Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Speaking truth to power

When I give nonviolent trainings I stress that the more decades I engage in nonviolence, study nonviolence and observe the consequences of the aspects of campaigns, the more I’m convinced that nonviolent resistance is one part action and nine parts media and training to influence others.

Going out to engage in action without worrying about the recruit
ing, training, liaison work, coalition-building and other aspects that bolster your power is simply ineffective. When we are all about individual spiritual witness or we are only concerned with burnishing our individual image to our radical compatriots we miss all of this by a wide margin.

Watching self-absorbed religious actionists sanctimoniously ‘speak truth to power’ in ostentatious gestures of devotion is certainly more satisfying than watching masked demonstrators flipping off cops and throwing bricks, but the idea is to effect change if possible, not to simply self-aggrandize spiritually or garner more radical credentials. As Jonathan Schell told us at one Peace and Justice Studies Association meeting, “I’m tired of going down in noble defeat.”

The first problem, then, is to examine speaking truth to power. Truth to the elite in power? Who cares? They aren’t listening. It’s long past time for us to think strategically, not like slaves to clich├ęs. As Anne Braden reminded us just before many were about to be arrested at the White House in Washington for opposing war funding, “People are going to ask you if the president heard you. I want you to them, ‘No, that’s not who we were talkin’ to. We were talkin’ to the American people.” That is the power to whom we are speaking our best truth. Failing to heed Anne’s advice is a set-up for failure. Understanding that our power in civil society is mostly latent and dwarfs all the other powers in its potential is our first strategic imperative. Our work is to transform that latent power to real usable power and to keep it informed and nonviolent.

This means that we have to be able to communicate to the bulk of our fellow citizens. Burning US flags will turn most of them off. Tossing stones through plate glass windows will certainly alienate them. When Fox News became the media organizing power behind the Teabagger assaults on the town hall meetings on health care legislation they pushed their role to the maximum and were ultimately burned badly by the kind of hate populism that created an image of gun-toting, spittle-flying, screaming know-nothings. Most of civil society was unimpressed. Fox News failed to separate their analysis of what Americans like in their Hollywood movies from what they like in their national conversations. From the other side, the black block types completely fail to understand movement-building as precursor to success in public policy change or creation.

The program in which I teach is quite international, and this is part of what I try to impart to those who wish to have some political effect in America; you will either win the hearts and minds in the majority of our citizens or you will fail. Showing that you can speak stridently and cogently against the US policies is a distant second to winning sympathy for the affected people hurt by US policy.
So, when I work with Palestinian students who produce bombastic posters excoriating US policy I ask them if they want to vent or achieve success. Most say success. I ask them to take my word for what might work a bit better in our culture and we look at possible messaging strategies. The last thing they want to impart is that they are an inch away from donning an explosives belt and heading for the nearest pizza parlor. They need to create a far different and much more sympathetic image of Palestinians in the minds of Americans and for that they will need to be both vulnerable and statespersonlike. They need to make Americans want to help. They need to help Americans understand that innocents are suffering as a result of US foreign policy and that only the citizenry can require policy change.

When children were attacked by dogs in Birmingham in the summer of 1963 that moved Americans. When Rosa Parks, a hard-working, modest, composed African-American woman was arrested on 1 December 1955 for merely refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus to a white man, the nation reacted to that image and supported her.

In short, if we do not carefully craft a sympathetic image that Americans will want to help, protect, save or otherwise rescue from the bullies of the world, we will almost certainly go down in noble defeat. It’s hard work, but necessary. The image we craft is of our own making when we learn how to train our involved populace and when we work hard with our media to help them help us help others.

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