The Emotional Chemistry of Rebellions

July 29, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

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?

July 29, 2020
Duncan Green