Excerpt from Paul Rogat Loeb’s Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in Challenging Times. For classroom or course-pack use, go to the Copyright Clearance Center, type in Soul of a Citizen and pay the equivalent of ten book pages from Soul. [Just enter 1-10 on the page number form. If you only use part of the piece, or want to mix it with other Soul excerpts, you can figure out the page count based on 360 words per Soul page] For other useRs contact the St Martins permission department (permissions@stmartins.com). [Parts of this piece were reprinted in Utne Reader, but St Martin's holds the copyright]

Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in Challenging Times

by Paul Loeb

Most Americans are thoughtful, caring, generous. We try to do our best by family and friends. We'll even stop to help a fellow driver stranded by a roadside breakdown, or give spare change to a stranger. But increasingly, a wall separates each of us from the world outside, and from others who have taken refuge in their own private sanctuaries. How can we renew the public participation that's the very soul of democratic citizenship?

To be sure, the issues we face are complex. It's hard to comprehend the moral implications of a world in which Nike pays Michael Jordan millions to appear in its ads while workers at its foreign shoe factories toil away for pennies a day. The 500 richest people on the planet now control more wealth than the poorest 3 billion, half the human population. Is it possible even to grasp this extraordinary imbalance? And, more important, how do we begin to redress it?

Certainly we need to decide for ourselves whether particular causes are wise or foolish. But we also need to believe that our individual involvement is worthwhile, that what we might do in the public sphere will not be in vain. The challenge is as much psychological as political. As the Ethiopian proverb says, "He who conceals his disease cannot be cured."

We need to understand ourultural diseases--callousness, shortsightedness, denial, and cynicism--and learn what it will take to heal our society and our souls. How did so many of us become convinced that we can do nothing to affect the future our children and grandchildren will inherit? And how have others managed to work powerfully for change?

Pete Knutson is one of my oldest friends. During his thirty-five years as a commercial fisherman in Washington and Alaska, he’s been forced, time and again, to respond to the steady degradation of salmon spawning grounds. “You’d have a hard time spawning, too, if you had a bulldozer in your bedroom,” he says, explaining the destruction of once-rich salmon habitat by com­mercial development and timber industry clearcutting. Pete could have simply accepted the degradation as inevitable, focusing on getting a maximum share of dwindling fish populations. Instead, he’s gradually built an alliance between Washington State fishermen, environmentalists, and Native American tribes, persuading them to work collectively to demand that habitat be preserved and restored and to use the example of the salmon runs to highlight larger issues like global climate change.

The cooperation Pete created didn’t come easily: Washington’s fishermen were historically individualistic and politically mistrust­ful, more inclined, in Pete’s judgment, “to grumble or blame the Indians than to act.” Now, with their new allies, they began to push for cleaner spawning streams, rigorous enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, and an increased flow of water over major regional dams to help boost salmon runs. But large industrial interests, such as the aluminum companies, feared that these measures would raise their electricity costs or restrict their opportunities for develop­ment. So they bankrolled a statewide initiative to regulate fishing nets in a way that would eliminate small family fishing operations.

“1 think we may be toast,” said Pete, when Initiative 640 first surfaced. In an Orwellian twist, its backers even presented the measure as environmentally friendly, to mislead casual voters. At first, those opposing 640 thought they had no chance of success: They were outspent, outstaffed, outgunned. Similar initiatives had already passed in Florida, Louisi­ana, and Texas, backed by similar industrial interests. I remember Pete sitting in a Seattle tavern with two fisherman friends, laughing bitterly and saying, “The three of us are going to take on the alu­minum companies? We’re going to beat Reynolds and Kaiser?”

But they refused to give up. Instead, Pete and his coworkers systematically enlisted the region’s major environmental groups to campaign against the initiative. They brought in the Native American tribes. A fisherman who was a member of the highly conservative Assemblies of God church persuaded his minister to send a letter to each of their congregations in the state. They worked with the media to explain the larger issues at stake and focus public attention on the measure's powerful financial backers. On election day in November 1995, Initiative 640 was defeated. White fishermen, Pentacostals, Native American activists, and Friends of the Earth staffers threw their arms around each other in victory.  "I'm really proud of you, Dad," Pete's twelve-year-old son kept repeating. Pete was stunned.

We often think of social involvement as noble but impractical. Yet it can serve enlightened self-interest and the interests of others simultaneously, giving us a sense of connection and purpose nearly impossible to find in private life. "It takes energy to act," says Pete. "But it's more draining to bury your anger, convince yourself you're powerless, and swallow whatever's handed to you."
We often don't know where to start. Most of us would like to see people treated more justly and the earth accorded the respect it deserves. But we mistrust our own ability to make a difference. The magnitude of the issues at hand has led too many of us to conclude that social involvement isn't worth the cost.

Such resignation isn't innate or inevitable. It's what psychologists call learned helplessness, a systematic way of ignoring the ills we see and leaving them for others to handle. Understandably, we find it unsettling just to contemplate crises as profound in their implications as global climate change, species extinction, or the destruction of the rainforests. Or the slide of so many once-comfortable individuals and communities toward the economic abyss. We’re led to believe that if we can’t instantly solve every one of these problems, we shouldn’t bother to become socially active at all—an outlook that’s helped create the difficult situation we now face. We’re also taught to doubt our voice. We feel we lack the time to properly comprehend the issues we care about, and fear that no one will listen to what we say. To become socially involved, we believe, requires almost saint-like judgment, confidence, and character—a standard we can never meet. Whatever impulses to­ward involvement we might naturally feel are thwarted by a culture that demeans idealism, enshrines cynicism, and makes us feel naive for caring about our fellow human beings or the planet we inhabit.

CHANGE Happens

I once was interviewed on CNN along with Rosa Parks. "Rosa Parks was the woman who wouldn't go to the back of the bus," said the host. "That set in motion the yearlong bus boycott in Montgomery. It earned Rosa Parks the title of 'mother of the civil rights movement.' "

The host's description--the standard rendition of the story—stripped the boycott of its context. Before the day Parks refused to give up her bus seat, she had spent twelve years involved with her local NAACP chap­ter, along with E. D. Nixon, an activist in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union who was the head of the chapter; local teachers; and other members of Montgomery’s Af­rican American community. The summer before, Parks had at­tended a ten-day training session at Tennessee’s labor and civil rights organizing school, the Highlander Center, where she’d met an older generation of civil rights activists and discussed the Su­preme Court’s recent decision banning “separate but equal” schools. In the process, Parks also became familiar with previous challenges to segregation: Another Montgomery bus boycott, fifty years earlier, had successfully eased some restrictions; and a bus boycott in Baton Rouge had won limited gains two years before. The previous spring, a young Montgomery woman had also refused to move to the back of the bus, causing the NAACP to consider making her the centerpiece of a legal challenge—until it turned out that she was pregnant and unmarried, and therefore a problematic symbol for a campaign.

In short, Parks’ decision didn’t come out of nowhere. Nor did she single-handedly give birth to the civil rights move­ment. Rather, she was part of a longstanding effort to create change, when success was far from certain and setbacks were routine. That in no way diminishes the personal courage, moral force, and historical importance of her refusal to surrender her seat. But the full story of Rosa Parks reminds us that her tremendously consequential act, along with everything that followed, depended on all the humble, frustrating work that she and others had undertaken earlier on, and on the vibrant, engaged community they had developed in the face of continual hardship and opposition. Her actions that day also weren’t accidental, the product of her feet being tired, as we’ve so often heard, but rather a deliberate effort to challenge injustice.  What’s more, the full story underscores the value of persistence; had she given up in year three or seven or ten we’d never have heard of her. Finally, it reminds us that Parks’s first step toward involvement—attending a local NAACP meeting—was as critical to altering history as her famed stand on the bus.

Heroes like Parks shape our images of social commitment—of how change actually takes place.  Yet when I speak throughout the country, most of those who hear my talks don’t know the full story of her involvement. In this instance, the conventional portrayal may actually make it harder for us to get involved. It suggests that engaged citizens emerge fully developed and socially adept, to take bold and visionary stands. It implies that we act with the greatest effect when we act alone, at least initially. It assumes that change is instantaneous, as opposed to incremental, a series of often-invisible actions that gradually—and taken together—gather momentum and influence events. Depicting Parks as a lone pioneer reinforces the romantic but ultimately false myth that anyone who takes a committed public stand, or at least a fruitful one, has to be a larger-than-life figure—someone with more time, energy, courage, vision, or knowledge than any normal person could ever possess.

By elevating Parks to superhero status, the myth also obscures the story’s most powerful lessons of hope—that when we begin to act on our beliefs, we set out on a journey whose rewards we can’t anticipate, that seemingly modest initial steps can lead to powerful results, and that any of us can contribute to bringing about change, in small or large ways. Parks’s story also reminds us that as we do tackle common problems, we can discover and develop strengths and passions we never knew we had. We can begin to reconnect with our fellow human beings, with our wisest and most humane instincts, and with the core of who we are, which we call our soul.

Yet most of us know next to nothing of the battles ordinary men and women fought to preserve freedom, expand democracy, and create a more just society. Many have remarked on America's historical amnesia, but its implications are hard to appreciate without recognizing how much identity dissolves in the absence of memory. We lose the mechanisms that grassroots social movements have used successfully to shift public sentiment and challenge entrenched institutional power. Equally lost are the means by which participants eventually managed to prevail.
Think about how differently one can frame Rosa Parks' historic action. In the prevailing myth, Parks--a holy innocent--acts almost on a whim, in isolation. The lesson seems to be that if any of us suddenly got the urge to do something heroic, that would be great. Of course most of us wait our entire lives for the ideal moment.

The real story is more empowering: It suggests that change is the product of deliberate, incremental action. When we join together to shape a better world, sometimes our struggles will fail or bear only modest fruits. Other times they will trigger miraculous outpourings of courage and heart. We can never know beforehand what the consequences of our actions will be.



''It does us all a disservice," says Atlanta activist Sonya Tinsley, "when people who work for social change are presented as saints. We get a false sense that from the moment they were born they were called to act, never had doubts, were bathed in a circle of light. But I'm much more inspired learning how people succeeded despite their failings and un-certainties."

Enshrining our heroes makes it hard for mere mortals to measure up. Because we can't imagine that an ordinary human being might make a critical difference in a worthy social cause, many of us have developed what I call the "perfect standard": Before we take action on an issue, we must be convinced not only that the issue is the world's most important, but also that we have perfect knowledge of it, perfect moral consistency, and perfect eloquence with which to express our views.

To hear others invoke the perfect standard against us is damaging enough. It’s worse to subject ourselves to it. As a result, for instance, we often refrain from tackling environmental issues because they’re so technically complex that we decide only credentialed scientists should address them. We don’t speak out on homelessness because we aren’t homeless ourselves. Though outraged when moneyed inter­ests corrupt our political system, we believe we lack the authority to insist campaign financing be reformed.

Proliferation of information makes it even more likely that we'll use the perfect standard to justify detachment rather than seek the knowledge we need to get involved. We can spend our lives trying to gather ever more facts and arguments from every conceivable website, blog, Facebook posting, or 24-hour cable news source. Just as our culture has no notion of economic sufficiency, so the perfect standard leaves us with a permanent insufficiency of knowledge—and a convenient way to dismiss anyone who dares take a public stand. As everything that can be known continues to in­crease, the effort to know everything grows increasingly doomed. Yet we don’t dare speak out unless we feel prepared to debate Bill O’Reilly on national network news.

Eloquence, however, is not as important as kindness, concern, and a straightforward declaration of belief. Will Campbell has been a Baptist preacher, civil rights activist, farmer, writer, and volunteer cook for his friend, musician Waylon Jennings. Years ago, he was invited to participate in a student conference on capital punishment at Florida State University. At the last minute he discovered that he was supposed to formally debate an erudite scholar, who delivered a long philosophical argument in favor of the death penalty as a means of buttressing the legitimacy of the state. When Campbell got up to present the opposing view, nothing equally weighty came to mind. So he said, slowly and deliberately, "I just think it's tacky," and sat down.

The audience laughed.

"Tacky?" the moderator asked.

"Yessir," Campbell repeated. "I just think it's tacky."

"Now, come on," the moderator said, "tacky is an old Southern word, and it means uncouth, ugly, lack of class."

"Yessir. I know what it means," said Campbell. "And if a thing is ugly, well, ugly means there's no beauty there. And if there is no beauty in it, there is no truth in it. And if there is no truth in it, there is no good in it. Not for the victim of the crime. Certainly not for the one being executed. Not for the executioner, the jury, the judge, the state. For no one. And we were enjoined by a well-known Jewish prophet to love them all."

I'm not lobbying for disdaining reasoned arguments, or for absolutely agreeing with Campbell’s stand. But modern society, by virtue of its complexity and sophistication, makes moral engagement difficult; we don't need to compound the problem by demanding perfection. Simple can still be forceful and eloquent. Social change always proceeds in the absence of absolute knowledge, so long as people are willing to follow their convictions, to act despite their doubts, and to speak even at the risk of making mistakes. As the philosopher and poet Rabindranath Tagore once wrote, "If you shut your door to all errors, truth will be shut out."

According to another version of the perfect standard, we shouldn't begin working for social change until the time is ideal—for instance when we’re more solid in our careers. We wait for when our courage and wisdom will be greatest, the issues clearest, and our supporters and allies most steadfast. Hesitation is reasonable; we are subject to real pressures and constraints. Yet when will we not be subject to pressures?

There is no perfect time to get involved in social causes, no ideal circumstances for voicing our convictions. Instead, each of us faces a lifelong series of imperfect moments in which we must decide what to stand for. We may have to seek them out consciously, sometimes in discouraging contexts or when we don't feel ready. The wonder is that when we do begin to act, we often gain the knowledge, confidence, and strength that we need to continue.

I've heard countless people say they'd like to do more but are just not "the kind of person who gets involved." The suggestion here is that the ability to make a difference is innate and immutable, either part of our character or not. But if developmental psychology theories are correct, there are no natural leaders or followers, no people who by sole virtue of superior genetic traits become activists. There are only individuals whose voices and visions through happenstance or habit have been sufficiently encouraged. Being able to stand up for our beliefs is a learned behavior, not an inherited disposition.

In fact, seemingly powerless people may be in a better position to change history than their more fortunate counterparts. Consider Martin Luther King Jr. early in his career, a 26-year-old preacher heading into Montgomery, Alabama, uncertain of what, if anything, he might achieve. Indeed, King's campaigns failed as often as they succeeded. Lech Walesa was a shipyard electrician before events thrust him into the forefront of Poland's Solidarity movement. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva dropped out of school after the fourth grade, shining shoes and working as a street vendor before he became a lathe operator, joined and later led the steel workers union, helped found the Brazilian Workers’ Party, and eventually was elected president of his country.  Jody Williams taught English as a Second Language and worked with various citizen’s groups before joining the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and winning the Nobel Peace Prize five years later, in 1997. These people were not fulfilling some preordained destiny. They were developing character—their own unique character—by tak­ing the risk of speaking out for what they believed. As the eighteenth-century Hasidic rabbi Susya once put it, “God will not ask me why I was not Moses, He will ask me why I was not Susya.”


--Leave Room for Error

If participation in public life is a developmental process, then taking action is also an experiment in self-education. Sociologist Todd Gitlin argues that learning often takes place precisely when we enter "that difficult, rugged, sometimes impassable territory where arguments are made, points weighed, counters considered, contradictions faced, and where honest disputants have to consider the possibility of learning something that might change their minds." Social activism, in other words, is as much a matter of learning how to listen, especially to those who disagree with us, as it is of learning how to voice our beliefs.

How do we know the changes we're promoting will do more good than harm? Advocates for the perfect standard would have us believe that uncertainty is an insurmountable obstacle, but it can also be a blessing. "The fact that we don't get it could be the best news of all," writes Sister Mary Smith of Portland's Franciscan Renewal Center, "because in not getting it we are opened up to a new way of seeing, a new way of hearing, and possibly a new way of living."

Those of us who work for social justice often have no choice but to pursue our fundamental goals by means that are unclear, ad hoc, half-baked, contradictory, and sometimes downright surreal. I remember going to one Vietnam-era demonstration that focused on the role of major oil companies in promoting the war; my friends and I drove to the demonstration because there was no other cheap and efficient way to get there. As we stopped to fill up at a gas station along the way, it dawned on us that we were financially supporting one of the companies we would soon be vocally opposing. We felt more than a little absurd, but it was the best choice available.

We learn to live with contradictions in our personal lives. A lonely few wait indefinitely for partners who match their romantic ideals, but most of us fall in love with people who, like ourselves, fall short of faultlessness. Children are the embodiment of unpredictability; we can influence but not control them. We respond to those dear to us moment by moment, as lovingly and mindfully as possible, improvising as we go. We embrace uncertain human bonds because the alternative is isolation.

Public involvement demands a similar tolerance for mixed feelings, doubts, and contradictory motives. When we act, some may view us as heroic knights riding in to save the day, but we're more like knights on rickety tricycles, clutching our fears and hesitations as we go. Gandhi called his efforts "experiments in truth," because their results could come only through trial and error.

How then shall we characterize those who participate in our society as active citizens? They are persons of imperfect character, acting on the basis of imperfect knowledge, for causes that may be imperfect as well. That's a profile virtually any of us could match, given a willingness to live with ambiguity, occasional failure, and frustration. Imperfection may not be saintly, but wielding it in the service of justice is a virtue. Whoever we are, we can savor our imperfect journey of commitment. Learning as we go, we can discover how much our actions matter.

Adapted from the wholly updated new edition of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times by Paul Rogat Loeb (St Martin’s Press, 2010, $16.99 paperback). With over 130,000 copies in print, Soul has become a classic guide to involvement in social change. Howard Zinn calls it “wonderful…rich with specific experience.” Alice Walker says, “The voices Loeb finds demonstrate that courage can be another name for love.” Bill McKibben calls it “a powerful inspiration to citizens acting for environmental sanity.”  Loeb also wrote The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, the History Channel and American Book Association's #3 political book of 2004. For more information or to receive Loeb’s articles directly, see www.paulloeb.org.   From Soul of a Citizen by Paul Rogat Loeb. Copyright © 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Griffin.

If you wish to subscribe to Paul's mailing lists, please fill out this form.


Share this page.