Selling the Message: How to get from Occupation to Social Change

The world is facing both a financial collapse rivalling that of the Great Depression and political upheaval akin to the riots of 1968. In this turbulent environment it is imperative that those wanting to enact change upon the world learn from the past and adopt policies that move us forward, both in their actual policies and how they approach change.

The biggest danger facing a movement like #occupy or the many uprisings in the Arab world is that rather than changing the world for the better they are just replacing one oppressive system for another. Political change should never happen through force of one group against another but rather consensus and pragmatic discussion. We have an opportunity here to do something together to make a more viable future for everyone. But that requires that everyone participate, whether they are the 99%, the 1% or somewhere in between.

In an earlier part of my life I was a politician. I had ideas, ideals and a strong will to enact social change on my community, my country and the world. And to some small extent I like to think I did. But more importantly my time as a politician taught me some hard lessons about how the world works and how to go about enacting change in the world. And though frustrating, ideologically challenging and often counter-intuitive, these lessons should be the very corner stone of any social movement wanting to make a difference in the world.

They are:

  1. Work from Within
  2. Speak the Language of Your Oppressor
  3. Know that Your Views are Extreme
  4. Strong leadership is vital
  5. Create a political platform
  6. Be pragmatic and think long term

Just before I continue I must warn you what I am about to say will probably make you angry. That’s part of the problem, and can also be part of the solution.

Lesson 1: Work from within

The first and most important lesson is the one hardest to swallow: If you want to make a fundamental change to a system you have to work from within that system and make the changes using its own methods and procedures. This is usually contrary both to the agenda of social movements and also to their premise. Even so it is the hard and honest truth. Save for armed revolt or intentional widespread sabotage this is the only way of enacting large scale systemic change.

To use the #occupy movement as an example: If you want to change laws governing banks, corporations or even electoral systems you must first be in a position to make changes to those laws. This can be done either by electing officials who are willing and able to make these changes or by working your way into the system so you can make those changes yourself. Simply saying the system is flawed and demanding a change will do nothing unless you also have the power to enact this change. This is of course problematic if the root of your complaint is the political system itself, but the cure is the same: If you don’t like the current political system, you must either team up with current politicians or become a politician yourself so you can make the changes necessary.

Call to action: Vote in general elections, vote for the people who share your beliefs, join a political party, set the agenda for your political party.

Lesson 2: Speak the language of your oppressor

This lesson comes from basic marketing: If you want someone to change their mind about something they have to first understand what you’re saying. And I’m not talking about English here; I’m talking about ensuring you are actually talking about the same thing. One of the key problems of radical social movements is that they use language that either doesn’t resonate with or register at all in the minds of their target audience.

A good example of this (and one I get in trouble for bringing up) is feminism. I am a feminist myself (and yes, I’m a guy) but even I have a hard time accepting the vitriolic polemic presented by many in the feminist movement. The reason is much of what is said is rooted in anger, bitterness and all out attacks on “the other”. This creates a chasm between the oppressed (women) and their oppressor (men) and makes it hard for the oppressor to cross over and see the world from the oppressed point of view. The key to winning the war on gender inequality lies in making men see and understand the world from women’s perspective. Only when the oppressor empathises with the one he oppresses can he see his own faults. But this requires that the feminist movement speaks the language of their oppressors and meets them at their level. And that goes against the very nature of the movement, and most movements, which states that the oppressor should understand that they are in the wrong because they are in the wrong.

If you were selling a product this would be crystal clear: To make people feel they have to by the latest and greatest you have to speak their language. The same is true for social movements: Unless you communicate your message in a way your target audience – the people who are doing you wrong – understand, they won’t buy it and they’ll simply ignore you.

Call to Action: Learn the language of your oppressor, speak to them on their terms, use their own language, methods and data to make them empathise with your cause and see that they are the cause of your problems.

Lesson 3: Know that your views are extreme

Social movements almost always hold extreme ideals, largely because it is the people with the most extreme views that feel the most left out and thus feel the strongest need to be heard. This is why terms like “the lunatic fringe” and “the loudest voice in the room” are often attributed to social movements as a reason to ignore them. But even if the social movement itself is extreme, many people will sympathise with most of what the movement has to say, just in a less extreme way. Therein lies the problem:

If a social movement insists on being extreme and ignores more moderate views and approaches it will invariably alienate the large group of people who agree and sympathise with the overall message. As a result the movement will be marginalized because it is not willing to make concessions and the message is never taken seriously.

The only way to ensure wide spread support is to adopt a moderate version of the general ideals of the movement. By taking the moderate route you ensure that a larger group of people will want to join and you keep the overall goal of social change in focus. This usually results in the most extreme end of the spectrum cutting lose and starting its own group denouncing the main group as traitorous. Be that as it may: The end result will be a social movement with clout that people can actually identify with. The bottom line is simple: If you are too extreme, only people who are just as extreme as you will join. And most people are not extreme.

Call to Action: Imagine a scale from 1 (not extreme) to 100 (absolute extreme) and plant your policies somewhere between the 65 and 85 mark, ensure that the leadership of the group is not dominated by extreme elements on one end or the other, include the extreme elements but only as a minority, pursue a moderate message at all times.

Lesson 4: Strong leadership is vital

This is another difficult lesson, especially for left wing movements: Without strong and cohesive leadership your group is doomed to failure. The reasons are many:

  • The movement must have a clear voice – and that voice can only be communicated by a leadership group. If there is no leadership media and others will ask the general population of the group for information and that information will invariably be diluted and incorrect. A clear and concise message communicated by leaders is paramount.
  • Without leadership it will be impossible to formulate a goal and move towards it because fractions and individuals will adopt their own special version of the overall goal and pursue it instead.
  • People need someone to look up to. Without a charismatic leader that people trust and look up to the group will not have a focus and will start breaking into fractions.
  • Leaders are accountable. A group without a leader is hard to address, and internally it is impossible to decide who makes decisions and who is accountable when something doesn’t go according to plan. A democratically elected leader can both ensure that the movement as a whole moves towards their common objective and be held accountable when things don’t go the right way.

The problem with social movements, and left leaning social movements in particular, is that they tend to see leadership as a pathway to corruption. This is often a key part of their gripe as is the case with the #occupy movement. The goal of the group is therefore often a move towards absolute or direct democracy. Though this looks good on paper it is a recipe for disaster. Absolute democracy – where everyone votes on everything and there is no leadership – is doomed to failure even in small groups because not every member has the time, capacity nor knowledge to make an informed decision on everything. Furthermore the group will be faced with countless decisions that have to be made on the fly, something that is impossible to do if everyone is to be consulted.

The only way to ensure that the group remains cohesive and moves towards its stated goal is to create a democratically elected leadership committee that is left in charge. This committee has to have a platform on which to base its decisions (lesson 5) and must be held accountable to that platform. To ensure accountability remains the group should introduce set election periods at which time the entire committee is dissolved and re-elected.

Call to Action: Hold elections for a leadership committee, set down firm election periods, hold leadership accountable through elections.

Lesson 5: Create a political platform

For the movement to have an impact clear goals must be formulated and acted on. Only with clear goals in the form of a political platform can a plan be created on how to enact the change demanded by the group. Once a political platform is created outsiders can see what the group is about and decide to join and outside elements like other political organizations, the media and others can get a firm understanding of what the group wants and whether or not its goals are acceptable and something that should be supported. In addition, with a political platform as a base the movement can hold their leaders accountable and individual members of the movement can refer to the platform when in doubt about what to do next.

The creation of a political platform is generally done at a general assembly. The overall process is as follows:

  1. Everyone proposes policies
  2. Policies are grouped into defined sub-sections
  3. Committees are democratically elected to deal with defined sub-sections
  4. Committees look over all proposals in their section and conform them into a set of proposals
  5. All proposals are taken to a vote on an individual basis by the general assembly
  6. Political platform is defined based on proposals that are voted in

The movement can decide how often to revise their political platform. This should be done on a time basis (every 6 months, every year etc) to give the elected leadership committee time to enact the policies.

Call to Action: Hold general assembly, open the floor for policy proposals, create sub-committees to organize proposals, vote on individual proposals and political platform.

Lesson 6: Be pragmatic and think long term

The final lesson is both obvious and infuriating: If you want to enact large scale social change you need to be pragmatic and think long term. Unless you are planning an armed uprising things will not happen over night, nor should they. Rapidly implemented social restructuring always ends in chaos.

When I say “be pragmatic” I mean that you have to accept that the general population needs time to understand your demands, think about how they will affect their lives and decide whether or not they support them. You also have to take a step back and turn a critical eye to your own demands to see if they are reasonable or if you are demanding too much. Finally you have to seek consensus with your opponents and aim for acceptable compromises. This is hard to do when you have set ideas about how things should be, but getting 50% there is better than getting nowhere.

This links directly to the thinking long term part: If you have a pragmatic long term approach and seek consensus along the way you are more likely to succeed in implementing your goals. But more importantly you’ll have a chance to test out your policies and see if they are really as great as you firs envisioned. The irrevocable truth about political revolutions is that they never end up the way originally intended because our ideals do not correspond with reality. And due to our lack of a crystal ball and a working time machine we can’t actually see the future result of political change. Slow steady change gives us a method for constant course correction and a better chance of getting things right.

Call to Action: Be critical of your own ideals, seek consensus, set out long term goals and stick to them.

Epilogue

We are all in this mess together, and it is only together we can change it for the better. Together is our only option.

2 thoughts on “Selling the Message: How to get from Occupation to Social Change

  1. Thank you for this great article! I teach at a community college, and I’ve assigned my students to writing about an issue or problem in their communities in which they’ve had first-hand experience and what to see change. I’m hoping your article will help them understand how writing can help open doors for change.

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