Monday, February 27, 2006

The Power is Yours (1 of 3)

[This week we welcome guest blogger Megblum, eldest Gruntled child. A veteran of Kentucky's forensics (speech) leagues, her senior oratory was so appropriate for The Gruntled Center that I will serialize it over the next three days. Enjoy.]

As a child, I was fascinated by the mid-nineties cartoon "Captain Planet." Five children, from different cultures, continents, and contexts, each endowed with a special power, would come together to fight the evils of global corporations and pollution. When the children touched rings, they could summon Captain Planet, a sort of baby blue Super-Man figure, who would summarily destroy whichever evil polluting tyrant was threatening the global ecosystem that week, usually a vaguely pig-like character with a helpfully descriptive name, like Looten Plunder or Sly Sludge. The good captain would helpfully encourage the children to become eco-crusaders at the end of each of episode, with the cheerful motto: “the power is yours!”

What Captain Planet was perhaps unconsciously advocating was meliorism, an ideological view point in between the traditional extremes of optimism and pessimism. Webster’s defines meliorism as “the belief that the world tends to become better and that man can aid its betterment.” Meliorism rejects the idea that the world is either inevitably slipping down the drain or on a perpetual upswing. Instead, it offers up the idea that, through our action, we can make the world a better place. It is time for us to embrace a melioristic outlook on the world. Today, we will look at the reasons we do not accept meliorism, the problems of rejecting this outlook, and finally we will look at how we can embrace meliorism in our lives.

First, let us examine why we reject meliorism. Because we live in a mass society, it is hard for us to believe that our actions as individuals can have an effect on the millions of people that live even in just our country. Eighteenth-century British statesmen and social theorist Edmund Burke offered the idea that we, as people, learn to love the small groups we exist within, which he termed “little platoons” because within these limited spheres we feel that we can have a significant effect. However, it is difficult for us to believe that, once we step outside our little platoons, we can have an effect in a truly global society.

The logical outcome of our inability to believe that our actions can have an impact is a crisis of motivation. Imagine, for example, you are walking down the street and you see a piece of litter on the side of the road. It would be easy to say that since you cannot possibly pick up all the candy wrappers and fast-food bags in the world, it doesn’t really matter if you pick up this particular piece of trash. If it doesn’t matter whether you pick up this particular piece of litter, why do it? This kind of thinking is self-defeating, because it rests on the false binary that, in order for a melioristic action to be worthwhile, it must solve a problem. However, virtually all major change occurs through small, incremental steps, rather than through decisive, conclusive actions. If an action can have an effect, however small, it can be worthwhile. Imagine what could happen if each of us in this room picked up just one dirty Coke can a day, every day for a year. We would not clean up the streets of the world, but we could make a difference in our own communities, and that would be something.

[To be continued ...]

1 comment:

Paul Jolly said...

A few things:

1. Props for name-checking Captain Planet. He was gnarly back in the day.
2. I don’t know what they’re putting in the water in Danville but those Weston (Gruntle) kids are smart cookies. I have a 4 year degree from a top 50 liberal arts institution and I know for a fact that the oldest Gruntling could out-converse me on nearly any academic issue. It’s nearly scary.

3. The “crisis of motivation” is real and in effect as we speak. Visit any run-down urban neighborhood and with little investigation you can find lots of people who realize there’s a problem, and can even specifically point to the cause, but when asked about taking action they reply “it wouldn’t do any good,” or “no one cares about us (the residents of the neighborhood),” or even “it’ll just keep happening.” I’ve even caught myself saying these things when it seems like there is no end to the problems in a community (or a state, a country, a planet). It really helps to have faith to fall back on. I know that I can’t do it all, but I have faith that God will use me to further God’s will, and that’s really all I can ask for. If not for faith, I imagine I too would be swallowed by the depth and density of the problems that plague our society because it is very difficult to see how our personal actions affect the big picture.

I look forward to seeing the next installment of the serial and, as ever, I remain in awe of the Gruntlings.