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In our opinion: Successful social change requires incremental steps

SHARE In our opinion: Successful social change requires incremental steps
Protesters gather outside the State Capitol during the "March for Our Lives" in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 24, 2018.

Protesters gather outside the State Capitol during the “March for Our Lives” in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 24, 2018.

Jacob Wiegand, Deseret News

The current wave of activism among younger Americans on the issue of gun violence has the potential of becoming the kind of social movement that ends up defining a generation, just as that generation ends up defining and determining future policy on that issue. The same can be said to some extent in regard to the matters of sexual harassment in the workplace and gender inequality.

It seems younger Americans — millennials and their successors in “Generation Z” — choose to view these problems as solvable only through social and cultural reorientation as opposed to incremental adjustments in policy. To them, incidents of school shootings aren’t disparate events with different motivations and outcomes. They most often speak of them in terms of their cumulative impact, leaving children feeling unsafe in their schools.

Similarly, they seem to view cases of serial sexual harassment not so much as a matter of individual behavior correctable by changes in law or policy, but as the manifestations of a culture that has placed men and women in different categories — to the detriment of women, who are more often victimized and subject to unequal treatment.

In the fervor of their activism, they value changes in policy and law only to the extent those changes further the cause of creating new culture. The change they seek is both elemental and existential. They will come to realize, however, as did activists during the civil rights movement, that changing the world happens over time and indeed comes in a series of gradual but meaningful steps.

To their credit, the impassioned and articulate students of Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School are advocating change based on reforms of gun laws, not an outright ban on gun possession, as some of their critics have alleged. They seem to instinctively understand that creating the kind of world they want will require temporal reform, one day at a time.

After the shooting rampage that claimed 17 lives at their school in Parkland, Florida, they have led a wave of activism that is energizing, compelling and, in many ways, unprecedented. By staging rallies and giving voice to their concerns through traditional and social media, they are taking advantage of the democratic process in a way that should be considered admirable, whether one agrees with their cause. Their success, however, will depend on whether all that energy translates into action in the voting booth, which is by no means a certainty.

Younger Americans have traditionally not voted at levels comparable to older generations, though the turnout among millennials was larger in 2016 than in the 2012 elections. Americans 18-29 now comprise the largest segment of the nation’s base of eligible voters. Should that generational cohort come to agreement on any major issue, it has the power to effect real change by electing into public office those with sympathetic views.

That many younger Americans are choosing activism over apathy is a healthy development. The current groundswell of engagement suggests they are poised and willing to participate in the processes of governing, which, if they do, they can influence and even dominate by sheer force of their numbers.