Revolutions take time

The original version of this ran as a comment under Francine Hardaway‘s Medium post titled Have we progressed at all in the last fifty years?

My short answer is “Yes, but not much, and not evenly.” This is my longer answer.


In your case and mine, it has taken the better part of a century to see how some revolutions take generations to play out. Not only won’t we live to see essential revolutions complete; our children and grandchildren may not either.

Take a topic not on your list: racial equality—or moving past race altogether as a Big Issue. To begin to achieve racial equality in the U.S., we fought the Civil War. The result was various degrees of liberation for the people who had been slaves or already freed in Union states; but apartheid of both the de jure and de facto kind persisted. Jim Crow laws and practices emerged, and in still live on in culture if not in law.

The civil rights movement in the Fifties and Sixties caused positive social, political and other changes. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 especially helped. But the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 put civil rights almost back where it was before its revolution started. I participated in civil rights activism in Greensboro, North Carolina at the time of both assassinations, and I can’t overstate how deep and defeating our despair felt after both events. And that feeling proved correct.

Small incremental improvements followed over the decades since, but no leaps forward like we had before those murders. (Even the election of Barack Obama failed to change a terribly durable status quo. Backlash against that election is at least partly responsible for Trump and the Republican Congress.)

We are still stuck with inequality for races, religions and so much else. Will we ever get over that? I think we will, inevitably; but only if our species survives.

One collateral victim of those assassinations in the Sixties was the near-end of non-violence as a strategy toward change. Martin Luther King Jr. used it very effectively, and kept the flame alive and well-proven until violence took him out. Martyred though he was, it was not to the cause of nonviolence or pacifism, both of which have been back-burnered for fifty years. We (in the largest sense that includes future generations) may never find out if non-violence can ever succeed—because violence is apparently too deeply ingrained as a human trait.

Back to tech.

I too was, and remain, a cyber-utopian. Or at least a cyber-optimist. But that’s because I see cyber—the digitization and networking of the world—as a fait accompli that offers at least as many opportunities for progress as it does for problems. As Clay Shirky says, a sure sign of a good technology is that one can easily imagine bad uses of it.

What I’m not writing at the moment are my thoughts about why some of those advantaged by power, even in small ways, abuse it so easily. I’m not writing it because I know whatever I say will be praised by some, rebuked by others, and either way will be reduced to simplicities that dismiss whatever subtle and complex points I am trying to make, or questions I am trying to ask. (Because my mind is neither sufficiently informed nor made up.) I also know that, within minutes for most of my piece’s readers, the points it makes will be gone like snow on the water, for such is the nature of writing on the vast sea of almost-nothing that “social” media comprises. And, as of today, all other media repose in the social ones.

Some perspective:

Compared to that, and its effects on the planet, all other concerns shrink to insignificance.

But, as The Onion said a few weeks after 9/11, A Shattered Nation Longs to Care About Stupid Bullshit Again.

Stupid bullshit is what the meteor of humanity hitting the planet cares most about. Always has. Wars have been fought over far less.

The only fully consequential question is how we end the Anthropocene. Or how it ends without us.

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  1. eraser’s avatar

    You say: “The Civil Rights Act of 1964 especially helped. But the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 put civil rights almost back where it was before its revolution started.” … do you consider that the murder of Malcolm X did not represent something so important, as those of Luther and Kennedy, to understand that this was a coup in full force?

    In the technological field, what is happening, as with MalcomX, we forget or want to forget, important variables due to the cognitive and political bias of the “official” producers of knowledge?.

    Thank you very much

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, eraser.

    If you look at my original version of this post, on Medium, you’ll see I said “But the murders of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in the late Sixties put civil rights almost back where it was before its revolution started.” In this version I dropped the Malcolm reference and added “I participated in civil rights activism in Greensboro, North Carolina at the time of both assassinations, and I can’t overstate how deep and defeating our despair felt after both events. And that feeling proved correct.”

    I left Malcolm out of this second draft (and these are all drafts: that’s a grace of blogging) because I was trying to make that second point, which was personal for me. When Malcolm X was killed in February of 1965, I was a senior in a New York high school, and just beginning to become energized by civil rights as an issue, in part because of Malcolm’s murder, and knowing how Malcolm, in the year before his death, was becoming reconciled with MLK and beginning to espouse racial harmony. Between Malcolm’s murder in February of ’65 and those of MLK and RFK in mid-’68, the civil rights movement continued to gather force. Non-violence was also a big part of that force. (To my knowledge, Malcolm never advocated non-violence outright, and opposed it prior to his break with the Nation of Islam.) The murder of MLK put a bookend on the civil rights movement of that decade, and the ghost of that bookend is still very much with us. The murder of RFK got us Nixon and six more years of Vietnam, as well as bonus despair for the civil rights movement. I felt this keenly at the time and still do.

    Elsewhere I have also presented my biases about non-violence. These began when I went to Guilford, a Quaker college in Greensboro, became a pacifist there, married a Quaker woman, went to Quaker meetings for many years after that and raised two Quaker kids. Their mom and I divorced after ten years, but I remain a pacifist today, and no less committed to civil rights and (to use a Sixties expression) racial integration.

    As for “‘official’ producers of knowledge,” I’m not sure there is such a thing any more. Or not like there was when print and broadcast ruled the media world. Today we all live digital lives as well as analog ones, and have many more ways to acquire and pass on knowledge. At this late stage of my own life I’m still trying my best to understand what living digital lives means, and to pass on what insights I can muster. I don’t have one toward the possibilities of racial harmony, much less integration. At least not yet. While there are countless signs of progress, and while the Internet especially gives us many more paths over which to communicate with each other and get along, social media (which also lives on the Internet) has led to tribe-like isolation of populations and heightened animosities. I heard a comedian say yesterday that it has become hard to speak to a single sensibility in American audiences, because (as best I recall his wording) “the Left is too sensitive and the Right is too angry.” We can thank social media for that. I also don’t see it ending soon, or ever. Unless (and this is another point of my posts) our whole species realizes that we have become a pestilence on the planet, and every pestilence tends to end very badly for the pests.

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