Oh come ON, all ye faithful

In which I call time on well-meaning but counter-productive events that aim to recruit and energise people to take action. “Epic fail”, as the young people used to say…

Two events on Saturday, both of them all-day but both so bad that I (law of two) hot-footed it. (I had planned to shuttle between the two – they were only ten minutes apart by bike).

The first was about an “economy for the 99%”. It started on time, but went downhill fast. One hundred and fifty people sat in rows giving their attention to three plenary speakers and the MC. There was no warm up exercise/turn to the person behind you/beside you. People were not welcomed or thanked for their attendance. Instead they were told things that they already knew about the two sponsoring organisations. Then a short but very very long talk with the problem-solution ratio all wrong, full of poorly-delivered received wisdom and empty of any colour, verve or energy.
Allegedly this day was going to be about educating and strategising. Um-hmm. The guy doing this, frankly, needs to either go on some (extensive) public-speaking training or else stick to his other jobs. Also, he hadn’t found-out-and-practised how to say the name of one of the people he was introducing. I was extremely embarrassed for him. After seven minutes of disastrous rambling, he introduced the plenary speakers. Fortunately the first of them said thanks to everyone for coming. But she then launched into a stump speech that would have come as no surprise whatsoever to the assembled throng.
One hundred and fifty people in the room being ego-fodder (many of them willingly no doubt). What a tragic waste.

So I cycled over to the other event. They lacked even name badges for the punters. As with the first event, no invite to talk to anyone, no effort at finding out what people already know. They’d invited a scientist to speak first up. This fetishisation of science – as if there is a linear relation between how much we know and what we will do, (and how effectively we will do it) – is beginning to get on my tits. But I guess it’s easy, and re-assuring to everyone, organisers and attendees alike.
After half an hour of this, being told things I either knew, or didn’t need to know, with a complete absence of any memorable metaphors, I cycled back to the first event.

The plenary had finished, with no time for questions, I’m told. So they were into the first “workshops”. Except the one I went to (and another I witnessed) most certainly were NOT workshops. They were mini-plenaries, with assorted experts talking at length (very very great length, in the one I went to – I managed to polish off the Morning Star, the Evening News and a goodly chunk of the Financial Times) to rows of people. And when they did break into small groups, it was only to formulate questions back to the panellists.


Look, there is obviously a time for the experts to do their thing, and a role for lectures. But to earn the right to take up the precious time of people who’ve travelled a long way (1) you have a moral obligation to put what you are going to say online in a simple format; as an article, or a youtube or powerpoint, or all three. And then people can start from a higher level in their questions to you, if they’ve had a chance to read/watch beforehand. Maybe all the speakers, sorry “workshop givers” have, but I got no hyperlinks to any such online resources between when I signed up to attend the day and when I went, and I found no such links on the official website.

So what did the two events have in common?
a) Really lousy low-energy openings
b) Nothing on “how to learn from our previous errors” (except in one workshop, near the end of the day, there was a brief oblique mention in the blurb. Not enough to make me go though)
c) a church feel – a church where we all know what we think, and we are there to be there, and to have been seen to be there. [this is, of course, snippy and sweeping and unfair, but I’m leaving it in to flag that the red mist has well and truly descended.]
d)They made me run (well, cycle) screaming.
e) a common assumption – the…

dialogue of the def-icit
The common assumption in both was that somehow people who have come (and they are very self-selected) both want and need yet more information before they can act, or act more, or act better.
This is known as the information-deficit model. And it’s been killed more times than Humphrey Bogart was in his decade of gangster flicks.
It’s an extremely convenient assumption, because it allows those people who are the policy wonks in organisations to have pride of place, dishing out information to a large audience. That’s good for their prestige and their egos. And for the health of the meeting and the movement? Not so much.(2)

“You are no longer the target demographic for these organisations”
I have some small sympathy for this argument. It’s true I’ve been to more of these than most people. But if they can’t hold the attention and enthusiasm of long-termers, doesn’t that just mean they are mostly going to “churn” newbies? And shouldn’t it be possible to make events that cater to ALL the potential allies you have?
“It’s the easiest way, and we are strapped for time and cash.”
So, like the drunk man you’re going to look under the lamp-post for your keys because that’s where the light is good, even though you lost them in the dark alley? Genius. And this idea that you are strapped for time. Well, that might be because you’ve not managed to attract and keep new folks? And do the open space techniques really take money? Think how much you’d save by not having quite so many guest speakers along!!

“It’s what people like/expect”
Erm, just because people like something doesn’t mean it’s good for them! Cigarettes? Chocolate cake in excess?! And although Henry Ford didn’t say “If I had asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses,” he should have.

(1) Not me, in this instance, but in my literally mis-spent youth I used to travel serious distances to attend these things.
(2) You may say, “where’s the evidence for that assumption?” Well, after a good decade and a half of watching English social movement organisations organise the same meeting and get the same shitty results, I’d say that the burden of proof is reversed. Show me how this model – of sitting people in rows and have them in plenaries throughout the day (workshop my arse!!) is successful in building a growing, learning, organising and winning movement, and I will gladly (yes, gladly) STFU about the smugosphere and ego-fodder.

About dwighttowers

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7 Responses to Oh come ON, all ye faithful

  1. Sam Gunsch says:

    It seems we have a parallel universe here in Alberta and Canada.

    Key points…agree entirely with Footnote 2.


    “doesn’t that just mean they are mostly going to “churn” newbies?”


    Your entire account jives with my 1987-2001 experience in environmental movement, as well as with the bit I’ve attended of the social justice/union events. Sometimes there are engaging sessions, but often they are so short and poorly organized/prepped/facilitated that they seem borderline ridiculous. 15 minute go-round to stop climate change…who’s got ideas?

    I failed to address these issues you raise, in my leadership role to from 1995 – 2001… but had this growing sense of futility…that we were spinning our wheels, and not building a larger movement. A few more experienced leaders raised these sorts of issues openly but we didn’t find an effective response.

    At the moment a couple of us old-timers are grappling with reboot options/tactics.

    • dwighttowers says:

      Thanks Sam, it’s good to know that I am not a lone nut ! I believe that change will only come if both people outside say “I am only coming to the next one if it is designed for participation, genuine participation” and if there are people on the inside, as you were,who are sympathetic… I’ll keep on this theme in coming posts, and look forward to anything you have to add!! Best wishes!

  2. I went to both events, and I have to say that I found Saturday’s very useful and informative. Friday’s event was sort of like a bland curry – it was pleasant enough but there wasn’t enough fire to really inspire. I wasn’t sure what I wanted out of it and the organisers weren’t sure what THEY wanted out of it nor what they wanted US to get out of it.

    My impression of Saturday was that the organisers had a clearer idea of what they wanted. I’d gone, not to start a movement or join a movement, but to get more informed and a better understanding of some of the issues. Not everyone is as well read, as intelligent and as informed as you are. I am one of those people, and I think, not the only one. So, I had gone precisely because I hoped it would be a series of useful ‘lectures’ or talks. You left in the middle of the keynote speakers at the plenary so can’t comment on how good they were. The second speaker from Spain gave a good picture of an alternative which I think is essential in any movement – to hear and learn from others, even if you don’t want to emulate them.
    The final speaker, from Drop the Debt was great – and, yes, if you knew and understood the whole situation of Ireland’s debt, then pointless. But I did not, and now I do and so, if that was what her aim was, she was successful.

    I went to two of the workshop/lectures. The first, was about understanding the financial crisis. Again, I left more informed than when I went in. The second was about tax avoidance/tax havens and was bloody brilliant. John Christensen was a great speaker, outlining the facts in a way that the audience could understand. UK Uncut speaker provided a balance – illustrating what has happened and what could yet be done. There were plenty of questions, and, no it was not a workshop, but no matter. I left with fire in my belly about the issue, AND with a whole host of new facts that I had not known before. I think I was not the only one.

    Yes, we need an alternative and we need to build a movement. But a successful movement needs to have more than just one or two well informed people and a bunch of others who just ‘know’ that things are wrong. We need a basis for working together and for understanding what’s happening at the moment, and events like Saturday’s are crucial – because we don’t all read all the right blogs and books – who has the time? And the media certainly doesn’t help us understand the situation – it has its own agenda. I am now inspired to read Treasure Island – but I doubt that I would have done before.

    So, yes, we need participatory events, I totally agree. But we also need to keep informing and educating people. It’s better to do that in a more participatory manner, but when you have speakers as good as John Christensen, sometimes that’s also enough.

  3. Sam Gunsch says:

    @Ruth… yes, I agree that there is value to informational/educational/inspiring lectures. For movement building…I doubt it. It was my experience, and was the experience of other environmental groups, that these events generate few new members or volunteers in numbers, certainly not sufficient to provide a base for growing a movement. Very few people would even sign the follow-up sheet.

    Years of monthly informational/educational lectures failed in this regard. They were an exercise. These had been going on for 5+ years before I volunteered. When I was recruited as staff, I supported them for another couple years, with no better results. I advised we cancel them. Very little pay-off for a lot of work.

    New active tough-minded volunteers willing to immerse themselves in participating in campaigns, mostly with only a modest understanding of the issues, and willing to recruit others to do so, were people who connected with us due mostly to the ‘actions’ of our campaigns. Or were people who responded directly to volunteer recruitment advertisements on the back of our newsletter, e.g. Here’s the contributions the campaign/organization needs… if you can do any of these, sign up here.

    And I also had no desire to be among the couple top people in the know and have people simply trust in my vision of our advocacy agenda. Nor did the rest of our board. And I repeatedly emphasized to the well informed and educated and more expert volunteers who argued for educating the public and politicians, if it were simply ensuring that more, and more people knew more and more facts/science were sufficient, the environmental movement would have stopped all the destruction long ago.

    So perhaps we’re discussing two important outreach agendas, parallel, not in conflict. And without knowing how the events at issue were portrayed in publicity I can’t comment on the discussion you’ve raised re the purpose of the meetings/conferences under discussion.

    But I am certain of this, because we tracked it, very few ‘keener’s’ were drawn to the ENGO movement because of educational inspiring lectures. Very inefficient/expensive means of doing so. And conferences with multiple mini-lectures, likewise.

    I only know we failed to recruit enough people, and retain that engagement, sufficient to generate a self-sustaining movement. Not sure why. But it definitely was not because we didn’t host enough brilliant speakers + audience events. One does those events for other purposes. All in all, over time we simply were unable to sustain a growth rate to build an ever-growing active engaged membership. Plateaued in the late 1990’s. Downhill since.

    My current take is that the citizenry has failed, across all sectors, to sufficiently attend to the maintenance and reinforcement of our collective governance systems that make up representative democracy.

    As idealistic as this seems, in the work done by Beetham and Weir, lies the gist of what I’m increasingly convinced must be done on an ongoing basis by the citizenry. Means, methods, must be obtained to enable an ongoing citizens agenda for a democracy movement that gets beyond sloganeering, that reframes all campaigning through the democracy framework these authors set out. Climate change, inequality, healthcare, wilderness…we know enough facts. And lots of experts keep generating more and better arguments on the facts.

    I believe we citizens have left vastly too much of the work of protecting our democracy to experts, whose lectures we attend for education and inspiration (no disrespect intended…I have tickets to a brilliant speaker next month – John Ralston Saul), but a majority of experts, are able to mostly reconcile themselves to working within a corporatism model of governance. As opposed to a citizen-based representative democracy where citizens are the source of legitimacy, not the groups/corporations. If you email me at samvg at shaw.ca, I’ll forward some excellent excerpts on this thesis from John Ralston Saul’s, Unconscious Civilization.

    Anyways, here’s Wikipedia on two of your best democratic minds.

    : The Democratic Audit of the United Kingdom

    He is a major contributor and Associate Director of the UK Democratic Audit, which is based in the University of Liverpool.[2] He directed a programme on democracy and human rights for the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Stockholm. Beetham describes the democratic audit as ‘the simple but ambitious project of assessing the state of democracy in a single country’. It has been applied to assess the extent, and limits, of democracy in the United Kingdom.[3] His contributions to the democratic audit and assessment of democarcy led to his appointment as Director of Research at the IDEA (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assessment), Stockholm.


  4. Sam Gunsch says:

    The two minds I refer to are…Stuart Weir, David Beetham

    Their opus I refer to is:
    Political power and democratic control in Britain:
    the democratic audit of the United Kingdom
    Front Cover
    Stuart Weir, David Beetham

    Routledge, 1999 – Political Science – 538 pages
    This volume is a comprehensive analysis of the formal institutions and processes of the British liberal democratic state, detailing the absence of effective checks and balances and the inability of Parliament to render the executive open and accountable. It measures democratic practice in the UK against a unique index of democratic criteria specially constructed by the authors.

    Brilliant stuff. Opening chapter is foundational.
    Last winter I read the summary how-to stuff built on their framework at the “International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance”… and I just didn’t appreciate the value of what they were setting out, until I discovered this book in the university library. I purchased this book (below) a couple months ago.

    Now I’m thinking after studying their analysis and finding that my polity’s dysfunction fits with yours, and after a year of reading poli sci books but primarily finding John Ralston Saul’s explication of corporatism having the most to offer…

    Now I’m thinking it ain’t…
    Capitalism vs socialism
    or Capitalism vs environmentalism/deep ecology/love your mother.
    nor is it…
    Neo-liberalism, or neoconservatism, or plutocracy or class power struggles…that are leading to hell in a hand-basket…

    Of course they’re all contributing their measure to societal dysfunction, government dysfunction.

    But’s what really at issue, is the rise of corporatism (again) vs representative democracy. Group rule vs citizen-based representative government… as per John Ralston Saul’s works.
    (WWII defeated Mussonlini, Hitler, both regimes deriving intellectual justification from the anti-democratic underpinnings of corporatism. see Mussolini’s concept of the corporate state. If corporatist theory had not been available to organize his fasci, maybe no fascism.)

    Bottomline: The war among the ideologies, the organized combat among expert led, elite groups in society, has marginalized the citizen. Secondary participants in their own governance.

    The important question is not what kind of government/ideology is running the show… its whose government it is..

    Kings and gods are gone.
    Groups/corporations or citizens are left as the two options.

    Whose government it is in the UK?…
    …same as here, the groups. e..g Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) aka tarsands multinationals

    btw…feel welcome to me know whether any of this makes some sense.

    Most of it follows Saul. Almost plagiarized.



  5. Sam Gunsch says:

    @ Ruth…

    re impacts and value lectures/educational events…

    I said this… “For movement building…I doubt it.”

    Of course this is a categorical statement that is not justified.

    These sorts of events do contribute to building awareness of issues but make relatively little contribution to building a movement compared to what is conventionally assumed.

    Again, my experience here is that a very high percentage of audiences/attendees never move into any participation in a movement beyond attending events.

    And it’s event organizers like I was in the 1990’s, when the environmental movement was on an upswing, who didn’t figure out what needed to be done differently.

    • dwighttowers says:

      Well said!

      My wife pointed out to me that for lots of people they think activism is just going to more meetings, that that is all they need to do. But given the obsession with marching and protesting (instead of demonstrating), I am not surprised. People will do what those around them do. And if “newbies” see experienced hands going to loads of meetings, that’s what some of them will do. (Many) others will think “no thanks” and retreat from involvement… So it goes…

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