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PORTSIDE  January 2011, Week 2

PORTSIDE January 2011, Week 2

Subject:

How to Rescue the Left from its Crisis of Imagination

From:

Portside Moderator <[log in to unmask]>

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Date:

Mon, 10 Jan 2011 21:49:01 -0500

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Storytelling as Organizing: How to Rescue the Left from
its Crisis of Imagination

By Adam Kader

Working in These Times In These Times

January 11, 2011

http://www.inthesetimes.com/working/entry/6824/storytelling_as_organizing_how_to_rescue_the_left_from_its_crisis_of_i/

In an editorial in In These Times'  November 2009
issue, reflecting on the right's success at re-framing
the healthcare reform debate in its favor, Kevin
O'Donnell wrote, "When it comes to messaging,
Republicans believe in science. Democrats don't." To
their detriment, "Democrats cling to the idea,
disproved by science and electoral experience, that if
you present the facts, people will reason their way to
the right conclusion." Republicans, on the other hand,
know to use "simple words, short sentences and a heavy
dose of repetition." [original editorial -- "It's the
Message, Stupid"
http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/5030/
its_the_message_stupid/ ]

Must one be this cynical in order to win a campaign or
a policy battle? Is the way to beat conservatives on
important issues to "race to the bottom," debasing
rhetoric, and treating the public as imbeciles?
Fortunately, for those looking for a more generous
understanding of public discourse, there's Re:Imagining
Change: How to Use Story- based Strategy to Win
Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World (PM
Press, 2010), by Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle
Canning.

Reinsborough and Canning provide another way of looking
at "the battle of the narrative." Like O'Donnell, any
experienced activist knows that framing the issue
matters to any campaign's success. But rather than
"dumbing down" progressive campaign messaging,
Reinsborough and Canning argue for a story-based
strategy that deconstructs dominant narratives and
constructs new ones that challenge assumptions and move
citizens to action.

The authors encourage readers to re-imagine both how
change can happen and what can be changed. They
introduce a series of concepts "to win campaigns, build
movements, and change the world" based on Marxist
philosopher Antonio Gramsci's notion of hegemony, which
posits that powerful interests exert control through
dominant culture so that the status- quo becomes
"common sense." If campaigns are to change the
status-quo, the authors argue, they must be
communicated in ways that fall outside the narrative
categories created by the status quo.

Just as a successful campaign can change the material
conditions of society, Reinsborough and Canning argue,
so can it change the way society thinks - it creates
change on the level of meaning. In the same way that a
direct action physically interrupts a target's
business-as-usual, a campaign has a deeper impact when
it also interrupts the dominant narrative about the
campaign issue.

Consider Re:Imagining Change's example of Greenpeace's
Save the Whales Campaign. When Greenpeace activists
took action by literally placing themselves between
whaling ships and the whales, it "showed it was the
activists, not the whalers, who were the courageous
people on small boats risking their lives - not to kill
whales, but to save them. In this new narrative, whales
were not big and evil; rather it was the giant whaling
ships that were the dangerous monsters. The whales were
the helpless victims and became sympathetic and worthy
of protection...The story changed and the roles of
hero, victim, and villain shifted."

Successful campaigns utilize a "meme," or a unit of
"self- replicating cultural information such as slogans
(Just Do It!), iconic images (Abu Ghraib torture),
catch phrases ("wardrobe malfunction") or symbols (the
peace sign). Just as engines of dominant culture create
memes, so can social change groups.

Re:Imagining Change's accessible language and hands-on
exercises make it ideal for busy community and
political organizers. My favorite feature of the book
is the "Reflections" box included in each chapter. An
example:

What are some assumptions in the dominant culture you
think need to be changed?  Make a list.  You can carry
this assumption list with you and keep a running tab of
times when they show up, or when you surface new ones.
Choose one assumption to work with for the moment...Are
there institutions where it lives?  Are there ways it
is felt in popular culture?  Now think about actions
you could take to challenge that assumption and change
the story. Are there physical points of intervention
that could expose this assumption?

The exercise pushed me to step back and consider a
campaign that my organization, Arise Chicago, and other
worker centers around the country are engaged in. The
fight against the exploitation of low-wage earners is
not new, but our "anti-wage theft campaign" is because
of its use of the "wage theft" meme. Before,
institutions like the Department of Labor and the
mainstream media referred to the phenomena of worker
exploitation as "non-payment of wages."

Several years ago, however, worker centers designed the
"wage theft" meme.  This meme overthrows the dominant
assumption that wages are the property of the boss, to
be shared with workers.  Rather, in this new narrative,
wages are the property of workers that have been stolen
by the boss.

The wage theft meme is deeply effective, because a
common defense narrative spun by an employer caught for
not paying his workers is that these are hard economic
times; that in a difficult business climate everyone
has to tighten their belts - that the boss is doing
everything he can to keep things running.

The public is sympathetic to this defense. The employer
is understood as benevolent; he is the job provider,
the one who can save our economy - the workers,
protesting, are ungrateful! They should be thankful to
be employed at all in this bad economy! The audience of
this dominant narrative will identify with the
employer, who is the one struggling to stay alive in
this economy.  The workers are troublemakers, trying to
take wages away from the employer, a property owner,
just like you and me!

But through the wage theft meme, workers, not
employers, become the victims of the bad economic
climate. The boss, not the workers, becomes the
unreasonable one.  The self- respecting public will
identify with the righteous worker who is trying to
stand up for their right to recover their private
property.  Using the wage theft meme, when my
organization fights an employer who is not paying
minimum wage, overtime wage, or wage at all, we also
are fighting some of the assumptions embedded in the
dominant narrative about labor. Accordingly, the media
has begun to use the meme when they report on our
campaigns and legislators have incorporated the phrase
"wage theft" in the names of bills.

All of this is to say that Re:Imagining Change has
inspired me to evaluate the choices we're making in
designing and communicating our organizing campaigns.
Other progressive organizers should strive to do the
same. The left is losing the battle over narrative,
which means we often lose the larger war over
legislation and fiscal policy. Think of common current
rhetoric surrounding climate change legislation ("it
kills jobs"), public sector jobs ("we have to cut back
to decrease the deficit"), gender parity ("it will
result in frivolous lawsuits"), etc.

Indeed, Sally Kohn of Movement Vision Lab writes: "Over
the past year, much of the left has jealously ogled the
Tea Party and its apparently up-out-of-nowhere
grassroots movement energy." Kohn locates the origin of
this energy in the proliferation of "an attractive
story of power and vision - a story in which everyday
activists can see themselves and engage."

That the left needs to develop strong, compelling,
narratives is clear. Re:Imagining Change is the
resource that can show us exactly how to do so.

[Adam Kader, the director of the Arise Chicago Worker
Center, blogs for Labor Notes.]

___________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

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