In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari posits that the three great stories of the last age are all now powerless to move us in the direction the world needs to go. All remain in the zeitgeist but none move us all. In our era of climate chaos, we find ourselves faced with existential crisis but with no common stories to give meaning and unify us in action. My recent experience in the British Columbia referendum convinced me that there is real hope for the future in the ancient human story of true fellowship.
People will withstand and overcome amazing odds if they feel accompanied and loved in real human relationships — if they are part of a community which shares an understanding that the degree to which we work together meeting challenges is the degree to which we will ease pain. Reflections on the proportional representation campaign might allow us a glimpse into the lost art of creating fellowship — the lost art of love.
Harari presents the three stories of our time to this point as fascism, liberalism and communism. Modern fascism appeals to some people that have been made voiceless by liberalism’s elevation of individualism. But for the majority it remains distasteful. Liberalism appeals to those who have benefitted from its insistence on support for the human rights of the individual as an organizing principle (in theory, at least). For the significant minority who remain outside its blessed circle, it is seen as an excluding club with membership becoming less likely with every passing year. Communism, with its utopian view of the collective's ability to transform power relations, remains visionary in the minds of a few. Liberalism is unlikely to move China or those who continue to support Brexit, Trump, Marine Le Pen or First Past the Post in Canada. Communism is unlikely to move the West. Fascism is unlikely to move liberals.
Harari’s critics note there are other stories which are no less compelling for the absence of their coverage by the mainstream press. My purpose in citing Harari is not to agree with his taxonomy but to point out that climate change demands we unify. Thus far, the unification that occurred at COP23 (Paris) and COP24 (Poland) has used an organizing story built on fear. But science has caught up with us and we now have less than 12 years to avoid runaway climate change. Clearly, elites have not been afraid enough. Those whose human rights have already been trampled upon or whose destinies are rendered precarious by global warming have not yet resorted to measures significant enough to raise fear among the elite. If they do, it will be likely to cause further division.
It is ancient wisdom that humans are nothing more or less than our stories.
As 15-year-old Greta Thunberg told COP 24, “change is coming.” We, the people of the world, need a new story.
Last fall, I set aside my law practice and my family and worked much more than full time to attempt to persuade British Columbians that they should vote “Yes” to proportional representation in the government-sponsored referendum.
Canadians and British Columbians consistently poll 60-40 per cent in favour of such a change and have done so for decades. The “No” campaign used the same playbook (and some of the same people) which succeeded in persuading people in Britain to vote for Brexit, people in the U.S. to vote for Trump, and many politicians to avoid dealing with climate change. This playbook is well studied and well understood by progressives. Sow doubt. Use disinformation. Take the weaknesses in your argument and accuse the other side of them. Tell a story of fear and don’t worry too much about the facts getting in the way. Discourage voter turnout among all but your base and galvanize the base with fear. On pro rep, the official "No" side succeeded brilliantly and flipped the equation so that 60 per cent of voters cast their vote against change.
The official Yes side did what “Yes siders” too often do. Vote PR BC published this statement after the results were announced:
"We ran a campaign that focused on presenting a positive vision of fairness for all voters, and on showing how a new way of voting would work better for everyone. We’re proud of the positive information campaign we ran. We didn’t resort to fear tactics or distortions, as our opponents did. Instead, we focused on a respectful, positive debate based on facts."
“Just the facts” is the theory of change that liberals have been using to attempt to convince the world to take action on climate change. It produced the same result.
The trouble is that it ignores brain science. It is now widely understood that we make decisions based on emotions. We then tell ourselves stories that justify those decisions. In the face of fear, we will not choose hope. Hope is not stronger than fear. Our amygdalas still rule us.
What, then, is a new story that progressives might begin to tell that will be science-based and yet have the kind of integrity that avoids the Machiavellian tactics of the No side?
Yes, humans are our stories. But it is actually more true to say that we are our shared stories. One of our most elemental traits as humans is to attach to other humans. Babies must do this to survive and, unless we are sociopathic, we never grow out of it. The demands of evolution have made this drive to attach stronger even than fear. Our shared stories allow us to attach securely.
The No side knows that we are also our separate stories. Our separate stories keep us divided by fear. But the human drive to attach is stronger than our fear-based tendency to separate.
The new story would therefore stand the best chance of besting the forces of No by being based on attachment. Hope is not stronger than fear. Love is. If there is hope in the face of climate change, as David Roberts has argued, it is to be found in fellowship.
There are worthy examples of relationship-based organizing in our culture. Churches with strong congregations have carefully planned and executed teams of pastoral care volunteers who visit parishioners regularly. Metro Vancouver Alliance has been a force for good in Vancouver with its emphasis on relational organizing — getting to know one another as whole people and not merely transactional participants. Greater Victoria Acting Together is forming to do the same in Victoria. But how would we scale this up?
It would be a mistake to prescribe a one-size-fits-all answer. Each institution would want and need to approach this differently. But there might be some general rules of thumb for guidance.
- For most progressives, an ethic of care is our underlying motivation. It is time we made that transparent. But the organizing principle cannot be “Do unto others what you would have done unto you.” Instead, it must be “Do unto others what they wish done to them.” This requires actually getting to know the other.
- Big data is our friend but it is not our foundation. Facebook communities are not influential outside their bubbles. Emails are often ignored and are a very poor foundation for relationships.
- There is no substitute for being seen by another person. Eye contact and bodies in the same space matter.
- Once people feel genuinely cared about, they will accept influence. This is likely to work both ways. Organizations will have to get used to receiving as well as giving influence.
- People will not feel genuinely cared about if the basis of the offer of relationship is transactional (“I want you to campaign with me on my issue so I will now see you”).
Before the advent of the welfare state, people in unionized communities used to turn to their unions for much more than pay raises. Union leaders were as respected as priests and teachers. One of the ways they achieved this was through the “Good and Welfare” committees. Who had a baby, who retired, who needed help after an accident (workplace or elsewhere), how that surgery went, how the young daughter was doing now that she was on her own teaching in a remote community…. And the committee would recommend responses to these events — a visit, a basket of fruit, a monetary collection, a letter to the local MP from the union meeting. The report of this committee as to the social welfare of every member was on every union meeting agenda. These joint demonstrations of care were highly valued. People felt cared about and empowered to care.
In the 80’s I worked in the labour movement for 10 years. I trained stewards in grievance negotiation and collective bargaining. I organized workplaces. I ran strikes and lockouts. But I never once wished a union member happy birthday or asked after their disabled child. It never occurred to me. Liberalism had taught me well that this was a matter for individual privacy and not the appropriate domain of the union. But while we may need the financial support less now in this time of relatively strong economic safety nets, the social nature of the safety net has never been more important. What if we trained stewards to demonstrate their care? What if we set aside small amounts of money for sending flowers on the birth of a baby or arranged visits when a spouse died or an illness came into a family? And what if we put this on the agenda of local union meetings and took the shared opportunity to pass around a card? What if union stewards were also trained to listen to people in their workplaces to find out what issues in their lives were really top of their minds? And to think together about how to resolve them or at least move the issue forward?
Then when the union member received an email from the union encouraging them to have a discussion about priorities and values for choosing the party to endorse in the upcoming election, or how to vote in a referendum, people might actually show up.
Many of the building trades unions have preserved some of this “Good and Welfare” culture. Perhaps this is one reason they continue to have significant influence over their members when they worry out loud about Site C or pipeline construction.
I sit on several nonprofit boards. What if one of my main responsibilities was to get to know the other board members as people? What if sitting on a board meant that we all agreed to do this with our constituents? What if we learned to keep track of and demonstrate that we cared about significant events in each other’s lives? What if we took time as part of every meeting to get to know another person on the board and used that information to keep our relationship alive between board meetings?
Then when I wanted to try to convince people that they should not only vote "Yes" but hold a house party to convince their own circles to vote, they would be significantly more likely to prioritize the issue.
Professional retreats and organizations
I belong to several professional associations. What if similar models were applied here so that at every meeting to discuss a particular issue we also took time to get to know each other as people? I admit to feeling the most reluctance here and understand this is the power of the liberal story to separate.
There have been at least two generations of attempts to experiment with bringing relational organizing to online platforms. Marshall Ganz taught us the “snowflake” model. A paid staff person works with volunteers in a campaign on an issue which has as a secondary goal to identify likely new leaders. They are then trained to set up their own groups and manage those and in turn to identify other local leaders. While some call this relational, I see it as entirely transactional. The relationships arise out of the campaign and while it is hoped that some teams will survive to the next campaign there is rarely the resources to sustain them. They are more often expected to be temporary. The organization uses the volunteers to achieve its ends. The communication is campaign focused. It is based on a reality of everyday organizing that people volunteer only episodically and only when they can be convinced of urgent need in a particular issue. This model is also expensive to run.
In a second generational attempt at relational organizing, which Dogwood Initiative is currently attempting, the organization seeks out volunteers with broad networks and inspires them to approach their own contacts to draw them into a campaign. The relationship is stronger than any one campaign. People with influence are asked to access their existing circles of influence and an outward spiral is created. The organizing principle is that one’s existing relationships will be strengthened by the campaign even if the campaign itself is lost.
There are other models. One of Leadnow’s first targeted emails was to people living on Vancouver Island’s west coast asking if they were prepared for a predicted tsunami and offering to connect them with others in the network. Leadnow was not asking anything of the recipients of this email. It was expressing care. I cannot remember an email I have received in the last two years from any online platform that simply offered kindness. For me, this has remained a powerful example of how our ethic of care can be used to care for each other in a practical way. Can we imagine using our data to care for each other and to strengthen the otherwise weak ties that bind us into something stronger that would allow them to influence our work and our work to influence them?
Perhaps people would accept more influence if they felt cared about as people. Perhaps local constituencies could be trained to use this model to build community. I have certainly not received an email from any of the six party lists to which I subscribe indicating any desire to serve my needs without a (usually financial) quid pro quo.
Public/citizen broad campaigns
I hear some discussion now of the wisdom of organizing around a central principle of loving relationships. The most obvious is parents who organize around the ethic of caring for their children. In the past, single issues have been framed to motivate parents. This concept would be designed to have parents choose a broad swath of priorities designed to protect their children. They could strive to meet the challenge thrown down by Greta Thornberg — to become the adults in the room so children can be allowed to be children. Rather than asking those worried about climate change to get involved, we might ask parents concerned about the impacts of forest fire smoke on their children’s health how they wanted to work together. Rather than urging people to make every vote count, we might ask parents concerned about keeping affordable high quality day care to reach out to their networks.
Is this scalable?
Well in a word “Yes.” In the pro rep campaign, using the personal networks of a few key individuals, the Oak Bay Gordon Head and Saanich North local NDP constituency executives were able to personally engage 2,000 people. They asked people with influence and strong networks to host coffee parties or wine and cheese receptions to meet each other, listen to a speaker and to discuss proportional representation. At each such event people were asked to host one of their own. Within the space of a month 10 such events had been set up. Each attracted somewhere between 20-50 people. The rule of thumb was 100 invitations for every 25 who turned up. Those invited had their interest in the issue piqued merely because someone within their own networks was personally inviting them to think about it with him or her.
Those who attended were asked to name the pressing issues in their lives and given short easy to remember explanations of why pro rep mattered to them as people. Examples included:
- Universal affordable day care is at risk unless we can ensure that the legislature is run by every voter and not just the few who live in swing ridings.
- Developers and other well-funded elites are opposed to pro rep; they want the old campaign finance rules back. Banning big money is likely to end if governments feel safe behind false majorities.
- Pro rep countries have better track records on economic fairness, healthcare and action on climate. While there are exceptions to these trends they make sense given that pro rep is most likely to allow the majority to hold politicians to account.
Arguments were aired and dealt with effectively because people were much more trusting of responses from their neighbours and friends than they were from any organization.
Responses were enthusiastic. Participants wrote letters or went canvassing. Most engaged in personal interactions with friends and family. A few held events of their own, amplifying the number of people involved.
The goal in Oak Bay Gordon Head and Saanich North was to make pro rep a household conversation. Several times biking through the neighbourhood or in coffee shops I overheard people discussing it. Both these ridings had exceptionally high voter turnouts and Yes majorities.
We don’t know what the next story will be. We are all part of its creation. The defeats progressives have suffered are the result of the increasing irrelevance of Harari’s three old stories in uniting us to act collaboratively to support the values that define us. While we are finding the new story, can we love each other and learn how to scale up our greatest strength — relationships — so that we can withstand the forces of No?