Noam Chomsky Explains the Best Way for Ordinary People to Make Change in the World, Even When It Seems Daunting

The threat of wide­spread vio­lence and unrest descends upon the coun­try, thanks again to a col­lec­tion of actors vicious­ly opposed to civ­il rights, and in many cas­es, to the very exis­tence of peo­ple who are dif­fer­ent from them. They have been giv­en aid and com­fort by very pow­er­ful enablers. Vet­er­an activists swing into action. Young peo­ple turn out by the hun­dreds week after week. But for many ordi­nary peo­ple with jobs, kids, mort­gages, etc. the cost of par­tic­i­pat­ing in con­stant protests and civ­il actions may seem too great to bear. Yet, giv­en many awful exam­ples in recent his­to­ry, the cost of inac­tion may be also.

What can be done? Not all of us are Rosa Parks or Howard Zinn or Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. or Thich Nat Hanh or Cesar Chavez or Dolores Huer­ta, after all. Few of us are rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies and few may wish to be. Not every­one is brave enough or tal­ent­ed enough or knowl­edge­able enough or com­mit­ted enough or, what­ev­er.

The prob­lem with this kind of think­ing is a prob­lem with so much think­ing about pol­i­tics. We look to leaders—men and women we think of as supe­ri­or beings—to do every­thing for us. This can mean del­e­gat­ing all the work of democ­ra­cy to some­times very flawed indi­vid­u­als. It can also mean we fun­da­men­tal­ly mis­un­der­stand how demo­c­ra­t­ic move­ments work.

In the video above, Noam Chom­sky address­es the ques­tion of what ordi­nary peo­ple can do in the face of seem­ing­ly insur­mount­able injus­tice. (The clip comes from the 1992 doc­u­men­tary Man­u­fac­tur­ing Con­sent.) “The way things change,” he says, “is because lots of peo­ple are work­ing all the time, and they’re work­ing in their com­mu­ni­ties or their work­place or wher­ev­er they hap­pen to be, and they’re build­ing up the basis for pop­u­lar move­ments.”

In the his­to­ry books, there’s a cou­ple of lead­ers, you know, George Wash­ing­ton or Mar­tin Luther King, or what­ev­er, and I don’t want to say that those peo­ple are unim­por­tant. Mar­tin Luther King was cer­tain­ly impor­tant, but he was not the Civ­il Rights Move­ment. Mar­tin Luther King can appear in the his­to­ry books ‘cause lots of peo­ple whose names you will nev­er know, and whose names are all for­got­ten and who may have been killed and so on were work­ing down in the South.

King him­self often said as much. For exam­ple, in the Pref­ace of his Stride Toward Free­dom he wrote—referring to the 50,000 most­ly ordi­nary, anony­mous peo­ple who made the Mont­gomery Bus Boy­cott happen—“While the nature of this account caus­es me to make fre­quent use of the pro­noun ‘I,’ in every impor­tant part of the sto­ry it should be ‘we.’ This is not a dra­ma with only one actor.”

As for pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als like him­self engaged in polit­i­cal strug­gle, Chom­sky says, “peo­ple like me can appear, and we can appear to be promi­nent… only because some­body else is doing the work.” He defines his own work as “help­ing peo­ple devel­op cours­es of intel­lec­tu­al self-defense” against pro­pa­gan­da and mis­in­for­ma­tion. For King, the issue came down to love in action. Respond­ing in a 1963 inter­view above to a crit­i­cal ques­tion about his meth­ods, he coun­ters the sug­ges­tion that non­vi­o­lence means sit­ting on the side­lines.

I think of love as some­thing strong and that orga­nizes itself into pow­er­ful, direct action…. We are not engaged in a strug­gle that means we sit down and do noth­ing. There’s a great deal of dif­fer­ence between non­re­sis­tance to evil and non­vi­o­lent resis­tance. Non­re­sis­tance leaves you in a state of stag­nant pas­siv­i­ty and dead­en­ing com­pla­cen­cy, where­as non­vi­o­lent resis­tance means that you do resist in a very strong and deter­mined man­ner.

Both Chom­sky, King, and every oth­er voice for jus­tice and human rights would agree that the peo­ple need to act instead of rely­ing on move­ment lead­ers. What­ev­er actions one can take—whether it’s engag­ing in informed debate with fam­i­ly, friends, or cowork­ers, writ­ing let­ters, mak­ing dona­tions to activists and orga­ni­za­tions, doc­u­ment­ing injus­tice, or tak­ing to the streets in protest or acts of civ­il disobedience—makes a dif­fer­ence. These are the small indi­vid­ual actions that, when prac­ticed dili­gent­ly and coor­di­nat­ed togeth­er in the thou­sands, make every pow­er­ful social move­ment pos­si­ble.

Note: This post orig­i­nal­ly appeared on our site in August 2017 when white suprema­cists (aka the pres­i­den­t’s “many fine peo­ple”) marched in Char­lottesville, VA. It speaks no less direct­ly to the trau­ma of the cur­rent moment, so we’re bring­ing it back.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Noam Chom­sky & Har­ry Bela­fonte Speak on Stage for the First Time Togeth­er: Talk Trump, Klan & Hav­ing a Rebel­lious Heart

Noam Chom­sky Defines What It Means to Be a Tru­ly Edu­cat­ed Per­son

Read Mar­tin Luther King and The Mont­gomery Sto­ry: The Influ­en­tial 1957 Civ­il Rights Com­ic Book

Howard Zinn’s “What the Class­room Didn’t Teach Me About the Amer­i­can Empire”: An Illus­trat­ed Video Nar­rat­ed by Vig­go Mortensen

Hen­ry David Thore­au on When Civ­il Dis­obe­di­ence and Resis­tance Are Jus­ti­fied (1849)

Saul Alinsky’s 13 Tried-and-True Rules for Cre­at­ing Mean­ing­ful Social Change

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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