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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

After the March, Again

Passing Columbus Circle, by Central Park, marchin' in the rain

I wonder about marching.

“People march and feel good and think they have accomplished something,” says David Brooks in “After the Women’s March,” where he argues the Women’s March was too wide-ranging and not specific enough to demand anything. True, protests often don't lead to direct policy change. And although not the intent, they tend to further politicize and alienate those on the other side of a sharp divide. Yet those marches that simply "celebrate" sort of lose the meaning of protest.

At the Women's March, I felt the run and rush of emotions, thrill of chant and solidarity—it goes through you and through the crowd. You march with friends, with strangers, and you see you're part of something larger. It's indescribable. But did it do anything? Or were we simply, as Brooks put it, “[descending] to the language of mass therapy?”

Here’s what happened: after that march, the spirit never really left. There was a girl statue fiercely facing the Wall Street bull, “still she persisted,” “immigrants are welcome here,” “this is what America looks like,” “science, not silence”—more marches, in DC, NYC, all around the world, like (forgive a nerd moment) radical chain reactions that undergo initiation and propagation.

After the latest March for Science, scientists will increasingly find themselves reflecting on their roles in a profession that's not exactly known to be a protesting sphere. Many scientists feel they can no longer deny a responsibility to the public, to play their part in the accurate dissemination of knowledge and training of scientists. In a real sense, their livelihoods depend on it and funding, but more so, human lives and the natural world we live in depend on it. While keeping an inner thirst for investigation, scientists must confront social advocacy, although many might prefer to focus on discovery without a greater agenda.

There's a romantic purity to the idea of the scientist, and artist, engrossed in discovery or creation outside the forces of social purpose—Art for art's sake! Eureka! The artistic impulse! (which, by the way, almost became the name of this blog). So how to reconcile this purity with social responsibility? I loved musician Andrew Bird's reply in conversation with physician Atul Gawande (see this post): “When it speaks from the heart, do it. But when the responsibility comes from external pressures, from duty to speak out, it usually doesn't go well." Attend a march, and you may find afterwards a need to speak, from the heart. With fervor and solidarity, we reach out beyond ourselves, and we learn from a variety of perspectives and motives. The process of coming to terms with the experience, with the questioning, and our resulting new understandings—that’s important. These are first steps.