Several years from now, the month of June 2015 may be remembered as one of the most significant moments of this generation. While connected to events of the past, and surely to future events and developments, the past 30 days have brought a remarkable collection of watershed moments on key social issues, particularly in the United States and Canada. The documents and recorded history emanating from this time period have real potential to change the course of progress on issues that have long appeared “stuck”, touching and uniting a broad cross-section of society in a way that other recent attempts to address these issues have not yet achieved.
Four key moments of the past month are:
June 3 – Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report on Residential Schools Released in Canada. Culminating five years of painstakingly collecting testimony from thousands of indigenous Canadians, Justice Murray Sinclair and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released a 400-page report that testifies to the pain suffered by indigenous peoples in the country’s residential school system from 1877 to 1996, and offered 94 recommendations for all Canadians to achieve true reconciliation over historical wrongs. The release of the TRC’s report included a week of ceremonies, meetings with Canada’s political leadership, and powerful speeches. Perhaps the most powerful of these was Canada’s Chief Justice, Beverly McLachlin, calling the residential school program a “cultural genocide” perpetrated against indigenous peoples – the first time a public official of her rank had used that term. The TRC’s report and the public discussion that has accompanied it have elevated the residential school history and its multi-generational legacy far higher than any previous attempt to come to grips with this dark period of Canada’s history.
June 18 – Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change, Laudato Si, Released. In a worldwide appeal addressed to people of all faiths and countries, Pope Francis released a 192-page encyclical highlighting the injustices of climate change and demanding urgent action to stave off destruction of the planet’s environment. The papal letter was remarkable for its sweeping scope – linking environmental pollution, social injustice, and rabid overconsumption to the emergence of a “throwaway culture” – as well as its stark language (at one point mentioning that “it is remarkable how weak international political responses have been”). Through the depth of his message and willingness to confront powerful political and corporate actors blocking progress on this issue, the Pope has lent urgency and heightened moral attention to efforts to combat climate change in a way that has not been possible for other international organizations. The encyclical is likely to reverberate in several forums, including the upcoming United Nations negotiations on climate change in Paris later this year, as well as the U.S. presidential elections in 2016.
June 26 – U.S. Supreme Court Rules Same-Sex Marriage Legal. In a sweeping ruling that marks a decided inflection point in U.S. civil rights, the country’s Supreme Court issued a ruling last Friday that struck down prohibitions on same-sex marriage in all 50 states. While same-sex marriage was already legal in 37 states and the District of Columbia before the ruling, the Supreme Court’s decision has an important tangible effect not only for the other 13 states with marriage bans, but also for federal agencies, such as Immigration and Naturalization Service, that must now recognize the marriages of same-sex partners immigrating to the United States. Furthermore, the ruling and subsequent wave of support highlighted a stunning change of attitudes on this issue in the United States. In 2009, 57 percent of Americans believed same-sex marriage should not be legal; by 2015, fully 60 percent of Americans believed gay and lesbian couples should have the right to marry.
June 26 – President Barack Obama Delivers Civil Rights Eulogy for Clementa Pickney. In a riveting, 37-minute eulogy, President Obama delivered a cathartic reflection on the recent racial strife in the United States that culminated in the Charleston shooting earlier this month. In front of a mixed crowd of white and black mourners at the Mother Emanuel Church, the president provided a spiritual and intellectual analysis of the meaning of grace in the face of evil, and illuminated the beginnings of a path forward for Americans to renew their quest for a “more perfect union”. At a time when race relations seemed destined to take an irreversible turn for the worse, the president’s speech and the solidarity of Charlestonians may have instead turned this tragedy into an opportunity for greater understanding between the races. The cadence, emotion, and depth of Obama’s eulogy not only beautifully remembered the lives of the victims; it may well stand as one of the most impactful speeches of his presidency.
To be sure, none of these events on their own signify a final resolution to these issues that have divided society for generations, and in some cases, centuries. But the remarkable confluence of these many powerful and symbolic moments, all within such a compressed period of time, may hint at a rare opportunity to significantly expand our capacity for empathy and break down barriers that have inhibited progress on these issues for far too long.
It would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pickney stood for, I believe, if we allowed ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again. Once the eulogies have been delivered, once the TV cameras move on, to go back to business as usual – that’s what we so often do. To avoid uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society, to settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change – that’s how we lose our way again. It would be a refutation of the forgiveness expressed by those families if we merely slipped into old habits, whereby those who disagree with us are not merely wrong but bad, where we shout instead of listen, where we barricade ourselves behind preconceived notions, or well-practiced cynicism.” – President Barack Obama
Once every generation or so, there is a brief moment in time when history seems to open up and allow for a new course to be charted – when social issues that have appeared “stuck” for years suddenly exhibit the potential to be “unstuck”. Two generations ago, this moment took shape between 1964 and 1968, marked by social unrest and progress on civil rights in the United States, a growing anti-war movement, and the “Prague Spring” movement that challenged Soviet authority in the former Czechoslovakia. One generation ago, the moment occurred between 1989 and 1991 – marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, bringing an end to 45 years of Cold War between the world’s two superpowers, as well as the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, eventually bringing an end to South Africa’s apartheid system. And over the past few years, from the Arab Spring to African citizens resisting their presidents’ attempts to stay in power, from the Idle No More movement around awareness of indigenous rights to climate change, same-sex marriage, and race relations, it seems like we’re in the midst of another transformational moment in history.
There are common systemic forces that coalesce at times like these, and that enable a period of heightened empathy among seemingly disparate societal groups. Here are three key forces that contributed to previous periods of social change, and seem to be at work again today:
Changes in media. Generational tipping points often are enabled by deep changes in how, and with whom we communicate. The sweeping changes of the mid-1960s coincided with the rapid rise of colour television in American households – providing more and more Americans with a more visceral understanding of the injustices suffered by civil rights protestors. The fall of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe was at least partially assisted by the spread of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty in the late 1970s and 1980s. Over this past decade, social media platforms have altered how people around the world communicate with each other. While social media often invites criticisms for enabling superficial dialogue, it has had an undeniable effect in allowing users to freely float between different discussions and societal groups, breaking down traditional barriers of identity and simple lack of resources/coverage that plague traditional media. Online campaigns that led to the Arab Spring, the #IdleNoMore campaign around awareness of indigenous rights, and #BlackLivesMatter have all served to sensitize a broader audience to the plight of groups seeking societal change.
Failure of old paradigms. Periods of key social change have necessarily followed increasingly apparent failings in old paradigms. The civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s intensified as key American institutions, including the military, were shown to be fallible in places like Vietnam. Eastern European revolutions finally gained traction as it became more obvious that command-and-control economies were falling behind in standard of living. In the past few years, the cracks in the dominant free-market capitalist regime have become clear through the 2008-2009 financial crisis and subsequent period of slow growth – giving room to climate change and anti-authoritarian movements that pose increasingly credible challenges to the current economic system.
Leaders who connect generations. Any generational tipping point is also facilitated by individual leaders who can connect the desires and new paradigms of an emerging generation with the trust of previous generations. Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, Vaclav Havel, and Lech Walesa all managed to forge an intergenerational consensus, at least for brief periods of time. Today, leaders such as Pope Francis and Barack Obama give voice to the values of the emerging Millennial generation, even if they each belong to older generations. This is not necessarily an accident – both leaders’ rise to power was facilitated in part by their institutions’ fear of losing relevance if they did not find a way to connect with the emerging generation.
For all the optimism that this past month has brought for the prospect of deep social change, it would be naive to believe that these issues are close to finally being resolved. After all, issues such as reconciliation with indigenous peoples, reconciliation between races, GLBTQ rights, and climate change have persisted through previous periods of social change. At a time when so many societal anchors seem to be lifting, it is almost inevitable that strong counterrevolutions will emerge – the examples of Syria, Egypt, and (increasingly) Tunisia illustrate how an initial period of social change can eventually lead to more of the same, or even worse.
If there is one lesson to learn from these examples and previous incomplete revolutions, it is perhaps the importance of institutionalizing changes soon after they are achieved – that is, ensuring they are not dependent on the goodwill of specific leaders or a period of particular euphoria. Effecting change in legal systems is one place to start, as are fundamental changes to the structure of governments, educational systems, economic arrangements, and communication systems. The extent to which the successes of the past month are translated to systemic solutions may be the ultimate test of whether the summer of 2015 will truly be remembered by the history books.