It's people who power non-violent change

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

In the film How to Start a Revolution, (the story of Gene Sharp's remarkable book on non-violent change) we see non-violent tools at work resisting dictatorship. But what lessons does the film hold for advocates for social change here at home in our democracy?

Gene Sharp’s strategies help populations realize that power doesn’t come from the dictators who wield it, it comes from the people.

As Canadians, we know this. We have elections. We vote our leaders in. We vote them out. We get that our leaders are in power because we choose them.

But as we work towards social justice and put our passionate efforts into creating change in a specific area, we sometimes forget how this principle affects our success.

Your cause can be advocating for something that is right and just and good, but you have to make the people want it in order to make governments do it.

It’s not an easy task. As a group, people are a tricky lot. Most can quite easily agree with your cause and be mad at you at the same time. “I don’t want our forests clear cut but those tree-huggers are gonna hurt jobs in my town if we let them.”

Our challenge is to connect with people in ways that activate the part of their brains that pushes our cause into prominence. You want to give people a reason to say “This is important to our future.” And to make it matter more than other things they care about when they vote.

The reality is: A majority of people need to want the change that you want in order to make it stick.

So are Gene Sharp’s methods for undermining dictators the way to make people want your particular brand of change in Canada?

His non-violent revolutionary tools can shake people up. They can help undermine complacency. They can equip ordinary people to resist a government imposing decisions against their will.

But there’s a danger that the only lesson we take from Sharp and the success of his revolutionary tool kit is ‘take it to the streets’ to protest.

It is Sharp’s overarching principles we should apply to create change in our communities:

  • power comes from people
  • get strategic
  • plan the work and work the plan
  • target your efforts where they will be most effective
  • use emotion, language, symbols to captivate public opinion
  • build (or grow) support for your cause over time
  • put women and children at the front of your movement - literally and figuratively

The tactics are just tactics. Marching in protest isn’t revolutionary. Nor is pitching a tent. Nor is chaining yourself to a tree.

When you systematically move more people than you leave standing still—that’s revolutionary. Change people’s minds. Make people want to make things better. Get them behind you pushing the movement forward. Give them the language and images to talk about your cause. Consolidate your support and find new supporters. Never give up.

That’s how we elect leaders who can make good things happen. And stick.

Even when it’s the right thing to do, we will always need the people behind it in order to get it done. That’s democracy.

This post was originally published as "Is it the right thing to do?" by DOXA Film Festival 2012 blog in response to the film How to Start a Revolution.