There’s some beautiful trouble brewing, and Beyond the Choir has got caught up in it. We’re part of an exciting collaboration called Beautiful Trouble. It’s a collaboratively-written (and collaboratively funded!) guide for trouble makers. Check out the new video about the project:
Beautiful Trouble will be a book & web toolbox that puts the best ideas and tactics of creative action in the hands of the next generation of change-makers, connecting the accumulated wisdom of decades of creative protest to the popular outrage of the current political moment…
Beautiful Trouble will pull together an interlocking set of design principles, best practices, innovative tactics and case studies, that will enable anyone to pull off effective creative actions.
Doesn’t that sound like something you’d like to help publish?
Branding, in the advertising world, is imbuing a company or product with positive associations inside the consumer’s mind. Marlboro, for example, has so successfully associated cowboys and the wild frontier with their product (cigarettes), that some of their ads don’t even mention the name “Marlboro.” They don’t need to, because the product comes to mind automatically at the sight of the now-famous cowboy image.
In the late 1990s Rainforest Action Network (RAN) carried out some very effective negative branding campaigns, which many powerful people took notice of. RAN realized that a positive brand is one of the most important assets of a corporation. A tarnished brand can repel consumers and scare away investors, as Home Depot learned the hard way. RAN effectively painted Home Depot as a reckless destroyer of old growth forests and rainforests, until the company committed to discontinue using old growth forests for lumber. (A few other companies followed, like dominoes, just at the threat of a possible RAN campaign against their brand name.)
It was around then that I got to thinking about the brands of the social justice organizations I worked with. A brand is essentially the memories and associations that tend to come to mind in the popular imagination at the mention of your name. In this sense, individuals can even have “brands” (though we usually call this a reputation). What associations were coming to mind at the mention of different social change organizations? What about at the mention of broader labels such as activism, environmentalism, feminism, socialism, the peace movement, etc.? If a tarnished brand hurt a corporation’s ability to move product or attract investors, perhaps our tarnished brands were part of the reason so many social change groups were having such a difficult time attracting more participants.
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.
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).
I’m reading two great books about the power of story as an organizing tool in social change struggles. One is smartMeme’s RE:Imagining Change (a guide for activists on story-based strategy), the other is It Was Like a Fever: Story-telling in Protest and Politics by Francesca Polletta.
Amongst other subjects, both Polletta and smartMeme discuss the problem of “victim stories” for social change agents. Social change organizations understandably try to mobilize to address an injustice by showing the real-life negative impact of that injustice. Victims of the injustice tell their stories (or their stories are told) often emphasizing victim status – purposely or not – with the hope of appealing to people’s sense of compassion and mobilizing a popular response.
The problem though is that victim stories usually don’t work very well for challenger movements to challenge power relationships. Instead of mobilizing people, they tend to reinforce the existing power structure – in part by reinforcing the idea that victims are in fact powerless.
SmartMeme encourages change agents to tell a story that instead casts challenger movements as empowered and sympathetic protagonists, who are attractive in large part because they are seen as winners or on a winning trajectory (usually in an insurgent kind of way). Polletta discusses situations where social movement organizations have successfully done just that (e.g. Rosa Parks’ refusal, or the lunch counter sit-ins), and also discusses examples of when movements have presented their “main characters” as victims – which characteristically hasn’t worked very well.