Sunday, July 28, 2013

From opinion to belief, from interest to mass action

US activism often has a natural cap on it. Most movements can only grow to a certain extent, and then they flop. We see this again and again, even when initial public opinion is favorable and even when the issues seem winnable. Yes, there are times when the issues are not winnable, when public opinion simply doesn't support the desired outcome of a movement. That is a problem and that is not the problem about which I'm thinking right now. My question is, When we know that public opinion on our issue is in our favor, how do we win?

There are, to my mind, two major factors aside from the normal logistics (read: hard work) of movement-building.

First of all, it is crucial to recognize that opinion is not a movement. You can have in excess of 90 percent of the population of the opinion that gun laws should be stricter, at the very least improving gun registration laws. But if no one builds that opinion into a movement, it is actionless, meaningless. And if no one begins to change the other, directly contradictory, opinion that gun ownership is a constitutional right necessary to self-protection, the first opinion is cancelled out. The same happens when 'everyone' wants more government services and 'everyone' wants lower taxes. Bleep! No effective movement. Politically, opinions on issues are barely on the agenda unless a politician is convinced that the opinion will actually affect votes, and enough of them to make a difference. Oh, so we are supposed to try to make people into single-issue voters? No, but our issue needs to be important in our coalition. We do have to move our issue up the long ladder of issues worth caring about, closer and closer to the top, and we need to erode the opposing opinion through more education and more persuasion. The correlatives between issue priority, voting choices, and winning or losing are strong. Reprioritizing our issue higher in the list of citizen opinions is how we cross the line from opinion to belief, from passing interest to commitment, to conviction.
Second, we need to recalibrate our movement culture to be appealing. Many factors are important in this regard--the images of happy youth, idealistic purity (not ideological purity), endorsement by wise elders, participation of moral figures--but none more important than a culture of nonviolence, a commitment to peaceful methods. Without this, we hit our natural cap and, invariably, the movement begins to decline. We lose hearts and minds. The 99 percent are simply not going to jump in when they see violence or hatred. Why? Emphatically not because they are mostly pacifists. Pacifism is irrelevant. What happens is that people think, Oh great, if I go get involved, I get knocked around by the cops or I get swept up in some arrest. I lose my job. I lose my health care. I lose my home. I lose.

Really? Those who advocate for a so-called 'diversity of tactics' believe that convincing Americans that they need to be losers is a way to build a movement? Oh, sure, you can point to a couple of minor 'victories' that are produced by that diversity. Maybe a police station was closed and moved out of a neighborhood once their windows were broken (as some 'anarchists' in Seattle claim). Great--most citizens don't want any police--oh, that's right, they actually do. Moving the police station was perceived as a punishment to the community, not a reward. But it's a victory for the windowbreakers! Great...

Everything we do will either resonate with the culture or it will not work. In the US, our culture is not nonviolent, but it is risk-averse, and using tactics that scare off the general public activates that risk aversion and keeps people away. It's true that when the risks of not getting involved grow, that barrier is lowered, but there is still a barrier, which is important unless you are looking to create Syria-like conditions, in which case there is little to discuss.

The impulse toward flattening the hierarchy of a movement is great, but the leadership is in the visioning, strategic planning and ongoing evaluation, not in some sort of "I'm the dominant personality and the spokesperson, so I'll make the decisions and be leader" model. We see such silliness emerging here and there in the wake of Occupy. In my town we now have little campaigns with young male leaders, as though we are learning the lessons of Occupy by returning to some yesteryear model in hopes that it will magically work. That is so sad.

I have great hope for American activism, and there are plenty of creative campaigns that will win in the next period. I only want to help a stronger nonviolent paradigm to go viral and get more done faster. Many others are seeing this; can we create a culture of commitment and nonviolence? If so, we are in it to win it.

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