In August 2016 American footballer Colin Kaepernick first ‘took the knee’; in 2006 Tarana Burke began using the ‘Me Too’ phrase which went viral in 2017 following actress Alyssa Milano’s stand against sexual harassment, in July 2017 an outcry followed the publication of a report showing that two thirds of the highest earners at the BBC were men.
High profile people grab attention and shape an agenda.
These have been important factors in addressing injustice yet at the same time they raise uncomfortable questions about how we highlight issues and fashion positive change.
How do you change things for the better? How important is it for individuals to take a stand? How do you do this if you aren’t famous?
It is great that celebrities and the wealthy make a stand and raise profile (and indeed such people do face difficult moments), but it is important that injustice is not tolerated at any level of society – top, middle or bottom. But if you are at the bottom few people take note if you take the knee in public, or post a protest on twitter, or when your minimum wage salary is less than your male counterpart. If you are at the bottom of the pile you will usually have complicating factors of lack of money, poor employment, difficult house to compound the challenges.
This is not to criticise the high profile who make a stand, because I know that in most case they are connected with a far-reaching movement. I do recognise that maybe it needs such people to seize the agenda. But it is not to the credit of society that this has become the norm for getting attention. We should remember that for the wealthy and connected their injustices are often offset by access to power and resources not available to the countless people who bear similar burdens at the bottom of the pile.
Here’s another way of change – philanthropy. As Andrew Carnegie, the philanthropist of the 19th and early 20th century wrote his aim was “To promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world” and “to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding.” He concluded “he who dies rich dies disgraced.” A pattern mirrored by fellow Scot of the same period Angela Burdett Coutts. This is a heritage followed by those like Bill Gates and J.K. Rowling.
For all its benefits this philanthropy created it is basically about patronage of these few people and their legacy of charitable foundations.
The challenge is to secure universal access and opportunity and to secure accepted norms of justice, to stop help being the luck of those being in the right place and the right time. This is where laws and government come in. This is where widespread movements bringing together those across society are vital. This shows the importance of broad-based collaboration as we recognise the complexities of our challenges but maintain a will for transformation.
A Christian perspective on such matters varies. Some Christians fight shy of any campaigning, while others make it their all. Some follow Christian only action, whilst others seek to find common cause across society.
For Christians, it is helpful to note that God laid down power and privilege to engender the most radical of changes (take a look at Philippians 2). It is also worth noticing that the idea of the Kingdom of God is about a radical new norm, a new encompassing world order now and forever.
It is good to have Kaepernick, Milano and senior female BBC staff taking a lead, it is encouraging to note by organisations like Nike, Holywood institutions and the BBC are taking things on board. We benefit from the Rowlings and Gates of this world. Yet for all their value change is about a deeper, broader and more rooted process.
Graham Brownlee, September 2018