Just like climate change or political tribalism, coronavirus asks us: do we see ourselves as part of a Larger Us, a them-and-us, or an atomised “I”?
Each of us is answering that question all the time right now. Do we hoard hand sanitiser, or leave enough for others? Do we observe social distancing protocols, or shrug and figure we’re young enough that the symptoms will be no big deal so why worry? Do we think we’re all in this together, or do we blame it on others (the Chinese, the Mexicans, the Americans)?
Recent elections in the US and the UK have yielded more questions than answers about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to messages and tactics designed to persuade audiences. Targeted political adverts, unofficial memes, psychographic profiling and giant datasets will all be in play during upcoming elections on both sides of the pond with tech platforms increasingly providing the battlefield for mass communications combat.
Over the last two years I’ve been exploring how technology will affect politics in the near-future through my podcast Government Vs The Robots. In that time I’ve spotted five shifts in the information ecosystem which demand a response from people interested in communicating ideas and values. The current UK election and the democratic primaries will provide a chance to scrutinise what the best political campaigners in the business think is the right way to win hearts and minds in the age of the algorithm. So what should we be looking for?
Lawyers, historians and constitutional experts will ultimately have the final say about whether last week’s decision to prorogue parliament is a democratic outrage or well within the bounds of our unwritten constitution. But however history judges prorogation, it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture: the seven ways in which a politics of ‘us’ and ‘them’ has emerged at precisely the time we need leaders to tell a powerful story of our shared humanity.
Earlier this summer, we commemorated the bravery of the veterans who landed in Normandy on D-day, and in coming weeks we will be inspired by the active citizenship of thousands of young people who rally to avert climate catastrophe. But can those of us in the generations in between be proud of the political culture we’ve let develop, where we are encouraged to view fellow citizens as ‘enemies of the people’ and national treasures talk about our Prime Minster and ropes and lampposts in the same breath? Our children are watching – surely we can give them better examples of how to disagree well?
There is already plenty of research about how public opinion has become more polarised, people have become more isolated and hate actors have infected our shared online spaces. There are also many incredible organisations already working in community cohesion or at a grassroots level to counter loneliness. Sadly, these are critical but insufficient responses to the fractures in our society. So the four of us – two working with young people and two working on depolarisation – came together to think what can be done about the coarsening of public discourse and how to inspire the next generation about the value of our democracy.
As activists we think there’s plenty of injustice to get angry about – none of us are hankering after a lost era of deference. But we do think there is still a role for political leadership in countering the following alarming trends:
The use of violent language and threats of violence not being taken seriously. Politicians and candidates receive appalling abuse from strangers and organised trolls, but we should also be worried when politicians themselves are talking about their colleagues being lynched, stabbed or bayoneted, threats to their safety are diminished by their leaders, and digital supporters threaten or abuse without censure.
The use of dehumanising language and imagery. Again this is something that is all too common on the street or online, but the striking thing is how normal it has become for elites to talk about each other as traitors or saboteurs, and how few long-term political penalties are paid for using language and tactics which have real world consequences for those already subject to demonisation and discrimination.
The promotion of conspiracy theories. In many respects the 2014 Scottish independence referendum was the test case for how far conspiracy theories have penetrated the mainstream. Since then, Brexit coverage and the response to evidence of antisemitism has normalised them further still.
Swift rehabilitation after failures to tell the truth. One ex minister rejoined the cabinet in an elevated role just two years after resigning for misleading the then PM, another was in contention for her party’s leadership just one year after misleading MPs about Universal Credit and a shadow minister remains on the front bench despite misleading journalists about previous statements.
Attacks on democratic institutions. From the civil service to the BBC to the judiciary, Britain’s independent institutions are increasingly under attack from senior politicians and media decision-makers.
There are, of course, plenty of brilliant ministers, MPs and councillors – politics remains full to bursting with people of phenomenal integrity and commitment. Likewise there are so many journalists and editors committed to maintaining our great national tradition of robust but civil debate through initiatives like Britain Talks. So ordinary people coming together to fight these seven trends aren’t setting ourselves against politicians or journalists – we are helping create a climate in which the best of them can do their best by us all.
So what can you do? In the short term here are three things:
Show there’s a reward for good practice. Write a letter to the editor, call in to a radio show, tell a candidate that your vote will be determined partly by who shows the most commitment to democratising and depolarising politics. Show your support online for journalists, judges, civil servants and activists who are making your country or community better.
Extract a penalty for bad practice. Get involved with efforts to fight Islamophobia, antisemitism and other forms of hatred in our political parties. Support those, like Stop Funding Fake News who are fighting conspiracy thinking and join campaigns like this one from the Fawcett Society to put a stop to abuse in public life.
And finally, even if you don’t care about politics at all, or feel that the seven trends are bad but not really your business, do take a moment to think about your kids (or those of someone you love) and decide whether you want them growing up thinking this is how powerful and important people treat each other. It’s hard to teach young people about respect if the example being set from the top is of anything but. The next generation are watching – it’s up to this one what they’ll learn from what they see.
Heather Hamilton is the Founder of Shared Humanity: Countering Us vs Them
Roger Harding is CEO of Reclaim
Kirsty McNeill is an Executive Director at Save the Children
Will Somerville is UK Director at Unbound Philanthropy
Two weeks ago, I went to my first Extinction Rebellion meeting in Leeds, curious to find out more about it ahead of its national actions in five UK cities last week. It turned out to be the beginning of an in-at-the-deep-end experience: just a week later, I’d become one of two media coordinators for the Leeds action and found myself filming the moment activists took Victoria Bridge and later acting a spokesman for the action on Channel 4 News. Another week on, I feel a slightly surreal sense of “what just happened?”. So here are 10 reflections as it settles in my mind…
Making climate breakdown real. I’m surprised by how much involvement in XR has changed how I think about climate change. I’ve worked on climate policy for over 20 years, so I figured I already knew the science and projected impacts. But being involved with XR, being out on the streets, talking about the urgency with real people rather than other policy wonks turns out to make the whole issue a lot more real, visceral, and urgent. I’m feeling climate breakdown in my gut in a way I wasn’t before.
Welcoming new activists. Something XR gets right: the warmth of the welcome to newbies. It’s so easy for political infrastructures to founder on this ground, with the veterans making the rookies feel patronised and creating a wholly unnecessary divide. When I worked at Avaaz we helped organise tactical voting at the last election and heard this story again and again from young volunteers going out canvassing for the first time. I never felt a hint of that during my first weeks with XR.
Resisting the urge to other. Something else XR nails: I never saw any hint of othering, i.e. feeling or showing contempt for sceptics, critics, or opponents. This is a big deal. All progressive activists face the dilemma of whether just to fire up their base, or to build bridges across political divides. I think the latter is crucial on climate: as George Marshall notes, climate’s just too big an issue to be solved without broad consensus across society. We’re going to win this through a process of reaching out and healing, not through crushing our opponents underfoot. XR gets that deep in its DNA, and that’s rare and precious.
How XR comes across. On the flipside, I wondered a few times if there are easy things XR could do to make it harder for its opponents to dismiss. Its members can look a lot like the stereotypical eco-activists of popular imagination and media caricature. On one hand, it’s clearly up to individuals how they choose to look and dress. But from a movement effectiveness point of view, I wonder if it would help XR to confound people’s expectations and assumptions – much as US civil rights activists in the 50s and 60s took their look very seriously. There’s also a definite lack of diversity.
The power of small groups. As someone who’s both run online campaigns at Avaaz and seen their limitations, I think that much of movements’ success depends on having small, tight-knit groups as their building bricks. Look at Obama 08, 350.org, the 2016 Bernie campaign, or (further back) at the role of religious congregations in 50s/60s civil rights or the abolition of slavery. XR gets this in theory with its idea of local ‘affinity groups’ – but I haven’t yet been allocated into one, and nor did I see much evidence of them at the action. I’m curious to see whether they figure more prominently in my future XR journey. I suspect future movement growth will strongly depend on getting this piece right.
Getting field/HQ relations right. While XR prides itself on being decentralised, it’s also clear that “XR Central” is a crucial hub for operational coherence, as a knowledge base, and in coordinating comms. As a total newbie, I clearly have an incomplete view – but my impression was that some significant strains were showing, in both systems and relationships. That’s to be expected during a major operational surge, of course, and of a piece with every other organisation I’ve ever seen that has to manage field/HQ relations. But it’s also another element that XR will need to invest in understanding and getting right as a foundation for future movement growth.
Managing burn-out risk. Relatedly, I think XR faces some very big questions about the risk of burn-out among activists (and especially its organisers and coordinators). Of course some stress is to be expected when a major national action in 5 cities is being put together. But given that this will be a marathon and not a sprint, I worry about the long term sustainability of XR’s model of activist engagement. I felt frazzled after just a couple of weeks of working as one of two Leeds media coordinators – and lots of others were working way harder than me. To be fair, XR clearly gets the need for a long term regenerative culture. But it feels like there’s quite a big gulf between theory and practice.
Legal advice and arrestee support. This wasn’t an area I saw close up in Leeds, given that we had no arrests, but I came away thinking that it’s an area of vulnerability for XR. The legal advice given at the nonviolent direct action training I took part in was very incomplete, and factually wrong on some key points. I also didn’t get a strong sense that XR has all that much support in place for people who do get arrested and charged. XR is asking a lot of its arrestable activists – justifiably. But by extension, it must provide good information to activists considering arrest, and ensure massive support for arrestees and people who get charged (especially given the prospect of harder police crackdowns). It will matter like hell for the morale of the movement.
XR’s theory of change. A big one, this. XR’s ToC to date has been to (a) block roads and disrupt traffic, and (b) get as many people arrested as possible. The evidence from April is that this was effective, both in moving the government and Parliament (see below), and in shifting public opinion.
But will this continue, or does XR need to consider alternatives? Blocking roads has clearly had some shock value and forced people to think about climate change. But I suspect XR will see diminishing returns and declining public sympathy if it just keeps doing this – especially if the requirement for all movements to keep building momentum means that the disruption to people’s lives grows and grows. So what could XR do instead? I wonder about:
Targeting Parliament, Downing Street or the Treasury, e.g. with a human chain. Jubilee 2000 did something similar at the 1998 G8, with 50,000 people, but only for 20 minutes. What if XR used the same tactic, but for (much) longer? It would have clear moral power; targeting politicians rather than the public would be more consistent with XR’s focus on system change; above all it would convey XR’s message of urgency.
Rapid reaction actions in response to extreme weather events. The news media is often pretty pusillanimous in attributing heatwaves, droughts, floods, wildfires etc. to climate breakdown (and there’s also some evidence that extreme weather events are weaker than we’d expect in shifting public opinion on climate change). So what if XR shone a bright spotlight on the root causes each time such events happen – and perhaps built public sympathy by assisting with emergency response while doing so (think XR activists helping people to save possessions from flooded homes, or filling sandbags…)?
A huge deep canvassing push.Deep canvassing is about reaching out past ‘our’ base, engaging opponents respectfully in real conversations on doorsteps, listening deeply and actively, and searching for empathy and shared emotion as a basis for eventual consensus rather than calling out or hectoring. It’s been hugely effective in the US on building support for equal marriage and trans rights. I think we need something like that on climate change too.
XR’s demands. Lastly, there’s the question of XR’s demands. I came in to XR with a bit of unease about its stated aims – that government should tell the truth about climate and declare a climate emergency; that it should commit to net zero emissions by 2025; and that it should create a citizens’ assembly to decide on a way forward on climate, which should have direct legislative power – feeling that they’re (a) unrealistic and (b) too vague.
Having now done a media spokesperson role for XR, I’m less worried about the realism. Movements are supposed to be transformational, not incremental. Demanding the (apparently) impossible is their job. And look how much progress has been made: Parliament has declared a climate emergency (though without much new policy to make that real); Theresa May announced net zero emissions by 2050 (though UK emissions aren’t yet really declining, and the date needs to be much sooner); and six Parliamentary committees have announced a citizens’ assembly on climate change (though XR is right to be worried that this risks just leading to another report unless the government signals its willingness to implement the conclusions). Despite the shortcomings in each case, this is incredible progress in just a few months.
But I am still worried about the vagueness. As XR gathers pace, it has a lot to do to fill those demands out: what they’d mean for people’s everyday lives, what they’d cost, and how the massive challenges of transforming the economy would be managed – economically, socially, logistically, culturally.
Overall, though, I feel energised and hopeful by what I’ve seen. XR feels very different – in its focus on solutions rather than just protest; in its refusal to play them-and-us politics when they’re on the ascendant all around; in how it aims to combine community level organising with international mobilisation. Climate change has for a long time felt like everyone’s watching everyone else, waiting for someone to do something. XR doesn’t feel like that. And so far, it looks like it’s having a powerful effect.
You can taste the pollution at Kankoyo. Not just smell it, you can taste the air.
Welcome to Kankoyo, Zambia, welcome to the Mopani Mufulira mine that has made many millions for a rich few and made whole communities sick from the filthy air and water, made farms unfarmable and a whole town unliveable. Watch out for the sinkholes. Watch out for the security – private, public – who are not there to protect the innocent but the guilty.
Have a look at the tin roofs of the houses – notice how the metal is eroded by the poisons from the mine. Now imagine, the community point out to us, if it does this to metal, what it does to their bodies. They don’t have to imagine. They have seen their friends die. The lucky ones quickly. The unfortunate ones slowly.
We are here at the invitation of the community with an international solidarity group of activists from over a dozen countries as part of the international Fight Inequality Alliance of unions, social movements and NGOs. The local people have cried themselves hoarse with their demands to be moved from this place. “Our children are being poisoned, our community is being destroyed. We have asked the same thing over and over again. But the government and the mining company seem not to hear us. Please tell our story. Perhaps they will listen to you.”
Campaigning works. I have seen time and again how people uniting for change secure justice. But sometimes the odds seem impossibly high. This is David against Goliath, if Goliath owned the referee and David had no sling. How does a mother from a poor community take on a huge international corporation which seems immune not only from accountability but from shame? I’m trying to think through a path to victory, of how to influence the influencers to tip the scales back to humanity, and I can’t. How do they keep going?
“We ask to be moved so our children live. We ourselves are already dead, we just keep going by grace.”
Perhaps they cannot win. Perhaps even when people will lose it is better at least to die in dignity, to die defiant, to remind oneselves that the cruelty is undeserved. But I am still scanning in my head to try to work out a path to victory. I can’t.
Then my colleague and friend from El Salvador, youth activist Alejo Labrador, stands up to speak. He is in tears. “We in El Salvador won a victory against the metal mining corporations to save ourselves from this suffering. But it took 12 years. And in that 12 years we never knew if we would win. So I want to give you this” – and he takes off his bandana from around his neck – “because your struggle is our struggle, and people who fight are people who win.”
So, what is the path to victory? We do not know. Perhaps there is not one. But Prisca Mutale – one of the leaders who has emerged from the Kankoyo community – begins for the first time at the meeting to smile. Her suffering is unchanged, but she is not alone. I took these pictures of Prisca not at the mine dump she is forced to live beside but at an oasis that looks like the place she is working to bring about and which she deserves.
We reach out to Glencore, who own most of the mining corporation, and to the government and local MP. Glencore does not reply. The government does not reply. Silence. Then we get this message from the local MP: “Just tidying up some loose ends. Mass relocation for the identified areas to follow. Mopani fully on board.”
Resistance doesn’t always work. But acceptance always doesn’t work. Every struggle that has won has been filled with periods of despair, and times when even those who took the first steps could not see the path ahead. It would be naive to put our hope in an MP’s promise (it was not a great surprise that when we followed him up on the promise he made to us of relocation, he repeatedly refused to say when it will happen). But is it naive to put our hope in what ordinary extraordinary heroes like Prisca can do with determined friends from around the word like Alejo? “The moral arc of the universe is long,” pointed out Martin Luther King, “but it bends towards justice.” He did not mean that cosmic intervention would fix it. He meant that folks Prisca and Alejo were already at work, and that in time enough of us would join them.
I got curious about what’s happened to global interest in
the SDGs since they were agreed in 2015, so I ran a Google Trends analysis on
Top line: turns out there’s been a steady increase in global
interest since 2015, which is pretty much the opposite of what I expected to
see (spike in 2015 and precipitous decline since then).
But then when you drill down into where this interest is coming from you find a *huge* regional skew. All of the top 10 most engaged countries are in Sub-Saharan Africa – whereas countries like China, US, Germany, France, UK, Brazil all score less than 5 out of 100 on the engagement scale.
TLDR: these may well be the Goals the world needs in the early 21st century. But even as publics all over the world vote for radical change, not many of them are looking to the SDGs for it.
As activists we sometimes talk as if we know the answers. As researchers we get to admit that we don’t (until publication, of course :-)). As both an activist, and a researcher, I’m asking for your advice.
I’m really delighted to be starting a new role this month as Hewlett Fellow for Public Policy at the Kellogg Institute at Notre Dame. It’s wonderful to join a place with such brilliant colleagues, and one rooted in values of service to society. And it’s a great privilege to be given the opportunity to step away from day-to-day organising to spend time in deep thinking, exploring, and testing ideas with others. There’s sometimes a nagging concern in the minds of some activists about whether time in the academy is something of indulgence. (I love the 1930s story of two friends: “I’ve been away fighting the fascists in Spain,” declares one, proudly, and the other replies, “No, my friend, you’ve been away writing about fighting.”) And there’s sometimes a nagging concern in the minds of some academics that activists lack the objectivity needed for proper investigation. (I confess that I absolutely have a side – what the church has unashamedly termed “a bias to the poor” – and that I am interested in research into the fight against inequality in order to help advance that fight.) But I do think that both of those nagging doubts that activists and academics have about each other are ones to work through, not to send us our own ways. The academy is enriched in practicality by exchange with those working for change, and those working for change are “armed” (non-violently!) through learning from exchange with the academy. And the more I have got involved in working on inequality, the more I have appreciated that it is both possible but also very hard to win the fight against it – because it is a fight where so much power (in wealth, in social dominance, and in hegemony of ideas) is weighted against it. So it’ll need a huge movement, and it will also need for that movement to be as well prepared as possible for the struggle, which is something I hope my research will help with.
I’ve had a joyous and wonderful time helping to launch the Fight Inequality Alliance which has grown from just an idea into a vibrant coalition of over 300 NGOs, unions and social movements building power from below to press for change, and I am really excited about where it is heading. (Look out for news of some of the mobilisations happening later this month – I’ll be reporting from the one in Mexico, others from events in the Philippines, India, Kenya, South Africa, Zambia, the UK and many others.) I’m also really excited about the brilliant and diverse broad leadership of the alliance today – especially from women and youth from Global South communities who have been at the sharpest end of inequality, whether neglected rural areas or marginalised urban slums. This is where the leadership of a international social justice movement must come from for it to live its values, and for it to succeed. (An issue I covered in more detail in this Guardian piece from 2013.) I’m really excited to support this new leadership and to start a new role of service through research at Notre Dame into how best to organise to fight inequality.
So now here is my request for advice. There has been a lot of excellent work on how inequality has gotten so extreme, why it is harmful, and what kind of policies could help tackle inequality, and to that work my research will be deeply indebted; I’ll try to summarise some of it in the book, but I won’t be adding much to that. Instead my focus will be on how help build the social and political context for such policies to make the journey from paper proposals to enactment to implementation to sustainability. In other words, complementing the what with the how. Learning from social movements of today and of history seems key to that. My aim is to produce a book to help those working to fight inequality. Advise me please: What are the key learnings to build on? What book on social movements fighting inequalities has most inspired you? Which activist or researcher would you particularly recommend I link with? What are the current and past examples I should explore? What have been the key learnings from your own work? How can I make sure this is a book that is fun to read and helps people bring change? You can tweet or DM me @benphillips76 or email me firstname.lastname@example.org – or even send an old-fashioned letter to me at Ben Phillips, Kellogg Institute, Notre Dame, Indiana, USA.
Thank you for your help, your solidarity, and for all that you do to fight inequality.