* Intro – Saul Alinsky. Conflict produces change, and also a product of change
o “Change means movement” – Alinsky’s life
o “Conflict is the gadfly of thought” – Dewey says it is conflict that produces change
* 1 – Change creates conflict. The Crucible and Modern revolutions
o Salem conditions forced them together
o Once it has become easier, there is a new enterprise for freedom
o Two forces collide
o Parallels contemporary scene – revolutions
* 2 – Conflict can inspire change. The Proctor’s and Bali Nine
o Proctor’s tiptoed around
o Conflict doesn’t invite progress
o As it intensifies they reassess values – reunites them
o Bali nine leaders changed in jail
* 3 – Conflict can cause change, but not progress – War on Terror
o Descriptive opening
o Racial intolerance – multiculturalism placed on trial
o Public culture of surveillance
“Change means movement. Movement means friction”. These were the sentiments of Saul David Alinsky, a man well-placed to make such an observation. Alinsky first worked in prisons as a juvenile delinquency researcher. Then, starting in crime-ridden Chicago neighborhoods in the late 1930’s, he helped unions, churches and social groups unite, and win everything from jobs to streetlight to mere garbage collection. He would immerse himself in the neighborhood, listen to the troubles and needs of ordinary people, assess where power lay, and empower previously divided groups to seek common goals by standing up to government and corporate machines. It is for this reason that Time magazine once wrote that “American democracy is being altered by Alinsky’s ideas” and conservative author William Buckley remarked he was “very close to being an organizational genius”.
Yet, his desire for change to the status quo, for better social cohesion, meant “friction” was inevitably produced. A conservative church journal once wrote, “it is impossible to follow both Jesus Christ and Saul Alinsky”, just as a government official, Hyman Bookbinder, labeled him “outrageously false [and] intemperate headline seeking”. In light of this, his own life is evidence of his belief that progress will induce conflict. John Dewey has a subtly different opinion though. He says, “Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us into observation and memory”. From his perspective, progress does not produce conflict, but rather conflict produces progress. Like the chicken and the egg saga, there is no definite answer. In any case, both are true. It remains evident, that where there is growth and development there is conflict. Likewise, where there is conflict there is change, but we cannot make the mistake of assuming this necessarily equates with progress.
It is a concept mirrored in Arthur Miller’s allegorical play The Crucible. In the early founding years of the frontier town Salem, the threat from Indians and the alien environment compelled the inhabitants to unite “from top to bottom” in an “autocracy by consent”. However almost forty years on in 1692, the country had been largely tamed and the threat to citizens considerably reduced. In light of this, there was a new spirit of enterprise and movement for individual freedom which contrasted with the authoritarian values of the theocracy. Miller describes it as “two diametrically opposed absolutes”, and as two conflicting forces collide, ‘friction’ is naturally produced. It is clear then that amidst a theocracy that was coming apart, the Salem witch hunts were a final attempt to impose conformity and sustain the status quo through methods of extreme repression.
It is a concept sadly all too common in the contemporary political environment. The past year has witnessed the Egypt, Libya and Tunisian revolutions, which all tend to follow the same story – oppressed citizens, pushed to their limits by deprivations of freedom and justice, strive for collective change, whilst dictators attempt to keep their strangle-hold on the country. Saul Alinsky’s concept therefore appears to have considerable merit – there will always inevitably be some form of resistance to movements of change. In this way, wherever there is considerable progress there will also be episodes of conflict.
Conversely, as John Dewey suggests, conflict can actually produce change itself. Indeed,when conflict intensifies and places us in confronting situations, it can be become the channel through which we reassess our values and seek to improve. For seven months, following John Proctor’s affair with Abigail, he and his wife Elizabeth “tiptoed” around each other. We are presented with a situation where Proctor attacks her for the guilt that besets him, and she subsequently, reaffirms her position on the moral high ground, unable to forgive her husband on account of one sin. As Miller informs us, “these people had no ritual for the washing away of sins”. Indeed, initially such conflict does not invite either of them to progress their values but encourages them to remain intransigent, stuck in their positions, and distanced from each other. Yet, as the conflict intensifies once Elizabeth is seized, the confronting nature of the situation compels them to re-evaluate their love and it undoubtedly grows to a firmer bond beyond petty squabbling. John appreciates and re-discovers his love for his wife, as expressed through the passion in his voice, “I will fall like an ocean upon that court”.
Elizabeth likewise ignores the culture of the puritanical society and realizes her husband should not be characterized by one sin. In this way, conflict has compelled them to change their individual assumptions and indeed, as John Proctor lifts his wife into the air in one last passionate embrace, conflict has brought love anew. This power for conflict to induce self-development is mirrored in the contemporary world. Six years ago Bali Nine leaders Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were, in their own words, “young stupid and self-obsessed” as they were charged with drug-trafficking in Indonesia. Yet now, after their time in jail on death row, Chan and Sukumaran have become, from the perception of the guards themselves, “model prisoners”. Greater men would have been excused for living out their days with a self-serving bitterness, considering the punishment far out-weighed the crime. In light of this, it is evident that the confronting nature of their conflict has tested them and posed questions, which identified flaws and compelled them to reassess and improve.
There is one notable flaw in Saul Alinsky’s quote. “Friction” implies it can only stunt growth, only slow the progress of an individual or society. “Friction” cannot push something backwards, and yet, conflict has an extraordinary ability to do so.
The most iconic photo of the 21st century is a plane gliding through the air, about to crash into the World Trade Centre and change the world forever. It was as if nature had a sense of theatre; the sky was eerily blue, the perfect day upset by death, destruction and doom. Yet, the collapsed rubble and 3000 lives tragically lost were not the only devastation to emerge from this conflict. As the dust settled, a sinister side of America was unleashed – a burning desire for revenge. This vengeance gave rise to the War on Terror – it is a word that has gripped a nation, engendering fear and racial intolerance. Anything foreign was viewed as a form of dissent. In Australia, as in Europe and America, multiculturalism was quickly placed on trial.
The Howard government headed the prosecution, repeatedly demanding the integration of migrants whose failure to integrate had never been demonstrated, dreaming up citizenship tests, canning the ministerial portfolio of multicultural affairs, and haranguing Muslims about Simpson and his donkey. We embarked on War to ‘protect our freedom’, yet this is the very thing we were slowly denying on our home soil. A public culture of surveillance was quickly established. Governments, with popular backing, took the profoundly illiberal task of interrogating the values of their citizens, telling them what they should be. The result for Western Muslims has been a decade defending their faith from associations with terrorism. Indeed, we have seen a decade of division between Christians and Muslims, Westerners and ‘them’. This is our revenge for the September 11 attacks, and the world is a sorrier place for it. In this way, heightened tension has the capacity to interfere with out judgement and distort our morals. And so, this piteous episode demonstrates that intense conflict will still inevitably cause change, but often it does advocate progression, but rather its very antithesis, regression.
As such, Saul Alinsky and John Dewey appear to have considerable merit in their suggestions that change and conflict are intricately linked concepts. In one regard, conflict is a product of progress, whereas, depending on the conditions, it can also be the reactant that manufactures change. It is ultimately our inner-will that determines if this is to the betterment or destruction of society. And so, whilst for an abstract, intangible concept, there is an innate danger in making absolute statements, it appears without conflict, there is no progress or change.