The Emotional Chemistry of Rebellions

Really liked this diagram that came through my twitter feed recently, and the accompanying text, from Ricardo Levins Morales.

‘A moment of rebellion can give rise to sustained movement growth & expanding people power (Stonewall, Ferguson); peak & quickly fade away (2006 immigrant rights marches); or create a burst of growth followed by steady decline (response to assassinations of BPP leaders, 1969-70).

The specifics of each situation determine its course, but wise organizers, activists and supporters will adjust their tactics, strategies and messages to align with the emotional chemistry of the struggle at each stage.

Outrage burns fast and hot. It releases a great deal of courage but has limited staying power as a primary fuel. It’s best only as a starter fuel. When outrage burns down to ashes, fear is only starting its upward slope. Fear takes longer to peak and is slower to break down…

Outrage burns fast and hot. It releases a great deal of courage but has limited staying power

Fear can replace outrage as the dominant chemical – leading to paralysis – unless enough hope-supporting factors are in place. When change doesn’t come quickly or there are setbacks it can lead to disappointment which, underneath, is the fear that our dream will not be realized.

Hope is the fuel of sustainable organizing.

Factors that support hope: a compelling vision, strong social networking, sufficient resourcing (financial, emotional, physical), effective organization, trusted leadership, the ability to process & learn together & a culture of self-transformation and integrity.’

I’d say another key sources of hope is a sense of winnability, preferably backed by some small early wins that keep people going. But wins can also divide and weaken a movement if people disagree whether they are sufficient, or its leaders are coopted into positions of power. Tricky.

Alliances is another tricky issue. Does a movement last longer with an external enemy – a Millwall style ‘no-one likes us; we don’t care‘, or a sense of broad support in wider society?

What else?

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5 Responses to “The Emotional Chemistry of Rebellions”
  1. An interesting one Duncan. Something I have been reflecting on is the size of modern movements – possibly too big for ideoloogical/stsrtegic coherence? It’s created the conditions where a few well organsied ideologues can ‘manipulate’ the broader movement (or external perceptions of the movement) through a few well placed strategic actions. Maybe there are some lessons there…

      • Your comment makes me think of large social movements in Latin America, Allan, like the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil, with hundreds of thousands of members, and very clear common objectives and identity that has been sustained over 4o years. Its leaders have often been accused of ideological manipulation or indoctrination (generally from those from other ideological perspectives but not always). In my experience it has been the us (landless, small producers) vs them (large landowners, agribusiness, politicians blocking land reform) dynamic (outrage, fear) which has been crucial to sustaining the movement, as well as this crucial aspect of building hope – hope which emerges from the reality of land occupations and settlements, where schools, organic agro-forestry, cooperatives, community-based healthcare quickly take shape and provide a glimpse of the better future the movement is trying to create.

    • Sam Huckstep

      And equally, because a lot of protest organisation and discussion -or at least what precedes it- takes place on online networks, well-placed, organised, and savvy counter-operatives can more easily co-opt the trend of the discussion, reducing the potential for that outrage to manifest itself productively, and for hope to become more concrete. I found Peter Pomerantsev’s recent book ‘This is Not Propaganda’ fascinating and somewhat chilling in this regard. Modern movements, increasingly-heavily reliant on mobilisation through open networks, have a lot of potential for rapidly moving from spark to action; they are also far more easily stultified by deliberate fogging of the debate by actors gaining control of central nodes.

  2. I absolutely love this! I’ve been in the environmental movement for 54 years and have picked up on racism and slavery. I publish a climate change newspaper but now have four categories: climate, regenerative agriculture, racism, and choose a charity. My focus these days is Africa featuring stories right from the grassroots of amazing people creating permaculture communities, caring for orphans, and fighting climate change. This article is going prominently in my next newspaper. Thank you, Duncan!