We live in a big world – one with more than six billion people – and a big nation of more than 300 million people.
It is difficult in a nation so large to find one’s voice, to believe that you can matter.
Think about the physics of this reality for a second.
People are in a frenzy over a presidential election where somehow one woman or man will somehow represent the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of 300 million and more people.
What slice of that representation are you?
If you sliced your evening meal into 300 million pieces, would that morsel amount to anything at all? And, yet, in that government, the people of Montana actually have a greater say than the people of California. Here in Montana, where we have about one million people, our two United States senators only have to divide that meal into a million pieces whereas in California, it’s over 36 million. True, in the House of Representative, Denny Rehberg has a pretty big district to cover. Yet, no matter how you slice it – millions or zillions of pieces – your voice is almost necessarily irrelevant.
Now, it may be that 300 million people actually only have a handful of concerns so that they can divide themselves neatly into parties and smaller interest groups, but that seems unlikely. How much does the government actually reflect what you believe and what you care about?
Even here in Bozeman, a town growing rapidly, beginning to approach 40 thousand people, to what extent do you matter? No doubt more than you do at the federal level, but frankly, it’s not likely that government reflects the collective desires of 40 thousand people so much as it represents the will of those few who have the political skill to raise their voices in a town this large.
And, it’s worse than that. Perhaps, you belong to several interest organizations, an environmental organization, a political party, a civil rights organization, or any number of other groups. What say do you have in those groups? When you align yourself to those groups and give them money, do you do so because you matter to the group or rather because those groups simply reflect what you would like to see? You sign the online petitions, you give donations, you send letters to your congressmen – who are already representing so many people – and little changes.
And, yet each of these institutions has a great deal of power over your life. They tax you, they send you to war, they dam up your rivers, they destroy your favorite places, they build new roads for you to drive on, they arrest and throw you in prison, they demand your time and your energy and your money and your votes.
And, let’s not pretend that we are only talking about government and advocacy groups; the same goes for private industry. While the market at some cosmic level might matter to any large business, individually your dollar means virtually nothing to them as a slice of the pie. You cannot stop sweatshop labor, you cannot demand locally grown goods, and you cannot demand service. Your dollar cannot compete with the big dollars that keep these places afloat. Someone is no doubt richer and has more influence. Whereas your vote is one out of so many thousands and millions of people, your dollar is worth even less in most cases. You don’t even have a fraction of influence over industry, though you can be certain to fill out comment forms and complain to customer service representatives, who themselves have no power or influence. Your dollar is a worthless advocate for your voice.
Typically, when people call for action, they call for people to exert their influence over elected leaders, to give to supposedly influential interest groups, or to spend or refrain from spending their dollars in various private industries. And yet, if you look at the sheer scope of the situation, your individual action means little, and your influence over the outcome amounts to such a small fraction of the whole that in real terms it truly is nothing. No one can digest such tiny fractions of food, though they can use the collective whole of such food to maintain their power over you and everyone else.
This is not a recipe for hope – even if the Barack Obamas of this world would have the audacity to direct your hope along these lines – it is the same old recipe for futility and self delusion. Liberals, conservatives, socialists, and libertarians alike are guilty of the same delusion.
And yet, in this illustration, there is plenty to be hopeful about. We have some lessons that we should be able to take so that you and I can find our voices, so that our individual and collective interests might have hope in being relevant to our world.
In life, our voice, our say in things, is tied directly to our immediate experience. We have voice – most of us – in our family situations. If not there, we have it certainly with our friends. Some of us are lucky to have some voice in our job situations – others not so much. We have voice in our activities of daily living, and we have voice only in those things that we actually experience. Influence in this world must begin with that realization – the realization of the immediate.
One thing that is immediately different from the areas in life where we have voice from those where we do not is the scope of the situations. Where the institutions of American society, of Montana society, of even Bozeman society are very large and beyond the grasp of everyone, those where we have influence are very small and tied directly to that in which we can directly participate.
Secondly, we have no influence in a vacuum. By that, I mean, our voice always exists in some kind of social context. While libertarians are fond of talking about individual liberties to do as one sees fit, in fact, no action occurs without some influence on things we do not directly experience. So, whereas we have no voice in government or large private industry, what they do certainly has voice over our lives. Likewise, when we act, we should not pretend that our actions do not have influence beyond our immediate circle.
Both of these ideas suggest that empowering actions are those that begin in a very small context within a small community of beings, though the influence of those actions will no doubt have consequences to communities outside our immediate one. A disempowering action is one where we act in a context too large and exert no direct influence on that world.
Okay, but how will small group action in a smaller context make any difference on the larger dynamics of the world in which we inhabit? We are forced to be consumers in a very large world, whether it’s consumers of electoral politics, of special interest groups, or of private industry. We are not only forced into this world, but as people point out, we are forced into a world of rampant globalization, where our consumer choices are used to affect the standard of living of people and beings all over the globe.
The first thing to notice here is that regardless of the global implications of action, the only physically meaningful way to take action is locally. Even if you could take global action – for instance, if you were President of the United States – doing so generally prevents others from making any meaningful change because it’s done at the pretense of representing so many other people. So, even if we could never do anything to make global changes, it would be nothing more than wishful thinking that we could do so outside the context tied directly to our immediate experience.
However, looking at this from a global perspective, just as votes ultimately do produce that abstract something known as the collective will, which has real global consequences – even if your voice is lost in the process – local action, multiplied, that tends to take and see meaningful action as being tied to our immediate experience must have global consequences that can only reciprocate back to the local level. For instance, if a group of people work together to grow their own food, or work with a homeless population, or combat environmental destruction in their community, and see success and empowerment in those terms, and this is multiplied, the culture of action changes. The power of the large is destroyed, and so the effects of that power are destroyed. Of course, there will be consequences, both positive and negative, of that collective action, but now the remedy is no longer a function of a small set of people representing the global interest, but of local people working within the confines of their direct experience.
This, of course, is to say that global change, if there is to be global change, is a very long process that requires a great deal of work. There are no short cuts. It requires the individual to reach outside into the context of one’s immediate situation to find a way to engage it and take action. That is, it’s not calling for global solutions, but it is also not calling the individual to find what’s wrong within herself or himself before acting without, which is a false dichotomy and also a dangerous abstraction away from our immediate experience. It is to say that we find empowerment and voice from within a small community where we have voice.
Now, no doubt there are going to be a lot of global intrusions on our ability to act, intrusions that cut across communities. Where we can connect our communities of action with others, we no doubt should demonstrate solidarity. However, at the point we lose touch with our particular community of action, we have gone too far.
While this is all fine and good, some will wonder what such a lofty – perhaps global argument – has to do with those of us in Bozeman, or perhaps those in the subset of Bozeman or my community who happen upon this essay. I think this is an entirely fair criticism, if one were to offer it. Let me then address my experience here in Bozeman directly.
For me, my experience is tied directly to what I see, hear, taste, smell, and touch around me. On the one hand, I see homeless people on the streets of this city. I see poverty (and wealth) all around. There are too many women who are being sexually abused. There are hierarchies rooted in class and even race (even in a city as predominately white as Bozeman). I see homes that are too expensive for people to afford. I see mentally ill not being taken care of. However, on the other hand, I also see a lot of happiness, people glad to be here, who love Bozeman. I see people with a heart for action, who are finding ingenious ways of adapting to society. I see beautiful mountains all around me. I certainly see and feel a wonderful spirit about this place. I see my wonderful baby boy and partner every day as well as new friends. I still see far too many signs for Ron Paul in this town, but even then, I see people out there seeking their voice.
In the newspapers and in journeys to the place I have experienced the deepest – Yellowstone National Park – I see wonders but also a lot of things I wish I weren’t experiencing. I see buffalo, many of whom I will never see again as they are slaughtered. I see abuse of those animals. I see a playground for rich people, exacerbated in the winter. And yet, I still, no matter what, experience the magic of a place I love like none other.
Even more to the point, however, I see the possibility in Bozeman for a voice. Recently, I’ve been making friends who feel the same way, drawn by a similar set of immediate experiences. We have gotten together to take action, to make action smaller and more localized, away from the paradigm of action discussed earlier in the essay. That’s why we’ve been putting together a film and discussion on the slaughter of Yellowstone’s buffalo on March 26, at 7 PM, at Montana State University’s Procrastinator Theater, Room 125 (free admission). The point of this film and discussion isn’t simply to let people know about the things we care about but to create a small grassroots group or a local network of such groups interested in empowering themselves to take action on a similar model. There are plenty of community issues that can be addressed from a model that respects the voices of others and empowers people from within that context. It could be buffalo, it could be child care, it could be free learning, it could be trade. It could be as simple and fun as biking or hiking, or it could be as serious as sexism and racism. It could be anything at all so long as it is tied to a particular community and so long as people really can find voice within that community.
Bozeman already has plenty of communities of local action, most of which I will never know about. They occur in the homes, schools, churches, workplaces, and parks in the town. The point here isn’t to deny that or to suggest that what will come from my own work will be better; instead, it is to draw attention to our individual need for voice and the importance of our local community work. When you are in a belly dancing group, or deciding on a family activity, or in a small group meeting, this is the stuff that matters to some of us here and now. What I’m calling for is embracing it and doing more of it, making that the focus of our life action, not the sink hole of a world far too large to take note of us. That world dearly matters to us, too, but if we want to change it, fully embracing local action is the first and only way to begin to make those changes. Using the outer example of the global world can help us make local connections, help us build networks of solidarity, but we must stay within the confines of a world where you and I matter.
That’s the revolution of the small; that’s the long road that can topple everything that keeps us from maximizing our efforts within our community of experience.
And, so, with that, I hope you within earshot of this can join us on March 26, and hopefully a small group of you will embrace something of what I am saying here so we can take action for buffalo in Yellowstone but just as importantly, take action on things that concern your context of experience.