Throughout the duration of the Humanities program, we have been introduced to multiple definitions of revolution and tasked with the obligation of creating our very own definition that is either derived from or inspired by these definitions. The definitions we were introduced to discussed revolution within a scientific context, political context, and even an artistic context, so it was often difficult to pin-point the common thread among them all. However, I discovered a definition that, though never explicitly stated within my professors’ theories, was certainly an essential component to each one.
So, without further ado, my definition is below:
Revolution- consists of three key components: (1) an event which draws attention to a cause to be empathized with or new realm to be understood, (2) the subsequent act of empathizing or understanding, and (3) the willingness to care enough to spur action
Revolution is, therefore, the result of empathy or the desire to better understand something or someone, which is a theme present in every unit of the Humanities course.
The central theme of the first unit was identity and human rights. Western culture was precariously constructed upon the concept of “Otherness.” Men consistently have defined themselves as the opposite of women and have based their claims of superiority on what they perceive as the intrinsic flaws of being a woman. Similarly, white people have consistently defined themselves and their cultures as being the opposite of whoever they deem to be people of color (whether that be Italians, Indians, Mexicans, etc.). So, acknowledging the humanity of oppressed or marginalized people, acknowledging that their identities consist of much more than what white men want them to be, and declaring that no person is fundamentally greater than another are revolutionary acts within Western society. The beginnings of this social and political revolution were sparked by Two Treatises of Government by John Locke . His theories were flawed, as he definitely did not intend to include women in them, but the belief that all men are created equal laid the foundation for more social and political revolutions, such as the liberation of slaves and women’s rights
In the second unit, we discovered that revolutions in scientific thought are the result of a shift in a society’s conceptual scheme, which are called paradigm shifts. Continuing with the theme of understanding on a slightly different note, the unit suggested that revolution requires the curiosity to learn about something completely different than what you already know and are comfortable with. We primarily focused on scientific discoveries during the Renaissance, and how, for example, the evolution of solar models led to a paradigm shift that affected the way that Western society understood itself. However, conceptual schemes are not limited to our understanding of scientific theories and inventions. The phrase “conceptual scheme” merely describes the way that our understanding of reality is based on our biases, knowledge, and perceptions. Therefore, all types of revolution- social, political, scientific, artistic, and personal- are caused by paradigms shifts.
The fourth unit provides an example of a paradigm shift. Though race is a fabricated construct created to oppress slaves (as white slave masters did not have any other excuse for the enslavement and mistreatment they caused), because America was built upon the exploitation of African slaves and excused by the notion that black people were inferior, every aspect of American society is racialized. The Civil Rights movement, which aimed to deconstruct the notion that black Americans did not deserve the same rights as white Americans, symbolized the call for empathy needed to complete a revolution. The call reached privileged white Americans who had to choose to either continue to remain ignorant and propagate racist theories, or to examine the institutions and beliefs that had led to such a sharp divide between white and black Americans and work to amend it. When the American federal government chose the latter, it completely revolutionized American society. There is no doubt that the rights which black Americans protested for over half a century ago are still not in their possession, but the fact that change was set in motion due to the recognition that black Americans are not inferior to white Americans was a revolution in and of itself.
The third unit, about the Rwandan Genocide, warned of the danger of overlooking a cry for help. Unlike in unit seven, where we discussed how information restriction prevents revolution, Western governments were well aware of the fact that in 1994, the Tutsi minority in Rwanda were being brutally killed by the Hutus. However, they did not choose to intervene in any manner that would assist the Tutsis or prevent the Hutus from continuing to massacre them. As Susan Sontag informs us in Regarding the Pain of Others, there is nothing revolutionary or beneficial in simply acknowledging or viewing someone’s suffering. As I discuss in my post for this unit, this is likely due to the fact that the Western world did not perceive the Rwandans as fellow humans.
This connects to what we learned in the fifth unit: that sometimes, it takes literally walking in someone else’s shoes or bringing another’s story to life through movement to truly understand the humanity in those around you. Sometimes, unfortunately, one can not understand another’s pain until they experience it in some form themselves.
Hence, the point at which you can trace every revolution back to is a yearning to understand; if the foundation of a revolution is a call for empathy, revolution begins the moment someone answers that call.