Social Movements: Activism and Power

Society is a structure of codified power, reflected in the shadows of architecture, institution, and opportunity. It’s an unequal narrative traded in stories, and experienced through language, action, and inaction.

The ways that things ‘just are’ are the ways that we allow things to be: to change our society to be more fair, more equal, more legitimate, and more open is a matter of our individual action, either within a framework of rules, and according to the Dominant Narrative of the time, or in opposition to those rules, seeking to fracture that narrative.

The mechanisms of that change are clouded in subjectivity: there is no guidebook for social change, beyond the one that we write through authentic action, although there are many books written in judgement or commentary when we fail. And of course the biggest failure is to fail to act at all.

I find it most useful to understand a Dominant Narrative of society at three levels: firstly the frame within which it is held (what seems ‘normal’ to any given group), secondly the codified structures of power (culture) and consequence (law) that are written within that frame, and thirdly our Individual Agency within both of those containers (how we act within the limits of our ‘normal’, and within the structures of formal and social consequence that dominate around us).

Frames are derivative of experience (e.g. we understand it through experience, rather than use it to shape experience), so we cannot easily drive change through conscious reframing. Structures of power can be changed, but typically the authorship of those structures lie with those with the most to lose (in terms of their established power) and hence don’t tend to, although there are clear exceptions to this.

Individual Agency is the most visible aspect of change, in that people, at scale, can choose to act differently, irrespective of structures around them and consequence, although we are limited in this by both our ability to conceptualise that change (e.g. imagine a society without ‘paid work’ if one is campaigning for universal basic income), our experience (i cannot visualise what life would be like without education), or risk (to ourselves, our dependents, our security etc).

I’ve found it most useful, when considering the last of these, to understand two principles: that of ‘Aggregation’ around an idea, and ‘Amplification’ through a social community. When change does happen, typically three things occur: firstly, broad opinion coalesces around a pathway, secondly, broad waves of people align to that pathway, and thirdly, the message is amplified so fast that it negates or denies the legacy Dominant Narrative. Most often, we trip at the first or the second hurdle.

Take any of the most talked about social justice movements of our time: #BlackLivesMatter or the #MeToo movement. Both have emerged, and both have, to a degree, been amplified, but arguably both are caged in opposition to established Dominant Narratives that have yet to fracture. Possibly there is neither a clear enough point of Aggregation, nor a clear enough wave of Amplification to fracture the old.

So, for example, #MeToo has generated waves of empathy, vast waves of support, but arguably a relatively small shift in either law, or Dominant Narrative, at least yet: look no further than gender parity for pay, much discussed, but not yet solved, and much excused.

I claim no expertise to discuss the #BlackLivesMatter movement, beyond that of citizenship and sorrow, but it’s clear that it is the loss of a human life that sparks each successive wave of social action, but that arguably that wave of social action breaks against an established narrative that itself adapts and builds defences. Just in the UK we see politicians using the word ‘thuggery’ to describe protest, and we see the debate collapsed down to images of burning cars, wounded police/protesters, and sorrowful children, all of which are established media tropes that keep the story moving, without actually significantly moving the story.

It’s hard to see where it goes: change does not happen without action, but action takes time to drive change, and typically there is a cost. So the question of ‘do you want things to change’ largely becomes a question of ‘are you willing to pay the price’, and sadly that price is already being paid by some.

I could try to search for an optimistic angle, but it’s a hard path to tread. History teaches us the inequality perpetuates, or even increases, much as we have seen a broadening of wealth inequality in recent years.

And most social structures are unequally founded: except for those of a certain religious perspective, society was not created bland and subsequently flavoured and fallen rotten. Rather our societies are the legacy of inequality themselves. They have literally never been fair and equal, at least not beyond those who hold the pen that writes the Dominant Narrative: if we wish to create a fair and equal society we will be authoring something entirely new, and again history indicates that we must not exclude anyone (not even those we oppose) as we do so.

As i have struggled with the underlying ideas of how our societies and Organisation are founded, the notion of ‘legitimacy’ is one that i find myself coming back to again and again. To persist, power must be legitimate. Hence if policing is unequally applied, it lacks legitimacy.

Power may be exerted without legitimacy, but it simply becomes sanctioned violence. It would be nice to think that power without legitimacy can never persist, but that may be an optimistic perspective. But what may be clearer is that whatever path of protest we chose, we should be seeking legitimate change e.g. change through power which is legitimate (which would indicate broad consensus) and fair (which indicates engaged and inclusive).

An idealist may wish that change could come without conflict, but the realist would recognise that conflict can be the genesis for change. With a note of caution: conflict in itself rarely delivers legitimate peace, perhaps can never do so. Peace, like society, is a negotiated, consensual, and ultimately should be an inclusive concept. So we walk a tightrope: without Aggregation and Amplification, we are stuck in conflict and inequality. Without social activism and emergent messaging, we are stuck within established norms.

I am encouraged to see waves of support and peaceful protest, but discouraged by the reality that momentum never seems assured, and is punctuated by violence and sacrifice.

I cannot finish with any wisdom, but nonetheless, my final thought is this: few of us can impact a global narrative, or influence the dominant structures of society. But all of us can carry forward a story within our everyday conversations, and reach out to one other person. And if we are brave enough, reach out to one other person we do not know or do not agree with. Consensus is unlikely to be the force that delivers change, which means we may have little option than to openly engage in our differences.

When we consider Social Leadership, the leadership we are all responsible for within our Communities and society, consider this: we have a duty to fight for fairness, to ensure that every voice is heard, and to recognise that, without due concern and action, systems tend to be unequal. And whilst we may not be able to change everything, we can change one thing: ourselves.

About julianstodd

Author and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the Social Age. I’ve written ten books, and over 2,000 articles, and still learning...
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3 Responses to Social Movements: Activism and Power

  1. Pingback: Forging the Story | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

  2. Pingback: Space and Power | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

  3. Pingback: Courage to Change | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

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