Tribes and Protests Link

New York Magazine has a serious look at what makes protests successful, and what differentiates them from indulgent outbursts of emotion. One of the interesting questions is whether they incorporate new activists like a community:

The other big reason organizers should refrain from focusing too much on Trump — or partisanship more generally — has to do with social networks. Here the work of Ziad Munson, a sociologist at Lehigh University, is important. Ziad studies why people join and become increasingly active in social movements — he’s spent countless hours interviewing and researching the motives anti-abortion activists, tea partiers, and members of terrorist groups. One of the key things he’s found, over and over and over, is that people often get involved in movements without having particularly strong ideological commitments to them.

Take the anti-abortion activists who were the subject of Munson’s book The Making of Pro-life Activists: How Social Mobilization Works. “I went back and I tried to determine what were their beliefs about abortion the first time they were involved in some kind of pro-life activity,” whether a protest in front of a clinic, the March for Life, or whatever else,” he explained. “At that moment, only half of them would have considered themselves pro-life.” Moreover, a quarter “would have openly said they were pro-choice.” So why do they get involved? Someone asks them to. In one instance, for example, a woman’s eventually intense, long-term involvement in anti-abortion causes began simply because her doctor, whom she respected a great deal, asked her to come to an event. Prior to that, it just wasn’t something she had thought of.

Now, imagine if this woman, or the other half of the activists Munson had interviewed who didn’t identify as anti-abortion, had been told at the outset that they were only welcome if they had certain preexisting beliefs about abortion. It very likely would have prevented them from becoming effective members of the movement. That’s a lesson Munson thinks today’s organizers should keep in mind: The more your movement broadcasts ideological demands, the more you drain the pool of potential members. There also appears to be a tendency, among lefty protesters, to bundle together all sorts of disparate causes — Black Lives Matter is paired with climate justice is paired with freeing Palestine, and so on. From the point of view of a potential newcomer, it can be daunting. “There’s this strong tendency in these protest groups to want to be ideologically pure,” said Heaney. “They’re much more concerned that they say their own piece and that they believe that they are right — that’s more important to them than actually achieving policy changes.”

Munson took that critique even further. “This has historically been one of the differences between the left and the right,” he said, “and it’s one of the things the left can learn from the right. What my research has found is that the right has far fewer ideological purity tests for activism than the left does. So they’re taking all comers and they’re converting people in action. Just come, and just do it. By contrast, there’s a whole language you need to know from some of the left groups — your ability to be involved often depends on already having a healthy résumé of doing other lefty things. I think that that basically makes it a kind of echo chamber, and it doesn’t allow you to bring in new blood.” The right, he said, has historically been more inclusive. “The anti-abortion folks are the ones that I know the best, but the right, they set up internships and they have summer programs and they organize these campaigns, and anyone who shows up they just take. And you’ll either be turned off and leave or you’ll become one of them.”

The fact that it’s usually social ties and networks, not hard-nosed ideology, which creates and cements newcomers’ activism offers hints not just about how protests should be framed to maximize the size of the crowd that will show up, but also what the next steps should be. After all, if most of the protesters who converge on Washington in January subsequently return home and never participate in fighting Trump’s agenda, they won’t have accomplished much. What’s key, said Munson, is to create the potential for newcomers to get enmeshed in activist-y social networks, but to not make the initial ask of them too intimidating. “I think it really does require that you figure out how to keep people involved in lots of everyday ways,” he said. “And in ways that involve more than simply sending in a check every six months or every year, or forwarding things on a Facebook feed — to get people actually practically involved, but not involved in huge ways, ways that are costly in terms of time and effort and things like that.”

Of course it ends with a warning about this approach.

As activists, or members of any social movement, get more and more involved, there appears to be a feedback loop: If almost all of your friends are involved in reproductive justice, you’re going to spend a lot of time talking about and “doing” reproductive justice. (There are weird and interesting parallels between activists and members of fringe religious cults.)

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