The Revolution Comes in Pieces

I’ve written before about my skepticism of “scaling up” as the solution to all our social challenges.

That’s not to say there aren’t some solutions which can provide more value by being brought “to scale,” but when it comes to issues of democracy and engagement, I prefer to think of “scaling sideways.” Lots of little, individual programs running parallel within parallel communities.

So I was quite taken with this little snipped from Joshua Miller and Daniel Levine’s recent paper on Reprobation as Shared Inquiry: Teaching the Liberal Arts in Prison:

“We do not know how to spark a revolution that will overthrow mass incarceration all at once and transfigure our society, but we believe that it can be made to fade away through a proliferation of non-carceral practices.”

The paper builds on Miller and Levine’s work with the Jessup Correctional Institution Prison Scholars Program – which you can support here.

Essentially, Miller and Levine argue that in order to build a truly just and effective prison system, we have to radically shift our society, doing away with our current systems of dominance and subordinance.

It’s not just a moral problem that “for the past 30 years, between 40 and 60 percent of prison inmates were below the federal poverty line,” or that “at midyear 1998, approximately 16 percent of inmates in US state prisons and 7 percent of inmates in federal prisons had a mental illness.” And it is not just a moral problem that the US “incarcerates Blacks and Latinos at disproportionate rates.”

Those are serious, moral problems within our society, but…those deep inequities also render our criminal justice system ineffective.

That is, “it is morally unreasonable to expect an offender to be moved by condemnations coming from agents of a system that routinely subjects him to injustice it is unwilling to recognize as such.”

Miller and Levine offer the Liberal Arts as a tool to break this dominant/subordinate cycle, a resource for engaging incarcerated people – not as subordinates in the ultimate system of domination – but as agents in reflecting on the “the nature of value, and the proper way to relate to other human beings in society.”

“Prison classrooms,” they write, “become political spaces at the heart of an institution where politics is disallowed.”

They acknowledge that their own work is small compared to the vastness of the challenge, but argue that “the utopian vision of a society in which the whole encounter between currently-dominant and currently-subordinated social groups is transformed is likely to be made up of a multitude of small, piecemeal encounters like this.”

Scaling sideways.

And that’s the thing: democracy requires individual engagement. It requires engagement from the individuals within a society, but more deeply, it requires that those individuals are engaged…individually. As autonomous beings, as agents of their own destiny and desires.

The challenges of democracy are challenges of collective action, to be sure – how to work together across differences and interests, how to divide and distribute limited resources.

But at its heart, democratic values are about the individual. The belief that every person’s voice has value, that all people are created equal and that all people demand your respect.

It’s not a simple case of rugged individualism, but rather a subtle interplay of individual and collectivist thought: all voices have value, and therefore we each have a responsibility to ensure that all voices are heard.

But a focus on individual agents requires programs that are small and flexible, developed for a local context and shaped by local knowledge.

You can’t scale up something like that without losing what gives it value.

But we can tackle the problem piece by piece, through networks of small efforts and regional connections.

We can scale these solutions sideways and little by little we can radically transform our society, making our deep inequities and injustices fade away through a proliferation of better practice.

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