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?

Loss Aversion: a Significant Barrier to Social Change

“The ability to scare the hell out of people is much greater than the ability to attract them to equities.”

– Brian Barish

What have you got to lose? It seems like a question that should only be asked of a scared, desperate person, or of someone who is knowingly on the winning side of a rigged game.

What have you got to gain? Now, that is something you ask an optimist or an idealist, right?

These two questions are at the core of leading social change. If the best future that someone can imagine is one where they have simply protected what little they have, then your task becomes exponentially difficult.

There is an idea that economists and marketing professionals talk about called, loss aversion. The basic idea is that people have a tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. This is a concept that apparently transcends mere financial considerations. It can also be thought of in terms of the “losses” being in the form of loss of status, or of access.

Ultimately the loss aversion leads to risk aversion. That is what the privileged and the affluent are banking on. Not only is loss aversion at the center of all negotiation, it is also the enemy of positive change, and innovation.

As I pointed out in a previous post on risk aversion, Risk-taking is the only prescription for overcoming complacency, apprehension, and fear of failure.  At some point risk-aversion becomes an inescapable pessimism. A vision of a different world becomes unimaginable.

Avoiding this hopelessness requires vision, and a belief that the gains you desire are realistically achievable. It also helps to be reminded that your fear arises in part, from the fact that there are people who don’t want things to change, who are doing their best to keep you scared. Don’t let them.

(See more on vision here, and here.)

Vision is Personal

Creating change is inescapably tied to a shared vision. People can’t keep their eyes on the prize, if they don’t know what the prize is. A common notion of what the future should look like, however, is not enough.

Visionary concepts can be abstract (“We see a world where everybody . . .”). Change is social and shared, but above all else, change is personal. The key to a vision being a motivator for action, is for each individual to see themselves in that future.

One of the reasons why I am an advocate for Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), is that at its core, ABCD mobilizes people based on what they care about the most, and how their personal talents can best contribute to positive change. A group, a community, a movement, is made up of individuals with both broader common interests, and specific self-interest. Don’t just rally around the abstract and the generalized. Ask people to put themselves in the future being created.

A Few Words About Vision

“When I dare to be powerful – to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
–Audre Lorde

There seems to be a frightening lack of vision in the world. People want things to be different, but they are unable, or more likely, unwilling to imagine what that different world looks like. Or maybe, they have a good understanding of their own values, and have developed a personal vision, and are simply not sharing it with other like-minded people. Nothing will ever change without a shared vision of how things could be.

shared visionImage: Minnesota Design Team

 The image above is an important concept for leaders to understand and appreciate. If you look at the number of arrows in each of the three sections, you will notice that they decrease as you move from “no vision” to “shared vision.” Movements and campaigns do not start out on a large scale. A shared vision is the result of people in small groups sharing their values with others. It is through the understanding of their common values that people begin to create a shared vision.

Your vision should be:

  • reflective of shared values;
  • explained in the least complex way possible;
  • realistically achievable;
  • and it should motivate people to act, moving them to look beyond their limitations.

A vision isn’t just a dream. It’s a dream and a plan. When stakeholders share similar values, they can begin to develop a shared vision by asking these three questions:

  1. What is?
  2. What could be?
  3. What events could affect that change?

Simply put, shared values lead to a shared vision, which leads to shared ownership of creating change, and ultimately shared benefits for all stakeholders.

(For more on values see, Narrowing The Gap Between Our Ideal And Our Real Values)