There will be a picture that will be the iconic image of the Occupy and Arab Spring movements and I would like to request that that picture be taken from a distance. The picture should be taken at least from one of the skyscrapers that looks down on Wall Street, catching a bird’s eye view of thousands of people, or maybe from a distant alley away from the busiest parts of the streets of Cairo. If it’s possible to somehow capture everyone in a single image, I’d encourage the photographer to do just that.
I make this request because I’m not interested in seeing the face of just one person added to the historical canon of “great men” who have changed the world. Don’t get me wrong, many of these people did wonderful things for the people they cared about, and they most certainly did help change history. However, they were only able to help make that change because they stood on the shoulders of millions of others who came together around a shared vision.
Yet the common belief is that the cause of social change still rests upon the individual him or herself as the most powerful force in shaping the world. If you watch this crazy shirtless man dancing on a hill and the TED talk by Derek Sivers about how a movement is more about the group than it is about the leader, you might reconsider the importance of the individual. The success of the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring, the civil rights movement, India’s independence and any other movement depends upon the strength of the social bonds that bring people together for change. In other words, it is only through these invisible bonds, and the communities they create, that we can hope to transform our society for the better.
As pointed out in Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Revolution Will not be Tweeted,” social movements, especially those that are engaged in high-risk activity and are aimed at radically restructuring society for the better, are only successful when there exist strong relationships between the people in the movement. So what then is the role for the individual in a framework that emphasizes the community?
Simply put, the role of the individual is to connect. A network for social change can only continue to exist as long as the nodes, the persons, within that network are strongly connected to one another. So to readers out there I ask you to connect, and to connect passionately to the people who matter to you. Shake hands with community members, have them over for dinner, go out with them for coffee and remember their birthdays.
These acts seem small in light of such momentous events as the “I Have a Dream Speech” or Gandhi leading the people to the ocean to make their own salt. But the truth is that many of these smaller moments, where the world seemed to suddenly change, are not single momentous acts of revolution, just as they are not really led by individual revolutionaries. What we are seeing now is a moment in time that took years, and more likely decades or centuries to create.
And so I’ll continue to hope that if one day there is a photo that captures what the Occupy and Arab Spring movements mean, that it will have been taken from a distance. I hope that photo will show a sea of people creating change by creating community first.