Wisconsin: people are organized = politicians have spines

Hats off to the good people of Wisconsin who are standing up.  I’ve been glued to the screen and tweeting about it all day.

It’s great to see some courage from progressive Democratic office holders.  It’s a good reminder for all of us who are working for social justice – that we on “the outside” are the source of courage for allies (and potential allies) on “the inside.”  As my friend Zack Hershman posted this afternoon: “people are organized = politicians have spines.”  Our task is always to build and leverage grassroots people power that is strong enough to counter the formidable power of our very resourced opponents.

Right does not equal might.  It’s great that the teachers and public workers and their allies in Wisconsin have truth and justice on their side, but I’m pretty happy that they’re also packing a punch, aren’t you?

What are you reading about what’s going down in Wisconsin?

Orienting New Members & Volunteers to a Local Group

Three Tips for Plugging People In

Bringing in new members or volunteers is essential to any local group that wants to grow in size and capacity. However, attracting or recruiting new people to your group is only the first step. Getting them to stick around can be a much bigger challenge! The good news is that there are tried and true methods you can use to plug new members and volunteers into tasks and roles that will build their investment and leadership in the group, and will increase what your group is capable of achieving.

Click thumbnail image on left to download this post as a PDF worksheet.

1. Schedule one-on-one welcome interviews.

When someone says they’re interested in finding out more or getting involved in your group, don’t just invite them to come to your next meeting. Even the most welcoming and inclusive groups tend to develop their own meeting culture that can unintentionally make new folks feel like outsiders. To increase your new member retention rates, schedule one-on-one intake interviews with new folks before they come to a group meeting. Get to know the person. Find out about what attracted them to the group, what kinds of tasks they enjoy or are good at, and how much time they have. Then tell them more about the group and discuss with them what their involvement could look like. You can use and adapt the questions on side two of this sheet. While this level of orientation requires more time in the short-term, it saves time in the long-term; people tend to plug into the work faster and stick around longer. It may make sense for one or two members of your group to take on orienting new folks as an ongoing role.

2. Accommodate multiple levels of participation.

In short, some people can give a lot of time, and some can give a little. Organizers with more time on their hands should avoid projecting this as an expectation onto others. A foolproof way to drive new folks away from your group is to consistently ask them to give more time than they are able. Instead learn what kind of time commitment is realistic and sustainable for them.  Help them plug into tasks and roles that suit their availability. Check in with them about how it’s going. Are they feeling overextended, or would they like to take on more? Take responsibility for helping new folks avoid over-commitment and burnout.

3. Make people feel valued and appreciated.

If you want to inspire people to stick with your group for the long haul, you’ll need to make them feel valued and appreciated. It’s basic. People like to be around people who respect them, and who are nice! If social movement groups want to compete with the myriad of often more appealing options for people’s free time, then we have to treat each other well and take care of each other.  Notice and acknowledge new folks’ contributions, however small. Make time to check in with them outside of meetings. Ask their opinions often:What did they think about the meeting? the event? the action? Bounce your ideas off of them and ask for their feedback.

Welcome Interview Template

Below is a basic welcome interview template to help you orient new members and volunteers to your group. Add questions or adapt these according to what information is most useful to your group. A welcome interview is as much about relationship building as it is about information gathering. For this reason it’s better for the “interviewer” in your group to fill out the form, rather than to just hand it to the new person.

Meet over coffee or lunch or whatever is most comfortable or convenient. Schedule an hour, and spend the first half asking the new member/volunteer about herself or himself.  Start with the basic getting-to-know-you stuff (are they from the area? in school? working? involved in other causes or groups?) before moving into the more formal questions below. Spend the second half of the meeting telling them more about the group and discussing with them possible ways they may want to plug in.

Enter the information into your member database and keep it safe.

Name:____________________

Email:_____________________________

Phone:__________________

Address:_______________________________________________

1. How did you find out about the group?

2. What attracted you to the group?

3. Are you interested in volunteering time? If so, what is a realistic and sustainable amount of time you would like to commit (a number of hours per week or per month)?

4. Are there specific days or times when you could be regularly available? 5. Do you have skills that may be useful to the group (e.g. finance, book-keeping, fundraising, design, photography, public speaking, writing, management, facilitation, mediation, DJing, performance, other)?

6. Are there areas of work that you are particularly interested in helping with?

7. Are you interested in skills and leadership development opportunities?

8. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Wisconsin | Lost & found: a hegemonic progressive narrative

Every once in a long while something comes along that inspires progressives all across the country – all at once – and that has the power to reach beyond the boundaries of our progressive circles, to break out of the cognitive boxes we’ve been placed in, and to associate fresh meanings with old labels, such as: organized labor, unions, workers’ rights, collective bargaining.

These once powerful terms and labels have been systematically slandered (negatively branded) for decades – so that too much of the public has become inoculated against them – but in Wisconsin there’s an opening to make these concepts powerful again to a new generation.

Chris Bowers spells it out at Daily Kos today:

Recent surveys from Pew and Clarus (PDF) do not give unions, in the abstract, very high marks from the public. The Clarus poll is particularly brutal. However, when the abstraction is removed and the people fighting for unions are your neighbors, your friends and your children’s teachers, then people tend to side with the union.

This point is demonstrated by the first non-partisan poll to ask Wisconsin residents what they thought of Governor Scott Walker’s controversial plan for public sector unions. According to the poll, a majority of Wisconsin residents don’t like it…

I wonder how we’ll see this moment when we look back on it five years from now.  Perhaps it will dissipate as other openings have.  But maybe not.  There’s a lot of potential here.  When we positively and popularly rebrand the core concepts and vehicles of progressive power, we accomplish many things at once.  We suddenly have a compelling solidarity-based narrative.  Such a narrative (and cognitive frame) is always available to the usual suspects, but it is rare in recent decades for it to take on a hegemonic quality in society.  Such a narrative is precisely what the Democratic Party has been so lacking these past three decades – and it is the very narrative that had awarded the party the hegemony it had enjoyed for four decades before (from FDR nearly until Reagan).  

It is a narrative that potently exposes the contradictions of a conservative coalition that is comprised of fractions that do not really make sense together.  As Tom Tomorrow tweeted today:

Just so I’m clear on this: Tea Party is siding decisively with government in its battle against middle class Americans?

Sure, the cognitive dissonance will be lost on the hard core, but social change isn’t about persuading the hardest opposition.  It’s about isolating them.  The banner of economic populism belongs to organized labor and organized civil society – not to the concoction of the so-called Tea Party.  Popular uprisings like we’re seeing in Wisconsin and Ohio – and who knows where next – take that banner back for us to wave loudly, proudly, and powerfully.  So powerfully that some Democratic politicians finally find their words and their spine, as Wisconsin has so clearly illustrated.

Wisconsin: people are organized = politicians have spines

Hats off to the good people of Wisconsin who are standing up.  I’ve been glued to the screen and tweeting about it all day.

It’s great to see some courage from progressive Democratic office holders.  It’s a good reminder for all of us who are working for social justice – that we on “the outside” are the source of courage for allies (and potential allies) on “the inside.”  As my friend Zack Hershman posted this afternoon: “people are organized = politicians have spines.”  Our task is always to build and leverage grassroots people power that is strong enough to counter the formidable power of our very resourced opponents.

Right might.  It’s great that the teachers and public workers and their allies in Wisconsin have truth and justice on their side, but I’m pretty happy that they’re also packing a punch, aren’t you?

What are you reading about what’s going down in Wisconsin?

Immigration: anatomy of a progressive narrative | Evolutionary logic of collective action pt.IV

Last week during a debate with Republican former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at George Washington University, Governor Howard Dean offered a compelling narrative about immigration in the United States:

I don’t believe we ought to demonize people who are trying to do the best they can…  How many people in this hall have American Indian blood in you?  Raise your hand…  Everybody else is an immigrant!  The reason this country is such an extraordinary success is because we got those people who dared to leave their homes, who dared to do something different … who took some risks.  And their descendants are all here.  Every American family has a narrative about somebody who worked hard, came up from the bottom, scrubbed floors on their knees – and their grandchildren and great grandchildren got to go to George Washington University [location of debate].  We gotta keep that alive!

…When the Irish got here, no Irish needed apply.  When the Jews got here, they couldn’t go to the Ivy League.  When the Italians got here, they had to labor on the tunnels underneath New York.  Everybody had to face this.  Isn’t it time we stopped and accepted people who want to make America great, and let them be citizens again?

Why does Howard Dean’s answer resonate?  Why is it a potent narrative?  What are the narrative components?  What emotions and cognitive frames does he prime and connect with?

And how has our evolution as a species-a process that has been happening in the context of humans living together in groups for hundreds of thousands of years-shaped whether and how different frames and messages resonate?

In this essay, I will examine rhetoric, narratives, and cognitive framing within the immigration struggle in the United States – through a framework that supposes that evolutionary theory may have something to offer (to our understanding of collective behavior and break down of political strategy).

In this series (Evolutionary logic of collective action) I have been looking at multilevel selection theory as a framework for understanding the evolution of cooperative behavior within human groups and competition between groups.  Where dominant evolutionary frameworks (in line with rational choice theory) often problematize cooperative and “altruistic” behavior, multilevel selection theory explains it.  In short, if evolutionary selection only occurred between individuals, then the most selfish and aggressive individuals would have the evolutionary advantage, and others-serving behavior would be evolutionarily disadvantageous (i.e. altruistic traits should breed themselves out, and selfishness should abound).  However, groups comprised of cooperative individuals should logically have an evolutionary advantage over groups comprised of selfish individuals; the former would work together for the collective good, while the latter would be self-destructive as a group.  So, to the extent that evolutionary selection happens between groups, cooperative and others-oriented behavior should be evolutionarily advantageous, and selfishness disadvantageous.  This, according to David Sloan Wilson and other multilevel selection theorists, helps explain how bee colonies evolved into highly cooperative “super-organisms”, and also how cooperation and compassion evolved in humans.

In David Sloan Wilson’s words [2004: The New Fable of Bees]:

…our ancestors participated in family groups, gathering groups, hunting groups, raiding groups, and so on.  Almost everything was done in a social context; to be alone was to be in grave danger. …opportunities existed to increase the fitness of oneself relative to others in the same group, or to increase the fitness of one’s group relative to other groups.  We evolved the behavioral propensities to capitalize on both options.  We also evolved the propensity to limit the self-serving behaviors of our social partners, thereby concentrating natural selection at the between-group level…

The theory is not an entirely rosy-eyed view of humanity, as it also suggests an evolved capacity for aggression toward threats to the group (external and internal), as I discussed in War, xenophobia and other downsides to group selection.  This faculty for collective aggression could be activated by perceived threats, as well.  And this may be the primal foundation of xenophobia and anti-immigrant bigotry.  My hope here is to explore what triggers this kind of reaction, and, more importantly, what can activate empathetic behavior instead.

If our species evolved to be highly group-oriented over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, then our group-oriented behavior should logically be at least as instinctive as it is conscious; it should be embedded in our DNA and into the structure and processes of our pre-conscious brains.  In Humans: not just selfish, I suggested that humans’ evolved group-oriented instincts should have profound implications for what kinds of messages will tend to resonate on a preconscious (or primal) level:

Consider, for example, how the public messaging of social justice campaigns might benefit from applying multilevel selection theory at the cognitive level. Understanding how central group identity is to human motivation, we may want to focus our message framing on defining the parameters, interests, and narrative of “the group”; claiming and contesting symbols that are meaningful to the group; positively projecting ourselves and our allies as protagonists who are acting benevolently and heroically in the service and interests of the group; and inoculating against our opposition (e.g. painting a picture of a malevolent opponent who seeks to destroy, undermine, subvert, or take advantage of the good will of, the group). There you have a basic framework for campaign messaging that is informed by a theory of social evolution…

…which I will now apply to rhetoric, narratives, and cognitive frames in the immigration struggle; first to an example of a conservative immigration narrative, then to Howard Dean’s example of a progressive narrative.

Anatomy of a fear narrative

While conservatives make fear-based appeals on most political issues, these appeals tend to be interspersed with appeals to other emotions as well.  Conservative rhetoric that supports laissez-faire economic policies, for example, encourages fear of so-called “big government” repressing individual freedom, but it also appeals strongly to emotionally positive values and concepts of freedom.  In the dominant conservative narrative about immigration though, fear is hardly mitigated by other appeals.  Fear is the cornerstone.  Every argument is at best once removed from fear – fear of foreigners, fear of terrorism, fear of freeloaders, fear of losing one’s job, fear of losing one’s cultural identity, fear of losing privileges, etc.

The power of these fear messages is less about their appeal to individuals and more about how they trigger an aggressive primal group reaction.

Rather than examining the most brash and unabashedly bigoted conservative rhetoric within the current immigration struggle-which, sadly, there is no short supply of-I will analyze a more intellectually developed and nuanced conservative argument; that of Samuel P. Huntington in the introduction to his article, The Hispanic Challenge:

The persistent inflow of Hispanic immigrants threatens to divide the United States into two peoples, two cultures, and two languages. Unlike past immigrant groups, Mexicans and other Latinos have not assimilated into mainstream U.S. culture, forming instead their own political and linguistic enclaves-from Los Angeles to Miami-and rejecting the Anglo-Protestant values that built the American dream. The United States ignores this challenge at its peril. (Huntington 2004)

Working through the progression I outlined in Humans: not just selfish (quoted above), I will now examine first how Huntington’s message framing defines the parameters, interests, and narrative of ‘”the group”; then how it claims and contests symbols that are meaningful to the group; then how it positively projects protagonists who are acting benevolently and heroically in the service and interests of the group; and finally how it paints a picture of a malevolent opponent who seeks to destroy, undermine, subvert, or take advantage of the good will of, the group.

“Defining the parameters, interests, and narrative of ‘the group'”

In this narrative, the nation is “the group” onto which we are to project our identity and our group-oriented instincts.  The borders of the United States serve as the physical parameters that define the group.  Characteristics of the dominant culture (“mainstream U.S. culture”) serve as another kind of parameter.  The display of “Anglo-Protestant values” is a signifier of one’s rightful place in the group.  Conversely, failure to adequately display these dominant values casts doubt on the transgressing individual’s rightful place.  The interest of the group, thus defined, is of course to maintain its coherency and self-conception, as well as privileges it has hitherto taken for granted (e.g. being able to converse in one’s own language all day every day).

Interestingly, “past immigrant groups” are claimed as part of “the group”.  This preempts (and inoculates against) the progressive argument that America is a nation of immigrants, by distinguishing between “past immigrant groups” who are now included as part of the group, and “Mexicans and other Latinos” who are framed as external to the group.

“Claiming and contesting symbols that are meaningful to the group”

The “American dream” is the symbol explicitly named in the example.  This meme carries a whole dominant story of America; of hard work ultimately paying off, etc.  The mention of the American dream brings to mind images of the American flag as well.  The American dream belongs to “the group.”  We are to think of it as ours; its mention functions as a device that reinforces the parameters, interests, and narrative of our group.

“Positively projecting protagonists who are acting benevolently and heroically in the service and interests of the group”

The protagonists are hard-working Americans, plain and simple.  That may seem self-congratulatory, but the protagonists in most good stories tend to be just that for the intended audience.  Again, the mention of “Anglo-Protestant values” and “the American dream” in the same sentence carries a familiar story of hard work, dedication, commitment, and even righteousness (“Protestant values”).

“Painting a picture of a malevolent opponent who seeks to destroy, undermine, subvert, or take advantage of the good will of, the group”

The paragraph under discussion does not paint anyone as intentionally malevolent.  Rather it induces anxiety in far more sophisticated fashion than overt demonization.  First, and perhaps most obvious, is the use of two explicitly anxiety-related words (bolded): “The persistent inflow of Hispanic immigrants threatens…” and “The United States ignores this challenge at its peril.”

But what are they threatening?

“…to divide the United States.”

Dividing the United States would certainly entail undermining the group.

Perhaps an even more potent message though is that they (“Mexicans and other Latinos”) are explicitly “rejecting” our “values.”  Notice that their “linguistic enclaves” are “from Los Angeles to Miami.”  Why reference Los Angeles and Miami?  Why are they not instead “from rural Iowa to upstate Maine”?  The intent to conjure negative fear-based stereotypes of specific urban areas should be obvious.  Mentioning rural Iowa or upstate Maine might break the reader out of the realm of stereotype.  The reader might then ask, “Why are Mexicans and Latinos emigrating to rural Iowa and upstate Maine?”  And he or she might answer the question, “They must be going there to find work.”  They might wonder about the kind of work available in these areas, and they might wonder if it includes farm work.  Farm work is certainly hard work in the story of America.  For that matter, farms are an iconic symbol of America.  Associating “Mexicans and other Latinos” with rural America, farming, and hard work could undermine the whole conservative frame.  The negative and false stereotype of lazy and freeloading Mexicans-intentionally evoked with the assertion that they are “rejecting the Anglo-Protestant values that built the American dream”-loses its power.

Every rhetorical appeal in the example is fear-based: fear of a group divided; fear of people who do not work as hard as the rest of us and thereby take advantage of the good will of the group; fear of urban violence and stereotypes; fear of losing our country, our language, our coherent and familiar group identity.  Key to the potency of each appeal is that the nation-the United States and “mainstream U.S. culture”-is “the group” onto which we are to project our identity and our group-oriented instincts.  Then, within this cognitive frame of national identity, immigrants are negatively cast as both external threat and internal parasite in relation to “the group”.  If we evolved in tribal groups in which individual survival depended almost entirely upon the success of the group, then these two things-external threat and internal subversion-are precisely what we should have evolved to fear, despise, and act forcefully and collectively against.  This lens can explain why conservatives do not need to mitigate fear-based appeals (with appeals to other values and emotions) when discussing immigration, and why immigrants have been such an easy and popular political target in many countries and contexts throughout recorded history.

Anatomy of a progressive narrative

A progressive challenge to the dominant conservative immigration frame requires an asymmetrical narrative battle.  The conservative arsenal may only contain one weapon-fear-but it is a highly potent weapon.  Progressives need to use other narrative and framing tools, and to inoculate against fear.

While progressives should take care to not feed into conservative frames (a theme I will return to), still a progressive immigration narrative cannot entirely disregard the national framework (nation as “group” that one identifies with).  We live in a nation, after all, whose symbols surround us – symbols that mean a lot to most people in our society.  Indeed, the national frame (nation as group) is activated every time one sees an American flag.  Immigrants must positively recast themselves-and must be positively recast by their progressive allies-within that national identity framework.

Howard Dean’s immigration narrative offered a compelling appeal that accomplished such a recasting.  Here’s that quote again:

I don’t believe we ought to demonize people who are trying to do the best they can…  How many people in this hall have American Indian blood in you?  Raise your hand…  Everybody else is an immigrant!  The reason this country is such an extraordinary success is because we got those people who dared to leave their homes, who dared to do something different … who took some risks.  And their descendants are all here.  Every American family has a narrative about somebody who worked hard, came up from the bottom, scrubbed floors on their knees – and their grandchildren and great grandchildren got to go to George Washington University [location of debate].  We gotta keep that alive!

…When the Irish got here, no Irish needed apply.  When the Jews got here, they couldn’t go to the Ivy League.  When the Italians got here, they had to labor on the tunnels underneath New York.  Everybody had to face this.  Isn’t it time we stopped and accepted people who want to make America great, and let them be citizens again?

In Dean’s national frame, the parameters of the group are far more permeable than in the conservative narrative.  Immigrants are not only included in the group; they are welcomed and embraced.  The group is, after all-with the important exception of American Indians-comprised entirely of immigrants.  Immigrants themselves become the protagonists with which we identify.  Today’s immigrants are like our grandparents and great grandparents who “worked hard, came up from the bottom, scrubbed floors on their knees,” so that we can enjoy the opportunities that we have partially inherited from their hard work.

This story effectively counters the conservative narrative that frames immigrants as both external threat and internal parasite.  How can someone be an external threat if he is welcomed into the group, included as an integral part of its self-conception and identity?  And how can someone be a freeloader (internal parasite) when she is working hard and scrubbing floors on her knees.

Dean also inoculates against the opposition’s fear-based frame.  He doesn’t name Mexican and Latino immigrants by name, but instead invokes Irish, Italian, and Jewish people – in effect saying that demonization against a particular group of people is as arbitrary and cruel today as it was a hundred years ago (when such discrimination was aimed at people who are now considered “part of the group,” even by conservatives).  The villain in Dean’s narrative is not named explicitly, but inferred: anyone who would “demonize people who are trying to do the best they can,” and anyone who refuses to accept “people who want to make America great.”  Here the immigrant is cast as the patriot who wants to make America great.  The people who are anti-immigrant are the ones who stand in the way of America’s greatness.  Immigrants are the heroes of the narrative, and we see our best selves in them.

As far as symbols go, the American flag can just as well be claimed by progressives and by immigrants themselves, as was abundantly clear in the massive pro-immigrant rallies and marches that exploded across the United States in 2006.  Waving the flag essentially says, “This flag is ours too, and we will contest your misuse of it for hatred and bigotry.  The story of America is a story of immigrants.”

All of the above poses a critically important contesting of conservative hegemony within the national identity framework.  However, a national identity frame (nation as group we are to identify with) should not be the only progressive narrative strategy, and perhaps not even the primary one.  An effective progressive immigration narrative must also appeal to other kinds of group identities and must prime other cognitive frames.  Enlisting group identities that transcend national, racial and cultural boundaries are critical for this task.

Class identity (one’s economic class as the “group” one identifies with), for example, has historically been key to forging class-based solidarity between immigrant and (supposedly) “non-immigrant” workers.  Dean subtly evokes this frame by repeated references to hard work and labor.

Similarly, the “one human family” story that is central to so many religious narratives likely accounts (at least in part) for the high participation of many religious bodies in immigration solidarity and reform efforts. In both class identity and “human family” identity, “the group” extends beyond the borders of nations.  Thus the very concept of “immigrant” is rendered impotent as a pejorative in the conservative frame.  We are all workers, human beings, children of God – doing the best we can, which sometimes understandably requires moving from one place to another.

When the concept of nation loses primacy as the thing we project our concept of group onto-at least in relation to the issue of immigration-then the arbitrary borders of nations cannot effectively draw the boundaries of identity.  The “circle of compassion” is thereby expanded, and the so-called “immigrant” cannot easily be cast as an outsider, foreigner, or external threat.  For something to qualify as an external threat, it must first be perceived as being external – not the case in a narrative that frames a class-based, religious-based, or humanity-based group identity.

The power of the conservative narrative on immigration relies heavily on its ability to demonize and other-ize immigrants in order to make people fear them.  It is difficult, however, to conjure fear of the foreign if the foreign becomes familiar and the “outsider” becomes integrated into the definition of the group.  It is difficult to elicit fear of a stereotype if that stereotype is shattered.  It is therefore critically important that Americans see immigrants and hear their personal stories as much as possible.  The cause of progressive immigration reform needs established leaders like Howard Dean as allies who boldly frame the national debate, but, probably more than anything else, Americans need to hear the unmitigated stories directly from immigrants themselves.  This should be a central principle in a narrative strategy for progressive immigration reform.

Not feeding hostile cognitive frames

In George Lakoff’s groundbreaking book Don’t Think of an Elephant, the title itself makes the central point of the book: telling someone to not think of an elephant is an ineffective strategy for trying to get them to not think of an elephant!  The book critiques how the Democratic Party’s messaging had been defensive for many years, unwittingly carrying conservative cognitive frames.  Republicans characteristically accused Democratic politicians of being for “big government,” “taxing and spending,” being “weak on national security,” and many other negative-sounding things.  And Democrats’ characteristic reply essentially amounted to “No, we’re not!  We’re not for ‘big government!’  Just watch – we’ll cut social programs too!  We’re not weak on national security!  Just watch, we’ll keep military spending right where it is.”

This kind of response only feeds the overarching hegemonic conservative narrative and frame.  Conservative values gain legitimacy when the supposed “opposition party” (the Democrats) parrots their words, phrases and frames.

It is important for progressive change agents who are working to shift immigration policy to not fall into this trap.  The most obvious thing progressives should stop doing is referring to people as “illegal” or “illegals.”  Regardless of the technical legality of individual cases, the label of “illegal” cognitively associates immigrants with criminality.  This label is so pervasive in the national dialogue that progressives often repeat it unconsciously without any malintent.  (Check out the Colorlines campaign to Drop the “I-Word”.)  Regardless of intentions, cognitively associating immigrants with criminality pegs them, (within a group identity framework) as internal threat/parasite, and the primal emotions we feel (as groups) toward criminality and internal subversion become our emotional reaction at the mention of immigrants.

In another example, the slogan “Immigrants are not terrorists!” unwittingly carries the negative frame of terrorism, cognitively associating immigrants with terrorism.  Right there they are, together in the same sentence!  This reinforces the idea of immigrants as external threat, and evokes the corresponding emotions.

There is a potent narrative about immigration that is available to progressives; we should stick with it and not be reactive.

Conclusion

In this essay I applied the ideas developed in the previous three parts of this series to the contemporary immigration struggle in the United States, examining rhetoric, narratives, and cognitive frames.  My approach may be a complementary departure from cognitive linguist George Lakoff’s theoretical framework of family-based moral systems.  Where Lakoff emphasizes the nuclear family as the conceptual unit that individuals metaphorically project onto the state-which tends to determine essential political morality, based predominantly on childhood experience of a strict father or nurturant parent model of the family-here the more generic concept of “the group” is emphasized as a determinant of political morality.  To project one’s concept of “the group” onto something larger than what is immediately proximate (i.e. the state, the nation, one’s class, or even the whole of humanity becomes the group with which one identifies) is to project not only familial conditioning but also attitudes and behaviors (in relation to “the group”) that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years of multilevel selection and are therefore almost certainly hardwired into our brains.

I wrote this series with the hope that an understanding of ourselves as a species-how we think and behave; how we think and behave in groups; how we have evolved over time to think and behave in the ways we do-might provide some insights into collective action and political strategy.  In this essay, I have taken a first clumsy step toward translating some of those insights into practical narrative strategy tools that grassroots organizations might use to self-consciously craft potent organizing and campaign narratives.  In the coming months, I’ll be further developing and testing some of these ideas and incorporating them into workshop curriculum for the grassroots progressive organizations Beyond the Choir partners with.  Stay tuned…

Evolutionary logic of collective action (series)

In this series I explore how evolutionary theory might help to explain the origins and logic of collective action, and how it might inform the thinking and strategies of progressive change agents.

This is the landing page for the series.  You can bookmark it and check back for new posts, which I’ll be linking to from this page.

  1. Humans: not just selfish
  2. War, xenophobia and other downsides to group selection
  3. The Political Identity Paradox
  4. Immigration: anatomy of a progressive narrative

Malcolm Gladwell is right about Egypt and Twitter, and here’s why that’s upsetting to some folks

If Malcolm Gladwell lacks nuance in his dismissal of the contributions of Twitter, Facebook and other new social media to deep social change, that is fully forgivable.  The title of the article that kicked off the controversy, Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted, is a lot pithier than the perhaps more accurate, “Sure, the Revolution may very well be Tweeted, and it may even benefit to an extent from this particular new communication form, but Twitter is not a replacement for the strong social ties that come from face-to-face human interaction.”  There can be good reason and value in kicking off a conversation with a slightly oversimplified assertion – because it is indeed more likely to incite a reaction and actually kick off a conversation.

I agreed with Gladwell then, and I agree with him again in his latest post, Does Egypt Need Twitter?, which applies his original assertion to the current situation in Egypt:

Right now there are protests in Egypt that look like they might bring down the government. There are a thousand important things that can be said about their origins and implications: as I wrote last fall in The New Yorker, “high risk” social activism requires deep roots and strong ties. But surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone-and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years-and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice. People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.

Those critiquing Gladwell get it wrong, IMHO.  Take Ari Melber’s blog at The Nation.  First, Melber summarizes Gladwell’s position as “an apparent response to the idea that digitally networked activists are exceling in Egypt.”  But really Gladwell does not dispute that “digitally networked activists are excelling,” but rather that they are excelling primarily because they are digitally networked.  Melber continues:

No one is arguing that this is the first protest in world history. Very few people think the Internet is an essential prerequisite to revolution. Instead, they’re exploring whether the web and networked communications open up new and effective ways for citizens to converse and organize each other in repressive societies. (Access to mobile phones and text-messaging, for example, may have helped young people organize in Egypt and Tunisia in a different way than landlines or websites.) We can engage these issues without taking anything away from the French Revolution.

I concede something to Melber and others: it is interesting to explore how specific communications forms and tools might help progressive change agents (and revolutionaries, in the case of Egypt) in specific ways. I’m certainly interested in doing that in campaigns I work on.  Being up on the latest technology is important.

But Gladwell’s point is one of emphasis.  What are we emphasizing as the means to strong collective action?  The new media technique of the day?  Or building relationships, strong social ties, and strong social blocs that share meanings and commitment?

Melber says, “Gladwell assumes that asking ‘why’ people ‘were driven’ to these protests is somehow in competition with asking how they achieved such effective protests.”  I think this a false asessment of Gladwell.  He is clearly interested in the how, but he’s looking deeper than what is most obvious and most visible in his exploration of the how.  From outside of Egypt, it is difficult to see which group identities, social infrastructure, and organizations are playing what roles in encouraging and emboldening such a strong collective mobilization.  But it’s really easy to read tweets.  It’s easy to latch onto the mechanisms that are within our experience.  As the saying goes, if the only tool you have in your toolbox is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. Today, if you spend all of your time online, you might be inclined to overvalue its worth.  You might be more likely to read an article that discusses how to improve your Twitter presence than an article that explores how to talk to your family about a difficult political issue.  Social media is low-hanging fruit.  Any savvy young person can learn to text message, tweet, and update their status – and that’s all fine.  But we need organizers who can pull the people around them into higher-risk action.

Social media is not a savior or a silver bullet solution.  Strong social ties, which do not come through social media, are still the core motivator of high-risk action.  Building such ties is a lot messier-and offers less instant gratification-than sharing the latest great article you read with online friends who already think like you.  That’s why Gladwell’s analysis can be upsetting, and that’s why we need to hear it.