It's no big secret now that I've become quite the liberal (using contemporary terms anyway as I am leaning towards rejecting classical liberalism altogether). As such, I find myself advocating more and more vocally for various sorts of social change and justice. While I plan to expound upon some of these particular things in later posts, I have been tossing around an idea about the nature of social change for several days now. If I can make something out of this, I might try to form a theory and paper out of it (so don't go stealing my ideas), but I'd like to run this idea past you to see what you think about my musings before I pursue it further.
This idea was first spawned from a comment at a panel that I attended at the Southern Political Science Association's annual conference in New Orleans a few weeks ago*. The panel was titled "Political Theory Judges Political Science" and was comprised of theorists who were writing on topics from the history of political science as a discipline to the nature of our discipline as it aims to be a scientific pursuit. In the discussion after the paper presentations, one of the panelists made a comment that science in general (and political science specifically) aims at incremental discovery of truth where political theory aims at larger paradigm shifts. Whether or not this is true, I've been playing with this idea of incrementalism versus paradigm shifts (perhaps even in a Hegelian dialectical meaning) and the implications it might have for policy changes.
We teach our students that politics (particularly in America) can mostly be described as incrementalism**. Most changes in policy that we see in American politics are smaller variations on the status quo rather than drastic changes based on ideological shifts. Changes are mostly "at the margins." In this way, we make policy changes only within some overarching philosophy that we can identify as "American." While we often differ about what this "American" philosophy might mean, most of our elected officials use such rhetoric quite often. Indeed, we can observe that it is often much easier to reform or expand an existing program or government agency rather than convincing the people that creating something new is necessary. We identify with the policies and ways of doing politics with which we are familiar and comfortable. There have even been attempts to identify some sort of "sweet spot" after which a policy is relatively safe from drastic reform***.
I think the same is true of social change. I want to assert that even most people who are advocates are social change use these same incremental techniques. This might be because of some sort of pragmatism that tells them that they can't be too radical in the changes they espouse if they want to be able to work up public support for the measure. In addition, I believe that many activists feel like eventually these small shifts towards an idea of social equality will eventually result in a larger change in the conventional wisdom over time resulting in the successful achievement of their goals. I've even recently asserted that changes in the way people think about racial prejudices can only happen over the course of generations as children are ever so slightly more progressive than their parents. However, this view seems to have a special relationship with another argument that I've made recently (and about which I might write a future post).
I've also argued that one of the problems with racism in America today is that most people think it no longer exists. I think that many Americans feel like we have collectively solved all the problems associated with race and roll their eyes when activists talk about inequalities that persist or argue for affirmative action. If I am right about incrementalism, perhaps one reason that many assume we have solved the problems of race and need not reopen the subject is that as we made slow changes towards social equality we lost sight of the scope of the problem as time went by and convinced ourselves that we had already achieved our goal.
Nietzsche argues that forgetfullness is an essential part of the human psyche that safeguards us from traumatic experiences both in our individual and collective memories****. He further says that one of the roles of government is to remain a fixed point to remind us of the atrocities of our past to keep us from replaying the long cycles of history.
In light of all of this, I pose the following questions:
1. Does incrementalism serve to weaken the government's ability to overcome our forgetfullness?
2. Can we really achieve social change incrementally?
3. Should activists seek more drastic paradigm shifts as a more effective method?
4. I'd also be curious to know whether you consider things like the civil rights movement of the 20th Century to be a result of incremental changes over time or was it a concerted effort at a paradigm shift?
My simple answers to these questions are yes, no, yes and paradigm shift respectively for the reasons that I've hinted at in the course of this post but I am curious to know what others might think about this subject and where you might think I've gone wrong (either theoretically or practically). Again, this is just an idea that I'm exploring but I'm starting to feel very strongly about it. Thanks in advance forreading and sharing your thoughts.
I remain, as always, most sincerely yours,
The Apprentice Philosopher
*Here is the panel information and the info for the guy who I believe made the comment to which I was rerring.
** Just a little evidence to show that I didn't just make that up.
*** I couldn't find the article that I have in mind here but I hope that you can at least accept that potentially logical argument made like this if we accept that incrementalism is an accurate description of American politics.
**** See On the Genealogy of Morals Treatise One "Good and Evil, Good and Bad", Sections 1, 2, 3 and 10 specifically but you should really read the whole thing.