Those seeking change have, for centuries, resisted the
incumbent and prevailing order. All too often this has resulted in little, if
any, real change. Sometimes, all that changes are the players, leaving the
system itself largely intact.
The reasons for this are many. This blogpiece does not have the space to enter into a full analysis, nor even offer a complete alternative. What it does do, however, is to pose a question that social change activists may like to consider.
One of the greatest psychologists of the 20th century, Carl Jung, offered this insight:
“What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.”
Although Jung’s primary work was at an individual level, he was also a shrewd observer of cultural behaviour. He recognised that patterns within individuals are repeated within the wider society – each helping to create the other.
Jung wasn’t the only one to recognise the mutually enlarging relationship between resistance and persistence. We can see a similar concept in Isaac Newton’s famous third law of motion. Often cited simply as action-reaction, this law tells us that when two objects exert a force on each other, then the forces are equal in magnitude, and opposite in direction. Simply put, this suggests that when one object exerts a greater force, then the other object will react by increasing its own force. What one resists, the other persists.
The same is true in our social and cultural settings. An action stimulates a reaction, which then becomes the stimulus for a further reaction.
Certainly, there are things that we must have the courage to say ‘No’ to – racism and sexism are two of the most obvious and blatant.
However, attempting to build an entire alternative system around saying ‘No’ is bound to end in tears, mistrust, and failure.
We may be better to move from a resisting modality to one of desisting. Similarly sounding words, yet a peek into their etymology gives us insight into their quite different qualities. Both receive their verb from Latin – sistere, meaning to stand, or stand firm.
Often the prefix re suggests a going back, or again. It also, as it does here in the word resist, means against (as in opposition to). Hence, resist literally means ‘to stand in opposition to, stand against.’ The word has an obvious oppositional, almost antagonistic, flavour.
What about the word desist? The same verb, i.e., to stand. The prefix de however, gives the word a much different flavour. De is also of Latin derivation and means away from, down from, or off. The word desist then, has the sense of standing away from, or standing apart from.
Quite a different flavour. There is no sense of opposition, yet it retains the sense of firmness, steadiness, and taking a stand. The difference is that one stands in opposition to something, the other stands apart from, standing firm elsewhere. It stands on its own merit, and stands in its own authorship and integrity.
This leads to the question that was foreshadowed at the beginning of this blog.
What would happen if social change movements shifted from resisting to desisting? What if, instead of trying to resist and fight against the system, the system was ignored and by-passed with effort going instead into creating a new system?
What if, instead of buying into systems, we simply stopped purchasing from them? What if we desisted from our consumer role, and became engaged, interactive, and communal citizens?
This is exactly what Buckminster Fuller was advocating, when he advised that:
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Not only is Bucky’s advice likely to be more effectual, just think of the effort and time not wasted on resisting and trying to change a system that is reluctant to change.
Think too, of the amount of angst, anger, disappointment, and torment that could be averted.
If the efforts that go into resisting were instead channelled into desisting, then just imagine the creative opportunities that could emerge.
Is it too late to stop resisting? Is it too late to stand aside from the life-destroying systems that surround us?