Law in Contemporary Society

John Brown, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and a Theory of Social Action

-- By KentToland - 10 Mar 2017

In March, a classmate suggested it was absurd to condemn John Brown’s acts because “we all wish there would have been a John Brown in Nazi Germany.” There was not a John Brown, but Dietrich Bonhoeffer came close. Like Brown, Bonhoeffer’s Christian convictions led him to take measures some would call extreme to oppose injustice. Along these lines, in books, movies, and culture, we often ask for one singular individual to change the course of human events, and in doing so, our society overlooks and obscures other means through which social change can occur. In this essay, I explore the impediments to a theory of social action in contemporary society and consider how awareness of these impediments can inform a solution.

It is of course interesting to focus on famous persons in history such as these two men, but what we are prone to overlooking is the choices of the many people who shared the convictions of Brown and Bonhoeffer and yet failed to act. As Bonhoeffer himself said, “Not to act is to act.” Brown and Bonhoeffer were motivated in large part because they believed as Christians that all men and women are made in God’s image. For other Christians to share their faith and refuse to reject slavery or concentration camps is dissociation of the highest order. But the upside to the devastating consequences of this collective inaction is that many of the problems we face can be ameliorated by the human capital and action of the billions of humans who populate the earth. This is the heart of a theory of social action: to wake people up from their dissociation and leverage the ability of humans acting in tandem to effect powerful change. Therefore, we must resist the tendency to overemphasize the importance of key individuals.

A theory of social action that fails to appreciate the ways in which inaction is embedded in society will almost surely fail, and there are at least three of note. First, the narrative of a key individual making things right contributes to our society’s inability to see the importance of collective action. Stories of messiahs and superheroes can and have become reasons for us to wait passively for others to take action. Second, we are predisposed to view inaction not as a choice but as a default because of how strongly our law and our culture value autonomy. Third, while social media encourages more communication, it stunts the kind of dialogue needed to inspire action. Social media thrives on increasing the quantity rather than the quality of communication, and therefore encourages us to seek to be heard, rather than to listen. An effective lawyer knows how to listen while talking, but how can we encourage others to listen more? A lawyer’s most powerful tools are his words, but in an age of information overload, the value of anyone’s words is correlated with how long they can capture our dwindling attention spans.

Each of these three elements can be countered, however, to show that action is both a viable choice and the only choice in the face of social evils. While the narrative of the messiah is predominant in society, examples of collaboration overcoming adversity can and should be celebrated. One place to start may be to highlight that although the identity of a nation’s leader matters a great deal, the identity and principles of this nation are not determined by the views and actions of one person, but by the collective works of its people. Emphasizing the instrumental value of political protests and local organization can challenge the superhero narrative, as well as the strong presumption toward inaction created by the value our legal system places on autonomy. As for the problem of information overload, a theory of social action must find ways to capture the narrative and bring cohesion to the countless sensational stories that dominate news coverage. While the ability to articulate a message is often thought of in terms of charisma and oratorical skill, only by listening effectively can we craft a message that will inspire action.

History remembers John Brown and Dietrich Bonhoeffer not necessarily because of the extraordinary abilities they possessed—although they were quite gifted in numerous respects—but also largely because they acted in a way that accorded with their fundamental beliefs. They should be commended for choosing to act, but perhaps part of the problem is that those who are willing to follow through on their convictions and translate them into action are so rare that we choose to celebrate them to the detriment of emphasizing other means of social change that require sacrifice from all of us. Many shared or claimed to share Brown and Bonhoeffer’s convictions, but far fewer chose to act. In constructing a theory of social action, then, we should consider not only how to persuade others of a viewpoint, but also how to inspire them and ourselves to act on these beliefs.

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r3 - 02 Jun 2017 - 03:02:25 - KentToland
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