Contrived Nostalgia as an Enemy of Change

“In every age ‘the good old days’ were a myth. No one ever thought they were good at the time. For every age has consisted of crises that seemed intolerable to the people who lived through them.”

– Brooks Atkinson

Manufactured nostalgia for a golden age, a mostly fictional, idealized “good old days” can be an insidious, deliberate strategy employed by people actively opposed to progressive change.

There are always those who will try to convince people that the way to a better future is to re-create some romanticized, imagined era. It is usually conveniently portrayed as a time that existed before anyone alive today could have lived through. Harkening back to “a simpler time,” however, is often just a thinly disguised way of saying a time before people demanded human rights, inclusion, and equality. This isn’t about nostalgia; it’s about power.

Persistent individual, as well as institutional racism, and sexism have often been rationalized by those who oppose change, with claims of cultural or heritage preservation. You will call for change, and someone will try to call you out for your “cultural relativism.” This argument is a red herring. You have no moral, or ethical duty to be tolerant, or accepting of anyone’s heritage that sought to oppress people by denying them fundamental human rights. No heritage, or culture deserves to be celebrated if it resulted in realities such as human trafficking, discrimination, rape, or even genocide.

People who oppose the change you are trying to create will attempt to define their nostalgic vision as a zero-sum game. This is because the only way their argument works is if you mistakenly believe that extending equal rights to oppressed groups, takes rights away from the dominant group. It does not take away their rights. It takes absolute power away from them, and their power is not a birthright.

If there are elements of a bygone era that have inherent value (cleaner water, and a smaller income inequality gap come to mind), then by all means make that part of your vision for the future. However, can’t we all agree that no ethical person should have fond memories for discrimination, inequality, and the abuse of power?

You don’t try to fight the man by becoming the man

“The trouble with organizing a thing is that pretty soon folks get to paying more attention to the organization than to what they’re organized for.”

– Laura Ingalls Wilder

org chart

Organizing to create change doesn’t require creating your own little officialdom. It is too easy to lose your sense of purpose when you’re concentrating a great deal of energy on organizational charts and chains of command.

Big picture, strategy meetings don’t require pure democracy. Having every allied person vote on every little question that emerges, creates a hole that you may never climb out of. The average person committed to your cause is not a professional meeting-goer. When they do meet, they have an expectation that the next step is going to be actions that move you closer to your goal, not just closer to the next meeting.

If you are so rigidly organized that your main concern becomes creating a single group with an identical message, and speaking in one voice, then you’ll lose the creativity and the unique approaches that come from diversity. Your one voice can not tell the stories that will resonate with all people. Embrace the value of others’ experiences and wisdom.

People feel less free to discover and use their own power if they always feel like they need permission. One of the most powerful things you can do is to help people understand that they don’t need permission to do the right thing.

You don’t try to fight ‘the man’ by becoming ‘the man.’ Give up ideas of authority, and you’ll actually find more power.

Nonviolent Direct Action

“We who in engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

Women's March 2017
Women’s March 2017

People throughout the world turn to nonviolent direct action after the official way of seeking justice (if any existed to begin with) fails to yield positive results.  We recently witnessed millions of Women’s March participants throughout the world engage in nonviolent action.  Such highly visible events serve as a good reminder that just because it is nonviolent, that doesn’t mean that it is passive.

“In using these methods people either do the unexpected or what they’re forbidden to do, for example demanding coffee at a segregated lunch counter if they’re African American. Or nonviolent action can be refusing to do what they are expected or required to do, like pay a special tax to the English king for the tea they drink.

– Daniel Hunter, “The Power of Nonviolent Direct Action”

Not all nonviolent action is confrontational. It should, however, provoke people into questioning the reality being portrayed by your opponents. Nonviolent actions can include: noncooperation, protest, persuasive influence, and certain types of intervention. The use of these strategies is intended to shift the balance of power. Nonviolent action can changes attitudes of the apathetic, and of opponents. It can lead to compromise in formerly immovable opposition. This strategy is all about reclaiming the power to create a just society.

There are hundreds of types of nonviolent actions. This is not just about large scale events. It is important to remember that a real commitment to nonviolent action means that those who participate in marches and button-wearing, also demonstrate their support those participating in higher-risk actions such as hunger strikes, and civil disobedience that is being met with a violent response. Every action contributes to achieving the ultimate goal.

More Information on Nonviolent Action

Act Up – http://www.actupny.org/documents/CDdocuments/Guidelines.html

Albert Einstein Institution – http://www.aeinstein.org/nonviolentaction/

Metta Center for Nonviolence – http://mettacenter.org/

Nonviolent Action Network – http://nonviolentaction.net/

Nonviolent Campaign Strategy – https://nonviolentstrategy.wordpress.com/

Training for Change – http://www.trainingforchange.org/

You Always Have Power

It is New Year’s Day, and my wish for you is to have a powerful 2017.

If you are committed to social change, the most important thing you can do right now is to remember that you are not powerless. The notion that you cannot do anything about the issues that bother you the most, is false. Here are three ideas to help you get rid of a feeling of powerlessness:

Stop relinquishing your power. Don’t give away the fundamental strengths that you possess. You may not have authority, but you always have power — and you don’t need anyone’s permission to use it (Read more about this idea here).

You are not alone. Find even one or two like-minded people. Organize. Your common self-interests will reveal even more power. Map your collective assets, and connect those assets to define actions (more here). Which brings us to one final recommendation . . .

Less talk, more action. Do something today. Once you’ve organized you group of allies, don’t be seduced into thinking that whining and complaining to each other is going to solve anything. Act. Accomplish small things. Those successes will attract more partners, who will bring even more assets to the table. In the words of the 14th Dalai Lama, “It is not enough to be compassionate – you must act.”

You are not powerless. Happy New Year.

Authority Versus Power

“Power does not consist in striking with force or with frequency, but in striking true.”
– Honoré de Balzac

There are those who say that you can’t have authority without power. There are also those who say that you can’t have power without authority. Either way, it is inescapable to lead change without some understanding of these concepts. To me, the critical question is: Can people with authority cultivate a culture that people feel empowered to lead innovation?

authority vs powerAuthority is not always blindly obeyed. Authority is subjective; it is depends upon an our perception of its rightness. When you’re trying to lead people to create change, power is more important than authority. Leaders should embrace the idea of people feeling powerful.

 Talking About Power

Leaders think of power as ability to do or accomplish something. What is POWER? In mathematics, power refers to exponentiation. It can also mean exponential growth of the number of people on board with the change you’re trying to create.

In physics, power refers to energy, force or momentum. An action in one place can make something happen in another place. Social power is the same way. Think of any movement, and how actions in one place influenced results in other places.

I like to remind folks about these myths and insights about power from a great book, The Quickening of America:Building Our Nation, Remaking Our Lives by Frances Moore Lappé and Paul DuBois

Myth: There’s Only So Much Power to Go Around
The Empowering Insight: Relational power expands possibilities for many people at once. The more you use it, the more there is.

Myth: Power is a One-Way Force
The Empowering Insight: Power always exists in relationships, going both ways. In relationships, the actions of each affect the other, so no one is ever completely powerless.

Myth: Power is a Dirty Word
The Empowering Insight: We cannot realize our values or goals without power. Power is the capacity to act publicly and effectively, to bring about positive change.

How do you think about power?

Three Faces of Power [added 1/21/2015]

When people think about political power, they usually fall into two groups. The first sees power as an elitist concept, one where a privileged few call the shots. The other group has a pluralist view of power – that it is distributed equitably in society. This is, of course, a basic tenet of democracy.  It is also critical to the idea of organizing, and leading change.

Without getting too academic, I want to introduce just a little theoretical stuff that might help expand our practical notions of power. Political Science scholars have, for the last half century studied what are called the faces of power. Here are just three brief snapshots from this ever-expanding continuum of thought.

1) Robert Dahl’s One-Dimensional Model of Power, which says that power is exercised only in decision-making situations where parties hold opposing views. That power is exercised thusly: A has power over B, and A can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do;

2) Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz’s Two-Dimensional Model of Power, this says that in addition to this decision-making function, power is also related to the control of communication. Messaging, or silencing messages, can control the political process, and restrict it to issues that serve only to reinforce power.

3) Steven Lukes’ Three-Dimensional Model of Power says that the first dimension of power is success in decision making. The second dimension is managing the agenda. According to Lukes, the third face of power is not as overt as the first two. It is the manipulation of the wishes of others without them knowing they are being manipulated.

In an age of rapid dissemination of information it is easy to see how the second face (controlling communication) is more difficult. People acting as citizen journalists take to the streets from multiple angles to expose truths that people seeking power and control don’t want you to know. When everyone on the street has a camera and a publishing mechanism in their pocket, it is pretty hard to deny the reality they are sharing.

Similarly, manipulation is enhanced by social media. For people who want to maintain power, propaganda finds all media platforms. For example, Fox News masquerades as “fair and balanced” journalism when it has a clear agenda that has no intention of being either fair, nor balanced.

People’s access to good information is important for leadership. Leadership is not about public relations machines that spin every message your way. Real information creates real options, and real choices. When people have the power to make informed choices, they are more likely to act on behalf of that choice becoming a reality.