Our complex relationship with revolution

This post is more than 3 years old.

I've been thinking about the complex relationship that mainstream U.S. culture has with the notion of revolution.

In the abstract, we seem to celebrate the possibility of wide-reaching changes in some government or other system that affects the lives of many people.

We like things that provide a chance for a clean slate, a fresh start, a putting aside of ways that aren't working well. When we think about other countries that may have been living under oppressive regimes and then hear that they are in the midst of revolution, we probably assume that this change is leaning toward kinds of freedom and opportunities that are good for the people there. We have ourselves spent many billions of dollars on facilitating "regime change" or other dramatic shifts in power around the world. And we know that our own history as a country is full of revolutions - some peaceful, some bloody - and we take it as a given that these kinds of struggles and shifts are milestones to be remembered, if not honored.

When revolution is in the past, or in distant places, it's okay.

But when we think about revolution in the context of our own present, everyday lives, it seems we are much less tolerant of revolution.

We organize our corporations and civic institutions such that radical or sudden, wide-reaching change is not possible or expected. Even mildly dramatic changes to consumer products, services and entertainment we enjoy prompt disproportional outrage and demands to return to the comfortable.  We pay our government to actively clamp down on people, organizations and movements that call for revolution or that would otherwise disrupt the social order. The idea of taking to public spaces to raise concerns about an issue important to us is for many an extremely uncomfortable one at best, and is more often seen as signs of dangerous, radical behavior. Cable news and Facebook rants aside, we go out of our way to not challenge each other in conversation; engaging on matters of substantial relevance to human existence (e.g. politics, religion, finance or sexuality) is often not considered acceptable for dinner table conversation, let alone our educational curriculum. We give lip service to the idea of "kicking all the politicians out of office" and starting fresh, but on election day we often select the familiar, the predictable.

When revolution is in the present, in our homes and neighborhoods, it's something to be avoided.

Somewhere in between accepting revolution for others and avoiding revolution that becomes personal are the choices we make about what behaviors, outcomes and environmental conditions we're willing to tolerate before endorsing taking action.

The more you have to lose, the less likely you are to risk losing it. And so for many people living in the U.S., a relatively wealthy country, the bar is set very high for what it takes to seek out real revolution, or even incremental change. If we are heavily invested in the way our world works today, if our current personal sense of security, wealth, fulfillment and potential future opportunity (for us and our families) is dependent on things largely staying the way they are now, it seems we will most often not take action to disrupt that. In many cases, we will actively defend the way things are now to avoid change.

Put another way, the language of revolution only exists when people think of themselves first as citizens. When we are consumers first, there is only supply and demand, buyers and vendors, the ups and downs of the market.

If current trends continue toward shaping the world's population primarily into consumers instead of citizens, perhaps our relationship with revolution won't be complex at all.

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