How Does Society Change? image

How Does Society Change?

This is a question that occupies many of us, and lies behind a surge in publishing and blogging by Christians concerned with the impact made by the gospel.

An outstanding example of social change, often quoted by evangelicals, is the work of William Wilberforce in seeing British involvement in the slave trade ended. One of the things that is interesting about this example is the way in which it involved shifts in both public opinion and in the attitude of those holding institutional power. Both these shifts were necessary for the big social change of the abolition of slavery to occur.

A way to visualise this is to imagine institutional power (Government, media, and so on) as a pivot, and public opinion as a lever. When Wilberforce began his campaign against slavery in 1787 it was as if he was jumping up and down on the short end of a long lever; nothing moved. But over the course of decades the relative positions of lever and pivot shifted, so that by 1807, the pressure Wilberforce applied was sufficient for the British Parliament to pass legislation abolishing the slave trade.

In the balance between public opinion and institutional power it is often hard to tell which is driving the other. For example, does the media create public opinion or form it? This is a debate as intractable as the one between the degree to which nature or nurture are responsible for human behaviour. We might not be able to resolve this debate, but we can say that both are important! In considering a case like the abolition of slavery, it is interesting to consider how the position of lever and pivot shifted.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade
In the mid-18th century the Atlantic slave trade was taking about 85,000 Africans a year to work on sugar and tobacco plantations in America and the Caribbean.

As there were no slaves in Britain, most people were unaware of the slave trade. It was a truth the average person didn’t have to face, as he stirred a spoonful of sugar into his coffee. Moreover, the slave trade was given a veneer of respectability by the fact that no-one called themselves a slave-trader, they were “adventurers” in the “Africa” or “Guinea” trade; shackles were called “collars”; British slavery was run by the “Company of Merchants.”

In order for the slave trade to end there needed to be a shift in the pivot – the institutional powers that supported slavery needed to be moved. And at the same time the lever also needed adjusting – rather than being an unpleasant reality that could be ignored, public opinion needed to be shifted to the point where it no longer considered slavery acceptable.

One of the challenges the abolitionists faced in changing public opinion was that it was very hard to gather evidence about the trade. Former slaver John Newton was a helpful source of such information, and leading campaigner Thomas Clarkson gathered physical evidence – collars, thumb-screws, diagrams of slave ships, and so on, and showed them at public lectures. As their influence grew, the abolitionists organised a boycott of slave-grown sugar – the first ever consumer boycott, which was joined by more than 300,000 people.

The long campaign of informing public opinion, and changing public perception, was key in seeing the slave trade abolished.

Yet it was also vital to gain the support of those in the corridors of power. It took a network of influencers to shift the position of those with influence. In the end, legislation was passed because the arguments against slavery had prevailed against the institutional arguments of the status quo and economics.

Thinking the unthinkable
It is hard for us to imagine a world in which such treatment of another race is anything but unthinkable – it is not a subject that needs debating! Yet there are serious social issues which we do debate because the lever of public opinion and the pivot of institutional power make them possible. For example, as Phil wrote last week, there are about 200,000 abortions in the UK every year. Can we imagine a world in which this becomes as unthinkable as the slave trade is to us now? For that to happen there would need to be a shift in the lever of public opinion, and in the pivot of institutional power. It might look an impossible task, but the seemingly impossible has been achieved before.

As was the case with the slave trade, public opinion needs to be informed and mobilised so that abortion can no longer be ignored. Abortion needs its Thomas Clarksons. And as well as shifting the lever of public opinion there needs to be a shift in the pivot of institutional opinion, which at present seems to be more pro-choice than pro-life.

Producing these shifts will not be easy, but rather than being daunted by the scale of such a task we should be encouraged by the way everyone of us can be involved in seeing this shift of lever and pivot. There will be some (not many) who are able to exert considerable influence in the centres of institutional power, or to influence those in such places. These people should be prayed for, and encouraged in their labours. But for every William Wilberforce or Thomas Clarkson there needs to be hundreds of thousands of the ‘everyman’ – the equivalent of those hundreds of thousands who joined the boycott against slave-grown sugar. And this means there is a part for us all to play.

As Archimedes famously said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”

← Prev article
Next article →