Help Us Make Beautiful Trouble

There’s some beautiful trouble brewing, and Beyond the Choir has got caught up in it. We’re part of an exciting collaboration called Beautiful Trouble. It’s a collaboratively-written (and collaboratively funded!) guide for trouble makers. Check out the new video about the project:

Beautiful Trouble is an important new resource for people who are working for social justice. From the Beautiful Trouble Kickstarter page:

Beautiful Trouble will be a book & web toolbox that puts the best ideas and tactics of creative action in the hands of the next generation of change-makers, connecting the accumulated wisdom of decades of creative protest to the popular outrage of the current  political moment…

Beautiful Trouble will pull together an interlocking set of design principles, best practices, innovative tactics and case studies, that will enable anyone to pull off effective creative actions.

Doesn’t that sound like something you’d like to help publish?

Well, you can help! With just over 2 weeks to go, we are almost halfway to our Kickstarter fundraising goal of $12,000. But the deal with Kickstarter is that if we don’t raise all $12,000, we don’t receive any of the pledges! So if you like the sound of this project, it is really important that you give today if you can. And please forward and Tweet this post. Help put this valuable resource in the hands of the next generation of changemakers.

As a token of our gratitude, we’re offering some sweet incentives on our Kickstarter page, including:

  • early release books
  • copies of the infamous prank New York Times signed by The Yes Men
  • your name in the actual book with full co-publisher credit
  • and more!

It’s been a lot of fun to collaborate on this project so far. I can attest that the working draft is brimming with smart and creative action ideas, and “thinking tools” to help activists and organizers apply ideas strategically.

Andrew Boyd and friends at Agit-Pop have been leading the charge on this project, convening writing sprints that have been as fun as productive. The other organizational partners include The Yes Men/Yes Labs, The Center for Artistic Activism, SmartMeme, Waging Nonviolence, The Ruckus Society and Nonviolence International, and us, Beyond the Choir.

A lot of great folks have been working hard to make Beautiful Trouble possible, but the project needs funds too. Please, help to publish Beautiful Trouble today!

Thank you for your support!

Tacking Into the Winds of Change | Narrative Strategy for Building Transformative Movements

Lessons from Cairo

“I knew that if you build a brand you can get people to trust the brand.”

~Wael Ghonim, Egyptian activist and creator of
online persona “El Shaheed” (The Martyr)

The seemingly spontaneous, Facebook-fueled uprising in Egypt was the endgame of years of smart organizing. After all, it takes more than a Tweet to turn the oppressive material conditions of poverty and corruption into the launch pad for a transformative movement. A generation of youth activists developed their skills and leadership over time: adapting the theory of strategic nonviolence (as articulated by Gene Sharp), building alliances with organized labor, and exploring new strategies outside of traditional political parties.

These classical elements of a social movement were accelerated and amplified by the effective use of social media. However, what made this a revolutionary moment was not the tactical usage of platforms like Facebook and Twitter-but rather how these technologies became a force multiplier for a unifying narrative strategy. Social media spread video and messaging, and was integrated into Al Jazeera’s coverage of the uprising, so as to create a chorus of the narrative of “Liberation Square” that reached across the world into the west.

There is an ever-evolving ecosystem of applications, outlets, and social networks offering a range of tactics to reach different target audiences. In this increasingly complex and fragmented media environment, we must not confuse tactical tools with an actual strategy. Media tactics – old or new – can only leverage the impact of grassroots organizing when aligned with an effective narrative.

Storytelling has always been central to movement building and successful campaigns, but now being strategic about how we tell our stories is more important than ever. Framing, messaging, building an inviting movement brand and crafting the right memes–or “viral frames,” like the Egyptian uprising’s “We Are All Khaled Said”–is the critical strategy work that determines whether social change vision, demands and mobilizing rhetoric will spread virally across platforms.

Tacking Into the Wind

“A great wind is blowing, and that gives you either imagination or a headache.”

~Catherine the Great

It’s hard to believe that it was only two years ago that millions gathered in Washington for the inauguration with chants of “Yes we did!” 2011 is already roiled in turbulent political winds, with regressive budget cuts, immigrant scapegoating, attacks on the rights of women and the attempted roll back of Health Care Reform. The dominant response from the progressive establishment has been to ride the winds of change to the right, and build a cautious strategy disproportionately focused on polling and “messaging to the middle.”

If the Egyptian democracy movement had been relying on the U.S. progressive playbook of 2011, they would have been spending their time and resources doing market segmentation polling with questions like, “Are you ‘somewhat’ concerned about police brutality?” Would carefully selected focus groups in Cairo have approved the message, “Mubarak must go?”

Egypt’s democracy movement knew that in order to activate the aspirations of the people, they couldn’t rely on a message that spoke to status quo assumptions. The problem for Egypt’s reformers was not a lack of information about their conditions. The barrier was a collectivized fear of the regime. As one of the movement’s key strategists Wael Ghonim describes, they had to “break the fear barrier.”

Likewise, in the U.S. one of the primary barriers to stronger movements is not a lack of information but rather the lack of coherent framing strategies that can challenge the dominant right wing narrative and build a broader progressive base across different issue fights. The current piecemeal, specialized and top-down approach to communications-along with the siloing of issues-prevents the overall strategic coordination needed to craft a coherent arc for a meaningful progressive story to move a set of frames across multiple media platforms. To our detriment, progressives have left a narrative vacuum where our movements’ story should be leading the day.

No place is this more painfully obvious than in the ongoing public discourse around the economic crisis. Progressives have always fought for strong regulations and an economy that prioritized the needs of working people over corporate greed. But when Wall Street’s predatory financial speculation blew up our economy, right wing ideologues and corporate apologists drowned out the fact that progressives were right. Remember memes like  “Too big to fail” justifying bailouts, and the narrative that blamed the Community Reinvestment Act for the foreclosure crisis?

As strategists and communicators working in social justice movements, our job is not just to calculate the best response to public opinion. Our job is to shape public opinion to support real solutions and structural change. To succeed we must develop strategies to reframe the debate and then commit to the time and resources needed to change the story.

Unfortunately, the Facts Are Not Enough

“There is a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth.”

~Maya Angelou

The Tea Party has shown time and again that they have no regard for facts and have a fairly successful meme machine: Climate change? It’s a big government conspiracy. Health care reform? Death Panels! Obama? He is a socialist! Plus, he’s just “different.”  (Psst: Is he really a Christian? Was he really born in the US?)

Matters of fact are attacked with an organized right wing narrative strategy. Never mind that the narrative is ripe with contradictions, bankrolled by billionaires, and is designed to play to a base of aging white men with racist assumptions. It’s power is in both the narrative itself, which has had 40 some-odd years of development, and the force-multiplier effect of a right wing infrastructure and corporatized media ecology.

This is the Battle of the Story-the wide-ranging fight to frame the big debates and assign relevance and meaning to current events and issues. Whose stories will be heard? Which points of view will become accepted as conventional wisdom? Which will be marginalized and dismissed? Will collective desire be harnessed for the common good, or hijacked for private gain?

So why haven’t progressives built a unifying narrative or invested in the infrastructure to spread it? We contend that one of the most fundamental reasons is a failure to understand the central role of narrative in social change strategy. This failure stems from progressives’ outdated attachment to the idea that facts alone are an effective method for persuading someone of a political point of view.

There is a crucial difference between delivering data or analysis, and making meaning in the minds and hearts of human beings. The prevailing tendency in our sector is to emphatically state something factually true, and assume that it will be meaningful and persuasive to our audience. But the innate human capacity for narrative means that our experience of “truth” is much more complex than a rational weighing of the facts. As every advertiser knows, we are guided by our hearts and guts much more than our logical minds. Most importantly, we are deeply influenced by what we already know; our existing frames tend to filter out inconvenient facts that don’t reinforce our existing beliefs.

In other words, while progressives have been busy winning the battle of the facts we’ve been losing the Battle of the Story. Having the facts on our side and the relevant policy proposals is important but it’s just the starting point. Next we need to tell the larger stories that make the truth-the truth about poverty, racism, environmental destruction about the possibility of collective action to create a fairer, saner, better world-meaningful to the people we are trying to reach and resonant in the larger cultural sphere.

To work at the necessary scale, we must get beyond the idea that messaging is a technical assistance category, and understand narrative as central to an overall social movement strategy. The model of delegating such critical political work to outside experts-in the hopes they will “fix” the way social movements frame issues-has too often sacrificed vision for perceived reach. The result has been a failure to contest dominant frames and a stunting of our collective progress. Instead we need messaging strategies that both challenge the status quo and resonate with a larger audience. To develop these types of transformative narratives requires communicators who are actively embedded in grassroots struggles and can help impacted communities build their story from the bottom up.

Story-based Strategy: An Invitation for Innovation

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

~Antoine de Saint-Exupery

In smartMeme’s eight years of fieldwork we have found that there is a fundamental lack of communications leadership and capacity in the grassroots organizing sector. While many young organizers are “digital natives” who have grown up using online and mobile technologies, and they understand how to communicate in their online environment, they actually often lack the traditional communications and media skills needed to reach beyond their base. At the same time, veteran organizers can easily feel left behind by the fast changing terrain and feel pressure to chase the latest communication technology fad without getting the support to meaningfully integrate it into their organizing strategy. Meanwhile, there is a prevailing lack of literacy about narrative and framing in the sector, combined with a deep hunger for an effective response to the way the right wing is shaping discourse.

In order meet these vast capacity shortfalls, and to satiate the appetite for a more offensive, pro-active strategy to narrate a progressive vision, we will need scale-up.

In this day and age every organizer’s toolbox and every social change campaign should include an applied understanding of story-based strategy: how to analyze dominant culture stories, reframe issues, and craft effective messages. Our movements desperately need a ground force of story-based strategists who are both versed in traditional media skills and equipped to experiment with online environments.

If our movements are going to win the Battle of the Story-and create more fertile cultural ground for movement building and organizing-we need to expand our skills, our strategy and our connectivity infrastructure. The best way to build this scale while keeping it anchored in democratic and accountable organizing is to grow it from the ground up. We must invest in helping base building organizations build and integrate communications into their grassroots organizing, resulting in louder voices for justice that can resonate in the popular discourse.

But reclaiming our space in the cultural debate will take even more than skills and sound bites. We’re going to need to invest the time and resources into building an “echo effect” of shared frames-spread through coordinated and connective media infrastructure-that can articulate a broader progressive vision across sectors.

We live in fast changing times, and people-powered movements are poised to shatter notions of the politically possible. Indeed, the grassroots uprising spreading out of Wisconsin is a powerful indicator of the potential for new narratives to emerge and unify a broad base. So what does it take for social justice forces in the US to go from a defensive stance to an offensive strategy? How can we build movements to win the Battle of the Story?

Now is the time to experiment and find out. This is a moment to tack into the wind, rather than ride the draft of the right wing narrative. Let’s set sail.

Originally published at

About SmartMeme: SmartMeme is an emerging social change strategy center dedicated to building movements for social and ecological justice with the power of narrative. The organization bridges the gap between strategic communications and grassroots organizing by reimagining methods to achieve fundamental social change with story-based approaches to strategy and framing. Over the past eight years smartMeme has trained over 3,000 organizers and partnered with over 100 high impact organizations to frame issues, strengthen alliances and win campaigns. In 2010 smartMeme released Re:Imagining Change – How to Use Story-based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World on PM Press. Learn more at:

Grassroots organizational branding | grassroots communications tips pt.4

Branding, in the advertising world, is imbuing a company or product with positive associations inside the consumer’s mind.  Marlboro, for example, has so successfully associated cowboys and the wild frontier with their product (cigarettes), that some of their ads don’t even mention the name “Marlboro.”  They don’t need to, because the product comes to mind automatically at the sight of the now-famous cowboy image.

In the late 1990s Rainforest Action Network (RAN) carried out some very effective negative branding campaigns, which many powerful people took notice of.  RAN realized that a positive brand is one of the most important assets of a corporation.  A tarnished brand can repel consumers and scare away investors, as Home Depot learned the hard way.  RAN effectively painted Home Depot as a reckless destroyer of old growth forests and rainforests, until the company committed to discontinue using old growth forests for lumber.  (A few other companies followed, like dominoes, just at the threat of a possible RAN campaign against their brand name.)

It was around then that I got to thinking about the brands of the social justice organizations I worked with.  A brand is essentially the memories and associations that tend to come to mind in the popular imagination at the mention of your name.  In this sense, individuals can even have “brands” (though we usually call this a reputation).  What associations were coming to mind at the mention of different social change organizations?  What about at the mention of broader labels such as activism, environmentalism, feminism, socialism, the peace movement, etc.?  If a tarnished brand hurt a corporation’s ability to move product or attract investors, perhaps our tarnished brands were part of the reason so many social change groups were having such a difficult time attracting more participants.

So, let’s say you’re a small business owner who makes very delicious sandwiches.  However, despite the deliciousness of your sandwich, your business is in a remote part of town, your storefront display is abysmal, the aesthetic on the inside is kind of weird, and your waitstaff and clerks aren’t very good at interacting with customers.  Are you likely to sell a lot of sandwiches, just because you have a good product?  And, to extend the metaphor, it turns out that your sandwiches are not delicious after all.  You and a few of your friends like those sandwiches a whole lot, but it turns out to be an acquired taste.  It’s as if you sell broccoli sandwiches, which you know and believe to be good for everyone’s health and well-being, but why doesn’t anyone come to your store?!??  MAYBE IT’S BECAUSE EVERYONE BUT YOU IS BEING BRAINWASHED!?!!  THEY’RE ALL SHEEPLE!!

Oh how I wish that didn’t feel so familiar.

But seriously, taking political action or getting involved in a social change organization can be about as appealing as a broccoli sandwich.  Maybe it’s good for the health of the community, but it may be an acquired taste.  So, maybe you can remix the ingredients to make a more attractive product.  Maybe you can add a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.  Maybe you can move your operation to city center where there’s more foot traffic, and maybe you can make it a fun place that people will want to come back to.  And maybe you can find a graphic designer to make a good sign and logo.

That’s all organizational branding – anything that affects the memories and emotions and experiences that people associate with your organization.  Your social change organization is a vehicle to move an agenda forward.  Not only do you need to craft your agenda into a compelling message, you also need to recognize that your vehicle is the messenger and that the messenger matters.  You need to create positive associations in people’s minds, so that when they think of your organization they are attracted, rather than repelled.

(This is not to say that substance does not matter at all.  Some people will inevitably despise your organization, its values, and its agenda.  This discussion concerns the people who are essentially passive allies – people who are sympathetic, but not presently involved.)

When I returned to Lancaster, PA in early 2005 to work with the Lancaster Coalition for Peace & Justice (LCPJ), I set out to move forward an intentional organizational branding strategy.  I started by looking for good graphic designers, and soon we found three (at a local bar, of course) who graciously volunteered their services for the LCPJ.  The designers and a few other core members of the LCPJ formed a kind of cadre; we met regularly to strategize and plan and build a compelling and mainstream brand for the LCPJ.  We decided to avoid words like activist, protest, and demonstration, which we felt were red flags to too many people.  We studied the posters and advertisements of other local community organizations, and built an aesthetic that fit with what people were used to seeing.  Instead of a “teach-in,” we organized a Town Hall meeting to discuss the war – for which we reserved city council’s chambers.  We met with local soldiers, veterans, and military families, and some of them got involved with the LCPJ.  We made sure that their voices and stories were front and center.  We even started a sharp-looking bimonthly community newspaper called The Lancaster Voice.  Everything looked professional.  We were intentional about everything from our spokespeople to our fonts – recognizing that it was all part of our organizational brand, which is to say it all affected our ability to mobilize our community.

Again, central to our branding strategy was projecting ourselves as mainstream, or familiar.  This importance of the familiar was underscored yesterday in a post over at Fenton – The Power of Parable (worth checking out):

…you should tap values, stories and images that are familiar. Neuroscientist Gregory Berns says, “Familiarity quiets the amygdala” – the part of our brain that regulates our fight or flight response. Asking people to change their minds is automatically disquieting. Introducing familiarity will help to tame anxiety.

This was the intuitive logic at work in our organizational branding strategy.  Everything we did said, in essence, “This is a Lancaster community event.  Your view of the war is a mainstream view, and you can join with other regular folks in your community to oppose it – without seeming like a hippie.”

The results: two years in a row we turned out 800 people on the anniversary of the Iraq War (the highest per capita turnout in the country, and several times as many as anyone in Lancaster could remember seeing at a public rally); we turned out 2500 people for the Eyes Wide Open exhibit; we developed a circulation of 5,000 copies for The Lancaster Voice; we developed the capacity to organize regular events and to mobilize people to take action on a variety of peace and social justice issues.  This was unprecedented in Lancaster County, which up to that point had a reputation for being a conservative area.

Our intentional and disciplined organizational branding strategy was key to our success.  By recognizing the generically negative and marginalized “brand” that some forms of social activism had been pinned with in our area, we were able to adjust and build an organizational brand that felt familiar and carried positive associations.  We took down the “DIRTY HIPPIES ONLY” sign that some jerk had hung on our storefront, and we replaced it with a sign that said, “Everyone Welcome.”

In conclusion, this post is not a nuts and bolts guide for how to brand your specific organization; successful branding strategies will vary from one organization and one context to the next.  Rather, this is a conceptual piece, intended to illustrate how good branding can make a big difference; to make a case that every progressive change organization should develop a conscious branding strategy.  There are many aspects of an effective brand – from your logo to your motto, and much more – but what should inform all of it is an underlying goal to meet your target constituency (beyond the usual suspects) where they’re at; to connect with the common sense, common concerns, and common experiences in your community – while still pushing toward your progressive goals.

Credit and thanks to Jeff Rummel at Good Productions, Jess Mauger, and Dana Leeper for their stellar design work for the LCPJ.  No offense intended toward dirty hippies.

This is the fourth post in a series.

Narrative insurgency | grassroots communications tips pt.3

Progressive change agents often engage in something that I call narrative attack; they make a direct attack on one narrative or worldview from the vantage point-and in the language-of their own opposing narrative or worldview.  For example, when some people wrap up their anti-environmental views (e.g. climate change denial) in the rhetoric of their creationist beliefs, it is all too tempting for more scientifically minded people to directly attack the climate change deniers’ whole belief system.  That is narrative attack.  Once a direct attack is made, persuasion becomes nearly impossible, because people feel that their whole belief system is under siege.

(Clearly conservatives do this as well, but given that the purpose of this post is not to criticize but to offer communications strategy suggestions, I’m just discussing this from the viewpoint of progressives.)

A narrative insurgency approach, on the other hand, examines the other’s narrative, learning the component parts, looking for “allies” inside the narrative.  In the Biblical creation story, for example, God charges humankind to be the caretakers of God’s sacred creation.  Rather than directly attack a creationist’s whole belief system, a “narrative insurgent” looks to foment “home-grown insurgency” inside the belief system against the most problematic beliefs (which, in this case, is indifference to climate change).  By stressing humanity’s mandate to care for God’s creation, that ally belief is singled out for positive reinforcement within a complex belief system.

This approach works with people’s tendency toward confirmation bias, which smartMeme summarizes as “people’s habit of screening information based on their own beliefs. In other words, people are much more likely to believe something that reinforces their existing opinions and values than to accept information that challenges their beliefs.”

To be clear, the term “narrative insurgency” is internal and strictly metaphorical, and it may be a more useful metaphor for some social change groups than others.  I first introduced the framework of narrative insurgency versus narrative attack in Building a Successful Antiwar Movement:

If we are to transform cultural meanings, we need to think not in terms of attacking culture from the outside, but rather in terms of homegrown insurgency, indigenous to the culture. The root of the word insurgency is “rise up.” Insurgencies rise up from within. Narrative insurgency rises up from within a cultural narrative. [We need to change] the culture from the inside out. (With the term narrative insurgency we are stressing that new meanings must rise up within existing cultural narratives – a nonviolent and thoroughly political process.)

Returning to the original example of climate change denial, the narrative insurgent approach-assuming that it is well executed with a well-crafted message and an orientation to genuinely connect with others-is likely to help in important ways.  First, it helps to find and draw out allies: creationists (or closet evolutionists in the given religious community) who care about the environment.  Second, this approach will make it more difficult for your hardest opposition to win allies for their extreme position – or to demonize advocates of environmental stewardship.  Finally, by repeating and positively reinforcing this message (in the context of ongoing engagement and relationship), the belief that we should care for the earth is strengthened within the given community’s complex collective belief system.  Organizers then have the challenge of helping to give positive collective expression to the emboldened belief.

Again, from Building a Successful Antiwar Movement:

Cultural narratives (e.g. America: Beacon of Liberty, Purveyor of Democracy) are characteristically complex, often rife with contradictions, and vary from one person to the next. Narrative insurgents do not reject narratives wholesale, but distinguish between those components that are allied, hostile or neutral to their cause. They embrace as much of a cultural narrative as possible-the allied and neutral components-and encourage the further development of the allied components, using these as the foundations for their organizing efforts in the given community.

It’s important to point out that this approach is not about inherently avoiding direct confrontation with destructive narratives and beliefs.  Rather it is a preference for utilizing positive reinforcement at many points in a long-term social change process.  Ultimately there comes a time when a destructive narrative becomes untenable to a critical mass of people, and when a new polarization will be useful (a revolutionary moment, for example).  The strategy here is for the necessary lead-up work to such a moment: to feed the allied components within a narrative until they are strong enough to burst out of the old framework.  (I will explore this moment of the mass psychic break in a future post.)

Since publication of Building a Successful Antiwar Movement four years ago, I’ve had the opportunity to lead campaign strategy sessions in which participants brainstorm together to list beliefs and stories that are popular among the constituencies they are engaging.  They categorize the beliefs into five categories on a spectrum: strongly supportive, somewhat supportive, neutral, somewhat opposing, and strongly opposing.  A strongly supportive belief would be one that lends itself strongly to the group’s mission and purpose.  This mapping helps the group to identify what kinds of messages are likely to have the strongest resonance in their campaign messaging.

This is only a genuinely grassroots approach if the framework is applied in the context of accountable relationships and with reliable feedback loops.  It’s about connecting with people’s positive values – not tricking them.  Concluding on that note, once again from Building a Successful Antiwar Movement:

If change agents do not love the people and communities they are engaging, then narrative insurgency for them will likely be an unsuccessful attempt to manipulate people to further an agenda. It is not enough for that agenda to be human liberation or even love itself – in the abstract. A change agent must love the specific people and communities s/he engages. S/he must value each relationship in its own right. While s/he will often disagree with others’ opinions, s/he still values and even empathizes with their perspectives. S/he is forgiving toward their shortcomings. S/he is always rooting for them, always finding something worthy of praise, even when it seems like finding a needle in a haystack. As such, narrative insurgency begins to come naturally; s/he does not have to feign identification with the allied and neutral components within the narrative, within the culture … A change agent learns the intricacies of cultural narratives not to deceive people, but to communicate common values in a language that holds meaning for them.

This is the third post in a series.

Speak the Truth, Tell a Story | Building a Successful Antiwar Movement (Role 1: Interpretive)

This is the second installment in a four-part series written by Jonathan Matthew Smucker in collaboration with Madeline Gardner, originally published in 2007.  Click here to read the previous essay, Three Roles of an Antiwar Core


The first primary role of an antiwar core that we will discuss is to attach meaning to unfolding events and help shape common understandings – to interpret reality based on the patterns we observe.

Imperialism, for example, is an observable pattern where the government of one country extends its dominance over other countries or colonies to increase its own wealth and power. Progressives see US military interventions, political and economic pressuring, and even cultural exports through the lens of a story of US imperialism. This story helps us to understand the situation.

Stories can expose underlying motives. They turn the actors into types of characters: protagonists and antagonists, victims, villains, heroes, and so on. Stories connect events, and strip them of their randomness and neutrality. Stories place judgment.

But stories can also obscure motives and distort reality. For example, there is another story used to explain the various manifestations of the US government’s meddling in the world. The story of US benevolence has deep roots in the culture, relying heavily on popular accounts of World War I and, especially, World War II. This story assumes that our government is genuinely interested in spreading freedom, justice and democracy (rather than undermining and overthrowing it).

Different stories produce different lessons from the same set of events. Consider the following example. We find out that Rosanna got laid off. Then that Joe got laid off too. Turns out that the local factory fired many workers. It moved much of its production overseas, where it can pay the workers far less than their American counterparts. Rosanna and Joe are going to be hard up, and they know it. But what else do they know? How do they assemble these events, experiences and observations in their heads? What stories help them and others to explain their situation?

There are multiple options. Maybe the blame rests with the unions that are forcing companies to move over- seas because they can’t compete here. Maybe it was fate, or the mysterious will of God. Maybe the workers who got fired just weren’t working as hard as those who kept their jobs. Or, of course, maybe the company is greedy. Maybe the system is flawed. Maybe the workers need to organize. Or maybe the company’s greed is just the natural order of things, and there’s nothing anyone could ever do to stop it anyway.

People do not just let facts stand on their own. We interpret them. We are constantly assimilating experiences, events and information into narratives we carry with us. These stories are not neutral. They have consequences. They affect behavior. Rosanna and Joe’s next move might be to join a union, or it might be to scab at the factory in the next town over. Their decisions will be shaped by the stories they tell themselves about their situation.

Bread and butter needs (and other material incentives) affect such choices too. So do the specific opportunities that come our way. But neither of these is deterministic. Humans are thinking creatures. And we think in narrative. Our stories, our beliefs, our assumptions hold enormous power in our lives.

Dominant Narratives

The smartMeme Strategy and Training Project1 explains the basic psychological function of narrative: “Story is a lens through which we process the information we encounter: cultural, emotional, experiential, political… We remember our lived experiences by converting them to narrative and integrating them into our personal and collective web of stories.”2 Through narrative we explain the world, including our place in it. Key to understanding the power of narrative is that, more than we tell stories, “stories tell us” what to think and do.

The importance of narrative as a cultural, economic and political force should not be underestimated. Its value is certainly not questioned by those in power, evidenced by a public relations industry in the US measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars. In a society where wealth and power is held as disproportionately as ours, the power-holders will project a dominant narrative onto the populace to both legitimize and obscure this disparity and political order. While the singular term dominant narrative can be helpful conceptually, the reality of it is multilayered; an accumulation of stories spun by some- times competing elites, tailored to fit specific agendas, consumed and internalized by the public – though this last critical step is not an inevitability.

It comes as no surprise that those who wield disproportionate power in controlling wealth and shaping policy also wield comparably disproportionate power in shaping the grand narratives people rely on to make sense of the world. Still, it is the beginning of a potentially useful analysis: that dominant narratives often do not reflect the authentic will of the people, but rather prescribe it.  The Bush Administration’s story about the Iraq War is a control narrative that was designed to manufacture and corral the people’s will, rather than to empower people to discover and act on their own authentic will. Following 9/11 politicians and pundits opportunistically punctuated a powerful fear-based control narrative, coining and parroting phrases like “War on Terror,” “Homeland Security,” “Axis of Evil,” and so on. These phrases were designed to tell a story that would help push agendas, preclude alternatives or dissent, and consolidate power. False dichotomies are a hallmark of fear-based control narratives. For example: “You’re with either with us or you’re with the terrorists.” In the thick of the political climate of fear that followed 9/11, to argue with this statement was to be relegated to the latter of the two options – with the terrorists.

9/11 jostled Americans’ anxieties like a rock on a hornets’ nest. Many people struggled to make sense of the attacks, working through feelings of anger, fear and sadness. The Bush Administration quickly wove together a story to explain the attacks in ways that would channel people’s emotions and draw lessons favorable to the neo-cons’ ambitious agenda. Their story was first and foremost about why we must go to war. They used classic narrative devices; America was the victim, al Queda the clear villain. The story started on what would have been a pleasant Tuesday morning in September, with America waking up to a new day, only to be savagely surprise-attacked by a villain so evil that his only rationale was a rabid hatred of freedom itself. He might have destroyed freedom and “our way of life” entirely, unless…

In stepped our hero, George W. Bush, already resolute while most Americans were still reeling. He knew who did it, and he knew what he was going to do to them. The only thing America could do in this story was to fight back, to not be a victim. These colors don’t run! The story demanded that we go to war. It precluded any other options.

While fear has been the cornerstone of the Bush Administration’s narrative strategy, it is certainly not the only value they exploit. To effectively use narrative to control, elites must appeal to positive values as well: freedom, justice, democracy, etc.3 Of course delivering substantively on these values tends to interfere with their primary goal of staying (and growing more) rich and powerful. So they co-opt the values. They take positive popular themes, mix them up, and feed a distorted version back to us.

Effective elites feed their agenda to the populace using common language and appealing to common values. It wouldn’t work if they were to invent their own vocabulary to explain it, and try to force it down people’s throats. They know better than to directly battle the culture-they leave that for the fundamentalists-if they can find a way to ride it instead. They recognize the importance of keeping a finger on the pulse of popular culture.

This doesn’t mean that politicians are “in touch” with common people. They don’t need to be. That’s what PR firms, think tanks and speechwriters are for. Elites’ access to this vast industry of cynical sugar-coaters is limited only by the dollar figure they cough up. (And they’re willing to pay a pretty penny, knowing how a spoonful of sugar helps the big fat tax break for the extremely rich go down.)

Their Story, Our Story

The antiwar movement must not be too proud or purist to learn a few things from our opponents, even though their techniques repulse us. Karl Rove and company are essentially doing a perverted version of something all good organizers must do. They are listening (albeit through hired intermediaries) to common people, weaving their words and sentiments into a meaningful story, and feeding it back to them.4

There are important differences between Mr. Rove’s storytelling technique and what the antiwar movement should be doing. Foundationally, there is the difference in motive: the antiwar movement genuinely wants to amplify the truth-for objective facts to be widely known- while the Bush Administration has a vested interest in hiding facts, withholding information, and silencing and obscuring truth. This fundamental difference between their ends and ours creates corresponding differences between their means and ours. To put it simply, they tell stories to deceive and control, while we should tell stories to inform and inspire. As a result the stories themselves and the ways in which they are told, tend to be qualitatively different. Their storytelling appeals primarily to fear and co-opts positive values in order to achieve public acquiescence; the stories we tell should appeal genuinely to positive values, conscience and reason in order to promote civic engagement. Their stories prescribe the public will; the stories we tell should encourage people to formulate their own opinions. Their stories limit options and close debate; the stories we tell should open broader dialogue and possibilities.

Again, different stories promote different kinds of actions. In short, the “action” the Bush Administration wishes to inspire is for everyone to sit down and shut up.  There is, however, something that the antiwar movement should strive to share with Karl Rove: a recognition that people think with stories, and a strategy to accompany this recognition. We cannot afford to give our opponents a monopoly on story-based strategy.

Changing the Story

SmartMeme advocates a “narrative analysis of power,” meaning that the powerful project a control narrative – a story that tells people what to do, and the limits of what is possible – and that change agents must work to “change the story.”

The antiwar movement must do much more than interpret events for the sake of its own understanding and analysis; we must tell a persuasive story to the broader society, especially to the constituencies that we aim to organize. And convincing people to agree with us is only a first step. A large majority of Americans already share our opposition to the Iraq War. This hasn’t translated into a mass movement powerful enough to end the war. We need to tell stories that activate – stories that people can see themselves stepping into.

For many people to see themselves stepping into the antiwar movement, we first have to overcome negative stories about us. We have to grapple with the fact that, for a substantial portion of the population, activism itself has been negatively branded. That is to say that the term and concept of activism has been so maligned that it now conjures negative associations in many people’s mind.

Corporations are very concerned about their brand image; the antiwar movement should be too. Brand image, in the corporate world, refers to the stories, meanings, memories and emotions that people associate with a particular company. A company with a tarnished brand image struggles to sell product.

Change agents need to recognize how negative stories and stereotypes about us are used to inoculate society against even hearing our message, let alone taking action or joining our ranks. We have to create new stories in the culture about civic engagement and social movement. We have to break our own monopoly over the issues and values that we struggle for, as well as the means by which we struggle. As long as activism is all about activists-a niche role, a type of person-it will remain an ineffectual undertaking of a few.

Too often we play into the negative stereotypes. There is a tendency within large currents of the movement to project ourselves as outsiders, as defectors (read “traitors”), as different and distinct (read “better”). We talk disdainfully about society. We talk about America as if we were not part of it. This approach suits our opponents very well. In fact, whenever and wherever people start to effectively challenge power, the textbook counter-attack is to malign change agents as outsiders. When we willingly identify and project ourselves as just that, we cooperate with our opponents’ strategy to inoculate society against progressive change. We forfeit the possibility of building a popular movement. Ultimately, our goal is to change destructive and limiting assumptions long-held in the mainstream culture. We have to “change the story” but in order to do so we must approach popular cultural narratives as insiders, not outsiders.

Too often activists engage in narrative attack. Narrative attack means attacking one narrative or worldview from the point of view of a different one. For example, “Amerikkka is NOT a democracy!” may seem like a coherent statement to the person holding a sign that bears this message. They may be aiming to undermine the story of “America, the great nation,” the “land of opportunity,” etc. because they see these claims as hypocritical given the United States’ history of genocide, slavery and imperialism. This is not to dispute the sign-holder’s politics, but it is to say that their presentation will not be well received by many people who have mostly positive associations with the word America. Narrative attack can be subtle too. But it characteristically involves some form of disparaging or disassociating from something that someone else values. Narrative attack fortifies people’s defenses and rarely changes minds.

When activists engage in narrative attack, it is usually against a mainstream narrative from the perspective of a marginalized worldview. It’s not that we should abandon our perspective or politics – not in the least. The problem is not our interpretation of reality: the alternative narratives we collectively construct to explain unfolding events and power relationships. The problem is the chasm between our alternative narratives and prevailing narratives in the culture. Again, change agents must do much more than interpret reality for our own understanding; we must tell a persuasive story to the broader society, especially to the constituencies we aim to organize. We cannot expect people to have a clue as to what we’re talking about-much less to join our cause-when we make critiques using our own internal rhetoric, in the language and logic of our self-understood alternative narratives. It doesn’t matter how precise or correct we may believe our analysis to be, if it’s incoherent to a broader audience. If we don’t use common language that speaks to people’s common values, we will be seen as outsiders.

Narrative Insurgency

If we are to transform cultural meanings, we need to think not in terms of attacking culture from the outside,5 but rather in terms of homegrown insurgency, indigenous to the culture. The root of the word insurgency is “rise up.” Insurgencies rise up from within. Narrative insurgency rises up from within a cultural narrative. To effectively play an interpretive role, antiwar change agents have to be narrative insurgents, changing the culture from the inside out. (With the term narrative insurgency we are stressing that new meanings must rise up within existing cultural narratives – a nonviolent and thoroughly political process.)

Cultural narratives (e.g. America: Beacon of Liberty, Purveyor of Democracy) are characteristically complex, often rife with contradictions, and vary from one person to the next. Narrative insurgents do not reject narratives wholesale, but distinguish between those components that are allied, hostile or neutral to their cause. They embrace as much of a cultural narrative as possible-the allied and neutral components-and encourage the further development of the allied components, using these as the foundations for their organizing efforts in the given community. Because direct confrontation tends to polarize people and fortify their positions, the narrative insurgent is cautious, selective and strategic about when to engage in it, often preferring to dance around a narrative’s hostile components rather than engage these head-on. The strategy here is to feed the allied components within a narrative until they are strong enough to burst out of the old framework. The old narrative is often never explicitly rejected; it just fades. Feeding the allied components gives the transitioning individual, group or society something to hold onto through the transition process.

Numerous studies have shown that children learn best through positive reinforcement; that is, being encouraged in what they are doing well rather than rebuked for their errors and shortcomings. Why would adults be any different? No one wants to hear that they’re doing some- thing wrong or that they’re not doing enough. People are similarly turned off when they feel the symbols and institutions that they identify with are being maligned (e.g. the flag, the military, America, religion, etc.). Too often change agents relate to people in ways that can trigger feelings of guilt or defensiveness. While guilt can occasionally motivate positive changes in people, it is not a sustainable motivating force. In the long-term, and often in the short-term too, guilt triggers more resentment than it inspires change. Besides, guilt is a tool of social control, not of liberation. It is only effectively wielded when accompanied by the threat of social penalties such as ostracism. For example, if a church hierarchy uses guilt as part of a strategy to control its members’ sexuality, it can do so to the degree that it holds power over their lives. Generally organizers and activists don’t possess this kind of power. (Nor do we want it.) If we make people we talk to feel guilty or defensive, they’re likely to avoid us and talk to other people instead.

An effective narrative insurgent rejects guilt as a manipulative and generally unhelpful tool. S/he seeks to avoid triggering feelings of guilt and shame in the people around her (with the occasional exception of targeted opponents), regardless of whether s/ he believes their actions or inactions warrant such feelings. Instead s/he utilizes positive reinforcement with an analysis of confirmatory bias. SmartMeme summarizes the concept of confirmatory bias as “people’s habit of screening information based on their own beliefs. In other words, people are much more likely to believe something that reinforces their existing opinions and values than to accept information that challenges their beliefs.”6

The narrative insurgent plays with ambiguity, resists labeling attempts, and does not seek to nail others to rigid positions. S/he is not overly preoccupied with the correctness of people’s political analysis. S/he herself did not arrive at her political analysis overnight, and thus recognizes that the development of analysis is a process that cannot be deposited into people’s heads. It comes through experiences and dialogue and is a self-determined process. The organizer’s role then is not so much to provide the most correct political line, but rather to create cultural and relational space wherein people have opportunity to reflect critically on shared experiences and develop and arrive at their analyses together. This is particularly important given that those who identify as activists and organizers, because we have devoted the mental resources to it, tend to have more developed political analyses than the people we may be trying to engage, and we tend to articulate it in a very specific rhetoric. Our analysis then, if laid out on the table all at once, is likely to alienate us from people we want to engage.

Again, most of us who have a developed political analysis did not arrive at it overnight, and we cannot expect to be able to walk others through a logical proof in one sitting. We can play an important role in helping people to reflect dialogically on their own experiences, but we cannot give them our experiences. We have to be patient enough to allow them to make mistakes, harbor bad ideas, etc. And, in creating space for this, we may actually learn from them. Maybe it is we who are making the mistake or harboring the bad idea? The teacher always has some- thing to learn, and the learner always has something to teach. This is essential to any true dialogue.

While strategy is important, a true narrative insurgent is more than a calculating tactician. Their primary motivations should always be love and compassion. As Che Guevara said, “At the risk of sounding ridiculous, the true revolutionary is motivated by great feelings of love.” If change agents do not love the people and communities they are engaging, then narrative insurgency for them will likely be an unsuccessful attempt to manipulate people to further an agenda. It is not enough for that agenda to be human liberation or even love itself – in the abstract. A change agent must love the specific people and communities s/he engages. S/he must value each relationship in its own right. While s/he will often disagree with others’ opinions, s/he still values and even empathizes with their perspectives. S/he is forgiving toward their shortcomings. S/he is always rooting for them, always finding something worthy of praise, even when it seems like finding a needle in a haystack. As such, narrative insurgency begins to come naturally; s/he does not have to feign identification with the allied and neutral components within the narrative, within the culture. Narrative insurgency is not Machiavellian. A change agent learns the intricacies of cultural narratives not to deceive people, but to communicate common values in a language that holds meaning for them. S/he does not use people as pawns, as passive props or objects. S/he encourages people to realize their own empowerment.

Psychic Breaks

We have to honor that people are complex beings who simultaneously hold multiple beliefs. Sometimes events put these beliefs into conflict with each other, which can threaten to unravel long-held assumptions.  Take someone who is in the armed forces and believes strongly in the military as an institution. They believe that going to war is at times a necessary way to solve problems. They believe in US benevolence and the importance of patriotism. Coming from a working class background, they believe in hard work and are more willing to trust other people who work for a living. They believe in fairness and the importance of family. They are critical of corruption and often distrustful of politicians. Someone may hold all of these beliefs and see no contradiction between them. But what happens when the corrupt politicians whom they distrust start a war that they must fight? While they as an individual may have good intentions toward other people around the world, will the story of US benevolence hold up when they can’t trust their own government? Before, patriotism had implied obedience to authority, but now might it not require something else instead?

A psychic break7 occurs when people’s sense of reality changes so dramatically that it cannot adequately be assimilated into a narrative or belief system. Long-held assumptions and beliefs become untenable, and the individual, group or society becomes more open to alternate interpretations of reality, to new beliefs.

Patrick Reinsborough of smartMeme explains, “A mass psychic break is a point where you can predict a significant percentage of society is going to have their basic assumptions… challenged by events.”8

Mass psychic breaks can be key opportunities for social movements to advance progressive values and to grow. These contexts hold the peak potential to reach out to others, to challenge long-held assumptions in the culture, and to transform grand narratives. Widespread disillusionment about the Iraq War is catalyzing a mass psychic break, opening new possible directions for popular beliefs. Antiwar change agents have a window.

Many people initially went along with the invasion because they were predisposed to believe the Bush Administration’s control narrative. But Bush’s story was a lie. And the nature of lies is to breed more lies. Soon you have lie upon lie upon lie – a new lie to answer every question, doubt or contradiction. Some lies manage to continue for many years. But sometimes the evidence becomes too compelling; the lie becomes untenable. Part of the lie is that we can trust the liar, but once they have been discredited then everything they ever said becomes suspect. People tend to be attached to their beliefs and assumptions, but if an important one is shattered, more may fall like dominos. Lies build upon each other, and if a cornerstone is removed, the whole control narrative structure can come crashing down.

However, beliefs don’t die easily, especially when held for a lifetime or for generations. People often find ways to resurrect their worldview once the storm has passed. You can see this already with the emerging story of the “Worst President Ever!” While George W. Bush may very well deserve this title, still, the danger of this story is that it can allow for key negative assumptions-like the story of US benevolence-to go unchallenged. Bush is merely an aberration to an otherwise good system. On the other hand, if someone who was never willing to question US foreign policy at all is now at least willing to question George W. Bush’s foreign policy, then we have an opening.  It is up to us to take it.


We have argued in this essay that a primary role of change agents is to interpret reality. We have described how elites project their own self-legitimizing interpretation of reality onto society through dominant narratives. We have argued that their narratives speak primarily to fear while co-opting positive values, and that our narratives must speak genuinely to people’s positive values. We have argued that change agents must overcome negative stereotypes about themselves, and we have introduced narrative insurgency as a way of thinking about engaging the culture as insiders. Finally, we have described the current political context as a psychic break, wherein antiwar change agents have new opportunities to challenge dominant assumptions and to grow our movement.

end notes:

  2. From an unpublished smartMeme document.
  3. A favorite psychological tactic of the Bush Administration has been to alternate between appeals to people’s positive values and their fear emotions: “Iraq has weapons of mass destruction…We’re liberating the Iraqi People…We’re fighting the terrorists there so we don’t have to fight them here…We’re spreading democracy in the Middle East…”
  4. If it’s too much to stomach learning something from the likes of Mr. Rove, fortunately we have good examples of this concept in progressive movements, perhaps especially from the late popular educators Paulo Freire and Miles Horton who consistently stressed listening to common people and feeding their own words back to them as part of an empowering process of dialogue. The authors recommend Horton’s “The Long Haul” and Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”
  5. like an invading army, but without power.
  6. smartMeme
  7. ibid
  8. Patrick Reinsborough. Building a Real Democracy in the Age of Empire (Lumpen Magazine, 2004)

Click here for the next essay: Articulating a Strategy

Asymmetry of Victim Stories (or: why the rich get away with whining about taxes)

I’m reading two great books about the power of story as an organizing tool in social change struggles.  One is smartMeme’s RE:Imagining Change (a guide for activists on story-based strategy), the other is It Was Like a Fever: Story-telling in Protest and Politics by Francesca Polletta.  

Amongst other subjects, both Polletta and smartMeme discuss the problem of “victim stories” for social change agents.  Social change organizations understandably try to mobilize to address an injustice by showing the real-life negative impact of that injustice.  Victims of the injustice tell their stories (or their stories are told) often emphasizing victim status – purposely or not – with the hope of appealing to people’s sense of compassion and mobilizing a popular response.

The problem though is that victim stories usually don’t work very well for challenger movements to challenge power relationships.  Instead of mobilizing people, they tend to reinforce the existing power structure – in part by reinforcing the idea that victims are in fact powerless.

SmartMeme encourages change agents to tell a story that instead casts challenger movements as empowered and sympathetic protagonists, who are attractive in large part because they are seen as winners or on a winning trajectory (usually in an insurgent kind of way).  Polletta discusses situations where social movement organizations have successfully done just that (e.g. Rosa Parks’ refusal, or the lunch counter sit-ins), and also discusses examples of when movements have presented their “main characters” as victims – which characteristically hasn’t worked very well.

(It’s important to note that we’re not talking about the objective reality of whether and how people are the victims of injustice, but rather whether telling a victim story is an effective mobilizing strategy.)

So if victim stories aren’t very effective for progressive challenger movements, why do they seem not only popular but also effective with the right and with the rich?

Today Paul Krugman discussed in The Angry Rich how, “self-pity among the privileged has become acceptable, even fashionable.”

…wallowing in self-pity and self-righteousness would be funny, except for one thing: they may well get their way.  Never mind the $700 billion price tag for extending the high-end tax breaks: virtually all Republicans and some Democrats are rushing to the aid of the oppressed affluent.

So victim stories don’t usually work for actual victims of injustice, but they work for the rich and powerful?

Basically, yes, often. Krugman goes on:

You see, the rich are different from you and me: they have more influence. It’s partly a matter of campaign contributions, but it’s also a matter of social pressure, since politicians spend a lot of time hanging out with the wealthy. So when the rich face the prospect of paying an extra 3 or 4 percent of their income in taxes, politicians feel their pain – feel it much more acutely, it’s clear, than they feel the pain of families who are losing their jobs, their houses, and their hopes.

When oppressed groups present themselves or are presented as victims, they are often then seen as powerless.  This can trigger feelings of resignation in people who are sympathetic (“That’s just the way it is.  Some things will never change.”), and send a message to the powerful that this group doesn’t pose a threat.  On the other hand, when the very powerful style and fancy themselves as victims, they are seen as powerful, entitled to power and privilege, and about to blow their top if they don’t get everything they demand. The political class is oriented toward power – to please it, to have it, to kiss ass. And even when most of the rest of us see the truth of the situation, the self-victimization of the elite can also feed our resignation. In some ways the more outlandish the self-victimizing protests of the elite, the more it can serve as a display of power. These people are so powerful that they get to label as truth what everyone in their right mind knows to be a lie – and get away with it.

So what are the lessons here for progressive challenger movements?