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Kohn on Preventing Social Change

February 14, 2012

Excerpted from No Contest: The Case Against Competition by Alfie Kohn:

How to Prevent Social Change

Making our society less competitive ultimately depends on reducing structural competition. Unfortunately, bringing about structural change of any kind requires overcoming enourmous resistance. It is much easier to describe how change can be blocked than how it can be furthered. For those so inclined, then, here are five simple ways to perpetuate the status quo.

1. LIMIT YOUR VISION: The long-standing American tradition of ignoring the structural causes of social and individual problems was mentioned in chapter 7. By pretending, for example, that psycholoogical disturbance has nothing to do with the societal forces that shape personality development, you can help see to it that those forces continue unabated. It follows that all intervention should be done at the individual level. It is fine to help, say, homeless people on a case-by-case basis, but inquiring into the policy decisions and economic arrangements that have brought about their predicament would only serve to invite drastic changes-and this is what we want to avoid at all costs. Similarly, if we continue to treat each example of corporate wrongdoing (from illegal dumping of toxic wastes to bribing of public officials) as if it has occurred in a vacuum, then we can manage to preserve the system responsible for these acts.

2. ADAPT: The best way to keep the status quo intact is to make sure that individuals adjust themselves to serve its needs. Such adaptation once was enforced by crude, authoritarian methods of “reeducation”. Today this is hardly necessary. A wealth of advice is available on how to become successful – what to wear, how to negotiate, and so forth – and virtually all of it proceeds from the premise that you should adjust yourself to conditions as you find them. Adaptation is a critical part of the self-help model: you must succeed within the institutions and according to the rules that already exist. To do well is to fit in, and to fit in is to fortify the structures into which you are being fit.

3. THINK ABOUT YOURSELF: Implicit in any exhortations to succeed by “giving them what they want” is the suggestion that you should be totally preoccupied with your own well-being. The more you limit your concerns to yourself, the more you help to sustain the larger system. But this does not apply merely to material success. Even therapeutic and spiritual enterprises are useful for preserving the status quo because in encouraging you to attend to your own needs, they effectively direct attention away from social structures. Groom yourself and let the rest of the world go on its way – what better strategy is there for perpetuating existing structures? A few people may argue, it is true, that personal growth can be a route to social change. But most of the human potential movement will not require you to wrestle with this question, since social change is irrelevant to its goals and techniques.

4. BE “REALISTIC”: Fortunately, it is not necessary for you to defend the larger system. You can even nod in sympathetic agreement with someone who indicts it. But it is crucial that this nodding be accompanied by a shrug. Phrases such as “like it or not” and “that’s just the way it is” should be employed liberally in order to emphasize that nothing can be done about the larger picture. Such protestations of powerlessness are actually very powerful, of course, since they make sure that things are left exactly as they are. Every person who is encouraged to take such a stance is another person rescued from social activism.

Occassionally a critic will refuse to resign himself to the way things are or to believe that we are helpless to make change. Such an individual should immediately be labeled “idealistic.” Do not be concerned about the vaguely complimentary connotations of having ideals. It will be understood that an idealist is someone who does not understand “the world as it is” (“world” = “our society”; “as it is” = “as it will always be”). This label efficiently calls attention to the critic’s faulty understanding of reality or “human nature” and insures that he is not taken seriously. Those who are “pragmatic,” by contrast, know that we must always work within the confines of what we are given. After all, if alternative models really were workable, we would already be using them.

Appeals to realism have the virtue of allowing you to avoid messy discussions about the value of a critic’s position (and thus of the status quo). Why bother with such issues when you can dismiss his vision as “well-meaning but unworkable”? Challenging the rightness of what he is proposing will only slow him down; it is the appeal to practicality that produces the knockout. Call someone wrongheaded or even evil and a lengthy discussion may follow. Call him utopian or naive and there is nothing more to be said. This method of dismissing models of change is uniquely effective since it sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy. If enough people insist that an alternative arrangement cannot work, they will be right. Its failure then can be cited as substantiation of one’s original skepticism. No one uses this maneuver more skilfully than policymakers who are mistrustful of public institutions. Because of their conviction that governments can do nothing right, they divert funds from public schools and hospitals. When the inevitable crisis develops, they say, “You see?”

Appeals to realism can insure that institutions which threaten to promote social change (e.g., legislative bodies, universities, the media) do nothing but reflect the status quo. In the name of democracy, descriptive accuracy, and objective journalism, respectively, these institutions can be tamed and made into powerful instruments for perpetuating whatever is in place…

5. RATIONALIZE: It is easier for critics to oppose existing institutions when those who defend and profit from them are obviously opposed to social change. You can make it more difficult for these critics – and salve your own conscience at the same time – by claiming that your real reason for acting as you do is to “change the system from within.” Like most people who talk this way, of course you do not actually have to make change. On the contrary, even if this really were your goal, you would be permitted to work only for insignificant reforms that never come close to challenging the structures themselves. By becoming part of these structures, you can proceed to seek personal aggrandizement while at the same time contributing your talents to something you profess to find problematic. (A variation on this maneuver is to claim that you are going to do so for only a short time – as if it were a simple matter to leave the fast lane and get over to the exit ramp.) If you are audacious enough, you can even rationalize your participation as the most effective way to change the system. The more people who accept this reasoning and follow your example, the more secure is the system.

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