I want to take a moment at the outset of this piece to explain a little about what follows. Here, I am attempting to make a somewhat bold statement that, despite the prevailing ideology of relativism (to varying degrees) in the Western world, there is a reality that exists. That reality is that racism, classism, sexism, environmental destruction, imperialism, and social and economic other maladies are very real and very present in our world, in our communities, and in us. It is true that this is my worldview. I am putting forth a particular view of what reality is. Whether you agree with it or not, it is this worldview that dominates, or at least informs, the following essay.
This essay touches on strategies for social change, but it is not primarily about strategy. It is first and foremost focused on (one of) the barrier(s) that exists between social activists and successfully achieving social change. Change can lead to all sorts of outcomes, so it is important to clarify that the kind of social change that I am writing about can be otherwise stated as social justice. To be more specific, the change that I write about is toward a vision of a just world.
I believe that it is very possible to change the reality of our world, but too often we find ourselves unable to act, unable to stand up against very real injustices because we are confused about the difference between reality and fiction. In order to change the real world we must be able to discern the real from the fictional. We must be able to work toward justice, which can be seen as harmonious mutual responsibility, for everyone. This is a skill that has been lost by many of us because we tend to romanticize the fictional worlds that we spend more and more time within. We need to relearn how to think critically about the world around us, and then act to change it.
Throughout my life I have found myself absorbed by stories about heroes. When I was very young I would imagine myself as an astronaut or a soldier. I would embark on imaginary discovery adventures under my friend’s front porch, learning about new species of alien and making grand plans for defending our home from invaders. Those imaginary games slowly developed into a deep attraction to television shows and movies about heroes. I still love a great many science fiction stories (I am happy to admit that I watch “Star Trek: The Next Generation”). At the same time, after seeing Oliver Stone’s Vietnam film “Born on the Fourth of July” when I was a child, something deep inside of me knew, despite my fantasies of heroism in war, that the reality was probably more horrific than I could imagine (the film is based on the true story of a solider who is paralyzed in Vietnam and eventually becomes one of the most outspoken critics of that, and many other wars). To be clear, this film is fiction. It is based on a real story, but it is a fictionalization of that story.
That film informed my understanding of violence. It did not change the reality around me, but it did give me some new knowledge that I was then able to use in my subsequent actions in the world. Something about that film allowed me to unplug from the media images of heroism (“Thundercats,” “Braveheart,” and everything else) with which I had grown up. This knowledge was supported some time later by my tenth grade media studies teacher who explained that media literacy was vitally important for the development of our skills as critical thinkers who could decipher fact from fiction and operate as intelligent human beings in the world, no matter what life path we chose.
The 20th century researcher Joseph Campbell studied the mythologies and stories of the world. His work revealed a common thread that spanned across almost every human culture. This common thread is known as “the hero’s journey.” He writes, “Whether the hero be ridiculous or sublime, Greek or barbarian, gentile or Jew, his journey varies little in essential plan.” Virtually every story about a hero has the same basic design for the hero’s growth through challenges and success. As well, these story designs find their roots in the human psyche, which is to say that their sources are found in our dreams, hopes, and fears. I could digress to describe Campbell’s work further here, but I will not. The truly interesting and important point here is that heroes from Moses to Luke Skywalker, and Buddha to Buffy the Vampire Slayer follow a path that is laid out and borne of something common among all human beings. There is something very “real” about the characters, setting, and plots that we pour into our fiction, and it is for this reason that the stories we tell affect you, me, and most other human beings in ways that in turn, influence the way we see reality.
In an episode of the television show “Angel” about a vampire (by the name of Angel) who fights evil, one of the antagonists tells Angel: “Heroes don’t accept the world the way it is. They fight it.” This characterization of heroes, ironically laid out by one of the evil doers can serve as a great definition for a social activist as well (sometimes TV can explain things better than we can on our own). In this paper I am speaking explicitly about social activists who see human camaraderie, environmental sustainability, and egalitarianism as key ingredients for a better world.
I should try to clarify my understanding of the difference between reality and fiction. Reality is defined here as the actualities of the world around us. This includes, for example, our schools and their content, military and their actions, housing, roads, organizations, political structures, and other elements. Realities have changed throughout our history, and realities differ to some extent depending on where you are. Other realities transcend time and space. For example, the school system in Canada functions differently than the school system in the United States, but wars have been fought for as long as humans have recorded history and are being fought right now all over the planet. The reality of schools varies depending on the historical period or place, but war is constant. Still, both are realities. Fiction, on the other hand, is the stories and images that we create. Sometimes we create fiction to reflect certain realities (a movie, book, or painting based on some important event), and sometimes we create stories or images to reflect desires, passions, or fears. Sometimes there is very little reality reflected in fiction; sometimes there is plenty of reality in fiction. As well, sometimes fiction is presented as if it is reality. For example, a government might create a story, describe it as real, and use it as a catalyst to start a war with a country that has some useful resource.
It is clear that there is a link between reality and fiction. We thrust our psychologies into the stories that we create, and the stories that we create certainly inform the way we view reality. I think that most of us intellectually understand the difference between the fictions we create and the reality we live in, but we have emotionally, and problematically, blurred the line between the two.
The level of complexity with which one understands the world is not the only deciding factor in distinguishing fiction from reality, but it can help. I imagine that George W. Bush views reality in very simple terms. His foreign policy seemed to view the world in terms of good and evil, us and them, God and the Devil, but he is still viewing reality. I think his perspective of reality is distorted and flawed to say the least, but it is the real world he is seeing. So what’s wrong here? I believe that he is viewing reality through a fictional lens. One of the key differences between most fiction - whether it is science fiction, a film based on some historic figure’s life, or a high school drama – and reality, is that the evil that is faced by our fictional heroes is usually very clearly evil from the viewer’s point of view. In most cases, from the perspectives of the characters in the stories there is little room for error about who the protagonist and who the antagonist are. Have you ever noticed that an unsettling number of evil doers give themselves titles like “Dark Lord” or “Skeletor.” I have. On the other hand, it is rare for the people and issues that social activists face in reality to be so clearly and easily pinpointed as evil. In fact, most corporate types, dictators, and their supporters would probably not recognize their greed, environmental destruction, and authoritarian ways as evil at all. At the same time, one of the great similarities between fiction and reality is that heroes and social activists alike are usually pitted against antagonists who take power away from people either through political means, murder, or some variation on colonialist themes. This is true in religious texts such as the Torah as well as texts such as the comic book series “X Men” (can you tell I like science fiction yet?). But in reality there are very few “dark lords.” Most people have good qualities and bad qualities. Well, maybe all people walk that line.
Systems, not only people, take power away from others and utilize privilege in harmful ways. In reality, people set up systems (capitalism, patriarchy, etc.) which allow for power to be taken and horded. People act within those systems, and it is the systems that allow people to act that way. It is for this reason that the simplistic worldview of someone like Bush is best seen as a view of reality that is steeped in fiction. There is a difference between reality and a view of reality. Reality is complex and often our perspectives only shed light on pieces of reality. Still, reality exists. Usually, reality is more complex than fiction, but this is not always true. A film such as “Requiem for a Dream,” or a text such as “Hamlet” presents much more involved fictional worlds than we are used to. Moral compasses are buried deep below the surface and motivations are informed by characters’ environments and histories. So the complexity of some fiction makes the discussion itself more complex. As I wrote above, I have a particular view of reality and that is present here. I believe that intricate fiction is still fiction, but it does a better job of informing us about our lives, the world, and the problems that we face than the simplistic view that a character like Bush carries does. His one-dimensional view is not a very useful view of reality. It does not enlarge the scope of understanding of our world, which is necessary for social activism
The difference between complexity and simplicity, if it is not clear, is that complexity uses the broadest possible considerations of available information to understand that which it attends to. In order to think critically about the world, one must have as much information as possible. Often, all the information that exists is not accessible, but a multifarious view will take as much of it into account as possible. This is more likely to get us closer to reality, even if you believe that the Truth is out of our reach, as many do. Simplicity reduces situations, conflicts, interactions, problems, the world, etc. into the simplest terms possible. In reality this is often presented as “us and them.” Fiction tends to present this as good and evil.
Complex fiction, while remaining external to the realm of reality, is more useful to me than simplistic views of reality. Interacting with this kind of fiction allows us to understand the reality that human beings are complex; reality is complex. This kind of fiction can be useful in explaining reality. A comprehensive understanding of the world can begin to shed light on the reality that the problems that we face are interconnected. This is sometimes called having a holistic view of the world. Understanding that race, class, gender, and the environment are all interconnected is vital to understanding reality. Through a holistic view, one can begin to understand that personality flaws have little to do with the root causes of poverty, and that simply understanding the inherent problems in capitalism is not enough. For example, it’s no coincidence that so many Black people in the United States are counted among the working class or live in poverty, and that so many are incarcerated. It is, simply put, because racism and classism work together on a systemic level.
Simplistic fiction does not aid in that understanding. Harry Potter can aid in giving us moral direction, or a view of what life might be like at an English boarding school, but that’s all it does in terms of understanding the complexity of the humans and systems that exist in reality, which benefit and destroy our world in different ways. Still, it is the fiction that presents heroism in black and white that capture our imaginations en masse. This has a lot to do with the fact that reality is complicated, so we like our fiction to be simple. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that some things fall into the categories of right and wrong. I am trying to make that clear here. A complex view of reality allows us to understand each human as unique and complex as well, which “humanizes” people, which then allows us to begin to understand why people don’t like being oppressed. Beyond that, it begins to unveil the reality that poor people are not just poor because they didn’t follow the same life paths or advice that rich people did. It’s not that simple. The multifaceted and intersecting systems of capital, racism, and patriarchy actually affect our ability to live empowered lives. A simplistic worldview might just see disempowered people as characters in a story that made mistakes, didn’t work hard, or are morally corrupt. That’s probably why so many neo-conservatives see poor people, Arabs, Blacks, homosexuals, women and others as the source of their own misfortune. It’s easier to see the world that way, but it’s a fiction. It is a reality that those human beings are oppressed in various ways. It is a fiction to think that our systems and some people within those systems are not at fault.
A realistic approach to the issues that we face as social activists requires us to understand the world through a holistic lens, one that presents the intricate nature of reality. If you find yourself latching on too fully to fiction as a guide to reality, you are bound to get stuck in a very real grey zone where it is hard to know right from wrong, and hard to act on it. This is because (you know this one) reality is often more complex than fiction and the ills of the world require a process of deep analysis, vision-making, and strategizing in order to be repaired. We need to learn and think critically about the problems that we face. We need to envision something better, and then we need to make a plan to get there.
Finally, we have to enact the plan. This process is the essential factor that differentiates fictional heroes from real social activists. True, one could find examples of fictional characters analyzing, envisioning, and strategizing, but again, it is often much easier to assess and denounce our antagonists and the ills they attempt to visit upon fictional worlds than it is to sift through the intricacies of the real and act to fix them. Fiction tends to deflect our understanding of reality. As we spend more and more time engrossed in fictional worlds, we learn to divert our attention away from reality in favor of the fiction that we become comfortable with. Deflection is not the only problem though. Time spent with fictional problems and fictional heroes can be deflating for social activists who can’t seem to find a “dark lord” to fight, or wonder why no one is showing up to their demonstration or joining in a direct action. Real change takes time and effort. Fictional change only requires us to read, watch, or listen as our heroes move forward. Movies often depict a character’s learning process and road to success through a montage. Scenes of a character trying and failing and then succeeding show us how easy it is to reach our goals. We know that it’s not real, but we feel like it might just be that easy to succeed.
We, in the real world (as opposed to our fictional heroes), have enormous challenges to face in making reality better. They require the process of thinking deeply and critically about the world around us, envisioning alternatives, and finally plotting a course to get to those alternatives if we are going to face them in reality. A few of the very real problems that we face today are wars for oil and other profits; the private ownership of resources that ought to be accessible to every person; racism, sexism, cis-sexism, other kinds of hate; environmental degradation, and poverty. These are just some of the problems that exist because of the kinds of economic and social systems we live within. Capitalism inherently separates people by class, making owners out of some and workers out of others. On top of this, there are the social ills, borne of colonialism, sexism, and a few other “isms” that make it much better to be a white, heterosexual man (this is definitely true in America at present, and most likely true all over the world) than linked to any other identity. This reality places most of the power in the hands of the few who succeed at others’ expenses in this socioeconomic actuality.
It is this power imbalance that has led to many of the very real upheavals in the past. The people of India demanded, through mostly peaceful means, independence when an analysis of the situation led them to understand that they had very little power in their own country. Youth rose up against the Vietnam War through demonstration and violence when it became clear that the United States government was not listening to their voice. Liberals rose up against feudal society in Europe, Bolsheviks rose up against the Czar, Cubans rose up against American imperialist economics there, Jews fought back in the Warsaw ghetto, slaves rose up against their captors in Haiti, and students at my undergraduate university rose up against tuition hikes. Each of these cases, some examples more violent and some more peaceful, occurred when it became clear to some group that another group had taken away its power to determine its collective future.
It is for this reason that I believe that societies need to be organized in such a way that allows for people to determine their own lives. The power imbalance that exists in capitalist societies would not exist if people shared power. I do not believe that power can be taken out of the equation. Power is something that exists when humans associate with one another. It is impossible to do away with power, but it is possible to share power; to empower each person to direct her or his own life and share in the directing of the lives of the collectives we are parts of. The social upheavals which use instability, desperation, and sometimes violence can instead happen through collective governance in communities and workplaces, in nations and between different kinds of people. Change is good and can be productive. This can be reality if systems change and people change to fit this kind of egalitarian reality. Shared management, shared laborious work, shared decision-making through dialogue and debate are all models that exist and work in contexts where human beings desire to share power, because if they don’t some people, perhaps you or me, will be without.
If education were geared toward empowering modes of community living, if community became the most important association that we had with fellow human beings, then people would find themselves sharing power with community members who they feel responsible for and care about, and we would find ourselves enjoying shared power.
To be sure, change does and should happen, but it should happen because people work together to better the world, not because power has been siphoned away by the rich and other favored groups in our current world. It should happen because the systems that we set up for living together are agile and receptive to changing realities. Change should happen through conversation, debate, and a process of understanding reality (the current state of things, the problems we face, the possible solutions). If it is not already clear, this kind of society would necessitate values that are inclusive across ethnic, sexual, racial, and communal lines. There is an inextricable link between the internal communal life that I live at home and within my community and how I want the world at large to look. I share time, space, resources, and support with the friends I live communally with because I want that kind of solidarity to exist throughout communities on a global scale. If I am not willing to try it, how can I expect anyone else to try it? I don’t think people can act on change externally without intending (and working) for change to happen internally. This is essential to holism as well. Understanding that the world, my community, and myself are all connected, and that each affects the other is necessary for understanding reality. It is true that we tend to care more about people we know, but the more complexity we accept about our reality, the more complexity we will understand about each person, and our capacity to empathize and live as partners with widening circles of people will grow.
So what’s stopping us from achieving a better world through social change? I believe that one of the most prominent issues that we face is the above mentioned confusion of fiction and reality. The kind of power sharing that I write about here is not the current reality. So, while we create living alternatives we also need to challenge the current reality head on, but heroism and activism in the real world have become defined by the fantasies of fiction. This is because, as David Foster Wallace writes about our culture’s obsession with television, “… we gaze at these rare, highly-trained, unwatched-seeming people for six hours daily… And we love these people. In terms of attributing to them true supernatural assets and desiring to emulate them, it’s fair to say we sort of worship them.” Later in his essay he writes, “The U.S. generation born after 1950 is the first for whom television was something to be lived with instead of just looked at.” Wallace is describing a culture that has incorporated television into its daily lives, dreams, and views of reality. Now in 2011, television has become a part of reality in a way that may not have been possible for the book or radio because of the audio and visual sensory experiences that television provides. We spend so much time in fictional worlds that we want to be the people who we see personified in those fictions. We even forget that the people we are watching are not real people at all.
As has been true around the world and all throughout history, the stories that we dream up to watch and listen to are rooted in our psychology. It is no wonder that we associate ourselves so closely with these heroes and characters. I have asked many friends which of the four main “Sex and the City” characters they think they are most like. Most have answered one of Carrie’s (the protagonist, played by Sarah Jessica Parker) three friends. I follow up, wondering which they most want to be. In almost every case the answer is Carrie. Why? Because protagonists are built to be the people we wish to be. We wish to grow, succeed, and even fail as our heroes do. The truth is that we are each protagonists in our own lives (trite, I know), but real life is rarely as glamorous or exciting as it is for fictional characters like Carrie and Frodo Baggins, or real life heroes who are depicted in film and on television such as Harvey Milk or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Interestingly, both of these men were assassinated, giving weight to my theory that we have a cultural obsession with martyrdom as the most important form of heroism, but that is for another time.) Even in the latter two cases, their lives were turned into stories, which we by-and-large take as truth. I did first learn of Harvey Milk when I saw the movie (I place the blame for this late introduction on our intensely hetero-normative culture), but it took further reading, conversation, and research to uncover some of the reality of Milk, not just the fictionalization.
Perhaps the only difference between fiction that is based on reality and fiction of any other sort is that the challenges that the world presents to an historical figure on film are usually grounded in reality. Homophobia is very real in the United States, but there is no actual ring of power and no actual middle earth. Perhaps the themes that are presented in “The Lord of the Rings” are pertinent for us (war, power, love, leadership), but those themes are presented in a fictional world with fictional ills. Wouldn’t it be nice if each of us could cut out the monotonous parts of life and all that time spent in the bathroom? Wouldn’t it be nice if the analysis, vision and strategy for social change were laid out, and we knew the ending? Wouldn’t be nice if everyone had a movie made about them? Real social change takes a lot of monotonous work and bathroom breaks. I don’t remember a scene in which Harvey Milk has to do an inventory of his camera shop. Did Frodo ever stop to use the bathroom during his incredibly long hike?
The protagonists that we view are projections of us, they are not us, but in a culture that is inundated with mass media, and with lives lived in front of screens, it is easy to become stranded in the fiction around us and forgetful of reality.
Wallace also puts forth the notion that social activism itself has been affected by the advent of television. He explains that participants in the anti-war movement of the 1960’s, a mass movement that was motivated by the horrors of that war seen through mass media, were as much interested in protesting the war as they were interested in being seen protesting the war. This may seem cynical, but the point he is trying to make isn’t that protesting has become a vain act, but that the war was experienced through television and so the reaction to that war had to be televised in the minds of the activists, and indeed the entire generation. Television is, according to Wallace, as real to the generation born in the second half of the twentieth century as reality is real. Noam Chomsky chimes in on the effects of television, too. He writes that the modern reality of watching the news alone, alienated from the people around you, has led to a sense that all the terrible things in the world are normal, or at least that it is just the way it is. When we are alone watching tragedy unfold on TV, we may stand up and think that something has to change, but we sit back down because no one else is around to support us. Everyone is outraged and alone, and so everyone is silent, because no one knows that others are out there and outraged too.
Why all this talk of television in the age of the Internet? The Internet provides a more interactive experience with the same sensory elements as television. The six hours a day that Wallace cites as the amount of time that the average American spends in front of the television is quickly being blown out of the water by the hours that people watch, read, listen, and talk online. It is true that Facebook and YouTube afford us much more control over the content that we interact with than television ever did (though, the power of American capitalism is diminishing that control right now). On the Internet we can communicate with one another, not only receive messages, but there are fictions online as well as realities. Just as it is on television, the world online allows us to view the news from around the world through the same frame as we view Justin Bieber concerts and our favorite movies. Assuming that the news is generally more fact than fiction (a grand assumption, I know), it becomes challenging to discern reality from fiction because so much time is spent in front of this or that medium. Everything is framed by the confines of the screen (whether TV or computer), and eventually it becomes mixed up. The Internet can only serve as a great place to inform people about various goings on, whether it is a party, a demonstration, or a revolution. In the end, all three take real people actually getting together offline.
As I stated early on in this piece, there is a lot to learn from fiction, as well as realities that are portrayed through media, but they are educational tools. For example, some utopian and dystopian literature can help us to imagine the world outside of the confines of reality. In this view, some fiction can be of assistance in cultivating the activist seed in our hearts and minds. It is our responsibility to act in reality, on what we learn from the media around us. The problem is that as we live more and more vicariously through our media we become more and more passive for the very reasons that Chomsky highlights: What we see is what we begin to expect. As well, even if we can talk online, in the end we are still sitting alone in front of a screen. We find ourselves pacified as we spend more time in our fictional worlds and lose the distinction between reality and fiction.
Social change requires us to unbind ourselves from our personal consoles. Achieving justice in our world requires people coming together to form collectives that are intent in bringing change to fruition. Change requires education about the world as it is, the world as we want it to be, and the way to get there. It is true that our vision will remain fictional until it is realized, but understanding the complexity of reality, which requires a holistic understanding of the world and its social ills, should deflate the fiction that exists within our visions and bring the world we envision closer to reality. This requires us to come together around communities of one another, rather than communities of viewers.
We can close the gap between real and ideal by better understanding reality and its difference from fiction. The process of creating change toward a just reality requires education that is focused, through its form and its content, on unity between people, harmonious mutual responsibility in our communities, and empowerment. We need to begin to holistically understand the real problems in our world, their interconnectedness, the grey areas that begin to gain color as we learn about reality’s complex nature, and the challenges that we face. Finally, social change requires us to know the difference between our fictional heroes within their fictional contexts, and us within our very real contexts. Dialogical and experiential education is essential to building communities that are inclusive, egalitarian, and participatory. If we succeed on those educational and communal fronts we, as individuals and members of communities, will have experienced a new actuality, which will enable and demand of us to create a just and empowering shared reality.
 Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with A Thousand Faces. (1949) Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton/Bollinger Paperback Printing, 1973.
 Ibid. p. 38.
 “Underneath.” Angel. By Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain. Netflix, 20 Sept. 2010.
 Wallace, David Foster. “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” (1990). A supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments. New York: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company-Hachette Book Group. 1997. p. 26.
 Ibid. p. 43.
 Ibid. p. 34.
 Chomsky, Noam. Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda. 2nd ed. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002.