Connection With Health

“I have a dream”


A problem can be made worse if the strategies selected for making it better that are brought to the situation are not carefully considered. In general, violent solutions to social problems tend to produce poor results in a variety of ways. Non violent strategies need to be developed that are effective in producing social change. We have useful examples of successful social change in the women’s movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and the gay rights movement. Also, we have a history of leaders from whom we can learn. Such people as Jane Adams, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Dorothy Day and Daniel Barrigan come to mind. Building on their teachings and examples we can create the means to produce the changes that are needed to further the health of individuals, communities, and the earth itself.

Key Issues

What leads to lasting change? This is the most fundamental question that can be asked by people who wish to see their visions of a more equitable, healthy and humane world actually implemented in the social structures of society. Does physical power always have the final word? Is it, indeed, the only or even the most important form of power? What motivates people to do something in a different way than they have done it before. What could lead to a world in which both the positive and the negative human rights were dependably protected? If we are mistaken about the mainsprings of change then our efforts – however well meaning – will change nothing.


Change is always opposed. There is probably more than one reason for this, but the major sticking point in many cases is that somebody – usually a group of people – has a vested interest in the current power arrangements. In order for things to change the wealthy will have to give up some of their power to the less wealthy, men will have to share their power with women, white people will have to surrender some of their power with blacks, “first world” countries will have to cede a portion of their power to “developing” countries. As a rule groups do not relinquish power advantages willingly. Strategies for change must come to terms with this fact in a realistic manner.

It was Winston Churchill who said “History is written by the victors.” This much quoted observation is undeniably true. In large part power relations determine how the official narratives of the past are written. What may not always be appreciated is the extent to which these narratives determine the unfolding of the future. We act in the manner that we do because of how we understand who we are in relationship to the world around us. Who am I? What is in my interest to do? What is good or noble action? What actions are reprehensible? What ones are dangerous? Who are my enemies – my friends – my trusted guides? The answers to all these questions is given in narratives. Until people are able to reflect upon the narratives that determine these meanings for them, they can hardly be said to be free. No oppressive or totalitarian government or social institution can survive without the major portion of its members believing in the narrative it provides for them. This is why the rulers of any society generally oppose alternative narratives. An it is why political action must always begin with the telling of a new story. To tell and publicize alternative stories may be the most important political strategy we have at our disposal. Often it is the only form of political action that is possible. When no alternative stories can be told at all, then repression is complete. Every social strategy is built on a theory about what motivates people. If we believe that only material well-being is of importance to people we will dispense with appeals to higher values and principles in our work. Most people who work for ecological concerns, for social justice are themselves motivated by something more than their own material advantage, so it would be somewhat inconsistent for them to deny the importance of higher goals or ideals. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs provides us with a general picture about how a variety of needs may be operational in different people in different situations. A broad perspective such as this provides us with a range of options for strategies to motivated people to change by targeting different needs in different situations.

Most psychologists would agree that the need for self-esteem is a central motivator for human beings. People – all people without exception – need to feel good about themselves. If people, groups or countries who want to repress and exploit others want to feel good about themselves, they face a dilemma. How can they do things that are clearly hurtful to others and at the same time hold themselves in high esteem? This problem is solved by means of narratives that profoundly distort the reality of the situation. The examples are legion, but perhaps it might be worthwhile to give just one illustration. The US does the poorest job of any developed country in the world with regard to providing for the health and welfare needs of its citizens. Yet the American people want to believe that they are citizens of a caring and generous country. Therefore we regularly see in our local newspapers rather emotional stories about individual acts of charity. These individual acts of charity will no more meet the real needs of the people in this country than a bake sale will provide for the needs of the Pentagon. But the sentimental stories about saintly Americans doing charitable things serve to enable the people of the US to believe they are generous and caring when in fact their collective behavior demonstrates that this is not the case. Debunking false and sentimental stories and insisting that we “tell it like it is” are powerful political acts.

The place of violence in revolutionary change is one of the most difficult questions to address. Perhaps no fundamental changes occur without some violence. Most reformers would agree that the less recourse there is to violence the better. Many idealists – following in the foot steps of people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and other successful proponents of non-violent action – would argue that violence should not be used even in self-defense. Other would argue that while it might be permissible to use violent means to defend ones self from a violent attack, social reformers should never initiate tactics involving violence against people. In general the Politics of Health group advocates for a non-violent approach to social change. At the same time we realize that if we reject violence as a strategy, we must be prepared to offer alternative methods for producing real change in situations where people are suffering and dying under the yoke of inequitable, totalitarian and oppressive social forms. The article, Primer for a Revolution, demonstrates how, at least in one situation, a non-violent approach produced very profound changes in a country.

Frequently stories that are told about our “enemies” picture them as incomprehensible monsters who simply love evil for its own sake. Such stories are infantile over-simplifications of reality. The human race is not divided into saints and demons. The demons that stalk through our imaginations attacking all that is good and holy are our own creations. The real people that are represented by these images are not in fact subhuman moral freaks. They are simply people we have chosen not to understand. Some of them may, in fact, be doing serious damage to others. Others may be attacking us for reasons we do not care to look at. Demonizing others prepares the way for doing inhuman things against them with good conscience. It is never an acceptable strategy for people who are seriously concerned with the health of the human race.

Connections With Other Topics


The US is a political democracy. We elect our officials. On the international scene we are also an imperialist power that represents the main obstacle to the development of a democracy of nations. Domestically we are already in many ways a fascist state, and are becoming more so day by day. We are accustomed to associate democracy with a free society. Yet here we are seeing the growth of a state that is both democratic and totalitarian. How are we to explain this, and what is to be done? A part of the problem is that the wealthy power holders of the US have become highly skilled at molding public opinion. If they are able to create at will beliefs about which country we should next bomb as well as about what products will make us happy, the meaning of democracy has been diluted. Any serious strategy for change must take this fact into consideration. The except from Manufacturing Consent by Edward Herman and Noam Chompsky is a seminal statement that is must reading for any social activist.


It is in the educational process that children learn the narratives by which they interpret themselves, other people, and their country. These stories are often not in the children’s own interests, and frequently represent gross inaccuracies with regard to the history of their counties. Children should be taught from an early age to know and respect their own needs and perceptions, and to critically assess the interpretive stories that they encounter in their homes, schools, churches and newspapers.

Free Speech and the Media

Because the narratives that we tell about our activities are of central importance in the political sphere, it is essential that we always remain open to corrective and alternative stories. To establish and maintain a press and a media that is truly free and inclusive is exceedingly difficult because those in power will invariably attempt to suppress stories that challenge the social arrangements that they approve of.

The Internet may the last bastion of free speech. The powers are threatened by this. Already we see them painting the Internet as a place of extreme dangers – where terrorists and pedophiles lurk ready to do damage to the unwary. If the forces of repression and exploitation succeed in bringing the Internet under scrutiny and control, then progressives, libertarians, socialists or anyone wishing to advocate for any fundamental change, will be hard pressed to know where to publish their stories, critiques, and recommendations.

Global Economics

The power of multinational corporations is probably the biggest challenge that we fact today in our efforts to establish a more equitable and healthy society. They have become expert of manipulating public opinion not only with regard to the advertisement of the products they want to sell, but also with regard to what they want people to think about economics and politics. They control the mass media so this is, indeed, a problem of major proportions. Strategies are needed to get alternative stories out into the pubic with regard to a large number of issues. This is especially difficult when the issue has to do with the need to tax the multi-nationals to provide for the health and welfare needs of the countries where they work, and generally to curb their power.

Human Rights

Human rights declarations, by themselves, change nothing. However, international agreements about rights are of great importance to the social reformer as they provide a lever for change. While they are not perfect, many of the UN statements about rights represent the highest consensus that the human race has been able to arrive at with regard to the appropriate guides for social structures and political action.

Humanizing Institutions

Although we vote for our leaders in the political sphere, virtually all our other institutions are run in a “top-down” autocratic manner that is not conducive to the health of either individuals or social groups. Strategies must be developed that will lead to participatory approaches to decision making in all spheres of life – in our school, churches, work places and homes as well as in our governmental bodies.