Out of the rut – can psychological insights be used in activist practices?

The recent expansion of radical mental health projects focused on burnout, self-care, mental health, communication, sustainability, and the like are exciting developments in the radical community. This kind of work is vital and these are important areas to focus our attention; I believe they are all a big part of making real change in our lives and in our communities. However, I don’t think these projects are enough. We are missing part of the equation here. We have law collectives, medical collectives, mutual aid collectives, mental health collectives, etc. but what about psychology collectives that could focus on understanding how to make our activism more effective?

The insights and tools of psychology have been used by the advertising industry and mainstream institutions that seek to control people, but most activist efforts don’t take the time to consider how a particular campaign plays psychologically. We fail to ask: how are our actions seen by others, how do we relate to the world outside of the activist community, what outcomes are we envisioning when we engage in particular actions, and what really makes people change?

I don’t mean to suggest we use psychological tools, methods and insights in a creepy way the way an advertiser might – I don’t want to manipulate people. In fact, it seems that activists are too often using manipulative tactics in their campaigns: shame, guilt, and “educational” campaigns without much depth, forethought, or follow-through are regularly employed. I’m tired of those old paradigms. When I was 14 I would go yell “shame” at the old ladies wearing fur coats to the opera. I highly doubt that those ladies stopped wearing their furs and it just made me feel sheepish and indignant, rather than empowered and engaged in making positive change. In more recent years I have dealt with how campaigns of guilt, social pressure, and coercion can turn in on us and eat away at our communities and make people turn away from activism and from activist campaigns. I no longer find these tactics effective or fulfilling.

What would it look like if we used psychology in a positive and genuine way in our activist work? Steve Chase has used the phrase “psychologically-smart activism” and asked questions such as “How can psychological insights and tools be shared to help people develop the capacity to join together in social movements and make the world a better place?” (2007 keynote speech at Psychology-Ecology-Sustainability Conference). I’d like to use this kind of inquiry to come up with new ways of “doing activism”. It might just break us out of the old molds and help us come up with new ways to engage in social change work, ways that have more lasting power, more depth, and more substance.

I don’t know what the “answers” are – what the “right” or most effective way to “do activism” is or precisely which areas of psychology may apply to social change work – but I’d like to bring the discussion to the table in the radical community.

Just as we are re-evaluating the ways we look at our own mental health, we could step back and really look at our activist tactics. We might ask: in what ways are we stuck in a rut? What are new and creative ways to engage people on a different level than we have before? What can be done on the ground to heal the rift between what we aspire to or think about and what we actually do? How can we have meaningful conversation with people about politics and social change who are outside of our usual political community and therefore out of our comfort zone? So often in past work I have felt like I was just yelling at “those people” or an unseen “THEM” – and where has that gotten us? I’m tired of seeing things that way. This kind of “us and them” thinking is part of the split that creates psychological barriers to actually making change.

I’m sure I am not the first person to ask these questions. In my studies of psychology and social change I have seen that there are psychologists and activist who are talking about the joining of psychology and change efforts. Joanna Macy has been doing her powerful Despair and Empowerment Work since the anti-nuclear movement (http://www.joannamacy.net/). Feminist psychologist and ecopsychologists have addressed the connection between society’s problems, psychology, and change efforts. Despite all the above, I don’t see these ideas really permeating activist circles, at least the often younger, often direct-action oriented, often anti-authoritarian groups that I am familiar with.

We are so often in a reactive mode – responding to one tragic occurrence only to find it followed by another and another. It is hard to get perspective when we are constantly witnessing all the horrible occurrences in the world that need attention and work. There is so much for us to do. Thich Nhat Hanh councils, “A student asked me, ‘There are so many urgent problems, what should I do?’ I said, ‘Take one thing and do it very deeply and carefully, and you will be doing everything at the same time.’” It seems we need to find work that we feel good about and that really engages us rather than always jumping from one thing to the next – that seems to be one of the roots of much of the burnout I have seen in the community. We could take a deep breath, step back and look at the bigger picture of our work. Take a moment to get some perspective and allow a vision of what we want to form. Then we can work for what we want, rather than against what we don’t want.

Please contact me to discuss things like this: counterbalance@riseup.net