Updated: Sep 29, 2019
In 1621, Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy was first published. A monumental miscellany with an encyclopedic range that sought to diagnose depression, Burton spent almost two decades revising it. The anatomy that is this blog post will not have the range or length of Burton's book. It will nonetheless provide a thorough analysis of a peculiar dynamic in and around social movements. The phenomenon that I will be anatomising is in some ways similar to the melancholy of Burton's book: weirdness, for want of a better word.
It is true that weirdness never featured in Burton's work. This is likely just because melancholy was an innately weird phenomenon to be, as Burton wrote, 'opened and cut up'.
In the late medieval period, weird referred commonly to personal destiny, rather than to supernatural or uncanny, as it later came to be understood. The humours of Burton's work, among them melancholy, guarantee our personal fate, like astrological symbols written in flesh. Weird stars and weird humours: before science could determine the factors that shape who we are, early modern cultures tried to do their best using pre-modern forms of analysis. It was perhaps after a particular reading of Shakespeare's Weird Sisters in Macbeth that the modern world in the nineteenth century came at the supernatural sense of weird.
Scientific curiosity won't let the supernatural weird stand today, and the concept of weird refers more to a simple subjective state. Or else, as is more common now, weird refers to the creative misfit. The genius with a destiny. The weirdos.
Anatomies often come full circle.
Somewhere, as I write this story, weirdos are meeting for the first time.
These two weirdos have spent an agonising period feeling alone. Merely because of who they are, or what they do, or how they express their preferences, they are weirdos. Often through no conscious choice, they are challenging the norms of society. They have suffered from being seen as different. Or they have suddenly identified as being someone who is different. When we meet someone else who seems to share with us our experience of life, it can be a singularly remarkable moment. "I'm a weirdo too!". A certain social affinity happens when weirdos get together that's nothing short of uncanny. It is friendship, which we all crave in different ways, when we passionately feel the weirdness we share together. When weirdos belong. The joy of meeting other weirdos is intense. To find someone other than you who challenges the status quo, and in a highly similar way, can be uplifting and transformative. This is the feel good factor of the company Apple. Remember that advertisement, when Apple promised to bring together the weird people around computers designed for the "the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes" (Jobs 1997). That seems like a nice dream. But what if there is another side - a darker one - in the gathering of weirdos?
Somewhere, as I write this story, weirdos are splitting apart and living in fear.
Social movements can be empowering, but there's another way in which they can work. Despite the belonging they can facilitate, social movements can create further weirdness. They can insist on a new, dark status quo, a pattern of secrecy, control, and fear very similar to the one the movement initially sought to overcome. In doing so, social change movements can be run aground. They can create new forms of exclusion, violence, and otherness. Such movements can create resistance to social change, rather than creating alternatives. Social movements that aim for positive change, to bring people together for a shared good, can become movements that are hijacked by negative change. They can destroy the hopes of weirdos. The paradox of social movements that bring together and tear apart is the subject of this blog post: the weirdness of social movements.
Gather the weirdos
In 1805, the poet William Wordsworth penned "The French Revolution as It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement", a poem about the radicals who were his friends and even love interests. These radicals were the young weirdos who gathered to celebrate the French Revolution:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!
Something tells me that the older heads had begun to disapprove in 1805. The Terror in the 1790s and the counter-revolution which followed may have restricted the movement of weirdness. For all that there is no denying that the nostalgic 'bliss' of Wordsworth's poem is the access to a tender moment of togetherness that has been previously denied. Bliss is the peculiar joy of breaking the isolation of weirdos.
Meetings between weirdos can be so transformative that they can produce this bliss. They can reduce conflict. They can allow for the expression of feelings that were once secret or difficult to release. They can promote survival and wellbeing. Such meetings can even help solve the complex problems around us. Weirdos can turn their embrace, their weirdness, into a cause. They can create social movements. Social movements are defined by a gathering of weirdos. There are a number of ways we can define a social movements, but one of the most fundamental is to categorise a social movement as a unique form of gathering:
A collectivity acting with some continuity to promote or resist a change in the society or organisation of which it is part. ~ Turner and Killian 1972.
A social movement may be considered in this way a unique form of gathering that has some kind of 'continuity' that may promote a new 'order of life' and that, as other sociologists have emphasised, is 'outside of institutional channels' (McAdam & Snow 1997) .
A chance meeting between two weirdos in private may not be enough to create a social movement. Rather, it may become the future basis for social movements. Social movements often begin when a bunch of weirdos get together to work together on an issue and gain consensus about what needs to change. Sometimes, weirdos make teams for change.
Weird teams are often motivated simply by helping others. As Phil Dooley, a pastor in Hillsong Church puts it:
The best teams are made up of a bunch of nobodies who love everybody and serve anybody and don't care about becoming a somebody.
Just as likely, of course, these weirdos team up to help each other or to overcome problems that they face. This is often a key motivation. They help their cause. They work to gain recognition, so that everyone can understand their weirdness, remove barriers or join their cause. They seek to win everyone from allies to true believers to the movement. They create a weird kind of energy. Hillsong level. One of the barriers they face is the one that marks them as weirdos. They encounter the norms. Norms, such as the norm of not being weird, may present justified reasons to moderate the weirdos. Norms may also present a bundle of biases that can justify anything and everything from repression to oppression if the theory or the ignorance fits. When weirdos form social movements, they often aim to reduce the discrimination and bias they suffer at the hands of conflict. Norms obscure their cause. They seek to transform the conflict that denies equality or the freedom to be and to do. Various social justice movements, black lives matter, feminism, LGBTIQ+, climate change movements, and many other social movements work in this way. Even free the nipple is a social movement. Veganism, a social movement I confess that I belong to, works in a similar way, except that it is often a conscious choice to be a weirdo to identify as vegan. Something of sacrifice has to be made to belong to other people who are seeking to remove the exploitation of nonhuman animals, although this may not be a simple sacrifice.
Other social movements may in fact work to resist change: they may be organised according to conservative principles. Various anti-LGBT movements may fit this brief, men's movements that target feminism, abortion movements, or a number of other conservative movements may be said to gather in this way. These movements are sill social movements, because according to sociologists, a social movement is a “a conscious, collective, organized attempt to bring about or resist large-scale change in the social order by non-institutionalized means” (Wilson 1973, 8). Nonetheless the ambivalence of the value of social movements is a source of weirdness. From the perspective of a weirdo who started an anti-abortion movement, the feminist movement may be a weirdness that is resisting a change back to the order of life as it should be.
In today's society, such weirdos even may think they're up against it. Who is the norm and who is the weirdo?
We'll return to this weirdness of social movements. For now, let's consider how weirdos spread.
In a sea of same, weird wins
Weird wins because it diffuses itself differently. That is the theory, at least according to CJ Casciotta, in Get Weird: Discover the Surprising Secret to Making a Difference (2018).
Casciotta argues that there is a power in embracing our weirdness. The weird helps us make a difference in the world.
The way in which weirdness can change the world follows four steps in social movements, according to Casciotta.
Weirdos take on a mission:
Step 1, of course, is very similar to step 2, and perhaps step 3 is announcing the social movement to the public. In Casciotta's description of social movements, weird is a value that helps movements do their work. It has a great descriptive value, but Casciotta's book is not particularly incisive about the psychology of weirdness or the sociological reality of social movements. Casciotta is not alone in lending a new value to weird. This ballsy move seems to be a common enough new approach to leadership and life now.
Ever since the 1990s and the era of creative capitalism that it marks, weird has been coming back into the consciousness of what it means to 'push the human race forward', in the heroic formula of Steve Jobs, who is also rather Mandevillean in proclaiming the rebels as heroic. Books such as Casciotta's or Charles Towers-Clark's The Weird CEO: How to lead in a world dominated by Artificial Intelligence (2018), both published in the same year, are clearly checking a pulse in our times. The difference between Casciotta's and Towers-Clark's books is that Casciotta is celebrating a value rather than diagnosing change and how best to respond to it.
AI simply doesn't concern Casciotta, whose "Manifesto of Weirdos" seems to come straight from the Apple playbook.
Let's consider Casciotta's account a heroic theory of the diffusion of weirdness.
There's a reason Casciotta refers to the sacred and to wonder throughout his book: he's clearly entranced by the power of weirdness to transform a culture in heroic ways, according to a quest pattern that would make the anthropologist of myth Joseph Campbell proud. Of course, there's a well known and tested theory of social change called the diffusion of innovations, first created by Rogers in 1962, and Casciotta is clearly referring to it in the four step curve of weirdness:
Any movement of innovation is determined according to this theory by some interesting dynamics between innovators who adopt or resist innovation.
Innovators must find early adopters, and work with them to convince a majority. In any society there will always be laggards and resistors of innovation. To translate this into the language of weirdos, we might say that the ideas of weirdos that come from gathering with other weirdos need to be championed.
The norms in the majority must overcome their resistance to embrace the new trend and keep in check those who dislike the change that the weirdos represent. Maree Conway refers to Roger's innovations curve in her discussion of forecasting to improve institutional planning:
Conway helpfully already uses the language of weirdos. When two weirdos meet, they can often be innovators: scientists, artists, radicals, and mystics. They can be tackling emerging issues on the fringe of society: 'weird and whacky'.
The degree of public awareness is so low, and the awareness is so local and peculiar, that this emergent state will eventually confront the shock of other people's worldviews. These worldviews are norms and ideologies that challenge change, and can see this change as a threat or a new opportunity to be adopted. If enough early adopters overcome their bias against the change, a trend is born. By this time, the weirdos have well and truly gathered, and a manifesto has been made.
"Hacking the culture" in Casciotta's terms seems to happen when the mainstream is won, and institutions are changed.
The diffusion of innovation creates weirdness.
Such weirdness is not always simply heroic, as Casciotta has it: to describe weird as a source of winning is only part of the story. Not all changes are small scale, and massive social changes happen and can overwhelm anyone and everyone. Change is a complex phenomena. Change creates weirdos when they least expect it, transforming norms into weirdos, and weirdos into norms.
Everything a society of people may take for granted can change: thoughts, institutions, political parties, values, beliefs, economics, spaces, technology, laws and policies and so on. "All that is solid melts into air", as that weirdo text The Communist Manifesto puts it. Not just because two weird communists may have told us so, most people would agree that our contemporary period has been defined by change:
Change—extremely rapid social change—is the most important fact of life today. ~ Nolan and Lenski, 2011.
Such is the importance of social change that it is experienced as a kind of tremendous, baffling fact. Social changes are like anything else that matters in life: partly objective and partly subjective. They are felt differently by different people, and the psychological effects of changes appear to manifest themselves in different ways.
All of us are engaged in 'a struggle to make ourselves at home in a constantly changing world' (Berman 1982).
One reason that social movements are weird, is that they are sources of change that expose us to change in new ways. They can create changes to the world that we are not all at home in, and this can create conflict. When we are already experience massive change, and we are asked to change in new ways, we can easily meet our psychological limits, or our ability to absorb new information can be frozen. The threat of change often creates a demand or an appetite for its opposite: order. Order craves a state in which change is not experienced in ways that are challenging, or that requires a fundamental shift in meaning. Order is not the same as feeling at home, but some people feel most at home in order, when their house is in order, and meaning is frozen. Order struggles to contain weird, however, because weird is not always completely opposed to the norm. Weird does not stay in its box. It is a round peg in a square, or a categorisation error, a static or a missing piece of information.
The force of change
In the political contest that manifest our struggles, ideologies are often armed with and aimed at social change, and no one can feel at home when ideologies dominate public discussion. The forces that react to weird are often weird themselves, sources of peculiar social movements aimed at resisting change, and rarely have their own homes in order because the struggle to feel at home defines us differently.
In the new ideological wars of our times, there's an array of weirdos, alt-right, conservative, left-wing and liberal critics who are now lining up to denounce the social movements of our times. One way this denunciation is now being performed is by turning on social movements and imagining that they are somehow all very similar and similarly powerful. One label used to do this and that seems to be gaining popularity in the right-wing side of public discourse is cultural marxism.
The fear of cultural marxism as an umbrella force has more than a little deja vu about it. Harbouring an extreme vagueness, this fear supports a broad strokes anti-intellectualism. It excludes and demonises broad swathes of humanities and liberal arts education. Such a reaction is disseminated popularly in the new salons and rabbit holes of digital media, on platforms such as YouTube. Ironically, many of the researchers, historians and evaluators of platforms like YouTube are also incidentally cultural marxists, in the mode of that old time doyen, Marshall Mcluhan.
All this reaction is highly reminiscent of the fear of the Jacobins that followed the French Revolution, a time of radical, massive social change. After Wordsworth's bliss in the French Revolution, then came the counter-revolution, and a fear of secret societies and conspiracies broke out. Influential people, like the politician and writer Edmund Burke, inspired a new look at the weird social movements that supported the French Revolution.
Philosophes, freemasons, jews, illuminati, rosicrucians, and many other weird - or not so weird - fringe movements all came under the microscope following the French Revolution and the publication of the popular book, Barruel's Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism (Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du Jacobinisme) (1797-98). What disturbed Barruel and the enemies of the French Revolution, the counter-revolutionaries, was the extent to which new social movements were creating changes that undermined the institutions of society.
Often these counter-revolutionaries were a combination of religious and loyalist, reacting to the atheism and institution levelling of the European Revolutions in an age of reason. Conservatives feared that the order they loved would be subsumed by chaos. The order they believed in was something of a personal value used to wage ideological wars. It was the value that allowed them to gather with other fellow weirdos.
They imagined that a force of change was being assembled that was designed to destroy their order in which they felt at home. When the weirdos were the norms: all that seemed to be under threat. In a sea of weirdos, the norms lose.
The fear of social movements, while having historical precedents, seems to be a typical response to massive social changes.
It is a particular way to get to grips with change. Its basis is fear, but also often unspoken values. It can hold change at bay only by using 'soft power'. But it must conceptualise the problem in its purest and least practical form as an enemy figurehead, a nostalgic ideological spectre on which to wage a never-ending, socially repressive war of ideologies. Often, because the scale of changes are so large, people who respond to change with conspiracy theories often simply lack the tools. Reactive people don't have the scientific curiosity or the patience to sit with complexity to diagnose the problem, and they assimilate the effects of change unknowingly. They are overwhelmed in a sea of change, and sometimes the best way to fight that inundation is to gain attention by flailing around and pointing to the weirdos.
At sea, perhaps we're all weirdos? There is an opposite although complementary theory to the heroic theory of the diffusion of weirdos. Let's call it the demonic theory. When you listen to Jordan B. Peterson discuss "pretty deeply" what he calls "the ideological nexus of postmodernism and neomarxism" on YouTube, or you hear him denounce feminists and cultural marxists as dangerous, you begin to understand that what he calls "deeply" is to crawl over the surface of the fear of social movements. Very few people have ever read so little Postmodernism, or so little Marxism, and read so much fear into it.
This is a large part of the great success of Peterson that readers and viewers of his work are put at such an ease that they don't think they need to read anything else apart from at most a few classics.
Peterson is the classic case of someone who remains fixated with a demonic theory of weirdos.
Someone who lives with posters of soviet communism and spends their time pondering the evil of Stalinism must have ample time to imagine and create an ideological enemy.
It is arguably for the sake of values that change agents like Peterson do their fixating.
There is a difference between ideologies and values that becomes apparent in conflicts, but it is not always clear that those who react to social change understand the difference. Peterson's enemy represents the value of social movements that embrace change. And it's a significant source of conflict. Cultural Marxism for Peterson has harnessed the power of social change, and this demonic change is coming for him.
Deja vu is a forgetting that forgets itself, and it offers a startling immediacy as it gathers weirdos who sense the weirdness of demonic social movements on the Left side of politics. Anything that happens from this point on will be subject to the endless powers of confirmation bias and to a silent, soaking cognitive dissonance. The weirdos are coming for us.
Perhaps the central problem that social movements face are people.
People have faces, and they are weirdos. They're also infallible, prone to all the biases, filters, fallacies, intuitions and bigoted views of highly strung animals confronting massive social change. People are 'a bundle of prejudices', as sympathiser of the French Revolution Charles Lamb put it in his infamous essay "Imperfect Sympathies", displaying his own counterrevolutionary prejudices. Charles Lamb, in writing his essay, was offering an elaborate defence of personal values, with an added dash of English ideology. But what are values? According to social scientist and designer Joe Edelman of Human Systems, values are bits of information that have not been fully institutionalised, and are vaguely understood in the human sciences, not fully captured by economic and rational decision making, or by cognitive theories.
Values appear to be the process of purpose, and perhaps something like the affective pathways of cognition that are only now appearing to have a place in neuroscientific theories.
Whenever we analyse the ideas that emotions refer to and reduce them to the process of belief, we have something like a value:
It is one of the theories of contemporary leadership development, such as that provided by the Social Change Leadership Model of Leadership Development (SCM), that understanding our emotions and examining our values appears is indispensable to the quality of our sense of self-efficacy and capability development. As a social change leadership coach, I would be tempted to sit Jordan B. Peterson down and, instead of staring at socialist realist gulag pictures, ask him to consider his emotions and turn them into value statements. Why not follow your own advice? Why do your feel the fear? Why the helplessness? Why clean your room? What are your values, what is important? Why action and safety? Peterson does not appear to have any fully developed theory of value. The value of the role and the choice dominates his thinking: we should clean our room because that is a good role that meets expectations. And that is our source of meaning. Peterson remains entranced by behaviouralism and unskeptical Kantianism. Ever since his PhD thesis, he has never bothered to understand what values are more than 'the oft-implicit values and ideals that protect us from disorder and lead us on' (Maps of Meaning 1999). The clinical psychologist is led on by an almost 'medieval' fear of roles and stable expectations being threatened. If you do not understand values, it seems also impossible to understand how ideologies that 'lead us on' function and may not be purely sources of myth to guide action. Ideologies, norms and values all become the same things. But I stray into weirdness.
For Joel Edelman, values are not just simply maps of meaning that guide our actions. They are related to the process of having a plan or having a goal or playing a role within a plan, but they are also quite distinct from an end-goal action. Values are improvisation-guiding, but they are also attention-directing in an empirical and cognitive sense: they act like filters on information that allow us to evaluate importance, and position ourselves in our good life. They are also difficult to follow. They lead us on, perhaps, but we struggle to be congruent, and if we don't protect ourselves from this feeling, we are opening up spaces that do not at all protect us from disorder. Even so, testing our own values provide us with meaning. An interesting theorem would be that values are one of the essential foundations for social change movements, for the weirdness that promotes and resists social change.
Edelman's work clarifies the way in which values differ from norms (roles) and ideological commitments (political beliefs).
The chart above provides a useful process map for how ideas are classified in social life.
While values may guide acts and choices, they are formed by a different social process. They are 'personal value' rather than exogenic, proper or ideological sources of value. These terms and processes may need some refinement and testing. The basic way though in which information is classified by us as outlined by Edelman seems however to match current sociological and empirical evidence. An example to test and refine this chart might be 'dietary veganism', as identified in ideological commitments in this process:
My commitment to veganism as a social movement is processed by at least two steps, through personal ideas and social pressures and consequences.
I personally value kindness to all beings that suffer, the humility and skepticism of scientific curiosity, and promoting a good life that all sentient beings can access, whether human or nonhuman or other.
I don't believe I picked this value merely because of social pressure. Social pressure certainly plays a part. To represent my values I can play roles, and I can also follow the norm of veganism in order to collaborate even though I want to go further than normative veganism in supporting my values.
Finally, I can engage in the world of ideological commitment to dietary veganism, even if it is in my personal value that I locate by wisdom and that draws me on.
One issue with this process that becomes apparent as soon as we test it with our own commitment is that my commitment to veganism is not limited ideologically in a social movement to a set of dietary choices. Veganism could also be defined as social movement in the sense of "a set of opinions and beliefs in a population which represents preferences for changing some elements of the social structure and/or reward distribution of a society." (McCarthy and Zald 1977). My preferences for changing society may make me remain within a social movement and so I will carry over my values, opinions about norms, and my weirdness into the ideological turmoil.
Another issue is that I may even use a social movement to express my emotions, which is another way of demonstrating commitment. The duration of social movements, their life cycles, can be limited by internal factors, including the volatility of affect; Goodwin et. al (2001) argued that emotions play an important role in protest.
Social movements can remain frozen in the anger of exposing social justice issues, without creating alternatives that change how we feel or how we act. The value proposition of change may also change for people like me in social movements: as soon as the affective pay off of a movement changes, and it becomes a demanding responsibility for building alternatives, or working with previous enemies, the affective returns involved may diminish. People have a strong negative bias, and their attention can go elsewhere. As we are human beings, and understanding our values is an intense workload, emotions can easily substitute for understanding who we are and what we believe. Emotions can be the way in which we sort through our values in our ideological commitments and understand the sincerity of our commitment to public positions.
Values in social movements
While Edelman's process map of values=>norms>ideologies is not perfect, it does allow us to understand how our commitment to public roles is only heroic insofar as we have a complicated, Coriolanus-like relationship with the iceberg submerged under the water. Let's try to picture the way values might interact with social movements.
If human behaviour is something like an iceberg, our values are submerged beneath the weird seas of social change. There go our beliefs and emotions, and roles are always threatened by the way what is submerged matters to our practices (what we do, our roles, our institutions, our identifies, our experiences, and our leadership). What matters can often stay hidden below, too. Values are the weird process underlying our response to social change. They travel through ice. Whereas social movements are stuck at the very tip of the iceberg. We have to climb far and high to get to the roles we take on in public life. We have to climb up high to get to the social movements. To make such mass change happen in the first place is an Everest trek. Once we are up the top there is often little social space left for us to provide any space for our values without, unfortunately, requiring conflict and territorial battles. Values are changeable, even though we quite rightly stake everything on them. Our values change or appear in a new form at different stages of our lives. We may change our values with with the benefit of new ways of overcoming our biases or of new processes of understanding ourselves. We are constantly finding new ways or new outlets to categorise our values in new ways. So what do we do with our values when even the non-institutional channel, the social movement, remains blocked to us or even committed to destroying us? This is when the conflict of congruency begins.
People have values that are always partly submerged, and are most damaging when they are ignored or shunned. Submerged values create conflicts.
Values are a big part of the weirdness of social movements.
Perhaps because of the procedural weirdness of values, their categorisation in social life, social movements appear to be rife with internal conflict.
There is a weirdness or a violence that seems to both facilitate and undermine our key roles in movements. According to Kenneth Cloke in "Conflict and Movements for Social Change", social movements are the 'products, producers, and resolvers of conflict'. Social movements can help entire societies resolve conflict, they can use conflict in creative ways to expose injustice and build alternatives, and they can also be riddled by internal conflict.
As Cloke explains:
Internal conflicts are endemic and natural to progressive political and social movements, in part because it is difficult to agree on how to define and change highly complex, volatile and evolving social problems. As a result, over time, different definitions of the problem and perceptions about the nature of those who defend and represent it result in radically different notions about what needs to be done to change it.
Unfortunately, social movements 'are often plagued with their own internal conflicts, which are routinely handled in negative and socially regressive ways'. Some of these negative ways are practices that would be weird if they weren't so destructive: sectarianism, denunciation, shame, humiliation, silencing, avoidance and bullying.
The most destructive manifestation of this problem of conflict within social movements is the social repression it appears to naturally produce:
The emotions that occur naturally in the course of these conflicts are frequently repressed -- partly in deference to a higher goal, political ideal or principle, or immediate practical priorities; partly out of disrespect for subjective weakness, which can be seen as a form of political vacillation; and partly out of a fear of cooptation and capitulation. Personal needs are then equated with selfishness and self-indulgence; or a lack of commitment, or identification with opposing political interests, so that toughness and insensitivity can come to be regarded as positive attributes, and essential accommodations to the rough-and-tumble of political activity.
Coke's observation can be easily matched by running through the long list of public denunciations of social movements from various insiders, or drawing on personal experiences of these conflicts within social movements. It is an irony that social justice movements appear to have a strong share of activists who have felt the injustice of these conflicts within the movements, but perhaps here is one of the more robust signs of the social justice movements that provide Peterson and his followers with so many ideological spectres. A number of activist are today resisting what they call 'purity politics' and dogmas, and they are sharing personal stories of conflict. These stories of facing alienation, disillusionment and fear are usually related to the peculiar social pressure of ideological purity. People don't like to be judged. Here are just a few recent examples from North America, where these conflicts appear to approach their greatest intensity:
Frances Lee has asked to be Excommunicated from the Church of Social Justice because of experiences with a regressive social justice movement in Seattle, but all in order to practice better social justice, and has argued against toxic call out culture by proposing an ethics of activism: 'I started to fear my own comrades'.
Poplar Rose also performs the release of social pressure in Excommunicate me From the Cult of Social Justice: 'I'm done'.
Sam Killermann, a key figure in the metrosexual social movement, is providing an entire tool kit to overcome social justice dogmas. This is due to what Killermann describes as a profound uneasiness with these dogmas, a fear of social exclusion, and an honest attempt to understand social justice more deeply to mobilise it in more effective social movements: 'Over a decade of a creeping feeling'.
Alexis Shotwell refers to the need for a politics of imperfections and responsibility, acknowledging our complicity in the things we are seeking to change: 'Purity politics are employed to shut down critique and action. Here's how to resist.'
For Kai Cheng Thom, social justice movements can be peculiarly inaccessible and elitist, even excluding the views of people of colour, and steps need to be taken to open them to positive values: 'I want our activism to be fun. I want it to be fulfilling, and caring. I want it to be full of love.'
Bailey Lamon has had enough of left purity politics: 'the idea of being so self-righteous that we think we deserve to be authority figures in all of this is soul-crushing'.
These stories of course are only scratching the surface of the conflicts in social movements. There are also countless stories about conflicts in the social sector, such as in this year's revelations about longstanding issues in the toxic workplace culture of Amnesty International. The need for social change has never seemed to be greater.
The Weird Purity of Call Outs
A number of conflicts in social movements appear to be sparked by purity politics. Purity politics seems to insist on the sublime inhumanity of ideological commitments that are inaccessible. Commitments that exclude personal values, reassessments, discussion, debate and social interactions that are not marked by negative emotions. The danger of purity politics seems clear enough. So perhaps we should also take the concept of 'toxic' with a grain of salt, as oddly it seems to mirror a kind of purity concept:
Americans have long bought into self-improvement schemes that advocate eliminating toxic people from our lives and unspecific but urgently harmful toxins from our bodies. The hope is to approach a purified state free of stress or difficulty. But now it seems that any part of the public sphere — culture, politics, nearly every form of online social interaction — can be contaminated and that the infection is threatening to spread.
This perception of the viral nature of social movements feeds a purist perception of social interactions. Such perceptions are common in militant social movements on the right and the left, and even in the conservative reactions we have observed.
Purity politics often enforces a weird form of 'call out culture', as activists call it, which is on the one hand positively intended to identify prejudice and promote learning, but on the other hand a chance to destroy any chance for learning and identify those individuals who should be subject to exclusion. Activists call out and shame those who display prejudice.
Ideally this should happen if there is a strong pattern and enduring nature to this prejudice, but the well-intended theory of microaggression seems to encourage micro-call outs, too.
Sometimes in social life there are times when the small things can distract us from the bigger things: oppression, repression, and the struggle to survive.
This problematic way in which calling out people allows the complete expression of a negative bias and supports one unquestioned form of ideological commitment is too often regarded as a heresy to critique.
But why would the expression of values in the social movement disturb it? Imperfection and responsibility are important values for call out culture to observe. One of the weirdest manifestations of call out culture is the way that so routinely people of colour, culturally diverse people and other minorities appear to be 'called out', online. The calling out is regularly performed by anxious white middle class highly educated liberals from a particular political culture, who appear to have issues with the phrasing of a sentence, the use of an incorrect word or a certain tone apparent only to them.
The role of class and privilege in such call outs, or the fastidiousness of their inattention to meaning and understanding, become a bundle of biases and prejudices that in turn create conflicts to 'call out'. When does the calling out have its final call, its happy hour? The bundle of conflicts that are created by call outs can become a knot that no one wants to touch or can disentangle. Every knot is distinct, but some can earn the epithet of 'constrictor knot', a knot that is almost impossible to untie and that can be used to tie up the loosest of ends.
It can be the end of social movements if they are routinely beset by such constructor knots, because who wants to be tied up in constrictor knots?
It is these kind of conflict absurdities that define purity politics and that negatively define social movements in the eyes of everyone except those activists most committed to ideological sacrifice. Some social movements sit at the top of an iceberg.
They seem inaccessible to all but the most able, in a peculiar betrayal of everything that matters in social justice as the most vulnerable members of the social group are targeted. The role of loyalty and disloyalty in purity politics is a strong source of social pressure that alienates activists from social movement groups, and turns weirdos against each other.
Hank Rothgerber's social psychological study of vegans shows us how this dynamic of disloyalty may be said to operate in movements that strongly identify and commit to a cause or an ideology far above the iceberg, so to speak. As Rothgerber suggests, empirical evidence indicates:
that the more vulnerable a group is to the consequences of disloyalty, the smaller, more motivated by ethics, and the more sacrifice that is required, the more severely the in-group members will rate a disloyalty, especially when the disloyalty was in public. This indicates that the in-groups are more concerned with the message that the betrayal is portraying rather than the actual act.
In veganism, as in many social movements or groups that have a high ethical consciousness and a small size, it is not hard to find a disproportionate focus on the message rather than the actual act, where the act is the practice of actually addressing animal suffering and exploitation.
Endless conflicts seem to beset veganism wherever in-group members discuss the definition of veganism, use hypotheticals, and explore exceptions. An emphasis appears to be placed on using the right words, or avoiding the wrong message, rather than actually achieving the goals of the movement or collaborating together in social change. Perhaps the most contested moments in a social movement remain those moments when members of the movement are caught out for having the wrong ideology. This calling out can happen over a vague impression based on a choice of words, phrase or a minor practice. The response seems to be a general freezing. The the demonic theory of the diffusion of weirdos plays a part here, a failure to recognise that its flipside, the heroic, is just as unrealistic and impossible as the other side. A movement that thinks of itself as a new norm is always at risk from being exposed to weirdos, those disloyal members who must be dominated and condemned as outsiders.
At the top of the iceberg, the worst thing is to to be perceived as belonging to the wrong part of the ideological iceberg.
The heroes of a social change movement, the weirdos, can become the demonic enemies based on the slightest of movements that appear to lead to a betrayal of the message.
If a weirdo is perceived to be disloyal or part of the wrong ideology, then everybody freezes. They become a symbol, or a static message, a fixed body of meaning that never changes. One can act differently, or speak, but this person becomes a weirdo. Either this person is completely ignored, shunned, or they continue to be scrutinised using confirmation bias for the disloyalty or contagion of the message until they can prove that they can keep the order.
Only a hero can fix this situation.
People are people. Purity is weird.
If social movements often produce new forms of weirdness, it may be because they often have the peculiar privilege of gathering not just weirdos, but WEIRD people, too. How WEIRD are you?
Experimental social studies have confirmed the difference between WEIRD people and the rest of the human population in how they think and behave. WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialised Rich and Democratic) people tend to:
Be liberals or libertarians
Think in ways that are more analytical
Display a closer attention to detail (maps, rather than meaning)
Think less about relationships between people
Think less holistically
Break down bits of information and tear apart bundles
The result of this different pattern of thinking is that WEIRD people behave differently to most of the population of the world, including conservative non-liberals.
WEIRD people tend to judge or show attention to situations based on moral filters such as harm or care and justice, whereas non-WEIRD people judge situations using a wider range of moral reasoning (Baek 2002; Haidt & Graham 2007; Haidt et al. 1993; e.g., Miller & Bersoff 1992).
First proposed by Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan at the University of British Columbia, this theory of WEIRD is important for a number of things, including giving people who are WEIRD some clues in how to manage their own bias while still pursuing their ethical projects. For example, it is useful to know that activists and vegans tend to be WEIRD.
In reading widely in the human sciences, I've found it useful to reassess the way in which sciences of human nature such as sociology, psychology, economics and even neurobiology have tended to make assumptions about human nature based on analytical universalisations.
The data sets these fields of study tend use are not representative, which does create bias challenges. We always should be careful with analysis, but even more so where the subjects that social sciences choose overwhelmingly tend to be undergraduates at Universities and other academics or people like academics. WEIRD is a clever and useful acronym. But it is designed to be misread and miscategorised by truly WEIRD people. This is because it does not refer to people who are simply Western, or simply Educated,or simply Industrialized, or simply Rich, or simply Democratic, but to people who are all of these things in relation to the highest anatomical function. This is why conservative people, and not just non-Western people, can be non-WEIRD, and why non-Western people can become WEIRD, or Western people non-WEIRD, because WEIRD is simply a pattern of thinking or a particular bundle of prejudices that has been studied in detail in the human sciences.
Jordan B. Peterson, as an example, is more classic conservative than classic liberal, and this may be why he cannot understand or analyse human values says: it says alot about the way in which his mind most likely does not work like a WEIRD person. His fundamentally conservative worldview may mean that the existence of personal values separated from a pre-existent collective source of meaning is in some ways completely foreign to him. This is may be because values do not occupy a familiar relational worldview, or a mythic structure, or are too closely connected to the moral values of justice and freedom from oppression. There is something in the design of social movements that is WEIRD. That is, in almost all the social movements that have access to Universities. It may mean that such movements end up being peculiarly inaccessible to non-WEIRD people. Social movements that privilege WEIRD people and damage non-WEIRD people, or turn WEIRD and non-WEIRD alike into demonic weirdos, are missed opportunities to build a civil polity. The civil polity of social movements should be designed in such as way as it values the diversity of all weirdos in the behaviours and interests that matter. Otherwise, they are just returning us to weirdness and conflict. It's time. Let's bring together everything we have learnt in this anatomy of the weirdness of social movements.
Summary: an anatomy of change
We have seen that something in the design of social movements results in the paradoxical inclusion and exclusion of weirdness.
So much so, that social movements can promote social change, but also resist it. Worse, they can give way to internal conflicts and trap movements in bundles of prejudices.
Some knots, when they are tied, are impossible to untangle. This is a call to action to all the social change leaders around us who may be entering or creating new social movements. Study the weirdness of social movements and learn the lessons. Here are some lessons:
Put people at the centre of social change movements and design and lead to empower them. This matters.
Values matter. How we do our why, or the process of being an activist and pursuing your purpose or goal, is vital for the success of social movement and for the prevention of conflicts. It's never too late to return to process and change the way we do our thing.
Negative emotions, exposing injustice, is important. But never destroy all chance for positive values. Maintain social and scientific curiosity. Embrace imperfection and responsibility.
Diversity of thinking, difference in values and action matters. Being different is an opportunity. Recognise the weirdness, the weirdos and the WEIRD to create change.
Design and maintain social movements that don't lead to the exclusion of weirdness (in values, interests, feelings and thoughts) in such a way that they destroy the cause of activism and lead to the excommunication of leaders.
Build social movements that can go below sea line and explore the whole iceberg. Touching the sea of social change is a great way for weirdos to reinvent themselves and maintain a social licence to transform the world.
The heroic theory of social change is the flipside of the demonic theory of social movements. Best avoid using this counterfeit coin.
Collaboration is King. And Queen. And people. And no kings and queens. It's important to get out of WEIRD and build the alternatives through engagement with people.
Avoid freezing relationships unless necessary to avoid violence and never allow constrictor knots to tie up a social movement.
Consider what works, what makes a successful social movement. There are some great studies out there that show us what works in social movements, and there are now a large number of activists trying to change the ethics of activists. Draw on them.
A final story for you
When I was a young kid, I would spend oodles of time with my best friend in the world. When he came to stay with me and my family, the weekend was ours. We became weirdos. When our time as weirdos was done and my friend was leaving to return home, there was a natural sense of sadness. We would not let ourselves get too sad, though, and so very early on in the piece we invented a game out of our impending loneliness. The game started when we called each other out. "Weirdo", I would call him.
As abrupt as possible. Often by whispering into his ear. "Weirdo", he would whisper back to me. We'd continue calling each other weirdo, back and forth. We might have used different words. Sometimes we would use the word fungi, instead. But what we always heard was weirdo. It was the most exciting game. We'd start to get progressively louder. By the time we had called for the fifteenth time, my best friend was in his family car, being driven home by his mum. We would keep calling out to each other, and we had begun yelling even before my friend wound down the car window. "Weeeeirdo".
"WEEEEEEEEEIRDO!" I'd run down the street to keep up with the car. The mission was to get as far down the street as I could, screaming at the top of my lungs. The only goal of the game was to be the last one who said weirdo. "WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEIRDO!!". So it would go on. The neighbours came out on the street to watch us weirdos. They laughed. The moral of this story is that a gathering of weirdos is not about the last one to call out the weirdo. We need to find our fun, and our values in action, to overcome our fears.
We're all weirdos.
If you have liked the weirdness you have read, then please comment below. Positive and negative feedback, thoughts, stories you want to share about social change and anything else are all welcome and appreciated. Spread your weirdness in the comment thread below👇.
If you are a social change leader, or are involved in social movements, the author of this piece wants you to know that if you need anything to support your leadership or to inspire your engagement with social change, then feel free to reach out: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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