That’s the way it is…until it isn’t…
In his very famous line from Apocalypse Now, Robert Duvall said “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”. Well, I love the smell of protest in the morning…
On Friday, thousands of young people around the world skipped school and took to the streets to highlight their concerns about climate change. I don’t necessarily agree with everything they say on the subject, but that hardly matters.
What matters is that it’s been a long time since young people took to the streets to protest about anything…as the Eagles sang, “we haven’t had that spirit here since 1969”. I’d say that’s far too long.
Where would the world be today without the Civil Rights marchers of the late 1950s and early 1960s?
Or the hippies protesting about the war in Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s?
Oh, hang on, I can’t remember protests about anything much since then.
And by “protesting”, I don’t mean raging on Twitter about something, or posting derogatory comments about politicians you don’t agree with on Facebook.
You couldn’t do either of those in 1969, admittedly, although I’m not sure the world is a better place for being able to abuse strangers anonymously online.
When something is wrong with the world, it’s the ability to protest about it which brings humanity back on course again.
If people can’t protest…or, perhaps more insidiously, can’t be bothered because smart, manipulative people at social media companies have somehow convinced them to spend any free time perfecting their Instagram profile instead…the world will just keep drifting in whatever direction the tide is currently taking it, whether that’s for good or ill.
Thankfully, we humans are a sufficiently diverse species that there’s always someone who puts their hand up to say… “are we all quite sure we want to keep going the way we have been in the last few years?”.
George Bernard Shaw said “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
With apologies for GBS’s gendered approach to this topic…regrettably, this was considered acceptable in his day…what’s certainly true is that progress depends on one person taking a public stand on an important topic and increasingly large groups of other people saying to themselves “I like what he/she has to say on this subject”.
In the field of climate change protests, the poster child…literally…is Greta Thunberg, who decided at just 15 years old to refuse to go to school one day because she felt that if nobody else was going to save the planet for her generation and the generations beyond, she was going to take the challenge on instead.
That’s a phenomenally brave thing for anyone to do, especially since the education of children around the world has turned into an experience not unlike the child workers in Victorian factories.
In the supposedly enlightened 21st century education is more often used as a way of drilling young people into obedience. Our young people are taught solely for the purposes of passing tests to satisfy the “engine rooms” of large employers and to evidence the glory of the institution they attend.
The joy of learning for its own sake and being allowed to form your own independent view of the world are rare experiences in education today.
Except for Greta Thunberg, who decided she was going to teach herself about climate change because she was horrified it had merited just one single lesson in her entire geography class at school despite it being, in her view, the most important social, economic and environmental issue facing her generation.
Once she’d learned everything she could on the subject, she had the independence of mind to say “what we’re doing isn’t good enough”. And, having looked around and discovered there wasn’t anyone else doing very much about it either, spent one Friday standing outside the Swedish parliament one Friday holding a handwritten sign to protest about the lack of attention being paid to the issue of climate change instead of going to school.
It snowballed from there.
As the protests grew, from one schoolgirl to a handful, to hundreds, to thousands, to the entire planet, Greta Thunberg attracted the derision of billionaires and the scorn of the supposedly sophisticated elite. It would have been easy, understandable even, if this single Swedish schoolgirl just gave up and went back to her classes.
Except she didn’t.
Everyone told her there was nothing she could do, one schoolgirl against the world’s political and business establishment. That was just the way it is. But Greta Thunberg ploughed on regardless. George Bernard Shaw would have been proud of her.
As would Bruce Hornsby, whose record “The Way It Is” was a Billboard Number One in 1986…
That’s just the way it is
Some things will never change
That’s just the way it is
Ah, but don’t you believe them
Yes, don’t believe them.
Anyone determined enough…George Bernard Shaw’s “unreasonable person”…can change anything.
As possibly the best ad campaign of all time, Apple’s “Think Different”, put it… “While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
That’s as true today as it’s ever been.
Think about it. There was a time, well within living memory, when people with a darker coloured skin couldn’t sit at the front of a bus in some places, and had to give up their seats if a white person wanted to sit down. They couldn’t use the same restrooms or eat in the same restaurants…
Said, hey little boy you can’t go where the others go
’Cause you don’t look like they do
Said, hey old man how can you stand
To think that way
Did you really think about it
Before you made the rules?
At the time, people said “that’s just the way it is…some thing will never change”.
Until, one day, they did.
On 1st December 1955 Rosa Parks decided she was going to change things and refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama when ordered to do so.
On December 5th that year, the day Rosa Parks was due in court to be tried for the offence of refusing to give up her seat to a white person, the Montgomery Bus Boycott…generally recognised as the first mass protest of the Civil Rights Movement…got under way.
It took nearly another 10 years for the world to do much about it, and I recognise the stain of racism is still far too common in the world even today. But the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race in the United States, made it to the statue book and at least provided some outlet for those who were mistreated by their employers or society at large.
Bruce Hornsby judged it right when he sang…
Well, they passed a law in ‘64
To give those who ain’t got a little more
But it only goes so far
Because the law don’t change another’s mind
When all it sees at the hiring time
Is the line on the color bar, no, no
Having a law in place which outlaws mistreatment of another human based purely on the colour of their skin is a pretty good start. But, by itself, that’s just words on a piece of paper. People have to change their behaviour before real change becomes embedded in society.
Nowadays, we can hardly imagine a world where it was perfectly legal to discriminate against people based on the colour of their skin.
That would never have happened without an “unreasonable” person taking a stand…without an African-American seamstress deciding one day she wasn’t prepared to put up with “the way it is”.
She stuck by her beliefs when it would have been easier not to.
Society likes to keep the “little people” in check. Whilst billionaires engage fancy lawyers and accountants to avoid paying a penny in taxes, they seem remarkably sure that a single Swedish schoolgirl who wants to make the world a better place to live in is a “danger to society”.
Thankfully, unreasonable people don’t turn away from what they see as their mission in life, whether that’s outlawing racial discrimination or saving the planet for future generations. They put up with the vilification, ignore the unrelenting pressure to conform, and refuse to be bribed into softening their rhetoric a little so they don’t make quite so many waves.
The crazy people are the ones who think they can change the world. In fact, they’re the only people who ever have.
If Friday taught us anything, it taught us that one person…a single Swedish schoolgirl with a superhuman level of determination…can still change the world.
Whether or not you agree with her, that’s something which should fill your heart with joy.
I want to live in a world where the actions of one single person can ripple out until thousands are marching in the streets of capital cities around the world to say they’re not prepared to accept the way things are any more.
That’s the way it is…until it isn’t…
Some things will never change…until they do…
The world stays the way it is…until one single person stands up to say we can do better, we can be better, we can make a difference through our own efforts.
Yes, even if that person is a 16 year old Swedish schoolgirl…someone who’s crazy enough to think they can change the world.
We need people like that. Because they’re the only ones who ever do.
Here’s Bruce Hornsby and The Range with “The Way It Is”…
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/6V50MyHPGhEmwYu0Wdyf0t