Critique and Creation: Why Social Change Requires Both

In a couple of different conversations on social change last week, I brought up an idea that I can neither lay claim to as an original thought nor attribute to a specific source. It has been said by many in any number of ways. However, it’s a fundamentally important practical point for community organizing and creating change in our world – and thus bears repeating, especially in our current climate. Even when we know something, we sometimes need to hear it again.

Effective social change work requires articulating a critique of the status quo and working to dismantle the structures that support that status quo.

Effective social change work also requires articulating a vision of alternatives to the dominant paradigm(s) and working to make those visions a feasible reality. It can be multiple visions of alternatives. Or a vision of multiple alternatives. One solution is probably not going to fit for everybody – and that’s okay as long as we can find a way to work within genuine pluralism*.

Sometimes we treat this work as either/or. We attack or we build. We create or we destroy. Such an approach has inherent limitations.

If all we do is critique, we risk leaving people in despair. We feed a climate of doom that forces others to look away so that they can function in daily life. We get bitter and frustrated and turn on one another. It burns out those who care and diffuses the energy needed to take on the powers-that-be.

If all we do is create a new path, we also limit our effectiveness. If people don’t understand the problematic nature of old institutions and patterns, they are much less likely to abandon the security the old system offers (even when it works against their own interests) for the uncertainty of something new. Familiarity is comfortable. Change is hard.

Without the component of active and articulated (not just implied) critique, it’s also harder to resist being co-opted – or crushed – by dominant structures. Compassionate and clear self-examination function best in a context of critical awareness. It helps keep us honest.

Not everybody is going to be good at both strands of the work. That’s okay. But the conversation as a whole has to include both components – and people of different gifts doing this work must listen to and respect one another. That’s not just head-nodding listening. That’s listening in such a way as to allow the other person’s insights and experiences change you and what you do and how you do it.

We have to do both. The conversation has to integrate both critique and creation. If it doesn’t, we make things harder than they need to be. And this work is difficult enough already, right?


* okay, that’s not at all a small caveat, but it represents a tangent here. We’ll come back to that another day.