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The ballot or the bullet

How resolutions to wicked problems may be framed as the ballot or the bullet.
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Wicked problems can come with a sense of hopelessness.

Are the goals we might hope for – along ecological, economic, or social lines – impossible under the current system that continues to produce and ‘manage’ these seemingly intractable problems?

Wicked problems thus provoke a rather radical inference: is it more rational to steer the current system towards a better outcome, or subvert that system’s capability to function? In other words, is the current trajectory of things fixable? Or do we need a subversive theory of change to break from the current course?

Such a realisation is not new. Malcolm X might have put it most eloquently in the 1960s civil rights movement in America in his speech ‘The Ballot or the Bullet’. Part metaphor, part literal expression of theory, his words paint a picture of identity, systems, and capacity for change that remain relevant today.

Listen to the first 16 minutes of the speech (linked above) and note down:

  • What identities (ascriptive and ideological) intersect in this speech?
  • What systems are considered to be acting on these identities?
  • What communities are pursued, and what actions are possible for them in the relations being created in the system? (Hint: ‘trapped, double-trapped, triple-trapped!’)

Here we might think about theories of change that are defined through service to systems of power as ‘the ballot’.

Service-based change, with its focus on collaboration, may appear well-suited for tackling these issues. However, the wickedness of these problems often lies in the very systems that change agents seek to navigate and shift. The ballot, in this case, may be an insufficient tool, offering only incremental changes that do not get past the surface of deeply entrenched issues.

Conversely, the call for subversion, echoing Malcolm X’s ‘bullet’, gains potency when seen through the lens of wicked problems. If the system itself defines part of the ‘wickedness’, then perhaps it needs to be dismantled or radically altered. Malcolm X’s call for choosing between ‘liberty or death’ or between ‘freedom for everybody or freedom for nobody’ resonates with a sense of urgency that wicked problems often demand.

The bullet, metaphorically speaking, becomes a tool for immediate and radical transformation. Yet even subversion is fraught with complications when dealing with wicked problems. The interconnectedness of these issues means that radical change in one area could lead to unforeseen and potentially disastrous consequences in another. The bullet, then, is not a magic solution, but a risky gambit – one that could either liberate or further entangle.

As we grapple with wicked problems that defy easy answers, the tension between the ballot and the bullet becomes a defining dilemma. It’s a choice between the slow grind of working within a flawed system for uncertain goals, and the perilous allure of radical upheaval and autonomy. Malcolm X’s words served as a rallying cry but also as a sobering reminder of the complexity and gravity of the choices we face in a world fraught with wicked problems.

Next week we begin in earnest to consider alternative forms of organising, which might move past the ballot or the bullet as binary oppositions. Are there intersections available between service and subversion? In other words, can we dismantle the wicked problems of today with the tools their systems have provided?

Share your thoughts

Watch the following panel interview with Malcolm X that aired three weeks before his death.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Reconsider the questions above. How has Malcom’s X’s approach to community-led change shifted by the time of this recording?

Think about the challenges your own community faces; are there different opinions on how you should relate to power to advance your goals? Which sides lean more to service and which to subversion?

© Deakin University
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