When disagreeing with someone else’s ideas, it can be tempting to engage in narrative attack; to make a direct attack on one narrative from the vantage point, and in the language, of your opposing narrative. For example, when someone wraps climate change-denial views in the rhetoric of creationist beliefs, it is tempting to directly attack the climate change denier’s whole belief system. Once a narrative attack is made, persuasion becomes nearly impossible because the attacked person feels that their whole belief system is under siege. Change becomes impossible.
A narrative insurgency approach, on the other hand, examines the other’s narrative framework, learning the component parts and looking for points of connection. Rather than directly attack a creationist’s whole belief system, for instance, a “narrative insurgent” looks to foment home-grown insurgency against the most problematic beliefs by identifying ally beliefs and seeking to reinforce them. When speaking to creationists about environmental issues, for example, emphasizing humanity’s mandate to care for God’s creation can be an effective point of entry.
If we are to transform the political culture, we need to think not in terms of attacking opponents’ views head-on, but rather in terms of fomenting homegrown insurgency. The root of the word insurgency is “rise up.” Insurgencies rise up from within. Narrative insurgency rises up from within a cultural narrative, transforming that culture from the inside out.
What is the difference between saying none of us is a leader and saying all of us are leaders?
At first glance these two phrases may seem like two ways of saying essentially the same thing. We believe in organizing in a way that is more horizontal than vertical. We believe in equalizing participation and resisting social hierarchies.
But the word leadership can mean a lot of things. There are things we associate with leadership that have nothing to do with hierarchy. Taking leadership can mean taking initiative on moving a project or task forward. It can mean looking for what is needed in a group, and stepping up to do that thing.
These positive group-serving associations with leadership are the reason why there’s an important difference between the idea of “no leaders” and the idea of “all leaders”.
If we are part of a group that talks about having no leaders, this phrase can inadvertently make us overly hesitant about stepping up to take initiative. It can create a group culture where as individuals we become reluctant to be seen as moving something forward — because our peers might see us as a “leader”, which would be a bad thing.
Three Tips for Plugging People In
Bringing in new participants and volunteers is essential to an occupation-or any group or organization-that wants to grow in size and capacity. The momentum of the Occupy Wall Street movement has quickly attracted a lot of people to occupations across the United States and around the world. But attracting or recruiting new people to your occupation or group is only the first step. Getting them to stick around is a much bigger challenge.
The good news is that there are tried-and-true methods you can use to plug new participants and volunteers into tasks and roles that will build their investment and leadership in the collective effort, and will increase what you all are capable of achieving together.
1. Greet and get to know newcomers.
When someone shows up at your occupation, march, rally, or action, they are indicating an interest. Greet them! Find out about them! And don’t just invite them to come to your next meeting. Even the most welcoming and inclusive groups tend to develop their own meeting culture that can unintentionally make new folks feel like outsiders. To increase your new participant retention rates, take a few minutes to stop and talk with new folks. Get to know the person. Find out about what attracted them to your effort. You might ask about what kinds of tasks they enjoy doing, what they are good at, etc. If that goes well, you might ask them how much time they have. You can tell them more about what’s going on with the effort – and discuss with them what their involvement could look like. While this level of orientation requires some time in the short-term, it saves you time in the long-term – because more people will plug into the work faster, and stick around longer. It may make sense a working group to take on the ongoing task of greeting, welcoming, and orienting new folks.
2. Accommodate multiple levels of participation.
In short, some people can give a lot of time, and some can give a little. Organizers with more time on their hands should avoid projecting their own availability as an expectation onto others. A foolproof way to drive new folks away from your occupation or group is to consistently ask them to give more time than they are able to give. Instead learn what kind of time commitment is realistic and sustainable for them. Help them plug into tasks and roles that suit their availability. Check in with them about how it’s going. Are they feeling overextended, or would they like to take on more? Take responsibility for helping new folks avoid over-commitment and burnout.
3. Make people feel valued and appreciated.
If you want to inspire people to stick with this burgeoning movement for the long haul, make them feel valued and appreciated. It’s basic. People like to be around people who respect them, and who are nice! If we want to compete with the myriad of often more appealing options for people’s free time, then we have to treat each other well and take care of each other. Notice and acknowledge new folks’ contributions, however small. Make time to check in with them outside of meetings. Ask their opinions often: What did they think about the meeting? the event? the action? Bounce your ideas off of them and ask for their feedback.
Why haven’t the protests on Wall Street sparked a prairie fire of populist rebellion across the country? Why, when Adbusters called for “reinforcements” did these not magically arrive? Why, if the protesters represent the feelings of “99% of Americans” have so very, very few of those represented bothered to support the initiative in any way at all?
Isn’t just about everyone furious with Wall Street right now?
Yes, but turning latent sentiment into coordinated collective action is never as simple as a mere call to action.
But it’s easy to see how a contingent of radicals could come to believe the delusion that the right call to action at the right moment is how mass rebellions are ignited. This formula for instantaneous revolution ignores quite a few essentials, including context, organizing, and leadership.
Kevin Drum has a post today at Mother Jones titled Everybody Hates Everybody Else. Based on a recent Bloomberg poll (see the pie/donut chart below), he concludes that:
…what it really means is that everybody hates everybody else. Democrats all think Republicans are responsible for screwing up the country, and Republicans all think Democrats are responsible. The only difference is that Republicans can’t decide who they hate more, Obama or Nancy Pelosi.
Half the country is a bogeyman for the other half of the country, and vice versa. Whoot!
Now, from the outset of any discussion of this phenomenon, I think it’s indispensable to name that this is not a symmetrical equation, with the two sides mirroring each other, both equally culpable in the same exact ways.
But disclaimers aside, I don’t think those on the progressive-leaning side of this culture war can be fully excused for our part. Nor do I think politicians are the only ones to blame. It’s really fun and easy—and quite understandable—for progressives to spend a lot of time pissing and moaning about conservatives and also about politicians. But it can be disempowering too. We are currently not organized in a way that gives us much leverage over many politicians, and we’re even less capable of influencing the attitudes of our hardest opponents. Focusing attention on the most extreme conservative statements of our hardest opponents can be an important thing to do tactically… from time to time. But to have our whole progressive media universe revolve around such stories is not only excessive, it’s also self-defeating. We get caught up in a story of being the powerless enlightened minority whose unfortunate fellow citizens are hopelessly backward. Now, while there may be some truth to this feeling, dwelling excessively on it is more a matter of venting than about changing something.
In his essay Voluntarism and Social Masses, Antonio Gramsci argues that “the actions and organizations of ‘volunteers’ must be distinguished from the actions and organisations of homogeneous social blocs, and judged by different criteria.” He defines these “volunteers” as “those who have detached themselves from the mass by arbitrary individual initiative…”
His language of volunteers vs. organized social blocs aligns with a similar distinction often made between activism and organizing. Anyone can become an activist overnight, if he or she so desires. All you need to do is to start taking action as an individual on an issue you care about. I’m not about to be as dismissive as Gramsci seems to be in this essay about the value of such an act. However, he makes a good point: organizing is about finding other people to take action with you. But there’s more – and here’s where I find Gramsci’s framework so helpful – organizing is not just about finding anyone to take action with you; it’s about working to activate an already constituted social bloc and turn the bloc itself into the historical actor.
originally published on September 30, 2010
Listen to the full interview with Jose Vasquez:
Jose Vasquez shares his journey from Army Staff Sergeant to Conscientious Objector to Executive Director of Iraq Veterans Against the War – and offers some reflections on organizing with veterans and GIs in today’s antiwar movement.
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Many of us, when we become disillusioned with the dominant culture, we develop an inclination to separate ourselves from it. When we begin to become aware of racism, sexism, capitalism and whatever other forms of social, economic or ecological oppression, we don’t want to be part of it. This often comes from a moral repugnance and a desire to not cooperate with injustice.
However, this desire to separate ourselves from injustice can develop into a general mentality of separation from society. In other words, when we see the dominant culture as a perpetrator of injustice, and we see society as the storehouse of the dominant culture, then our desire to separate ourselves from injustice can easily develop into a mentality of separating ourselves from society. With society seen as bad, we begin to look for ways of distinguishing ourselves and our groups from it. We begin to notice, highlight, exaggerate and develop distinctions between ourselves and society, because these distinctions support our justice-oriented narratives. The distinguishing features often go far beyond nonparticipation in those aspects of the dominant culture that we find offensive. We adorn ourselves with distinguishing features to express separation, and also to flag likeminded people and establish ourselves in–and assimilate into–oppositional subcultures.
This article made the rounds on Z net and a bunch of Indymedia sites back in 2006. I wrote it in collaboration with Madeline Gardner. I’m reposting here in three parts, with no edits.
Here’s Part Two. And here’s Part Three. And here’s the video.
Ritual & Engagement
It’s August and I’m back in San Francisco. I love this city. It’s been over three years since my last visit – an extended stay that started a week after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. At that time thousands of people in the Bay Area launched, and for many weeks sustained, a stronger show of resistance than could be seen anywhere else in the country. People put their bodies on the line to shut down San Francisco’s financial district, as well as war-profiteering corporations throughout the region. I was proud to be a participant. I’ve spent most of the time since in my hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, organizing with the Lancaster Coalition for Peace & Justice. Now I’m back in SF just a few days, already marching in an anti-war protest.
“Hey hey! What do you say? How many kids did you kill today?” the crowd chants.
I don’t join in. We don’t use chants like this in Lancaster. Actually, I can recall very few occasions where we have chanted at all. I used to chant as loudly and enthusiastically as the next person, but now something holds me back.