Street Spirit, an anthology of protest that both moved me to tears and really bugged me

Street Spirit: the Power of Protest and Mischief, by Steve Crawshaw is a book that left me deeply confused. As I read it on a recent train ride, I experienced an

Subverting riot police at the G7 in Germany, 2007
Subverting riot police at the G7 in Germany, 2007

alarming level of cognitive dissonance. The uplifting stories of resistance, courage, uprising, revolution etc moved me to tears (something I can best describe as ‘political crying’ – awkward in public places). At the same time, my wonk-mind was shouting ‘how do we know any of these claims are true?’ More on that below.

First, the content. Street Spirit is a coffee-table anthology for trouble makers: thick, glossy paper, lots of photos, and 50 vivid 2-page vignettes of protest and demonstrations from around the world. Feelgood guaranteed (if protest is your bag).

Crawshaw definitely has the T-shirt as a protest connoisseur, with a track record as a senior figure in Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, and a journalist who reported on the Eastern European revolutions and the Balkan Wars. He co-authored a similar collection, ‘Small Acts of Resistance’ in 2010 – in many ways this is an updated, glossier (and shorter) version. It also reminded me of (and quotes) Srjdja Popovic’s wonderful book, Blueprint for Revolution.

Chapters cluster the vignettes into broad themes: passive protesting, using very small actions, confronting violence, the use of humour, satire and the arts. There is a treasure trove of tactics that any activist can mine – holding up mirrors in the Ukraine protests, so the police could see what they looked like (many then swapped sides); ironically applauding the President of Belarus at the same time every week, until the government ending up banning clapping. The endless creativity, humour and courage of activism is indeed deeply moving.

Truth to PowerBut don’t read this book expecting a dispassionate weighing up of the strengths and weaknesses of different tactics, or the interaction between protest movements and formal political processes. Crawshaw is in the myth-making game (Alex Evans would approve), creating a narrative that moves people to action.

So, even as I choked back the tears, I was annoyed at being emotionally manipulated and stroppily asking, ‘what about selection bias (he makes the valid point that those in authority can seldom envisage change until it happens, but only talks about the protests that he says succeeded)? What about attribution (the books is full of highly questionable sentences along the lines of ‘this protest happened and five years later the government fell’ – how do we know that Kiev police swapped sides because of seeing themselves in mirrors rather than something else?) Even if a protest is successful, what about what happens next – can we really portray Egypt as an inspiring example given what has happened since protests helped overthrow Mubarak? I’m sure a lot of the activists in these pages had sophisticated theories of change, and I wanted to hear about them. No chance.

Which all highlighted for me the dilemmas around following Alex Evans’ advice, getting less nerdy and learning how to build narratives (myths) that speak to people’s hearts and underlying moral and normative frameworks. I worry that the professionalization of Advocacy and Campaigning (of which I guess I am part) has taken us in the other direction, and I think Alex is onto something. But if that’s true, and is exactly what Crawshaw is doing, why do I feel so uncomfortable?

It’s partly because filling the myth gap does not sit easily with recognizing the importance of systems thinking and complexity. Myths require simple Robin Hood narratives. Good v Bad. A → B. ‘Speaking Truth to Power’. Myths don’t go in for nuance, ambiguity and self doubt, which is exactly what’s required if you care about systems and (in my book) truth.

One way to reconcile the tension is by audience – ‘oh don’t worry, the myths are just for the public, but the wonks and campaign insiders need to get complex’. But that feels deeply patronising and/or manipulative, and anyway, you can’t ringfence messages and audiences like that any more (if you ever could).

OK, OK, I’m a navel-gazing killjoy, I’m sorry. Final recommendation? We all need a bit of a boost right now, so read this book and laugh and cry, but please don’t ignore the critical voice in your head that keeps on asking questions that the book doesn’t even try to answer.

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11 Responses to “Street Spirit, an anthology of protest that both moved me to tears and really bugged me”
  1. jo

    Myths are themselves part of the systems and complexity, no? As, indeed, is emotion – in my mind a deeply under-considered aspect of how (and why) change happens (or not). So I like the questions you are asking, keep probing them – but we’re not in the realm of binaries here – what are the dynamics between myth, effective action, and change? It’s invisible power again as a form of power in this sector we still tend to pay insufficient attention to in our theories of change and action…

  2. While I haven’t read the book, your concerns about selection bias and sloppy attribution seem to be plausible points of criticism. That said, change is an emergent phenomenon. It is rarely clear whether change is due to holding up mirrors, a skilled power broker in the background, a change in the price of oil, or a brilliant policy paper by an NGO. At the best of times an analysis will come up with a long list of contributing factors and some reasoned assessment of why some factors or actors may have been more important than others.
    Another way to reconcile the tension between myth-makers and policy wonks may not be by the difference in audience. (Which, by the way, I do not see as a contradiction. There is nothing wrong with being a myth-driven policy analyst. Faith-based anybody?) Instead, reconcile the tension by appreciating that systems can be in different states. Depending on where the system stands, say right before a phase change, the binary ‘good vs. bad’ may be just the thing that is required, while in other situations nuanced political analysis and activism can drive gradual, evolutionary change. As knowing the state of a complex social system is a challenge in itself, having a range of approaches in the change maker camp should be strongly encouraged.

  3. Tracey Martin

    Stories are different from myths and they can be complex. Often a novel can surface truths – and appeal to people – in a way a policy paper rarely can. I agree it is not either/or – understanding the systems includes understanding the myths and stories that underpin them. Changing these narratives is sometimes the only way that evidence will be accepted and ‘truth’ recognised. We only have to look at our economic system or the discussion around Trident to see that policymakers, like everyone else, are driven by deeply held beliefs (myths and stories if you like) as much as by statistics.

    • Duncan Green

      OK, so we have novels at one end of the spectrum (emotional/moral truth, but no claim to be factual) and some dry academic study at the end. The problem is arises when myths pretend to the status of factual truth, no?

        • Duncan Green

          Hmmm, that’s a bit too IDS for me Pedro. Hope you aren’t saying ‘so we’re all in a post modern morass where there is no such thing as truth’? Surely the point is that academia at least has a declared intention and commitment to discerning some kind of underlying truth beyond the shadows on the walls of the cave that are our observations?

          • I’d say my comment was much more 15M’ish than IDS’ish :-).
            There is such a thing as truth, but it is always so elusive! And academics are not always or everywhere the best equipped to bring us closer to it, despite their declared good intention and their commitment to do it. As Tracey and Matthias observed, it is not an “either/or” choice: at times it is the more nuanced academic claims that can bring us forward, but at times it is experiential, myth inspired learning that raises our awareness.
            Maybe we should accept that the criteria to judge both domains are different: more scientific claims should respond to coherent validity, while more mythical claims should rather be judged according to their inspirational capacity.
            Expressed in Quino’s images: 😀

  4. Allan Moolman

    That uneasy feeling Duncan, is that the methods employed by ‘professional campaigners’ treat people as objects that can, and should be manipulated for the ‘greater good’. This undermines a fundamental premise of development – agency and the freedom to believe, act and choose differently from ‘the masses’. I think we are all at the point where we have to start agreeing that marketers (professional campaigners?) are eroding freedom and choice, not strengthening it. They tell people what to like, when to like it and how to enjoy it (whatever it you choose – even your politics and ideology nowadays). They do not provide information to the market any more – they create markets, create demand and direct the invisible hand. How else can you explain the grand Tr(i)ump(h) of 2016?

    Maybe I’ve hit peak cynicism, but I’m not sure that employing the tactics of ‘the opposition’ is going to prove worthwhile in the end…

  5. Jamie Pett

    It strikes me that myths could fall into Donella Meadows’ top two leverage points in a system: “Paradigms” and even “Transcending Paradigms”. Stories are how we create shared meaning, and would presumably contribute to this with all the messiness that entails.