Here’s a random fact I had to memorize for the MCAT: sound is a mechanical wave, which means that can only propagate through a medium. In other words, the wave is made from energy being transferred from one particle to the next, which is why sound needs particles — found in gaseous, liquid, and solid mediums — for us to hear it. Of course, this is also why we have that old adage: In space, nobody can hear you scream.
Light is different. It is also a wave, but, unlike sound, the light and heat of the sun can travel 92 million miles through the vacuum of space to illuminate and warm our Earth — and, if we’re not careful, even burn our skin. Why? Light, you see, is an electromagnetic wave. It needs no medium to propagate; it simply radiates.
Social and political change can also be thought of like a wave, if you take the definition that waves are the transfer of energy. Our social and political worlds are massive. It’s not enough for one person to want change or even to dedicate their life to making that change. The desire for change — and the willingness to do something about it — must propagate across an organization, a region, or even a nation, depending on the level of change desired. Like a wave, our passion — our energy — must move from one person to the next.
So the question arises — is social and political change a mechanical wave, or an electromagnetic one? Can it radiate out and propagate in the vacuum that is cyberspace? Or does it require a more tangible, mechanical medium?
I think there are two answers to this question, because there are two sides to social and political change.
The first side is attitudes. If nobody wants change, it won’t happen. Historically, it’s important to realize that we don’t need the vast majority of people to support change for it to happen — only 19% of American supported school desegregation efforts in the 70’s, and only 55% of Americans approved of marriage equality when the LGBTQ+ community won this right in 2015. Obviously, these fights aren’t over yet, so support isn’t enough all by itself, However, it’s safe to say that strong, vocal support is an important part of efforts to enact social and political change.
This side of social and political change, I think, is like light. It is possible for conversations happening on social media to transfer attitudes and garner support in all corners of the internet, radiating out across the nation even though cyberspace is as empty an expanse as they come.
But there are problems. Cyberspace isn’t one, happy solar system like ours — it’s multiple solar systems, galaxies even, with so much space in between them that it’s easy for us to colonize worlds close to those we like. dismissing everyone else as annoying, distant stars in the sky. Our thoughts and our ideas might radiate out, but, often, they only reach those nearest to us and those who have similar ideas.
And, when these ideas happen to break free from our little niches and reach a distant site — then, these ideas (and the people that have them) seem so alien they aren’t even worth considering.
Therefore, we cannot rely on social media alone to enact the change that we want. This brings me to the second side of social and political change: action.
Once again, if no one is willing to do anything to enact change, it won’t happen. The problem, however, is that change is a mechanical wave — it does require a tangible medium, whether that’s volunteering, lobbying, or calling your local politician. Everyone on Facebook knows that ‘likes’ won’t save that dying baby — only money, medicine, and medical care, and only then with a little dumb luck.
Actions are much harder than attitudes. It risks discomfort and, as we saw recently in Portland where two men were killed for standing up against a man bullying Muslim women, sometimes even harm.
And I am not suggesting that we all must become protesters, human shields, or anything like that. I am not suggesting that confrontational actions are only, or even most important, actions we can take. But it’s important for us to remember that the conversations we have on social media can only go so far.
So what can we do? The method I use personally might be a bit extreme. I imagine myself in a medical school interview, telling the interviewer that I are about helping underserved populations. Then, I imagine the interviewer raising there eyebrows raising their eyebrows and saying, “Oh yeah? Actually point to something you’ve done.” And I always can, because I believe that I have no right to say I’m passionate about something if I’ve never done anything about it.
But, again, this is a little extreme, born out of the type of personality I described in this blog post. Instead, I encourage everyone with a passion for a particular issue to find something fulfilling and doable. Buy two extra grocery items and donate them to a local food pantry. Reach out to someone you think is struggling. Volunteer at a local pet shelter. It should always be something that you enjoy — and you’ll probably find that, because it’s also something you’re passionate about, you’ll enjoy it even more.
I do realize, of course, that I am blogging about this. My words will radiate a short distance in cyberspace and probably only reach people who agree with me. The point of this article isn’t to preach, after all, but to empower. In the end, although the wave metaphor is nice, blogging and having these conversations on social media is still doing something. In this way, social and political change is like a tidal wave, and each positive step gives it more energy, power, and direction. So let’s keep making a splash, and let’s keep making waves.