The Quiet Tyranny of Good Causes
In my early 20’s I had a strange, non-specific sense of injustice. I didn’t strongly identify with any particular cause. The world had multiple fractures — polluted waterways and corrupted oligarchs, felled trees and overflowing puppy shelters. No single cause seemed any more important or relatable than any other. The question of where to begin hung like an omen, and I was conscious of a need to choose a fracture line and to set about repairing it.
Do I identify with the cause of climate change, and volunteer to present climate science in schools — or am I more of a localist environmentalist, taking action to preserve the habitat of the Red-tailed Black Cockatoo? Perhaps I am concerned with the experience of homelessness in Perth, or maybe with peace in the Middle East?
The need to choose, as Esther had to choose in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, demands violence towards our own potentialities. Sooner or later we all must choose. Initially this may mean membership in a student society, political party or community group. Eventually, if we make the obscene choice to turn activism in to a career, we enter the class of social change professionals. We find ourselves amongst our kin at wine and platter functions saying: “I work in the Disability sector,” or “I’m in the Arts,” or “I’m working on this Education initiative.”
These causes are the way by which social change professionals are categorised, sorted, and allocated careers. Animal Welfare. Human Rights. Science and Technology. Education. Civil Rights. Disaster Relief. Social Services. Disability Services. First Peoples. Arts & Culture. Politics. Health. International Development. Economic Empowerment.
And so on.
Such a delineation of social change casts society as a great house, mostly in good order but in need of some tending in the garden, some pasting over the cracks, a polishing of the banisters, a vacuum in one room and a tidy in the other.
The tyranny of good causes is a rationalisation of the world as a mostly functioning system with a few specific, independent problems.
In this great house, we are also pitted against one another. We must become clever at justifying why our thing is more important than their thing. Witness the meteoric rise of external relations professionals, marketing departments, and impact assessors in the social change sphere over the last five years.
Nowhere is this spirit of competition more egregious than in the rise of social change “pitch” events, borrowed uncritically from reality television and venture capitalism, where causes are literally pitted against one another and social change becomes spectacle. These events are disastrous: They reinforce competition over collaboration, and scarcity over abundance. They produce cheerleaders, not systems change agents.
We need social change professionals to step back from a cultural and institutional framework that promotes independence, competition, and scarcity. A key part of this is to discard the tyrannical “cause,” which defines us by our surface-level differences rather than our deep commonalities. When we discard causes, we can move towards an understanding of social change from a place of interdependence, collaboration and abundance.
The problem is not the garden, the dust in the living room or the cracks in the ceiling — it is the great house itself.
We must ask ourselves impossible riddles, like social change Zen masters: What does organ donation have to do with peace in the Middle East? What is the relationship between gender-based violence and sea level rise? What does animal welfare have to do with decolonised education in South Africa?
When we ask these impossible riddles, we find out that there are many valuable “causes,” that we do not regard as causes. They are beyond our circle of legibility but are nonetheless real and far more important than animal welfare or disability advocacy.
Consider, for example, how public art projects, economic empowerment and services for the homeless contribute to renewing localism — an important cause and counter to the placeless alienation of globalisation. Consider how the voluntary sector and the theatre share the same outcome of creating shared experiences and renewing our fractured, Vine-length attention spans. Documentary film-making and human rights activism both challenge us to develop an empathy not constrained by geography.
Falling in to these considerations is also the recent, positive development in the social impact space — the biasing of process over product. Cross-sector leadership, comfort with uncertainty and emergence, and democratic governance approaches are all modern and worthwhile “causes.”
We must become more analytical and critical about exactly what it is we’re doing. It is less what you do that matters, more how you do it.
If we all become a little better at this analysis, we can start to work together not in our separate rooms but on the great house itself. Whether or not the house itself can be redeemed is another question: It may be best that we all start laying the foundation for something new.
In the meantime, my suggestion is simply that as social change professionals we disidentify with our cause and instead try to find the universal causes that we‘re all working on together.