Gradualism, as I see it, is more a disposition than a method. One is comfortable with a slow pace and accepts taking opportunities when they come rather than trying to batter down offending walls that are not ready to give way.
One can anguish about injustice and yet accept that it cannot quickly be eradicated without incurring side effects whose long term hurt cannot be calculated. And one can take comfort in the judgment of John Milton: ‘They also serve who only stand and wait.’ I have done a lot of waiting. And I have pushed over some offending walls by waiting for the right moment. Some of the waits were long.
Gradualists, because they are slow and willing to wait, run the risk of being mistaken for donothingers. But the difference is profound. The donothinger does not ever intend to push the wall over. The gradualist fully intends to push the wall over when it is prudent to do so – which may take a long time. The confrontationalist intends to push it over right now…
Serve, as I have used that word, is best judged by the consequences on one being served. Does that person, while being served, grow wiser, stronger, healthier, freer, more likely her or himself to become a servant?
I have no quarrel with the rapid action people who sometimes (at great cost) break down an offending wall that is not ready to give. For myself, I have no grand strategy for changing the world, and I grant that confrontational strategies, with which I would not be comfortable and for which I have no skill, may be more appropriate than gradualism in some situations. Such strategies sometimes call for heroism and are more likely to make history than the quiet time-consuming ways of gradualists.
In summing up my reflections I simply want to make the case for gradualism in the hope that it may be made known to those whose life styles have not yet been set and who are open, as I was at age twenty-one when I heard those seminal remarks by my professor, to a fundamental choice of direction in their lives.
And there may be some oldsters who are tired of trying to batter down walls that do not want to give and who would welcome a fresh start. I would like to share with them too.
It is in this spirit of sharing that I will reflect on some events in history in which heroic changes were made swiftly – sometimes at great cost of life and property – and ask the disconcerting question, ‘What if skillful gradualists had been more influential than confrontationalists in that situation?