Facts can motivate people, but not always in the ways we want.
I attended a lecture by Dr Helen Caldicott, whose mission is to educate the public about the dangers of nuclear power. As Caldicott neared the end of her speech, a young woman cried out in terror, “We’re all going to die! We’re all going to die!”
Facts can anger people into action. They can also shock them into despair and paralysis.
In medicine, it is generally understood that giving people facts and frightening them with consequences rarely changes their behavior. Everyone knows that smoking damages your health. Everyone knows that fast food clogs your arteries. Everyone knows that lack of exercise shortens your life. Yet people continue to smoke, eat fast food, and fail to exercise.
The knowledge that they may be harming themselves does not empower most people; it proves their powerlessness.
Shock doesn’t work
The shock-them-into-change strategy does not work in medicine. Yet many activists embrace it as their strategy of choice. When telling people how bad things are proves ineffective, the shock factor is jacked up as if yelling louder will make the difference. When that fails, pessimism generally follows and the bulk of humanity is written off as stupid or uncaring.
In fact, most people know what is going on in the world. They may not know all the details but they know the basics – that the world is run for the rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else. Most Americans know that Washington invaded Iraq on false pretences and they want the war to end. Nevertheless, the president remains in office, and the war continues.
If the truth could set us free, we would be free by now. However, capitalism is structured to keep most people feeling powerless most of the time, regardless of what they know.
The capitalist class are so tiny in numbers that they would drown if we all spat at them at the same time. However, accomplishing this feat would require:
- agreement about who should be spit on
- agreement about who should not be spit on
- agreement that spitting is the preferred action
- sufficient numbers to organize and participate in the spitting
The people in power employ all possible measures to prevent this level of clarity and organization, so that most people are confused as to who are their enemies, who are their friends, what should be done, and who should do it. What is why knowing what is wrong with society is not the same as being able to change it.
How does change happen?
Researchers have investigated the factors that change human behavior in medicine, in prisons, and at work. Regardless of the setting, three elements are consistently identified, which are most effective when combined. I have applied them to the problem of social change.
1. Social support. People need organization to counter feelings of self-blame and powerlessness, to create strategies for change, and to act on them. In supportive organizations, we learn that we are not so different from others. By pulling together, we give each other strength and hope.
To discover how organization counteracts powerlessness, psychologists at the University of Sussex interviewed participants in “traditional marches, fox-hunt sabotages, anti-capitalist street parties, environmental direct actions, and industrial mass pickets.” The factors that contributed to a heightened sense of power included being part of something bigger than yourself and feeling a sense of unity and mutual support.
Solidarity in action is a powerful antidote to pessimism. Activists reported a deep sense of happiness while involved in collective protests. The researchers concluded,
“people should get more involved in campaigns, struggles and social movements, not only in the wider interest of social change, but also for their own personal good.”
2. Presenting problems as solvable. To change their behavior, people need to see themselves and the world in ways that make change seem possible. For example, explaining how the attack on immigrants is a divide-and-rule strategy to raise profits highlights the power of the capitalist class. Explaining that a divide-and-rule strategy is necessary because capitalists could never rule a united working class highlights the power of ordinary people. The facts are the same but the feeling is more hopeful, and feelings motivate actions.
Howard Zinn is widely loved because he believes in ordinary people and invites us to believe in ourselves and each other. The title of his latest book, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, says it all. Michael Moore’s film, SiCKO, made a huge impact, not only because it reveals the horrors of the American medical system, but because it shows them to be neither necessary nor inevitable.
3. Optimism. When the level of struggle is high, people seem to change overnight in a kind of explosive chain reaction. At all other times, the dominant ideas are those that maintain the status quo. Changing those ideas requires patient and repeated encouragement. It can be like boiling water.
You put the kettle on the stove and turn on the heat, yet nothing seems to happen. Do you remove the kettle in disgust at the failure of the water to boil? Of course not!
We know that heat increases the speed of water molecules, which we cannot directly observe. When enough heat has been applied and the molecules are moving fast enough, a change of state occurs and water transforms into steam.
Boiling water is a predictable, mechanical process. Changing people is more complicated because we cannot predict when a change of mind will occur. Nor can we know all the factors that will be required for that transformation. We must have patience. Just because nothing seems to be happening does not mean that people aren’t boiling under the surface.
To counter pessimism and passivity, we need activist organizations that raise people’s expectations of what they deserve and give them confidence that they can change the world.