This is a long email Marc wrote to me after I sent an email with the subject “seeking life advice”. It has been inspiring me for the past years, so I want to share it.
Thanks for the information Starry! I certainly can understand why you are upset, and you should definitely not stop caring. Let me see if I can respond in a couple of ways. First, let me go back to our class. Remember we talked about opportunity structures? The basic idea was that we need to understand how change occurs at particular times when the circumstances provide an advantage for it. For people committed to change this is very hard, and requires patience. It means that while they should not give up on their hopes and commitments they might have to adjust their horizons concerning when change will happen and how they can participate (and even help) it. And sometimes a window of opportunity opens up unexpectedly and they can take advantage of it. I think we can make the argument that this happened for lesbians and gays regarding marriage rights in this country. I don’t think this meant that they were any less angered by their circumstances. Rather, they stayed true to their beliefs and kept an eye on the future to insure that when change was possible they would be ready to take advantage of this window of opportunity.
And this leads into my second point. Many years ago when I was a graduate student I wrote to a very famous professor about whether being a teacher is enough to pursue social change. The professor was (and is) a very well known scholar and teacher who at the time drew a lot on Marx, so he thought a great deal about change. He was very kind and responded to me, even though he was off in Poland doing research! What he said stuck with me. He suggested that all of us can reflect on the circumstances in which we find ourselves and the even small acts we might do to put change on the horizon. As a sociology professor I could put energies into teaching about inequality and how to change it (one of the reasons I teach Social Movements). This made some sense to me. I think his point wasn’t so different from the work on opportunity structures. We should be alert to both the immediate and longer-term possibilities around us. As a teacher sometimes that means that what I can do is to provide students with a sense of how change is possible. Sometimes it means more. So, at various points in my career here I’ve worked with students on some social justice issues. At the moment maybe you are at a point in your life where what you can do is raise possibilities for different ways of life and organizing society. Putting those possibilities out now can be important for windows of opportunity later. Many LGBT activists continued to discuss marriage equality for decades, to make the case that it was not only just but possible. And after a long time of keeping the issue alive a window opened up pretty rapidly and they seized the opportunity.
Finally, let me add that dealing with these issues in a family context is often extra difficult. And disagreements with parents can be very tough because part of the reason they don’t want us to accept certain ideas and ways of life is because they are concerned for our welfare. But at least you have planted a seed that another way of thinking about the world is possible. And maybe in time your parents will also find that a window opens for them that allows them to more fully understand your point of view.
I hope this makes some sense. I don’t think it is going to erase your frustration. However, I hope you can see that it’s possible to hold on to your ideals, hopes and aspirations and make other people aware. That can lead to a window opening, and when it does you and all the others can go through it.
All the best,