Cycling and soft power, part 1
I’m a veggie powered girl on a bike and I am changing the world. By riding a bike.
An enigma on wheels…. Adventure rolling by…
Before I braved these city streets on two wheels myself, I’d seen them in my college years, had friends who were - cyclists. They seemed to walk some other path. I just didn’t get it. Over time and many other variables (location of residence, schedule, financial, sense of adventure, wanting to feel the wind on my face) I decided to give it a try.
No one ever held a gun to my head and said, “You’d better ride a bicycle, or else you’re gonna get it!” No one ever threatened my family or loved ones and forced me to ride a bicycle. No one told me I was doomed to damnation and hell fire if I didn’t bicycle. No one made me do it. No makes me do it. It’s all an internally motivated decision.
I wanted the sun, the sky, and the stars. I wanted the wind and the city lights. And so I rode.
I didn’t want the stuffed and stinky T. I no longer wanted to engage with the unreliable and inefficient buses. I wanted a choice. I wanted my own piece of that enigma and adventure. So I rode.
That attraction, that drive is part of something larger. Something internally motivated. Something that can change the world. You might call it soft power.
Soft power? Professor Joseph Nye’s term for the sort of influence and power that doesn’t involve guns, wars, economics, appeasement, sanctions, coercion, and the like (i.e. hard power). Soft power comes from the power of attraction. Soft power means getting the people you want to do something you want them to do without the use of force.
Soft power in action in the present…
This Economist article (to paraphrase and oversimplify a bit more than I’d like) documents the Chinese government tapping the legendary Sun Tzu on the shoulder and recruiting him out of history to serve as their soft power mascot/bandleader/spokesman. A lot of things in more recent Chinese history make it somewhat unpalatable; human rights violations, that whole Tibet thing, that whole Communist thing, just to name a few. So how do you sell your image to foreign investors to help maintain your-total-crazy-awesome-wonderful-scary-impossible-to-maintain economic growth? Soft power of course. You don’t want to come off as extremist, too one sided, or threatening, no! No! No!
So who comes to the rescue? Indubitable historical legends (they have that Je ne sais quois). Ladies and gentlemen, let us introduce Sun Tzu, legendary figure to whom The Art of War is credited. Now walk into any largish book retailer and you can find all sorts of extrapolations on The Art of War, from fashion to business to martial arts, probably even baking (but I will admit, I haven’t checked). But as the Economist author points out, it is, in the end, still a book about war, which is not soft power. So in trying to get in on the pop culture let’s-do-everything-according-to-The-Art-of-War-and-we’ll-succeed bandwagon, these government leaders have, in fact, not exactly hit the soft power nail on the head.
Getting it right, for the right reasons…
“… I would like to propose inner-motivation as the most important key for opening the way to an era of soft power. Over the ages, hard-power systems have succeeded by using the established tools of coercion or oppression to move people toward certain goals. What is characterized as soft power, however, is by contrast based on the inner-generated energy deriving from the internal urge that is created through consensus and satisfaction among human beings. The processes of soft power, the unleashing of the inner energies of the individual, have since ancient times been considered the proper province of philosophy in the broadest sense, rooted in the spiritual and religious nature of man.”
These words belong to Dr. Daisaku Ikeda, lay Buddhist leader, educator, scholar, writer, etc. who gave a speech at Harvard University in 1991 on soft power. He outlines an idea for social change based on the change within an individual, and how inner motivated change lays a powerful and profound foundation for an age of soft power. But how does my riding a bike contribute to the foundation of a new age?
When you ride a bike you’re making the choice to walk Frost’s “road less traveled by” (as opposed to say, driving a car). You’re making a statement even if you’re not out to make a statement. We are rolling advertisements for everything biking is. We’re a varied bunch with a lot of different ideas on just about everything. But we are through this very act, often inadvertently, making a statement for change.
Cyclists, in choosing these less traveled existential by-ways, in many ways embody this old New England standby (and of course other places!) of the “do it yourself” or DIY mentality. Do not leave to others what you can do. “Stand up and make the change.”* “Be the change you want to see in the world.”** DIY comes from internal motivation for change, for betterment. DIY requires you reach inward, past what we are sold or told we can do, a push inward toward creativity and growth.
Ikeda’s explanation for a powerful social change comes from such internal growth and exploration. When we dig deep inside for what we’re truly made of, when we work to expand our capacity, when we challenge what we thought was possible we are walking the path to internal change. The same creativity and courage that powers DIY can power social change.
Part 2 coming soon!