“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; to supply motivation to make the large changes they envision for the world, the community, their relationships even when they feel opposed by much larger forces.

Something about the saying is suspect to 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 for which she had hoped for broad scale change. However, when she made her comment in response to the challenge I presented, I 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 unhelpful given that the change that needs to be made is not a change that needs to be made by me (alone). 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 implicated 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 becoming the change that I have described is needed.

So, I just think people should really be cautious before throwing that phrase around because you in fact could be doing additional harm ┬áby insinuating that the person who seeks change “should be” the ones to fix the issue if they see it. ┬áThis is especially concerning given that change is rarely ever entirely left up to the single individual without other forces being engaged or other resources marshalled.

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