I was listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History this weekend. The episode was about comedy’s role in change. Gladwell criticized Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert on the grounds that their comedy is either “toothless” or unlikely to shift anyone’s thinking.
For Gladwell, truly meaningful comedy has to take a stand and hold a firm, clear position. Otherwise, any ambiguity just allows audience members to affirm what they already believed, making people feel better, but nothing else. If both liberals and conservatives like Colbert, then what has he accomplished?
This is a common misunderstanding of change and the role each of us plays in it.
What Gladwell says is true, in a sense. No conservative is going to watch Colbert and all of a sudden have a change of faith. An episode of Colbert on its own will do nothing.
But in the greater context in which they exist, Colbert, Fey, and other comedians accomplish quite a bit.
By bringing humor and satire to our politics, they allow us to see and understand dynamics in our society that may otherwise be too boring or painful for most of us to pay attention to. For many change agents, they shift energy from darkness and despair to humor and momentum, even a sense of community from shared pain and laughter. They haven’t changed anyone’s mind per se, but they have shifted the energy away from despair toward something more conducive to change.
Change is an ecosystem of roles, energies, strategies, and tactics. None of us is able to do it all. All anyone of us can do is play a role. And we need many, inter-related diverse roles coalescing together to create true change.
We need comedians. We need engineers. We need policymakers. We need visionaries. We need the radically peaceful. We need people willing to get dirty and fight. We need gradual progress. We need radical change. We need calling in. We need calling out. We need conscious entrepreneurs. We need anti-Capitalists.
We need all of it.
It’s not helpful or even reasonable to critique someone for how they failed to change things on their own.
What is helpful is asking: What is our ecosystem of change missing? How can we fill it?
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