Progressive change agents often engage in something that I call narrative attack; they make a direct attack on one narrative or worldview from the vantage point-and in the language-of their own opposing narrative or worldview. For example, when some people wrap up their anti-environmental views (e.g. climate change denial) in the rhetoric of their creationist beliefs, it is all too tempting for more scientifically minded people to directly attack the climate change deniers’ whole belief system. That is narrative attack. Once a direct attack is made, persuasion becomes nearly impossible, because people feel that their whole belief system is under siege.
(Clearly conservatives do this as well, but given that the purpose of this post is not to criticize but to offer communications strategy suggestions, I’m just discussing this from the viewpoint of progressives.)
A narrative insurgency approach, on the other hand, examines the other’s narrative, learning the component parts, looking for “allies” inside the narrative. In the Biblical creation story, for example, God charges humankind to be the caretakers of God’s sacred creation. Rather than directly attack a creationist’s whole belief system, a “narrative insurgent” looks to foment “home-grown insurgency” inside the belief system against the most problematic beliefs (which, in this case, is indifference to climate change). By stressing humanity’s mandate to care for God’s creation, that ally belief is singled out for positive reinforcement within a complex belief system.
Someone recently asked me to jot down some communications, media and messaging tips for folks engaged in grassroots social justice organizing efforts and campaigns. So, that’s what I’m doing in this series. I’ll be breaking down some specific techniques and also exploring deeper communications concepts and frameworks.
This is the landing page for this series. You can bookmark it and check back for new posts, which I’ll be linking to from this page.
- How to pitch reporters
- Hooks & messages
- Narrative insurgency
- Grassroots organizational branding
I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of hegemony, and reading Antonio Gramsci. I’ll be posting a few reflections as I go.
Years ago, I remember growing wary of tendencies (within activist groups I was part of) to exaggerate and glorify supposedly “spontaneous” elements of activism and protest. Some group members often recounted protests and direct actions as if what transpired had been spontaneous, even when the same individuals had themselves participated in elaborate planning meetings and preparations for the actions. What bothered me more was when this fiction of spontaneity mutated until it held a central place in some group members’ theory of change. The “theory” seemed to hold that if a few committed activists were willing to be “militant” enough, their actions might somehow inspire more people to do likewise; change would ultimately occur as a result of a spontaneous mass uprising of this sort.
Septima Clark and Rosa Parks at Highlander Folk School just before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955.
The myth of spontaneity also seemed present in how the broader society viewed protest and collective action-when it wasn’t ignored entirely-and this bothered me too. The story of Rosa Parks’ refusal, for example, was popularly told and retold as the story of a woman who was tired, who had had enough, and who spontaneously refused to unfairly give up her seat to a white rider on the bus. I had learned what really happened: that Rosa Parks was a seasoned community leader; that she had had many strategic discussions with other leaders about this very action beforehand; that she had been part of strategic trainings at the Highlander Folk School, a center that had trained many Civil Rights and labor leaders (including Martin Luther King Jr.). The story of, “I was tired,” annoyed me because it felt to me that it took political agency out of the equation. The implied lesson seemed to be, “If you, as an individual, muster the courage to stand up and do what’s right, you may just kick off a whole movement (spontaneously).” The more accurate and instructive lesson, in my opinion, would have been, “If you plan with others, prepare yourself and others, build strong relationships in your community, develop a strategy for action, and build community buy-in, then you may be able to effectively intervene in the historical process.”
Four years ago today (January 27, 2007), United for Peace & Justice organized a mass protest in Washington DC to end the Iraq War. In the three weeks leading up to the event we were rushing to get our first publication—Building a Successful Antiwar Movement—to the printer in time to distribute at the rally. Jonathan Matthew Smucker wrote this antiwar organizing primer in collaboration with Madeline Gardner, and we fundraised to be able to distribute about 20,000 copies free of charge to local antiwar groups across the country.
The pamphlet is written for a particular audience at a particular political moment — at the height of the unpopularity of the Iraq occupation, and a week after the new Democratic-controlled Congress had been sworn in. However, the pamphlet provides some “tools and methods for people organizing to end the war” that are still relevant today. And the frameworks can be applied to other social justice issues as well.
The pamphlet is posted here in four parts:
- Three Roles of an Antiwar Core (Intro)
- Speak the Truth, Tell a Story (Role 1: Interpretive)
- Articulating a Strategy (Role 2: Instructive)
- Activating Popular Participation (Role 3: Facilitative)
You can also click here to download the original formatted pamphlet as a PDF.
To inquire about ordering hard copies of the pamphlet, email info[at]beyondthechoir[dot]org — please write “Pamphlet” in the subject line.
This is the fourth and final installment in a series written by Jonathan Matthew Smucker in collaboration with Madeline Gardner, originally published in 2007. Click here to read the previous essay, Articulating a Strategy
Kinetic and Potential
There is a tendency among people active in social movements (like the antiwar movement) to look at ourselves and think that this is it, that we are the whole of the movement, that we know all the players. When we think we know all the players, as well as how to talk to them/ourselves, then we can become lax on communicating with a broader public. This limits efforts to recruit, activate, or make alliances with, additional players. If we think about the antiwar movement only in terms of its kinetic energy (i.e. that which is already in motion) we will look around at the actors currently on the stage and think that it is up to us alone to end the war and prevent future wars of aggression. This would require magic. We can- not realize our vision of peace and justice with only our current numbers mobilized. We must build a far larger movement. We have to activate potential energy.
If you’re reaching out to the news media as part of your grassroots social justice campaign, it’s important to know the difference between your hook and your message. Your news hook is whatever you use to get reporters to show up in the first place (e.g. hanging a banner on Mount Rushmore). A campaign message is what you actually want to communicate to the public, through the filter of the news media (e.g. “America needs real leadership from President Obama on the issue of global warming.”).
Do I see Beyond the Choir co-founder Madeline Gardner up there?
Hooks and messages are rarely the same exact thing, and it is important to know the difference. An attention-grabbing tactic (which is the hook) can all too easily become the entire story, without any reporting about why activists might go to such lengths. More times than not this is what contemporary mainstream news coverage of protests and direct actions looks like. I have helped to plan actions that were only covered as part of the traffic report because the news desks had decided that the only thing relevant to their audience about our action was the potential that we would disrupt the smooth flow of traffic!
This is the third installment in a four-part series written by Jonathan Matthew Smucker in collaboration with Madeline Gardner, originally published in 2007. Click here to read the previous essay, Speak the Truth, Tell a Story
Context is the ground we build on.
The second primary role of an antiwar core that we will discuss is to formulate winning strategies and articulate them in a way that will inspire broad action to end the war.
Taking action with a faith in the possibility that we may somehow end the war is very different from taking action with a strategy about how to do it. The former is a shot in the dark. The latter is a hard target, but one we’re likely to get closer to the more we practice.
Faith in the possibility of affecting change is an important starting point – a prerequisite for social change work. Given the profound level of political disempowerment in our society, such faith should not be undervalued. But good strategy must be informed by much more than faith. The more information we have, the more likely that our strategy will be on target. What kind of information are we looking for? Well, who are the decision-makers? Who or what influences them? What are the decision-making processes? What alliances and tensions exist within “the system”? What are the possible legislative and legal points of intervention? Who are our allies? Who are our potential allies? What related issues are other progressive groups working on? What are the big concerns in our communities, and how are they articulated? How do people get their news and information? What are the cultural narratives that hold meaning to the people around us? What are people’s attitudes toward “activism” or “activists?” What is the history of social change, and how is that history perceived?
Part one in a series.
To “pitch” a reporter or assignment editor on a news-worthy story is to call them up-typically after sending them a news release-and attempt to persuade them that they should come out (or send a reporter) and cover whatever you want them to cover (probably an upcoming event that you’re planning). A good pitch call is at least as important as sending a good news release. With a call, unlike a news release, you are creating a memory of a human-to-human interaction. It’s your opportunity to make a strong impression so that when the reporter or editor goes into their morning or afternoon meeting-where they’re deciding which stories to cover-they are more likely to suggest covering your event.
Reporters and editors are busy people. They typically sound as if they are unhappy that you reached them by phone, and you’re lucky to get a full minute of their time. An effective pitch call makes a strong impression within the first five seconds, and makes at least the start of a compelling case within ten seconds.
For comparison, here’s an example of an ineffective pitch call:
Hi. My name is [name]. I’m calling about an event that we’re organizing. The event will be here in Manhattan. We’ll be doing performance in the streets, protesting the Iraq War. Iraq Veterans Against the War is organizing the event, along with their allies…
I would have been lucky to get that far without being interrupted. Now, here’s an example of an effective pitch call:
Hi, I’m [name], calling on behalf of Iraq Veterans Against the War. Tomorrow combat veterans who recently returned from Iraq will be patrolling the streets of Manhattan, dressed in full uniform. They’re staging mock combat operations similar to what they experienced in Iraq – to show New Yorkers the realities of military occupation. Did you receive our press release?
This is the second installment in a four-part series written by Jonathan Matthew Smucker in collaboration with Madeline Gardner, originally published in 2007. Click here to read the previous essay, Three Roles of an Antiwar Core
The first primary role of an antiwar core that we will discuss is to attach meaning to unfolding events and help shape common understandings – to interpret reality based on the patterns we observe.
Imperialism, for example, is an observable pattern where the government of one country extends its dominance over other countries or colonies to increase its own wealth and power. Progressives see US military interventions, political and economic pressuring, and even cultural exports through the lens of a story of US imperialism. This story helps us to understand the situation.
Stories can expose underlying motives. They turn the actors into types of characters: protagonists and antagonists, victims, villains, heroes, and so on. Stories connect events, and strip them of their randomness and neutrality. Stories place judgment.
But stories can also obscure motives and distort reality. For example, there is another story used to explain the various manifestations of the US government’s meddling in the world. The story of US benevolence has deep roots in the culture, relying heavily on popular accounts of World War I and, especially, World War II. This story assumes that our government is genuinely interested in spreading freedom, justice and democracy (rather than undermining and overthrowing it).
This is the first installment in a four-part series written by Jonathan Matthew Smucker in collaboration with Madeline Gardner, originally published in 2007.
They won’t do it. It’s up to all of us to stop the war.
It’s 2007, and the war continues. It is even escalating with Bush’s maddening “surge.” Equally maddening is the announcement from prominent Democrats that they will not be exercising the only power they have to rein in the administration. Instead of denying Bush more funds for the war – a move, with historic precedence, that would pressure a quick withdrawal of US troops from Iraq – they are opting for a non-binding resolution, a “political statement.”
While a large majority of Americans want their leadership to bring the troops home, Democrats are using their new majority to state their heartfelt wish for the same-to pass a symbolic resolution-rather than to use actual power to make it so. New House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and most other Democratic representatives are parroting Bush by equating continued funding for the war with support for our troops. They should be refuting this manipulative frame, not reinforcing it.
Many rank and file Democrats and some progressive leaders like Representatives Jim McGovern (MA) and Dennis Kucinich (OH) are pushing to end the war by cutting off the Administration’s requested funds. But it is becoming clear that the November election results – popularly dubbed a referendum on the war – are not enough for the new Democratic majority Congress to decisively exercise their power to end the war.
It is becoming clear that the majority of Americans who favor a quick withdrawal will have to exercise their own power – beyond voting – to pressure an end to the war. The politicians won’t do it without the mounting pressure of a well-organized popular movement. It is up to all of us to build such a movement.