Monday, 16 March 2009

The Internet for Activists

So I was invited to speak this weekend at a conference called "The Internet for Activists." They were looking for examples of succes stories - online activism that achieve a real world result - and they thought the Obama campaign might be a fair example of that. All right then.

Digging into the organisers a little bit, I found that they were a collection of decidedly left of centre activists, ranging from the Marxist wing of the Labour party, to the Respect party, to one guy there who just thinks "no matter who you vote for, the government always wins" and therefore seems to eschew politics altogether. They were, in short, not from the "sensible centre" of British politics. Which is fine by me. Personally, I respect anyone who gives their time and effort to making the world closer to their vision of a good place to live. In America especially, the lunatic right has a strong voice whereas anyone further left than John Edwards practically doesn't exist in the public debate (Dennis Kucinich and Michael Moore being the exceptions that prove the rule). So I've got no problem with someone whose views are further left than mine working for their causes - to the contrary, I think a more balanced public debate, with the extremes on both side getting a reasonably hearing, will recalibrate the political discussion in a helpful way - the choice between far right, right, center right and center left isn't exactly a balanced range of options, is it?

But what I often DO get frustrated by in leftist activists is a certain self-absorbed self riteousness that seems to congratule itself on it's purity of thought rather than doing the hard work of actually persuading others to that point of view.

So in speaking at this event, there were a few things I wanted to achieve. I was certainly curious to meet the people - and there were some interesting folks there, for sure. Also a couple of jerks (I will not be blogging about the Masked Man from Anonymous, though he was indeed a jerk, because 1) I think he wants the attention and 2) apart from being online bullies I don't think they count as actual activists). But mainly I met well meaning folks, including some interesting bloggers.

I did want to respond to one speaker, though, who summed up his presentation with a small dig at the Obama campaign, arguing that they were "not an activist-led" campaign, and essentially that we shouldn't emulate their model because we should be striving for "more activist-led campaigns". Being a bit slow on the uptake, I sat there going, "huh?" and missed my chance to respond to this. Mainly because I couldn't initially work out what on earth he was arguing.

Obama himself definitely came from the activist tradition - local community organising is the purest form of direct activism I know. Barack first came to public attention by speaking at an anti-war rally, for heavens sake! Surely this is the sterotypical vision of an activist, yes?

And the other campaign leaders, David Plouffe, David Axelrod et. al. were far from insidery types - Axelrod actually got his start as a campaigning journalist in Chicaco, and Plouffe developed a campaign plan that was based to an unprecedented degree on building local grassroots organisation and keeping our core supporters fired up and active.

And certainly on grassroots level, it was activist led by definition, right? All these hundreds of thousands of Americans, young and old who gave up their evenings and weekends or even in some cases their jobs to work for no pay in support of a common goal - thousands of people who had never been active before. Thousands more for whom the Democratic party in the past had been too far right, or left, but who believed under Barack it could be just right. Millions of people who gave money, small and large, even in tough economic times, because they believed it was an investment in their future. These people aren't activists?

Only after the conference did I have my big, "well duh" moment and realise: No. To him, these people are not activists. He, and I'm sorry to say a lot of other people in the room, seem to give credit for genuine community spirit only to people who already think and act exactly like them. Mainstream political organising isn't activism. The community organising that Barack did in Chicago wasn't activism. All those previously non-political people who got inspired by Barack and spent months of their lives traipsing through rain and snow for him - that didn't make them activists.

I think it's the worst kind of snobbery. And, worse, I think it guarantees failure.

By definition, if you're a left of center activist, the majority does not already agree with you. Spending all your days talking only to the people exactly like you and looking down your nose at everyone else as philosophically impure isn't going to achieve a damn thing. So if you really care about what you claim to believe in, you're going to have to haul yourself out of your comfy little world and start formulating arguments.

The analogy that I oh-so-gently made in my presentation was to the underpants gnomes.

You know about he underpants gnomes, right?

No? Well, in short - they steal people's underwear in a scheme to get rich.

Their business plan is as follows:

Phase 1: Collect Underpants
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Profit!

Activists, I would urge, should work on their phase 2 planning. Lots of protests have a business plan somewhat similar to this. For example, let's say you are trying to end the war. You decide to hold a protest. Does your action plan resemble this?

Phase 1: Gather lots of people for a protest.
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Peace!

If you don't have a phase 2, you're just playing self gratifying games. And that's not an activist led campaign.


Jim Jay said...

Hi - it was nice to meet you face to face and completely agree with the points you make here.

It's a shame there wasn't more time to discuss the points you brought up (and less time for masked weirdos) in your session as I think they really raised the level of discussion.

Obama London said...

Thanks Jim! Agreed about it being good to meet in the real world and all.

sara h said...

Great post.

I don't think there should be a value judgement attached to "activist-led" and "non-activist-led" campaigns. If you want to join someones campaign who happens to be a professional in his field - great ! If you want to create your own grass-roots campaign - great, too !

The important thing is to go out and campaign for what you believe in. Let's get out off our comfort zone and engage with people who are not already our mates...

KathyF said...

There is a difference between activism and organizing. Obama organized; the majority of bloggers are activists.

Here's a brilliant analysis:

Al Giordano's been talking about this a lot, especially a few weeks ago when the left was up in arms about Obama's supposed move toward the center. He's always worth a read, imo.

Obama London said...

Excellent article - thanks for forwarding it Kathy.

"Activism is the practice of preaching to the choir, rallying the already converted, and trying to convince other "activists" to do your work for you"

"Organizing is something completely different: It is based on attainable and quantifiable goals (be they small, as in, "put a stop sign in the neighborhood," or be they large, as occurred last year: elect an underdog as president of the United States)."

Very interesting. I'm definitely more interested in the Organising side of things, as he defines it. But I also don't think we should get too hung up on vocabulary. "Doing stuff to make change in the world". If you wanna call it activism, or organising, or knitting circles - fine by me. Just do it. Ya know?

Tim said...

Hey Sister!
I read your blog for the first time and I thought you may find this related concept relevent to you line of thinking. I find it to be a truth in many of the actions or lack there in with my friends that are passionate about there views.
The term narcotizing dysfunction was first identified in the book Mass Communication, Popular Taste and Organized Social Action, by Paul F. Lazarsfeld, and Robert K. Merton.

The term refers to a social consequence of mass media. It is termed "dysfunctional" as it assumed it is not in the best interests of a modern complex society to have masses of the society politically apathetic and inert. Lazarsfeld and Merton conducted studies to show that increasing numbers people within our society devote more and more of their time to mass media. They suppose that although there are more media and more people able to use media to keep on top of the news, the audience becomes apathetic and shows only superficial concern for the problems of society.

Lazarsfeld and Merton hypothesize that the constant flood of information and news has a narcotizing rather than an energizing effect on the audience. As society spends more and more time devoted to mass media, and especially television, there is equally less amount of time for society to act against the issues identified in the media.

Because the individual is assailed with information of issues and problems and they are knowledgeable about or discuss these issues, they believe they are helping in the solution. Society has confused knowing about an issue with doing something about it. Society’s conscience is clear as they think they have done something to remediate the issue. However, being informed and concerned is not a replacement for action. Because of the effects of mass media, people believe that doing nothing is good for society. This is why the effect is called narcotizing dysfunction.

Now if somebody can can a term for holding a belief or an ideal that one espouse but does not actually subscribe to personally. I mean a heady academic term that is similar to hypocrite but more precise.

Jim Jay said...

Tim, that sounds like "cognitive dissonance" to me... (although my spelling's rubbish)

Obama London said...

Thanks brother-mine! Useful concept, and highly relevant these days. It's too true that media consumption often becomes a substitute for action. Indeed, outrage and indignation often get channeled into mere self-expression rather than constructive action ("I'm so angry! I'm going to write about it on my blog/make a YouTube video/yell at the staffer who answers my congressman's phone").

Jim, I think you're right - cognitive dissonance is the word. E.g., "I believe scientists when they say global warming is now a crisis, and I am concerned about this. I also enjoy driving my big truck and will vote against politicians that impose a carbon tax."

The problem for organizers is that most people are exceptionally good at papering over these cracks - and for good reason. It makes life more livable. The sheer scale of inconsistency between belief and action is often unbearable, and really dealing with it would turn us all into wild eyed radicals (look at anyone who tries to live absolutely according to their beliefs - from vegans to orthodox Jews to terrorists - they become radicals in a way that most people shy away from). So we need to start with small, achieveable goals to shake people enough out of their complacency to act, but not so much that they are overwhelmed by the futility of their action.

KathyF said...

Wait a sec...we vegans aren't radicals! I live a perfectly normal life, I just don't eat products that came from animals. No big deal at all, in fact, cooking is very easy when you don't have to decide which type of meat you're going to have!

Obama London said...

Hey Kathy - fair enough!