Defining moments

I’m a great believer in the significance of words. The words that we choose when we write or speak ultimately construct dual narratives: one about the topic at hand, and the other about us, our beliefs and our values. The best writers or speakers balance the two narratives to communicate more effectively across a broader spectrum of meaning, both express and implied, whereas lesser communicators allow one to dominate to the detriment of both. The easiest illustration of the latter is the proponent of the “Sweet Valley School of Rhetoric” who, through the repeated interjection, overuse and misuse of “like” or “you know” manages to convince all and sundry that the intervening words are the product of an idiot and therefore not worth hearing, regardless of their actual value.

That’s a rather blatant example, of course. What words we use to define certain problems or issues are much more important, for the simple reason that they frame the questions which in turn influence the answers. For example, when discussing anything el Sistema, invariably the phrase “Social Justice” is used. It’s an evocative, and certainly very fashionable way to describe the program. The righting of wrongs! The liberation of the oppressed, super-hero style! It’s also incredibly problematic. Are there broader concrete parameters that constitute or define “Social Injustice”, or is that just another euphemism for poverty?  When we speak of “Social Justice,” can we demonstrate measurably its effect or impact in a manner that is consonant with the phrase?  Or at the ultimate extension, can we possibly compensate a child through “Social Justice” for being born into poverty, famine, or war? With terminology this troublesome it’s not surprising that the secondary narrative that emerges fuels the idea of el Sistema as being another form of that most un-American of concepts, socialism.

In this case, it’s not the use of the word “social” that’s the problem, but that of the word “justice.”  The narrative implicit within the term suggests that it represents an attempt to reverse the reality of the human condition, an effort to deny that life is inherently unfair. That kind of thinking wouldn’t just be socialism, it would be communism, something we identify as a noble, Utopian ideal but one inherently flawed and utterly unworkable in practice. No one of reasonable mental faculty would argue that life is fair, but even as we accept  our condition, we also understand that there are incredibly diverse factors  – some beyond, some within our control –  that influence our relative degree of success or social attainment in life. Money helps, of course, and while it’s a major piece of the puzzle, it’s not the only one. Wealth simply allows for greater opportunity: whether those opportunities are seized and maximized still depends to a significant extent on the individual.

This is admittedly an oversimplification of an extraordinarily complex, multi-faceted issue, but resolving it definitively isn’t critical to understanding the political-philosophical position that el Sistema occupies. El Sistema is nothing more than the equalization of opportunity, the attempt to give everyone, regardless of socio-economic status, the choice to engage in activities that we recognize as profoundly powerful, meaningful, constructive, if not critical to human social development. Not all who are offered the opportunity will seize it – this is true regardless of their relative financial means. The most important idea here is that the opportunity exists, and that no one of willing spirit and determination is denied.

That’s not socialism, that’s the American ideal. And as a narrative, that’s a far more accurate and inspiring one, from my perspective.

One thought on “Defining moments

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