Shallow Reform vs. Deep Reform

I’ve recently come off the end of a watchdog movement of a major institution, and have learned many lessons on the reality of power, and the oppression of marginalized perspectives. One such lesson is the distinction between shallow and deep reform.

Shallow reform matches the reform zeitgeist without challenging power structure. It is in line with the issues that people en masse are dealing with right now, with a visible image of providing meaningful change and noble work. Yes it very well might provide real reform. However, shallow reform stops short of touching the underlying institutions that actually might create, support, and maintain oppression in the first place. Shallow reform is generally a politically correct movement, easy for everyone to rally for, hard for anyone to be against, looking impressive on the outside, without affecting an oppressive power dynamic that lies on the inside. Such reform is awarded and cherished universally, yet doesn’t shift the power dynamic in any significant way.

Deep reform on the other hand challenges power institutions and hierarchy directly. Support and goodwill that would normally exist with shallow activism dries up, and deep reform efforts often ends up ignored and/or misrepresented. The activists themselves are often scapegoated. The reason is that deep activism challenges the stronghold of power.

The distinction is important to keep in mind as one who does pursue deep reform should not just ready for a lack of support and suppression of their voice, but a reversal of goodwill and misrepresentation. One must be prepared, and ready, to hold tight the ideals they are standing for — namely the inclusion of marginalized perspectives — higher than personal effects. One must be ready to surrender time, energy, peace of mind, and reputation. All this said, there still is no guarantee of personally tasting victory.

In deep reform, the recollection of role-models such as Martin Luther King Jr or Mahatma Gandhi help, but are not enough. Why? Because our role models generally have made it through the roughest phases of the movement. Whether the reform movement continues or not, they have personally made it to the other side, and their image and legacy are shrouded with some degree of unassailable support. Very likely, in reality, deep activism will not achieve such visible victories in their efforts, certainly not initially, and might very well be in a scapegoated position for a long time. One should be ready for this reality, and be willing to accept this as a badge of integrity. One must have diamond hard dedication to upholding the ideal of ‘inclusion of diverse perspectives’ at her core.

What to do? Like anything, the best approach involves finding that balance — between both types of reform. One should seek to challenge oppressive institutions as deeply as one is able to, but not to the point where one cannot still retain balance of mind, action, empathy and compassion. One must stay under the radar, indirectly bowing to power structures while still supporting universal causes, pursuing deep reform subtly, gracefully, quietly, compassionately. That said, finding that balances is itself a discovery process in and of itself.

Ranjeeth Thunga