jazz by making up German names for the tunes they liked.
The best-known opposition to Hitler was organized by the White Rose Group, which produced anti-Nazi propaganda distributed by post to households across the country, chosen at random from the phone book. The leaflets started to appear in 1942, when the war was still going well for Germany. ‘We will not be silent!’ one read. ‘We are your bad conscience!’ The leaflets were found all over the country. Nobody suspected that the White Rose consisted of a tiny group of friends in Munich. Their last leaflet was smuggled out of Germany and millions of copies were dropped over Germany from Allied planes. News even reached the concentration camps. ‘When we heard what was happening in Munich,’ one inmate later recalled, ‘we embraced each other and applauded. There were, after all, still human beings in Germany.’
Some of these actions are almost laughably small: playing American jazz! But as we shall see, even the smallest act of subversion has the potential to inspire others.
If it hadn’t been for these minor setbacks, Hitler’s regime might have been even worse than it actually was. To put it another way: if more people had dared to resist, the Nazis worst outrages might have been prevented.
To say this is not merely to pass judgement on people living long ago. It’s to challenge ourselves, right now. Because it’s easy to imagine that we’d have acted boldly if we’d been in Germany at the time. But the honest question to ask is whether there is anything we should be doing today, about something that is going on right now. To ask ourselves if there have been times when we knew we should have done something, but didn’t, and to remember how awful that felt. And then resolve to do everything we can to avoid feeling that way again.
Excerpted with permission from How to Change the World by John-Paul Flintoff and published by Picador, 2012.