If you use the Internet much, you’ve probably run across some discussion about how social networking is changing the world, etc. Proponents want us to believe that social networking is revolutionizing the ways we relate to other people. Doubters take positions like Aaron Sorkin: “Social networking is to socializing as reality TV is to reality.”
Malcolm Gladwell, who has written several interesting books by being an astute observer of contemporary culture, has another excellent article in the New Yorker called Small Change. Gladwell delves into the history of the civil rights movement, including such seemingly spontaneous efforts as the student sit-ins of 1960, to show that such efforts at social change were actually the result of strong ties between participants, not the kind of thing that could be Tweeted to your closest thousand buddies.
In current social theory, strong ties are the kinds of connections you have with people who actually know you – your family, friends you talk to frequently about deep issues and probably see in person, relationships that you put a lot of effort into nurturing. Weak ties are the kind of connections that Twitter and Facebook are excellent at maintaining. These used to be “Christmas card” relationships, the people you saw every few years at the high school reunion, that kind of thing. Yes, it’s very nifty that we can now maintain hundreds or even thousands of weak ties and share information among them ever more efficiently. But lots of weak ties are not the same thing as a few strong ties. (In fact, I would argue that there are probably fundamental human limits on how many strong ties we can have – something like under a hundred – but that’s another story.)
Gladwell’s point is that getting real social change to happen is a dangerous and scary endeavor, and that weak ties are not sufficient motivation for people to take on that dangerous, scary work. Strong ties, particularly having a close friend already in the movement, are often a deciding factor for who stands up to challenge the social norms and who doesn’t. Gladwell also argues that hierarchy was a necessary feature of the civil rights movement: the kind of organization, and decision-making on hard matters, and training, and clearly defined responsibilities that were necessary for as amazing an operation as the bus boycott, for example, were only possible when some structures with authority were in place.
These historical trends are why I am afraid that solitary, eclectic Wicca does not have much potential as a vehicle for social change. If we don’t form strong ties among ourselves, if we don’t at least have the potential to organize and effectively address real-world challenges like running a carpool or supporting each other’s needs when we face discrimination, we will not be able to challenge the social norms that hurt us, let alone the social norms that we think are hurting the world.
I agree with Starhawk that we need both individual effort and collective effort; every Pagan’s individual efforts do matter. But we also need to work on creating and supporting institutions that can help us further our goals (and sometimes even decide what those goals are). Starhawk writes about the work she does with environmental activist organizations – and it’s clear that they’ve accomplished more than those individuals could separately. Personally, I have deep respect and appreciation for the work of Circle Sanctuary, and the way they played a leading role in the Pentacle Quest, and Patrick McCollum, and his current efforts on behalf of Pagan prisoners in California and elsewhere. I am trying to learn more about Circle Sanctuary and how I can work with them in efforts like this.
What do you care about? What change do you want to see in the world? Who is working on that? Work with them! If no one is, or if you think you can do a better job setting up an organization to do it, go for it. And not just with spells, either. I believe in magic, but I also believe that nothing makes magic work better than putting out effort in the physical world to get the results you want.