When the beekeepers opened their wooden hives on my roof for the first time this spring, they had themselves a good cry. No, it was not the dreaded Colony Collapse that decimated our honeybees nor was it the extraordinarily brutal East Coast winter that wiped them out. It was, however, something just as devastating and impossible to control: Tiny mites killed the bees. We immediately agreed to try again and ordered up 10,000 new bees. We needed to believe we could help fix this. The bees’ existence for 14 million years is no small miracle.
A flutter of one butterfly’s wings shifted the air current when Rosa Parks, an African American, refused to give up her seat to a white person on a segregated Montgomery, Alabama, bus one day in 1955. She was worn out and tired of complying with an unjust law and, although it was not her conscious intention, this unassuming seamstress’s resolve, this one small act of civil disobedience, started ripples that changed America forever. The fixing of this seemingly unfixable problem had begun.
“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”1
Dramatic change happens when the fine line between the impossible and possible seems to dissolve, when complacency is no longer an option. In early 2011, revolutions spontaneously boiled up in Tunisia, then Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain and elsewhere in the region. One by one, Arab youth asserted themselves in what was to be branded Arab Spring. “The people demand the fall of the regime,” became their ubiquitous chant, an assertion that was quickly imprinted on the subconscious of every freedom-seeking Arab. They wanted a better future for themselves. They had nothing to lose. And, with an assist from social media, Arabs united in a way that would not have been possible even five years ago. Timing, as is so often the case, is everything.
George Bernard Shaw observed, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”2 Twenty, even ten years ago it wasn’t reasonable to think US citizens would accept a man marrying a man, a woman marrying a woman. Yet here we are, many, if not most of us agreeing that marriage is a human right unrestricted by gender. “If I expect to be treated equally, I must treat others equally.” One New York State Republican Senator recited as he reluctantly changed his vote to a Yes, tipping the scales of balance to pass a law for marriage equality in New York.
It’s now generally accepted that life may well exist in many other parts of the universe even though that idea was seen as sheer lunacy when the US Congress defunded the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (otherwise known as SETI) during the Clinton administration. Reinstated during the George W. Bush administration, SETI is now sponsored by many respected foundations. In addition, physicists also now speculate that there may also be many dimensions in the universe of which we are not yet aware. There may well be another “you” someplace or many “yous” in many different universes. Maybe the term universe has become myopic and archaic; maybe “multiverse” is more like it.
So what is unreasonable today that we may generally accept in 2021, 2031, 2041? What will we believe is reasonable in a decade or two? The end of poverty? World peace? A brotherhood of man? And who will be the unreasonable people to lead us?
Deval Patrick grew up in the projects of the South Side of Chicago to be elected governor of Massachusetts. Barack Obama, also not a child of privilege, rose to become president. Willie Brown, Adrian Fenty and Corey Booker all became mayors of major us cities: all these distinguished men happen to be black yet roughly 50 years ago any one of them could have been lynched from a tree to an applauding crowd chanting “n-----” just for talking to a white woman. So much has changed. Even the “n” word, once commonly used by well-known writers and leaders, is generally shunned in 2011.
Are all these ethical advances miracles or are they part of a slow yet inevitable evolution to a healthier, more sustainable civilization? Are people protecting their own self-interest by being ethical? Or are they mimicking others? Or are we starting to think more fairly in general because it feels better? Does it really matter why or does it matter that they just do it?
WHAT YOU LABEL PEOPLE AFFECTS HOW THEY'RE TREATED
In the spirit of advancing the public’s tolerance of “difference,” the US Congress and President Obama passed Rosa’s Law, named for a nine-year-old girl with Down Syndrome. This law replaced the term “mentally retarded”—now seen as disrespectful—in the federal medical class with “intellectual disability.” In the larger sense, words can be overly powerful when they create frames (structural metaphors) that influence the way people think about/treat others. While some might slam relabeling as mere political correctness, labeling people is stereotyping and stereotyping is degrading. And degradation of any living being (animal or human) is seen as unfair in the 21st century.
While a lot of entertainment relies on the use of stereotypes and clichés to communicate, especially for humor, it also opens up alternative behavioral responses. We take what we see into our consciousness and then later on we mimic it subconsciously. To Kill a Mockingbird, The Cosby Show and more recently, The Blind Side all provided readers/viewers with one flash of insight—that race is irrelevant. That brief moment could change a mindset.