Benestrophe and Social Change

By Frank Blechman

We all know about catastrophes: series of painful, traumatic, and dislocating bad events. Plagues, wars, floods, fires, earthquakes, shipwrecks, are familiar old examples. Climate change is a new one. We fear them. Sometimes, we imagine that we could escape harm through some super-human effort or ability. Sometimes, these events haunt our nightmares because they seem so much bigger and more powerful than ourselves, beyond our ability to control.

Somewhat surprisingly, scholars and philosophers over the last 20 years have begun exploring how unexpected events can lead to or even force positive change. In fact, writers including Nicholas Taleb have argued persuasively that these events (which he calls Black Swans, because like a black swan, you might doubt that such a thing exists until you see one) are essential to almost all significant social change, and they emerge only after a significant shock to the existing system.

Scholars and philosophers over the last 20 years have begun exploring how unexpected events can lead to or even force positive change.

For most of us, assessing these positive theories seems unsettling. They run smack against two familiar social change theories arising from the 19th century.

The evolutionary theory says that most change is gradual. Continuous tinkering improves products and social structure so that little by little, everything gets better for everybody. Of course, this is uneven and some benefit from change more than others. Progress is not a straight line. It goes forward and backward, but the general trend is good. Nobody really gets hurt.

In contrast, the revolutionary theory (Marxist-Leninist, Mao, et al) says that the only way important change really happens is to smash the existing structure and build anew. Sure, some get hurt, but they deserve it. They were the poison of the old system and should die with it.

Either way, these theories are determined to plow ahead. Get on board. Better days are coming.

That leaves many of us queasy about big changes. Even if the results promise to be good, the change itself will be a benestrophea painful, traumatic and dislocating series of good events. A farm surplus, a budget surplus, a cure for cancer, free-clean-unlimited renewable energy: these would all be significant benestrophes. If peace were to break out, it would be such a terrible benestrophe we are not sure our nation could survive it. Many people’s lives would change. There would be pain, trauma, and dislocation, even if the end product were pretty good.

Understanding benestrophes helps us recognize that those who oppose social change are not necessarily stupid, or cowardly. In fact, they may oppose change because they understand the pain, dislocation, and trauma that change will cause them better than we do.

If we want to be successful advocates for social change, or social justice, or whatever we want to call it, we have to understand that the line between a catastrophe and a benestrophe is thin. In fact, it may be entirely in the eye of the beholder.

If we want to be successful advocates for social change, or social justice, or whatever we want to call it, we have to understand that the line between a catastrophe and a benestrophe is thin. In fact, it may be entirely in the eye of the beholder. Therefore, if we want to be effective advocates, we have to accept that opponents might know something we don’t know. To get to the promised land, we may need to recognize, legitimate, and mitigate the pain, trauma, and dislocation that we cause along the way.

Too hard? Well, you can keep trying the old way. Good luck with that. I’m willing to recognize that big and bold ideas, calling for big and bold changes, can be dangerous even if they are right. I think if we accept this responsibility, we will get farther in both the short and long run.

 



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