Thoughts about Social Activisim

Scott ShermanMy latest article in Positive Psychology News Daily is called Social Activism: What Works? It is about a session at the Gallup Well-being Forum 2007 where Scott Sherman talked about what does and does not work with social activism. He wrote a dissertation on the analysis of 60 case studies involving social action against locally unwanted land uses – or LULUs (what a wonderful acronym).

While he spoke, I thought about my meager life experiences with social activism. I had concluded that protests and boycotts and chanting and sit-ins may have made the participants feel good, but had little to no effect. Actually they didn’t make me feel good, since I concluded that I don’t have a lot of physical bravery. Once we were participating in a torch parade against the Vietnam War through the dry Eucalyptus woods around Stanford when we were charged by police in riot gear. My roommate and I came to the instant agreement to go to the movies, dropped out of the crowd and walked into Palo Alto. Looking back, it seems somewhat irresponsible to have torches in the dry woods. It’s a wonder the force and counterforce didn’t end up in a big conflagration. Scott talked about how his earlier social action training taught him how to be arrested. Not for me.

After looking at 117 variables, Scott concluded that what does work is a mixture of non-violent action and positive psychology. Like Gandhi before him, he felt a need for a better expression than non-violence. It makes no sense to define something good as the absence of something bad, because every time the word is spoken, the bad is named. His term is Transformative Action because the action involves reaching past the conflict for potential win-win positions, something is often transformative.

Nonzero coverIn Nonzero, Robert Wright writes about historical evolution toward every more complex win-win human arrangements. It takes a global view to see the trends. Most of us take already existing win-win situations for granted and feel discouraged by the win-loss arrangements playing out around us. But over history, the win-loss situations have often provided the energy for win-win arrangements to play out. You can read excerpts of each chapter of Non-zero on the web. I’m glad I own a copy. It is well-thumbed.

I am an optimist about the human condition. Robert Wright’s book supports this optimism in large trends — not as a certainty but as highly probable , while Scott Sherman’s work supports it in specific situations. Are there forces working against win-win solutions? Of course. There always have been. And yet we have managed to find win-win solutions at the pair, family, tribe, state, and national levels. For an eloquent discussion, I refer you to an excerpt from Non-Zero where Robert Wright explains his subtitle: The Logic of Human Destiny.

Judging by history, the current turbulence will eventually yield to an era of relative stability, an era when global political, economic, and social structures have largely tamed the new forms of chaos. The world will reach a new equilibrium, at a level of organization higher than any past equilibrium. And the period we are now entering will, in retrospect, look like the storm before the calm.

Scott Sherman and a partner have started the Transformative Action Institute to help students learn how push win-win along in specific situations, according to words he wrote in the Theory chapter of his dissertation:

In fact, the theory of transformative action goes far beyond describing the typical strategies of nonviolent direct action: boycotts, protests, marches, and other appeals to power. It is about transforming the dynamics of a conflict: Instead of a competitive ethic of “you versus me,” communities are working with corporations and governments in a cooperative approach of “you and I together working towards a common goal.”

Bill Clinton states “I believe that the defining characteristic of the 21st century is global interdependence…. We have to look for solutions where we can all win.” His presentation of the non-zero message captured on YouTube is truly inspiring.


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Filed under Extraordinary people, Meaning, Positive Psychology

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