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Your community is made of stories: Narrative strategies for social change

When people act to shut down a situation they put an alarm into action. But saying “Occupy Wall Street!” or “Stop the World Bank!” is only an entry point from which deeper solutions must grow in order for transformative change to occur. Manifesting cultural change requires the alarm story we tell our friends to be joined with a solutions story we tell the world of what’s possible. Like the difference between emergency and preventative medicine, sounding alarms without proposing solutions can only partially resolve a chronic issue.

The classic works of community organizing from Reveille for Radicals by Saul Alinsky to organisations like Citizens UK have all touched on the importance to both advocate for a positive as well as to oppose a negative. When advocating for a positive and opposing a negative there are some critical narrative components to keep in mind as you construct your message: who it is you’re directing your communication towards, and how a positive message can be constructed to help pull in community support. However, sometimes being overly positive in your messaging can be just as bad as being branded as the constant bearer of bad news.

Writing in The New York Times, Oliver Burkeman explains, in his essay The Power of Negative Thinking how the overly positive still requires the negative. “Ancient philosophers and spiritual teachers understood the need to balance the positive with the negative, optimism with pessimism, a striving for success and security with an openness to failure and uncertainty.” Thus a positive solution-based message works when it follows after an alarm bell. Again, as Burkeman points out, this has been a well tested multi-millennium experiment of world religions – after the fire and brimstone sermon comes the ritual of salvation.

Political and advocacy communications researchers have been hard at work trying to better understand this phenomena and figure out the ideal alchemical mix of negative and positive energy. A study done on the success of messages to get people to quit smoking backs up this dual approach: The take-away for advocacy campaign work being that people who “have no intention in changing their behavior” respond best to negative framing, and once engaged and “thinking about changing behavior”, they respond better to positive framing. The key thing to understand here is that responding doesn’t mean they necessarily agree, just that the negative message acts like an alarm bell, so you still need the positive message to engage people in solutions.

Getting to solutions is perhaps the greatest obstacle to success for most social change campaigns and organisations. Getting stuck in the alarm phase of a campaign and its group identity is a common pitfall. Most activists are well versed in sounding the alarm to alert a community to a problem, but they struggle to move past the reactive stage of a campaign and into effective proactive solutions.

“Stop Bitching, Start a Revolution” is a hackneyed activist phrase in the US, but it has a point that is missed far too often. In the same way, saying “Stop Biotech” or “Stop Nestlé Waters North America” or “Stop the War” is not as effective in reaching a majority of people within a community as saying “Protect Our Food”, “Protect Our Water”, or “Bring the Troops Home”. The first approach requires the audience to ask, “Why fight?”, while the latter reaches common values in the name itself and speaks to the audience directly.

Big Brother Never Advertised That They Were Watching ‘the Movement’

George Orwell understood the power of making propaganda personal. In advertising there is a truism that a person can only go where they have first been to in their minds. Thus, as has been explained above, it is important to set up a positively framed story that engages the desire of the recipient of your message. While many progressive organisations understand the importance of this, where their messages tend to fall short on movement building is that a ‘movement’ doesn’t go someplace it has been in its mind – an ‘individual’ does. Author and activist Stephen Duncombe stresses this point in the book Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy:

“There’s nothing wrong with the goals of community and solidarity, but we need to acknowledge that this may not be how people currently experience the world. There is more than a grain of truth in Thatcher’s words, ‘There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women.’ People experience social forces and social change on a personal level…no mass can feel for you or be constituted without you (that is the fantasy of Fascism). The point of reception – even in a crowd, even working with others – is the individual. Progressives need to frame their appeals so that they resonate with individuals.”

Christians figured this out long ago: They never say Jesus died on the cross for the poor or for the lepers or for England – they always say Jesus died for your sins. By addressing the individual, and not the collective, they built the biggest book club on the planet. America’s military recruiting huckster Uncle Sam says “I want YOU”, the US Army says “Be all that YOU can be.” Among successful brands, addressing the individual is the gold standard of practice. “Do you.. Yahoo?”, “Have it Your Way”, “I’m Lovin’ It”, “Guinness is good for you”, and on and on.

Leading a campaign with an identity of what you are for is critical to establish if you are intent to transform what you are against. Building the support for such transformation requires activists to create a vision that renders the current conflict obsolete. It is a strategic act that requires a community sharing and communicating ideas with each other to shape that vision. The unfortunate fact is, the majority of people in any community are not interested in living in conflict, and simply wish to avoid it. Without offering an alternative to reduce the current conflict in a person’s life, they will be far less inclined to join in further conflict themselves unless it is presented as a better alternative. And the possibility for an alternate world must be first shaped in their minds through the introduction of a new narrative context for seeing the world and themselves within it.

Shaping a Strategic Narrative

Ternary (three-point) models of change have a long history in psychology, possibly originating from the triangle shape, called the delta, which has long symbolised change. There is a deep philosophical history around the etymology of the delta going all the way back to Pythagoras and sacred geometry.

One such ancient philosophical law attests that binaries (two-point) can never change, one side may overpower the other for a time, but in the end always snaps back into a binary. It is the introduction of a third factor that transforms the binary into a ternary and can induce change. This is the basis of the ‘good cop/bad cop’ routine, which redefines the binary between cop and suspect by having one officer act nice while the other acts aggressively. The binary opposition appears to dissolve, and if done convincingly the naïve suspect may talk. The word delta was derived from the Phonecian word dalet, which symbolises a doorway, and thus the ternary can be remembered as the tool used to exit a binary situation.

Political struggles tend to get stuck in binaries, with grassroots groups sounding alarms about problems and yelling “Not in my backyard!”, while power holders attempt to silence their concerns. On the sidelines and disconnected from both points of the binary is the community at large: immersed in their lives, work and lure of entertainment. The trap that activists and grassroots organisations fall into is one of negatively criticizing the ideological contents of the power holders, and like the famous expression “don’t think of an elephant” end up reinforcing and spreading the message of their opposition. The philosopher Michel Foucault explains this phenomena in his writings on how power functions in society:

“The essential problem for the intellectual is not to criticise the ideological contents supposedly linked to science, or to ensure that his own scientific practice is accompanied by a correct ideology, but that of ascertaining the possibility of constituting a new politics of truth. The problem is not changing people’s consciousness – or what’s in their heads – but the political, economic, institutional regime of the production of truth.”

An example of this can be seen in America during the late 1980s and early 1990s where environmental, grassroot family farm and food activist groups first loudly sounded the alarm on the dangers of biotech crops. A typical presentation by these groups would comprise more than half – or even all – of the time spent with the audience on explaining the science of biotechnology. The assumption of the anti-biotech activist was that if the audience learned about the science of biotechnology and heard their ideological argument against biotechnology they – like them – would be horrified. More than a decade later an anti-biotech organiser with the Genetic Engineering Activist Network lamented that this largely contributed to the buzz that promoted biotech by focusing so much of their energy on talking about the science, instead of focusing all that energy on promoting a positive vision for sustainable family farms.

One failure of the American anti-biotech movement of the last century was that they focused on only changing people’s ideas instead of changing the conditions of possibility for thinking i.e. constructing through community vision a new context for seeing what is possible, in this instance, regionalised sustainable organic food systems. Today this shift has largely taken place and the ‘new food movement’ has been planting the seeds for new visions of global agriculture, through networks such as the US Food Sovereignty Alliance and their campaign to “Turn the Tables on the Global Food Crisis”.

While raising the alarm on an issue initiates a tug of war with power holders – forming an “us versus them” binary – it is through organizing and the hard work of new context construction that can engage a powerful third element – the community – in building a positive vision of the future. When activists and communities share their stories of the vision they have for their community a ternary system can be formed, that breaks up the binary between the activists and power holders in the community, and moves the whole – all three entities – towards consensus and change (see diagram). The new shape taken is one of unity, where all three points become one through the transformation that the new context of a shared vision provides for seeing the world anew.

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James John Bell and J Cookson founded Smartmeme Studios in Washington, USA. They provide communications strategy, design, and marketing services to organizations all over North America, from international nonprofits to businesses working to go green.

Editorial Notes: Photo credit: Pythagoras, the man in the center with the book, teaching music, in The School of Athens by Raphael from Wikipedia.

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