8.12. Direct Confrontation Isn’t Always Best

Directly challenging our most entrenched, powerful institutions is the last step in a long process.

If we want to change our broken politics, or our unjust economic system, the best thing to do is create a social movement that challenges them directly, right?

Not necessarily.

After all, there’s a reason those systems have remained corrupt and dysfunctional for so long. They have ways of preventing and neutralizing popular movements to change them.

A direct, frontal challenge to these big, powerful institutional systems may feel empowering and cathartic. But without a lot of support, and a good strategic plan, there’s a good chance the movement will be swatted aside pretty easily, without resulting in much change.

What I hope all good social movements out there will realize is directly challenging our most entrenched, powerful institutions is the last step in a long process.

A great example of this is the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

We remember it for the major political changes it achieved: ending segregation, passing the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, the major marches on Washington.

But it was through other institutions—like churches, colleges, local communities, the judicial system, and the media—that the movement became strong enough to force the federal government to act against the local and state governments of the South.

They used the networks and resources of religious communities to connect people and organize events.

They recruited college students of all races from all over the country to come to the South to contribute.

They gained allies in the media, who were willing to pull back the veil, expose the cruelties of the segregationist system, and portray the movement in a positive light.

For every famous protest or boycott that you know about, there were hundreds of smaller protests, sit-ins, and other actions.

They didn’t march on Washington until nine years after the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that struck down segregation in schools—and for good reason, because they used those nine years to build up their strength, so that they were too strong to be ignored or swatted away once they took their message directly to Washington.

This is a lesson, I think, we would do well to keep in mind today.

Everybody wants to fix our problems as soon as possible. Everybody wants to put together a big movement. Everyone wants to go right to the source of the problem.

But once you go big and public with the changes you want to make, you make yourself a target.

Your movement has to be big, strong, broad, and durable enough that it can’t be ignored, and can’t be taken down by a well-orchestrated smear campaign.

And the best way to build that kind of movement is mobilize in other institutions, before you take on our big political and economic systems.

The best way to build that kind of movement is to do the slow, thorough, and sometimes frustrating grunt work, before you dare to openly challenge these entrenched systems.

It’s unfortunate that there isn’t a quicker way to build up the necessary strength to succeed. But the sooner we accept this, the sooner we can start building a movement that will ultimately accomplish a lot of good, just like they did in the 1960s.


This is the 136th in a series of over 150 videos about how to create real, lasting social change. Click here for a list of all titles, videos, and transcripts.

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