The Problem with Gradualism: Rethinking the Pace of Social Change

Whether it is concerning the current movements growing to resist racism in America and around the world, or whether it relates to my own advocacy on behalf of LGBTQ+ people (especially in the Christian community), a common theme comes up in conversation: a reminder that people (namely those subject to oppression) need to be patient and understanding because change takes time and that, in the end, justice will prevail. This is a common call for those who advocate for gradualism.

In this context, the term gradualism refers to the idea that social change comes as a result of slow and small increments rather than through means aiming for immediate change, such as protests and revolution. Those who advocate for it may not entirely dismiss the legitimacy of protests or revolutionary action (though some explicitly do) but rather center gradualism as the primary means of change in social contexts.

I first came to understand these ideas clearly while reading James H. Cone’s ground-breaking book “The Cross and the Lynching Tree”. In the book, Cone contrasts the response to racial segregation by two men, Reinhold Niebuhr (the most influential Christian theologian in America at the time) and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Niebuhr was deeply sympathetic to the plight of African Americans but did not support the movements on the rise to overthrow oppressive social and governmental realities. Cone quotes Niebuhr in the second chapter of the book:

“The Negroes,” Niebuhr said, “will have to exercise patience and be sustained by a robust faith that history will gradually fulfill the logic of justice.” (pg. 39)

King rejected this gradualism, recognizing the immediate need for change and the daily cost in black lives if they failed to act. Gradualism was almost always advocated for by those who were beneficiaries of the racial segregation (and thus had the most to lose with change, especially immediate change). This is not to say that King was naive, unaware that true change would take time. Rather, he resisted it as a primary means of bringing change.

Since learning of these ideas, I have spent a long time attempting to understand the dynamics around these concepts. And I have come to see them manifest in my own life, as I seek to practice allyship for others and examine the allyship extended to me as a queer man. Like King, I genuinely believe that the nature of gradualism is that it’s a means by which systemic change happens slowly precisely because of the resistance to that very change. It is generally only the “inevitable pace of change” because of the entrenchment and self-preservation of power and privilege.

It is true that we will often have to acknowledge the inevitability of and be prepared for gradualism as the resulting pace of change. However, it is not because it is a desirable or meritorious method or means of change but rather because we have to prepare our hearts and minds and lives for the disappointing inevitability of painfully incremental change. We acknowledge it for the sake of our own sustainability amidst the ongoing work for change.

This truth, however, needs to be explicitly named for what it is. While gradualism might be an inevitable reality, it’s not an intended primary strategy. We must name the painful truth that gradualism is so prevalent because of the resistance from within the very oppressive systems we are seeking to transform. Yet, all too often, rather than naming this truth, we advocate for gradualism to those suffering the worst abuses of that oppression.

We know that African American men were about 2.5 times more likely than white men to be killed by police. We know that queer youth consider suicide at a rate much higher than their straight counterparts (and even more like to try and end their lives). We know that trans women of colour are far more likely to experience violent assault and murder than cisgender white women. We could on and on citing the immediate, life-threatening reality that oppressed people live with on a daily basis.

So, in light of the suffering and death in question, are we really prepared to center gradualism as a means of change? Are we really willing to look these people in the eye and say it will get better in the next decade, or half-century? Of course not! Again, we can see that gradualism, while perhaps at times inevitable, is not desirable as a primary method for change.

In the Christian tradition, the function of the “prophetic” (far from being about soothsaying the future) is about speaking truth to power in the face of injustice. The prophets in the Biblical tradition were disruptive voices in the face of systemic failures to protect the most vulnerable.

In our context, the prophetic is a disruption of power and privilege in much the same way as a stick in the spokes- an attempt to immediately stop the forward momentum of harmful and oppressive dynamics. The disruption becomes necessary- even critical- when our mutual and social commitments (including grassroots realities, governmental systems, religious communities, etc.) fail to protect the marginalized- or worse, contribute to their oppression.

Even in the face of the prophetic disruption, gradualism is still most likely to be the inevitable result (not by design or intention) because we still need to pick ourselves up, repair what is broken, reset our direction, and begin the process of building the momentum of change. However, gradualism is only necessary because of how far we’ve become entrenched in the problem. And the pace is slowed only insofar as our entrenchment in injustice.

Using another analogy, consider the internal combustion engine getting a heavy vehicle to move. While the movement begins slowly, when the compressed mixture of fuel and air is ignited in the combustion chamber, the result is a powerful, explosive burst of energy. That energy is transferred to the wheels, which then begin to move and gain momentum. Those immediate, powerful, and concentrated bursts of energy fuel the gradual but accelerating movement. And as we know, as we’ve improved on the technology, the faster that transfer of energy to movement has become. So too with social change.

A quick aside: Notice that I am using mechanical analogies (recognizing their limits and imperfection). Some might wonder why I don’t utilize the concept of gradualism found in nature. Wikipedia defines this form of gradualism as “a hypothesis, a theory or a tenet assuming that change comes about gradually or that variation is gradual in nature and happens over time as opposed to in large steps”. After all, as we see things change slowly in nature, should that not be a model for social change?