Friday, October 13, 2006

Enemy of the People?

Over the past week or so, circumstances have lead me to reflect on the challenges faced by activists and change agents. A play that I first studied as a high school stucent, Norwegian Dramatist, Henrik Ibsen's “Enemy of the People” came to mind. AU students, among the most politically active in the US often discuss such challenges and grapple with them.

“Here is a brief synopsis of Ibsen’s play from the website .
The town in which the play is set has built a huge bathing complex that is crucial to the town's economy. Dr. Stockmann has just discovered that the baths' drainage system is seriously contaminated. He alerts several members of the community, including Hovstad and Aslaksen, and receives generous support and thanks for making his discovery in time to save the town. The next morning, however, his brother, who is also the town's mayor, tells him that he must retract his statements, for the necessary repairs would be too expensive; additionally, the mayor is not convinced by Dr. Stockmann's findings. The brothers have a fierce argument, but Dr. Stockmann hopes that at least Hovstad's newspaper will support him. However, the mayor convinces Hovstad and Aslaksen to oppose Dr. Stockmann.

The doctor holds a town meeting to give a lecture on the baths, but Aslaksen and the mayor try to keep him from speaking. Dr. Stockmann then begins a long tirade in which he condemns the foundations of the town and the tyranny of the majority. The audience finds his speech incredibly offensive, and the next morning the doctor's home is vandalized. He and his daughter are fired. The mayor insinuates that the doctor's actions were merely a scheme to inherit more of Morten Kiil's money, and Kiil himself soon arrives to suggest just such a plan to Dr. Stockmann. However, the doctor refuses all such suggestions and decides to defy authority and remain in town. His family is supportive, and he says that the strongest man is the man who stands alone.”

It is easy to identify with the character of Stockmann, which I did when I read and reread the play as a young man. But Stockmann, while sticking to his principles, has failed the people of the town. The contaminated bath waters will continue to sicken visitors and townspeople. He is simply a voice crying in the wilderness, to little effect. The challenge for the activist and change agent is not only the somewhat sterile and hollow satisfaction of “being right” which is where Stockman finds himself at the end of the play. The activist and change agent must also be effective. How could Stockman be true to his beliefs, but at the same time achieve his goal: protecting those who use the baths from disease.? Having failed, perhaps the label, ‘enemy of the people’ with which the townspeople brand him, may be appropriate, after all.

Those who seek to be change agents, in politics or non political institutions need to ponder Ibsen’s message in “Enemy of the People,” Could the message be more subtle than it might appear on first reading?


Blogger PTJ said...

Interesting post. I replied to it on my blog.

2:25 PM  

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