Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Social progress requires a longer time horizon

Making big changes takes decades. Not months. Decades.

We're ultimately changing the minds of millions of people. That doesn't happen quickly. Gay marriage is a good example. This is a social change that is like lightning. Most people (including me) 8 or 10 years ago thought gay marriage wasn't quite right. Civil unions were fine, but marriage? Nah. And in the last decade, most people changed their mind.

That was fast! And I can imagine how frustrating it must have been for the people trying to change it.

Accepting the long time horizon inherent in any big social progress is a tough pill to swallow -- especially because we rely on "the fierce urgency of now" to inspire us to work on the cause and invest our time and money into it. It's a paradox: we have to be impatient enough to actually demand progress and work on building support, while at the same time, patient enough to recognize how long it takes to be successful.

Moving an issue like free college tuition from having the support of 30% of the people to 40% of the people seems like a pretty insignificant accomplishment. But that's a huge step forward! And that can take years to build that support, one person at a time. So hammering away at a cause to change a few more minds and help elect a few more politicians who agree with the proposal sure feels frustrating in the short-term, because we don't ever get to enjoy a dramatic change. By the time we get to implementation, things seem obvious, not audacious.

I wish I knew how to balance respect for the long game with the fire of short-term inspiration. There's a risk that we get too comfortable with the long-term nature of social progress and stop pushing. It's easy to think progress is inevitable and coast for a while without rocking the boat. That's dangerously seductive, especially as one gets closer to power. Tomorrow I'll push for that unreasonable change, but for now, I don't want to be ostracized...when I finally get my seat at the table, that's when I'll really change things. Sound familiar?

We've all got to navigate the Scylla of burned-out frustration from a lack of speedy progress and the Charybdis of delaying aggressive advocacy in exchange for access to power. It's a long game. But we have to keep playing it.

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