“Be the change” can be an insult…

Oft quoted as an inspirational phrase attributed to Mahatma Ghandi is the saying “Be the change you want to see.” I can understand how that phrase can be personally uplifting and offer encouragement to the individual seeking to make a difference with the motivation to make the changes they envision for the world, the community, their relationships even when they feel unsupported or opposed by others.

Something about the saying has also been biting for me. It seems to be used in this manner that draws on and summons personal power and agency to create change, but the fact is that there are some issues (including efforts of Ghandi’s) that individual and personal will power are simply not enough to overcome the broader kind of change and resources need for that change.

Once I was sharing with a group of people about the need for a system wide change related to a specific social justice issue. The audience member raised her hand and said, “I leave you with the quote from Mahatma Ghandi: Be the change you want to see in the world.” Now, I later spoke with her and discovered that she “intended” no harm or ill-will behind that statement, and believed she was sharing a piece of wisdom that she used to help her navigate a very tough experience and work environment in which she hoped to experience broad scale change. However, when she made her comment in response to my presentation, I immediately felt insulted and reproved.

Here I was discussing what I felt was a systemic problem and thus required a systemic level solution, and this woman of certain privilege appears to be saying to me, “Well if you begin with yourself, then the change will occur.” One must understand that using that cliche is somewhat dangerous because it smacks of blame shifting and victim blaming; moreover, it makes an assumption that the individual is “NOT” being the change they want to see when in fact they are very well representing change by confronting the particular issue by addressing and framing the problem. Also, this strikes me as wildly unhelpfully given that the change that needs to be made is not a change that needs to be made by me. For example, I’m not really the problem resulting in marginalizing Black folks and other underrepresented populations. So that change actually should come from folks who are consciously or unconsciously implicit in that inequity. So in that case being the change I want to see doesn’t quite produce the transformation I seek as much as you (person I’m talking to) being the change that I have described.

So, I just think people should really pay attention to context before they throw that phrase around because you in fact could be doing additional harm to that person by insinuating that they should be the ones to fix the issue if they see it, especially when the reality is change is rarely ever entirely left up to the individual without other forces being impacted or other resources marshalled.

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