Incrementalism or Iterative Change

I’m tired of hearing how the left always eats its own, as though the littlest disagreement will destroy any efficacy the left has and frighten off any would be allies. And it does appear that it is only white leftists who have this fear. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. As a cold war baby the term allies doesn’t sit well with me. Allies turn on you. Remember the Russians. BIPOC have started calling for white people to become co-conspirators. Much better. 

I was recently involved in one of many conversations around activism (we may have been talking about defunding the police) where the argument against radical change was that we couldn’t move too quickly. We needed to have a plan in place before we made a proposal (defund the police is a proposal, I think, just saying). The fear was of unintended consequences, yet unintended consequences though they will need to be addressed, by definition cannot be preempted. What I was witnessing was a fear and a vision that becomes paralyzing in social justice movements. The vision is that all change must be top down. This is a mechanistic view of the world, that once everything is in place we are both wedded to the outcomes and incapable of stepping back and changing the inputs. The fear is that if we don’t predict every push back, every negative response from the get-go we will be powerless against them.

Emergence teaches us a different narrative. Emergence teaches us that change is both self-organizing and dependent upon reinforcing feedback loops. Change is iterative. We can try a thing and see if it works. In business they sometimes call this throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. In social justice movements it means being open to constant reassessment and correction from impacted parties. It means lived experience is invaluable in assessing impact. Moving forward isn’t linear. 

I remember the summer my youngest grandson learned to walk. He was so very close at the family picnic. Every time he fell he got up again. Every time he got up again his little legs were a little stronger and heaven forbid you try to help him or guide him. “Me can do it,” is the mantra of the 18 to 30 month old. The problem with the white left is that once we fall we believe we’ve learned the lesson that that approach results in failure. We look around for who is going to help us move forward. We deny ourselves the opportunity to learn and grow stronger. At the same time the right is learning and adapting and our little legs are growing weaker.

I’ve spoken before about the dangers of incrementalism. How incrementalism necessarily works against social change, how the rallying cry of too far, too fast, too much, too soon leaves out too many and doesn’t move us any closer to the goal in the long run. The white left continues to fight the same fights—universal health care—compromised away under FDR’s new deal—reproduction rights—compromised when we framed the discussion to be only about abortion rights, to be adjudicated in the supreme court (we gave the right their playbook there.) Where would we be if we had been willing to fight for an intersectional feminism that demanded that women controlled their bodies and defined their families always? 

A friend of mine talks a great deal about the Overton Window, the frame that most people view as containing the possible, and the necessity to move that window to the left, and the actuality of political compromise moving it unrelentingly to the right. There is a great deal of value in that framework when talking about what the electorate might deem possible. There is also value in building a framework totally outside of the Overton Window where people are encouraged to talk about what they value in their lives and communities, encouraged to envision a more just future for themselves and their neighbors, and encouraged to begin building expansive networks based on shared experiences.

In the entrepreneurial ecosystem there is much business advice about the importance of failure. In Eric Ries 2011 book The Lean Startup, he builds a model for incremental change that relies heavily on capturing data about results and being willing to quickly adapt when the data lets you know you’ve moving in the wrong direction. When white liberals talk about “eating our own” we most frequently mean don’t criticize our approaches or our accomplishments, don’t turn us away. But, when we do things that don’t work criticism is a gift. When the young tell us what hasn’t worked stepping back and listening moves us forward. When marginalized people tell us that our incremental wins have hurt them in the long game, we have to decide whether we are in the long game ourselves or in the game of protecting our egos. There is too much work to be done to make the wrong choice now.

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