What it’s like out there?
smartMeme Studio's J Cookson answer’s some questions around dealing with shared values through activist cultural production.
smartmeme is a group of information activists providing rhetorical and tactical analysis and media strategizing for grassroots and popular political campaigns, so that they can win.
Marc Herbst: Politically, has smartMeme ever used rhetoric that was out of control? Was it effective?
J Cookson: We have used language in many ways. It’s a tool, so you use it how ever it works best. Out of control, rhetorically, there are no hard fast rules other than those that frame whether you can speak to the audience in a language that resonates with them at their level and engage them effectively. In a 2003 pre-smartMeme campaign that James Bell was involved in they made an ad for United for Peace and Justice the pictured people holding signs that spelled “F_CK WAR” and the tag line was “We can’t stop the war without U”. It was targeted towards the environmental movement audience with the hope of encouraging them to join the anti-war movement. It ran full color on the back page of the Earth First! Journal. Was the language “out of control”? It’s relative I suppose. It resonated with the intended audience of front line environmental activists.
It was not a smartMeme project though. At that time we were still developing our curriculum. In hindsight, had we been there to undertake such a project we likely would have stressed that the primary audience was war veterans and their families as well as high school and college campus audience networks and not have focused the campaign money on frontline environmental activists.
Smartmeme doesn’t have a problem using provocative language, but what we don’t do is use language that perpetuates oppressive behavior or reinforces cultural assumptions that support such behavior.
Can I think of an appropriate situation where someone would need to amplify voices of hatred and fear mongering for instance to successfully get messages for peace across? It’s not out of the question, but I think it would prove less strategic in the long view. Regardless, it pays to take the time to allow for informed and creative crafting and amplification of your message whether it uses provocative language or not.
MH: Have you all ever worked to shame someone?
JC: Shaming has played a key role in many of the campaigns we have engaged in. It’s all in the business of brandbusting. Exposing the lies of the CEOs and corporate behavior is par for the course. It’s necessary to debunk corporate propaganda at a public level, that is where the powers of assumption manifest themselves most destructively. The space of ideas is always being flooded with corporate flotsam posturing as the latest life preserver.
Our latest shaming of a person in particular was Warren Buffett for his investment in Pacific Power that is owned in large part by his company Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett talks a lot about the necessity for ethical investing. He didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that Pacific Power’s dams along the Klamath are destroying First Nation and non-native communities. We tried to help shine some light on that by assisting the Klamath tribal alliance in their journey to the shareholders meeting last year with narrative messaging strategy and materials.
MH: How did you do it?
JC: This particular effort was based on an ancient strategy of trapping your opponent but still leaving them one way out: the direction you want them to go.
We played to Buffett’s supposed good name and asked “What Would Warren Do?” We presented it as if maybe he just didn’t realize that he had made a poor investment decision, knowing full well that he did, but was trying to cover it up. In the end he was called out in front of 27,000 shareholders by a young First Nations mother and her children and asked what he would do to help them save their children’s future. His flimsy response was that there was “simply nothing that he could do”. To their credit, the Economist magazine ran an article that questioned that impotent response and asked if perhaps he wasn’t taking a “weaselly” way out?
MH: Was the shame broad or tactically applied?
JC: It was both, broad in the sense of public exposure/brand and site specific in that it was at his most personally branded event in his hometown.
“So did it work?” is probably the next question on your mind.
Short answer: no.
Long answer, we’ll see.
Sometimes people can’t be moved due to their own hubris. That seems to be the case here. The campaign has moved on to other tactics and targets. But it has put Buffett on notice. He can’t show his face and be seen as a good guy in the face of Native American culture and I think it hurts him personally. His son Peter is an advocate of Native American rights and so there is at least some justice in such an action. Warren has to live with himself and seeing that reflected every time he sees his own son. Maybe he’ll come around. Who knows? But we won’t holding our breath over it. Right now he’s trying to mend his brand by selling another power lunch on eBay to benefit the Glide Foundation. I think the guy needs to invest in some serious soul searching.
MH: Tactical shaming and crazy rhetoric may be either acts of desperation (your backed up into a corner), or effective social pressure on a landscape of shared value (shaming only works when everyone involved can agree on what is shameful).
Acts of desperation are a last ditch effort before you’re screwed. One reason I am curious about this is because of the precarious nature of so many peoples’ lives… were livin’ on the edge. How does that reflect itself in our activist political culture?
JC: I’ll attempt to speak to a more generalized view of activist political cultures. It would be a mistake to assume to speak of an all encompassing “our”. Speaking from my limited lifetime experiences, I’ve known many people affected deeply by issues who are continually pushed to the limits of their capacity and passion. If you listen to where they are at you might start to see a pattern emerge. “Out of control” language has it’s place in the hierarchy of strategies and tactics, just as questions that concern the use of violence and non-violence.
Words often are used in a last ditch effort before actions become inevitable just as a cornered animal will bark the loudest before it bites. It is the lead up to such tough times that force a level of commitment in a community to become potentially tenuous. No one wants to be stuck in a corner. Fight or flight instincts override words and commitments. It’s been said that a wise warrior for a tribe is often the last to pick up the lance, but when they must, they do so with as much effect as possible. Yet, it is what they accomplish without the lance that is the hardest to maintain and sustain.
For many people it seems easier to flee than to fight. Easier to give in than to fight. For others easier to fight than to win. The most skilled activists win without fighting.
Without an awareness of other cultures and values there is a tendency to isolate and marginalize. So if your community effort requires a larger base of support, you must reach other people where they are at, and that can get rather complex. This is, dare I say, unsexy. Activists are continually faced with two potential support audiences: their core believers and the middle, less informed but potentially sympathetic swing audience. They need to be able to communicate with both. They generally gravitate towards their core and ignore less likeminded, but values sharing neighbors. It’s a tribal thing at some level. But the Zapatistas have bridged this gap exceptionally well. Large corporations and governments do it as a rule of thumb. We are living in it. Their uninvited sewer of consumption based information and ideological doublespeak. They wrote the book on mass communications and unfortunately such methods work all too well.
MH: This conversation acknowledges that explicitly political culture comes from isolated communities- not broader society. I have been reading Hardt and Negri’s Multitudes lately regarding ways to re-imagine the left. As such, how do the values that smartMeme publicly plays with measure the state of the political imaginary today.
Are you frustrated by how you find people responding to your progressive memes? What might this say about the prospects and directions for any larger political movement?
JC: The questions then being 1. “Am I frustrated by how I find people responding to our progressive memes?” and 2. “What does this say about the prospects and directions for any larger political movement?” I’ll try to answer this in one path of thought here, leaving aside the stories of the highly successful responses we’ve had using our “progressive memes” with grassroots audiences outside the core fray of privileged white activist cultures.
Many grassroots groups we have worked with have kicked ass using our narrative strategy tools. Within some activist communities we’ve worked with though, “frustration” is a good word to describe our efforts. There have been subcultures that we wish would/could use the tools we’ve been developing but won’t for whatever reasons I’m not entirely sure/can’t say. Frustrated? Sadness, and disappointment also seem to fit too. Self-reflection is always a part of it too.
“Are we just not communicating effectively enough to those fellow activists?”- that kind of question comes up a lot. You can bring a horse to water but you can’t make them drink; some things simply don’t stick. Maybe they just aren’t thirsty for what we’re offering.
What can you do? Some elements of activist culture in this country might be most accurately described as largely a defector culture. There are identities that are largely defined by what they are not instead of what they are for. The culture of marginalized identity is not so readily adaptable to opening itself back up to the culture it has so steadfastly rejected, or perhaps had never truly been a part of in the first place. This seems to be especially true of activists from privileged backgrounds and life experiences.
Again, the real challenge is to lead from a place of positive vision. The creation of what a community is for and not just against.
I won’t deny that it can be a grind to witness a consistent desire by many activist groups to define themselves by their problems and not their solutions. It’s an identity thing. It’s deep. Most people don’t want to get into that dark murky space. But the confusion that inevitably arises when no one wants to join an anti-this-and-that negative no-vision-but-the-gaping-black-hole-in-the-ground group is so sad it’s not even funny anymore. If no one is coming to your meetings but the same small group of people who look like you and act like you; instead of getting more defensive and rationalizing why everyone else must just be total idiots, it may actually be time to look inward. We can’t build a movement without a bridge to the rest of humanity. You might be surprised who is willing to cross if you give them a clue or speak to them in a language that they feel comfortable with. Reach them on their level.