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 TREATEDIn 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.
In the case of disabilities, a greater awareness of “difference” has been explored in many ways: for instance, Temple Grandin, HBO’s award-winning film, is about the life of a person who is a “high functioning” autistic. And as her story is told, the very important and unique advances that Grandin has made in the humane slaughtering of livestock are revealed (changes only made possible by insights she's gained through her autism). On the lighter side, the satirical comedy TV series Glee about a choir made up of misfits features a lively teen and an insightful older woman both of whom have Down Syndrome as well as a girl who is obese and African American, a boy who is wheelchair-bound, a counselor with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), a student who is gay, a couple of cheerleaders who are exploring bisexuality and so on. Everyone seems to struggle with their personal “differences” on Glee while they sing and dance their hearts out. Glee is set, interestingly, not in a savvy metropolis but rather, a small politically-centrist Ohio town (AKA the middle of nowhere). The Special Olympics, which was founded and nurtured by Eunice Kennedy Shriver has helped tremendously to shift the personal and public awareness of “other” by attracting high-achieving people with differences to come to together and in doing so, confound stereotyping. E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Avatar, District 9, Alien Nation and Star Trek are all science fiction classics that explore our sameness regardless of planet of origin. Science fiction can help build empathy while exploring fantastical “what ifs” all the while reinforcing the awareness that all sentient beings share commonalities of flesh, blood, nervous system and consciousness, and that focusing on “difference” is largely a waste of time, an impediment to social progress. When something becomes irrelevant, it also becomes useless, slowly fading from our consciousness.
CAN YOU KEEP IT SIMPLE STUPID?In fact it’s hard to recall an entertainment vehicle, no matter how pedestrian, that hasn’t been used to challenge some ethical stance: While providing the comfort of predictability we also crave catharsis, tension with a pinch of titillation, edgy with a tad of comfort. A recent survey in USA Today of 24 hours in the life of American culture, showed our influences are extremely mainstream: 21 references to television, 8 to film, 7 to popular music, 4 to radio and only 1 to fiction (The Bridges of Madison County).3 Popular entertainment gives us a safe place to explore our worst fears and greatest hopes, to give a push to the evolution of our culture. We want our entertainment to be easy on the eyes and the brain.
PHOTOGRAPHY AS AGENT OF CHANGEThe visual arts play a major role in affecting change. In 2001, eighteen-year-old French graffiti artist JR witnessed his government’s brutal prejudice against youths living in the suburbs. He headed to the outskirts of Paris with his camera to capture extreme close-up portraits of these disenfranchised men, and then, in the dead of night, to illegally wheat paste their massive images in conspicuously upper-class locations around Paris. The contrast was stunning, had a huge impact, sparked dialogue and attracted press. JR says, “I realized quickly there is a lot more power in photos than graffiti.”
JR (ever anonymous to the authorities) now has the largest gallery in the world. He wheat pastes huge portraits of average citizens in political tension zones around the world—from the notorious favelas of Rio to the Israel/Palestine wall. This puts JR’s work in the middle of hot spots and spotlights. Recently, when he was awarded the TED Prize4 for his courageous actions, JR was asked if he had one wish he passionately believed could “change the world.” He answered, “Become JR. Do what I do.” This simple message was streamed worldwide from the TED stage. Inspired revolutionaries in Tunisia contacted him immediately declaring, “We want to do this!” JR replied, “Take the photos—send them to me!” One week later, he was in Tunisia with the people just after their revolution wheat pasting the photos on the public walls of Tunis. He had stopped by his Paris studio on the way to make their prints personally. He added, “It was that easy.”
The experience was electric. Tunisians, very charged up to see huge images of themselves posted in public spaces, gathered around, yelling and arguing. Suddenly they looked at JR and demanded to know, “Who are you?” He backed away assuring them he had no agenda and handing his wheat pasting tools to them. He watched eagerly as these newly freed people took control, pasting their own photos over portraits of their recently exiled dictator. This sparked further debate. The Tunisians came back the next day to find scratch marks on their photos leading to more shouting and debating amongst themselves. They had inadvertently created a teaching tool that was helping them to exercise their newfound power—democracy. JR immediately photographed the Tunisians’ portraits in context which started to appear around the world in major publications within days sparking new debates and global discussions: With the help of technology and the ted community, JR's wish was already being granted. “What you see changes who you are,” JR wisely observes.
JR, mindful of the responsibility he takes on when capturing images of people on film, builds trust with each of his subjects. It helps that he exudes honest enthusiasm, has a straight-forward, welcoming manner—both great leadership qualities. His approach is “Everything has to be their choice. It’s all about eye contact.” Ironically while his work makes people known who would otherwise remain anonymous, the more JR insists on his own anonymity the more famous he becomes. His philosophy, generosity, talent (as well as nom de plume), trademark fedora and dark glasses, five bogus Skype names all contribute to the global brand—JR.
He realizes the response to his portraits tends to be superficial. “The pictures travel more than the stories. People see the photos then they dig down to find out the story. And to me, the layers are more important than the pictures. The stories raise questions, get people thinking. That’s what I do. I raise questions.” So JR has started making books and films so that people would see the layers. JR says that he was ready six years ago to do what he is doing today—but that the time was not right. Rosa Parks, for that matter, not the first black person to stand up to the law in the South, and Barack Obama was not the first black man to run for the highest office in our land. Timing, as any standup comic will tell you, is everything.
WE PLAN BECAUSE WE CANThe fact that we each have a brain that allows for memories of our individual past and also of the world around us; that each of our minds allows us to pull this all altogether to imagine and explore a future (however distorted). This is a miracle.
We are all relatively new at this. It wasn’t that long ago that humans had no sense of self.5 And not too long ago that it was commonly believed the heart ruled the body: The brain was thought to be the non-essential organ. The current revolution in neuroscience has created an explosion of knowledge about how the human brain developed, how it is structured and how it differs from that of other primates. While there is much that remains a mystery, we know that, for instance, humans (unlike any other creature) pass on learned skills to their offspring, that we have both a conscious and subconscious brain. We know that, unlike computers and other creatures, the human brain can multitask (not well, mind you). The aesthetic center of the human brain is very near the intuition center and we often “feel” something is good or right, not really knowing why. We know many parts of our brain are primitive—like the emotional center, the amygdala—and reacts to input way ahead of any other part of the brain. And guess who gets the info last? The prefrontal cortext (the language/short term memory center). So we know that since our thoughts are mere rationalizations, concepts of free will and self-analysis are shaky at best.
SO WHICH CAME FIRST: CHICKEN SALAD OR SCRAMBLED EGGS?Consciousness (awareness of self) came first, and then applications developed leading to the continuing evolution of rational thinking. It is because we are conscious of ourselves that we have become more mindful of others and hardwired to “do unto others as I would have them do unto me” (the main tenet of most religions and ethical codes). And so, as a species, even though it may not feel like it, we tend towards the ethical over time. We want to cooperate so that our lives will be better. It’s practical to be compassionate.
The recent acceptance of mental illness in the United States is a good example of this. We may not be autistic but we recognize that others who are, are like us in almost all other ways. And that we can learn from people with differences, that they can play unique and important roles in our evolving society (i.e., Temple Grandin). And that, let’s face it, pretty much everyone has a difference that once was a cause for shame (i.e., Glee).
As social issues like this come up we create projections through art (films, theater, literature) that help us imagine the possibilities. The aesthetic distance that these vehicles provide lets us edge closer to thinking about man with man or woman with woman or people with learning differences or that there may be aliens among us without freaking out. That’s how we explore “the other.” Art is an important way we reframe our worldviews, our perspectives, in images as well as words. As we encourage change, “way opens.”6
LIFE CHANGES FOR DEBBIE MILLMANYou would never know it now but Debbie Millman was not always a happy camper. About twenty-five years ago (1986) Millman says, “I was completely lost. A close friend was dying of AIDS. I felt I should be the one dying. Emotionally, there was no place I could go but down.” Millman started to make radical changes in her life. She says, “I changed because I wanted to survive. I unlearned and relearned. I reorganized my neural pathways.”
She was already a success at the New York agency Sterling Brands, providing her with a toehold in the design world, not as a groundbreaking super star designer, but as a very talented manager of design teams tackling mainstream projects.
Then Millman, who was somewhat of an outsider at AIGA in 2003, found herself a target for spite and animosity in a nasty chain of Speak Up blog comments led by designer Felix Sockwell (including comments by Scott Stowell, Armin Vit and Tan Le) debating, among other things, how the profession was being dragged down by the likes of Millman.7 This had been going on for over two weeks by the time Millman found out about it. During this bullying session she had been called a She Devil, a liar and the design work produced by Sterling had been referred to as “turds.” She went home and buried her head under the covers. Friends said, “Ignore it. Take the high road.” The next day Millman went back to the site and chimed right in, her usual affable, smart self. She quickly turned the conversation around to the real issues of the profession. She opened a door instead of slamming it shut. Armin Vit, editor of the blog, who had himself been a detractor of Millman, asked her to become a contributor. Millman reflects, “It helped me become a better writer and learn about the power of the Internet. Luckily by the time this happened I had age and lots of years of therapy to support me.” She had turned a potential disaster into an opportunity by understanding what was going on and not letting it destroy her.
“In 2005 I took Milton Glaser’s week-long intensive Summer Program at SVA. I was open to anything.” Besides being worshipped as one of the greatest graphic designers of the twentieth century, Millman adds, “Milton’s a great thinker and generous teacher. His class, which he’s taught for 50 years, is total give back. He considers it his most important contribution. He quickly became the catalyst for my inner guru.”
A lot of miraculous things happen because of Glaser’s class but alumni are encouraged not to reveal much. Let’s just say people write to Glaser for years about how this program changed their lives. Why does Glaser choose to teach 28 strangers in the heat of August in New York each year when he obviously has a world of options far more relaxing and indulgent? Milton Glaser reflects, “I have often thought that a disengaged life is a meaningless one. Teaching connects you to others and to the world. It creates a sense of purpose that protects us from isolation and the sense that there is no meaning in the universe. It functions best when it is not essentially a way of making a living. I suppose my mantra might simply be the phrase, ‘Pass it on.’”
Millman, who has always fostered a healthy, disciplined work ethic, made a list of her aspirations after Glaser’s class: write a book, teach at SVA, get elected to the National Board of AIGA, cultivate Design Matters (her talk radio show), make personal art, have an art exhibition. Gutsy, creative ambitions, many of which reflect a “pass it on” philosophy. Millman has made all her goals, and has just finished her term as president of AIGA National which leads me to ask her, “What's left?” She reflects. She smiles broadly. “Everything is yet undone...and then some.”
There are two types of people: optimists and pessimists. Pessimists are known to believe “things will never get better,” but by thinking this way, don’t they ensure they never will? Optimists (I count myself as one), on the other hand, believe miracles are possible. That even when faced with news reports of doom and gloom, together, we can affect change for the better. We’ve seen it time and time again. Within this idea is a mantra, a simple chant “Life will improve. I can help.” ca
1. Lyrics by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster.
2. George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman (1903), “Maxims for Revolutionists.”
3. Jonathan Franzen, How to be Alone: Essays, 2003.
5. It’s believed the human brain’s sense of self emerged only tens of thousands of years ago.
6. Way opens is a Quaker term and refers to a path that has been closed but now is possible.