Social Alienation and the School of Fish Theory of Social Change

Sonia Shah


you miss me? You’ve been busy, with world-shaking, front-page social change

happenings. In my sleep-deprived fog even I noticed that things were getting

exciting, and I missed you. My six-month leave from work to look after my 2

kids, aged 3 and 10 weeks, respectively, poses its own challenges, to be sure.

The fulltime parent’s world can get very very small, as it is completely

inhabited by basically mundane, essentially mindless tasks and demands, each

preceding the other in a steady drumbeat. You live in your very own kidland,

with its own unique language and culture, virtually impenetrable to the outside

world. Yet within that world, along with all the obvious things, love, warmth,

need, etc. is an encompassing sense of connection. I’ve wondered, as my brain

has slowly softened with milk, blood, and tears, can I possibly keep thinking

and writing about politics? What does it take to maintain commitment to left

ideas and actions? Terms such as “patriarchal capitalism,” “corporate

globalism” and “supremacist ideologies” seem impossibly alien when your

day is spent reading Dr. Seuss stories, pretending to be a monster, and humming

the theme song to “Teletubbies” (and actually enjoying it.) Without that

personal sense of both engagement with and alienation from adult society,

without my yearning for a deeper connection, would it be possible for me to keep

a critical edge?


to that sense of connection that a recent Harper’s magazine article on

anarchists in Eugene attributes both apolitical consumerism and radical

activism. Both, the author writes, arise out of “the feelings of absence and

compulsion that overwhelm us all at some point or another in our lives and are

not our fault.” That is, people “can’t help wanting Nike sneakers” but

“the desire to smash the windows of Niketown makes sense, too.” While this

article is a condescending and disdainful one, the siting of connectedness as a

motivating force seems correct to me, and I wonder if it is something the left

relies on quite crucially.


can almost hear the plaintive desperation of those leftist wannabes yearning for

connectedness. I recently attended a political lecture by the feminist and

environmentalist Vandana Shiva. After an impassioned speech, littered with

references to upcoming teach-ins, rallies, and political meetings, a woman stood

up to pose a question. “But what can we do?” she wanted to know. I laughed

inside, because Shiva’s whole talk, and indeed the entire body of her work, is

arguably about what we can do. Shiva repeated herself graciously, referring once

again to the gatherings and events coming up, replete with details on where,

when, and URLs scribbled on the board behind her. The questioner sat down, but I

imagined she wasn’t really satisfied. She knew about all that stuff. Her

question was about something else. Not what can she do as an anonymous

participant, swept up in activities planned in advance and with their own

momentum not of her making. I imagine it was about what can she do that only she

can do, what can be her unique contribution, one that would be ensconced in a

sea of recognition, and resulting in a direct, personal connection to the

poverty-stricken, devastated farmers oceans away? I imagine it wasn’t about

how she can act in solidarity, but rather how can she actually FEEL solidarity?

Some people can get that intense feeling of connectedness in crowds. I imagine

that corporate globalization had no direct personal ramification on some

significant portion of the people who were protesting it in Seattle and

Washington. There must have been folks who hadn’t lost their jobs, or their

farms, or their homes, but who were there anyway, guided by some philosophical

understanding of what is good and bad in the world. When they were surrounded by

seemingly like-minded others, chanting the chants and singing the songs, did

they then feel connected to something bigger than themselves? Without that

feeling, would they have still been willing to navigate the various life hurdles

and complexities—the competing demands of work, family, other life

interests–to get themselves there?


around the aquarium the other day, three-year-old enraptured by starfish, me

stumbling about with sore shoulders from the infant in his sling, I paused at a

display about school fish. The fish have a special organ on their sides

specifically for sensing the whereabouts of the other fish in the school. It

gives them the ability to swim together in perfect synchrony, darting en masse

this way and that, with nary a collision or a bump. What would that feel like,

an emptiness when the others are too far away, a perfect buzzing warmth when

they are exactly near? I can almost imagine it.


the trouble with relying on social connection to motivate one’s social justice

activism is it is so easily squelched. A few boring meetings and you ’re outta

there. A bigoted comment or two and it’s over. Obviously, committed activists

are motivated by more lofty things, moral vision, ideological commitment and the

like. But ideally one wouldn’t have to be personally devastated, socially

alienated, or unusually virtuous to be part of building a peaceful, just

society. Ideally, it would be as easy and necessary and good as nursing a hungry

baby, putting a blanket on a sleeping child. It would be your job, your life,

your connection, and all the rest of it. Then, it wouldn’t matter so much if

you were happy or miserable, alienated or content, morally strong or weak. You

could be a jerk, or a laze, or a mooch or a lay-about, even a milk-addled

sleep-deprived mom, and still be on the side of equity, democracy, and peace.


a few months time, I’ll go back to my parttime, nonprofit job of making books

about justice. I’m lucky to have it, as they aren’t easy to sustain in our

superstore economy. It’s good that I love the work, but even if I didn’ t,

I’d go back because I need the job. And since it is constructive work that

helps more than it hinders, populated by friendly, warm people, that is just as

well, I think.



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