A Double-Edged Sword

Never doubt that a small, group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”That pronouncement from Margaret Mead, widely quoted, is true. But its truth makes it a double-edged sword.

“Never doubt that a small, group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

That pronouncement from Margaret Mead, widely quoted, is true. But its truth makes it a double-edged sword.

Mead is hardly the only person to recognize that social change comes not from the movement of lethargic majorities, but from small groups committed to a cause. As far back as the biblical notion of the “saving remnant,” and as recently as the last Presidential election, societies have recognized the importance of the few. But small, committed—or zealous—groups can do great harm as well as great good.

We have seen small groups of fundamentalist Christians take over the Republican party. They accomplished this by organizing, by making sure to get out their vote in primaries where turnout is generally low and where the effect of bloc voting gives them an influence wholly disproportionate to their numbers. They have been willing to do the hard work and spend the time it takes to get results.

We see the disproportionate effect of special interest groups on public policy. Sometimes those special interests are moneyed, sometimes not. Single-minded campaigns aimed sometimes at administrators, sometimes at Congress or state legislatures, have given us laws that are not in the best interests of the citizens and often do not reflect their wishes. Recent examples include everything from the relaxation of arsenic standards for drinking water, to the defeat of ENDA.

We see the disproportionate influence of “single issue” voters. Most of us vote on the basis of a wide range of issues. Reasonable folks recognize that no politician will agree with us about everything, so we vote on the basis of general performance. Single issue voters will happily vote against someone who they think is doing a great job on everything but “their” issue. That gives them enormous leverage that more balanced voters don’t have.

Locally, we have just seen a striking example of the ability of a very few people to virtually destroy a public project desired by the great majority of Indianapolis citizens. The original expansion plan for Central Library met with great enthusiasm from the local arts community, civic leaders, the AIA, even the Indianapolis Star. But a small handful of residents of the St. Joseph Historic Neighborhood did not want the Ambassador Apartments to be moved across the street.  While they did not represent even a majority of their neighborhood, they included two or three individuals without 9 to 5 jobs. These single-minded people thus had lots of time to spend agitating. The vast majority who wanted the original plan had lives to live and other obligations to attend to.

The result? A “compromise” that significantly diminishes the economic value of the historic apartments they claimed to be so concerned about, making their deterioration and eventual loss far more likely. The “compromise” eliminates the reuse potential of surplus library properties which would otherwise be developed and returned to the tax rolls, but instead will have to be used for surface parking. It leaves the library with inadequate parking, compromises the library design by blocking over half of the north face of the new structure, and turns the only handicapped entrance into a “back door,” treating disabled citizens who must use that entrance as second-class citizens. It hampers access for school buses and large groups, and it means lost opportunities to complete the War Memorial Plaza and to fill in an unsightly gap on Meridian Street. The bottom line? In order to “buy off” a handful of zealots, the Library Board decided that the rest of us will have to make do with a mediocre and inconvenient central library.

Unfortunately, such scenarios are not uncommon, and that is the lesson for vulnerable minority communities. It is not possible to sit back and expect that progress will somehow happen.

The gay community has made much progress over the last twenty years or so. It hasn’t happened by accident; it is because small groups of committed activists forced change.

But so long as there are other small groups willing to spend time and effort working against the things we care about, we have no choice but to do the same. Otherwise we are likely to wake up in a very unpleasant world, and sooner than we think.