A DK commenter recently said he might stop writing because, being just an ordinary guy, not an expert or influential person, he felt he could not impact the many problems we face. Discouraged, he would give up writing comments and diaries, since they had no apparent effect upon our political, moral or economic discourse.
Lest more of us fall victim to the same despair, please read these thoughts on the subject, below the fold.
Before falling into a feeling of uselessness, of despair that your ideas will never influence society or its leaders, consider a few things about how change occurs in the real world.
Physicists have said that the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings in India can cause a storm in North Carolina (given a certain time lag). Or in another version, the flutter of a butterfly’s wings creates a ripple that affects the entire universe.
Well, you say, these are colorful and surprising statements, but how do they relate to me? The butterfly did not want to cause a storm far across the ocean and certainly did not mean to shake up the whole universe. But I want definite changes to happen in response to my writing. My writing is directed toward particular ends, not just random movements in space. The pressing of my fingers on the keyboard may create tiny shock waves that set the ether in motion, but I certainly have no interest in any meteorological effects they may have. I am interested in changing the minds of political leaders through the words I write.
Okay, I reply. The point of this is that there is a surprisingly subtle and usually unknown to us route via which action, whether mental, verbal or physical, travels about through our world, having end effects we can’t predict. (And of course end effects aren’t final ends; we only label them that when they match our desired goals. The effects keep moving in probably endless directions.)
Consider the odds on you or me being born. As Taleb writes in The Black Swan, “Imagine a speck of dust next to a planet a billion times the size of the earth. The speck of dust represents the odds in favor of your being born; the huge planet would be the odds against it.” You and I were born against unthinkable odds, and there was an incredibly long and tortuous path from our earliest ancestors to us.
The powerful banana peel
Their meeting could very well have hinged upon a very small detail in life: let’s say that your GGF was out walking in a city, wandering around taking in the spring air. He decides on a whim to turn right at the next corner. He does so and after a short distance he slips on a discarded banana peel and falls, injuring his arm. Passers-by help him to a hospital, where he meets a young nurse who later becomes his wife and your GGM.
You can readily imagine all the random, unplanned events and forces that came into play and culminated in this meeting—how the banana peel happened to be there, how your GGF happened not to see it, how the particular nurse was on duty that day and how she happened to be assigned to your GGF’s case. And the path continues over the years to the present. I will not even get into the probability of one particular male fertilizing cell out of millions successfully meeting a particular female ovum.
Life is full of, perhaps even defined by, unknowable “random” strands that come together to form the thread of history. Whoever discarded that banana peel had no knowledge that it would influence, even determine, someone’s existence upon this planet years later. Recall the Indian butterfly setting off a later storm in another continent, not to mention all the human consequences of the storm.
Similarly, when we seek to influence others with our words or actions, we have no way of knowing how ours and others’ similar messages will affect our desired outcome. Let’s say 5000 people write letters, blogs and other communications about a needed social reform. Our blog post is a small and unsophisticated but heartfelt rant on the topic. We are sure it will have no effect, but at least it gives us a small outlet for our displeasure.
But like the casual discarding of a banana peel, it turns out that our post does bring about, in the usual labyrinthine fashion, our desired social reform. We don’t know this, but our small rant was the tipping point in this particular reform movement. Some influential person in a position to actually effect the change read a number of communications, ours among them, and ours was the one that either happened to stick in his mind or had influenced another writer to post one that caught his attention or was the one that brought the number of communications to a critical mass (a group of communications that reached critical mass because ours added to the total).
It was like a firing squad of a group of gunmen when no one knew which gun held the live bullet.
We begin to realize that we are underrating our influence. Mostly we will never know how our message contributed to the entire action, but we decide we will continue writing, to the best of our ability, and write more frequently.
And we know we are fortunate to have a place like Daily Kos to pursue our political action.