By Doyle Canning, Patrick Reinsborough
In this excerpt from Re:Imagining Change: How to Use Story-Based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning discuss how activists can reframe debates and beliefs by challenging the assumptions that underpin them. To do so may involve thoughtfully crafted and powerful actions at the point of production, point of destruction, point of consumption, point of decision, and other places. To read more about what these points are and the role that targeting them can play go here. For examples of how activists have successfully undertaken action at various of points of assumption in Australia go here.
Points of intervention within a narrative are called points of assumption because, the underlying assumptions are what an audience has to believe to interpret the story as true. In order to change stories, we need to shift assumptions because they are the glue that holds the meaning of a narrative together. Assumptions are the building blocks of ideology, the DNA of political beliefs. Many assumptions operate best when they remain unexamined. If the underlying assumptions of a dominant story can be exposed as contrary to people’s values or lived experience, belief in the story can be shifted. – Reinsborough and Doyle, 2017
Actions at a point of assumption are actions with the explicit goal of changing the story. They focus on intervening in the narratives that obscure, rationalize, or justify the injustices occurring at all the other points. If a point of assumption strategy succeeds it can shift the discourse around an issue and open up new political space. For this reason, the point of assumption is probably the most important of all the points of intervention.
The point of assumption plays out in how the specific intervention challenges the dominant story. There are many ways to intervene at the point of assumption. Depending on the situation, it may mean exposing hypocrisy, reframing the issue, offering an alternative vision, or amplifying the voices of previously silenced characters in the story.
Winning the battle of the story often requires reframing, which is the process of altering the meaning of the old story to tell a different story. Successful reframing shifts the perspective and changes the terms of the debate. This can happen by widening the frame, narrowing the frame, or moving the frame to another scene entirely. Redefining the debate is the best way to win an argument.
How do you do this? The first step is a thorough narrative power analysis to study how the issue is currently framed, and in particular, to identify the underlying assumptions that are shaping the dominant narrative. For example, you might surface unstated assumptions like: “corporate tax cuts will benefit everyone by growing the economy,” or “undocumented migrants should be treated as criminals with no rights,” or “U.S. foreign policy benevolently spreads democracy.”
From this analysis, you can begin to develop another story that exposes the flawed assumptions of the status quo framing. There are many ways to do this and the elements of story offer different avenues for reframing. For instance, interventions that successfully reframe might amplify new characters who previously haven’t been heard, redefine the problem with a different set of values, or pose a new, more compelling solution.
A successful reframe can launch new memes and a whole new narrative around an issue. For instance, successful reframing by workers’ rights advocates has created the “wage theft” meme. Too often workers get cheated by their bosses and get underpaid—or denied pay altogether—for work they have done, such as not getting paid for overtime or getting paid less than the legal minimum wage. This mistreatment of workers used to be referred to as “nonpayment of wages,” which was the official terminology used by the U.S. Department of Labor and echoed by the mainstream media. This framing assumes that the wages belong to the employers and it is their prerogative to decide when their workers actually deserve to be paid.
Workers’ rights organizations reframed the issue and began calling it “wage theft.” This makes it clear that the wages belong to the worker and have been stolen by the boss. This reframing makes the conflict much clearer and encourages us to sympathize with the wronged workers. Through organizing public campaigns, exploited workers and their allies have been successful at turning wage theft into a meme that has entered the broader economic discourse. The term is now routinely used in the media and has even been used in the name of legislation. As with any effective reframing, wage theft is shifting the public understanding of the issue and providing momentum to campaigns to win stronger worker protections.
Sometimes an issue can be reframed with a well-designed intervention in an unexpected and previously uncontested place. In 1981, environmentalists in the western United States were fighting to defend wilderness areas from the assault of industrial extraction and megaprojects like giant dams. The newly formed radical ecology network Earth First! was thinking bigger than the usual protest at the point of destruction. They wanted to challenge the deep-seated narrative of technological progress “conquering” nature. So they decided to confront the assumption that industrial megaprojects like giant dams were permanent, immovable structures and foreshadow a future of undoing damage to the planet.
Their intervention was staged at Arizona’s Glen Canyon Dam, the second highest concrete arch dam in the United States. On the anniversary of the dam’s opening, the activists unfurled a huge black plastic banner down the face of the dam, visually creating a giant crack, and foreshadowing a day when dams would be removed and rivers restored.
Until their iconic action, the industrial paradigm of humanity dominating nature had rendered the question of removing a mega-dam off limits in the public debate. The “cracking” action challenged that assumption and expanded political space. Decades later, struggles against mega-dams continue around the world. But today, dam removal is increasingly embraced as a solution to restore damaged watersheds and the communities that call them home.
US Earth First! create a ‘crack’ in Glen Canyon Dam in 1983, Earth First! Journal
Offering New Futures
One place to find points of assumption is at the point in the story where the endings become contestable—where effective action can forecast a different future. Such vision-driven actions have always been a staple of successful social change. But by understanding them as interventions at a point of assumption we can focus on what has made them successful and work to replicate those aspects. Sometimes, this specific type of intervention is called the Point of Potential to highlight alternatives.
One of the most common assumptions in power-holders’ narratives is some version of the “There Is No Alternative” (TINA) control myth. In these instances, the effective articulation of a plausible story about a different future can be a powerful challenge to the status quo narrative, particularly when the alternatives promoted are both “visionary and oppositional.”
Actions that contest a seemingly predetermined future are one type of action at the point of assumption. A few examples of this type of intervention include:
- Activists confront agricultural biotechnology and the corporate takeover of the food system by transforming an empty lot into a garden where neighbors can grow healthy, organic food.
- Homes Not Jails activists challenge city officials to provide more housing for low-income families by occupying an abandoned building to create a place for people to live.
- Public housing residents who have been pushing for a better childcare space take action at the local government office, and instead of just protesting, they transform the office into the day care center the community needs.
There are many ways to offer new futures and to reflect choices between the different paths. One of the Center for Story-based Strategy’s collaborative, long-term strategy projects explored three competing visions of the future of the San Francisco Bay Area by producing different “newsfeeds” from the year 2030. Each newsfeed portrayed a very different world based on the way social and political forces had responded to the ecological crisis. The newsfeed from the “Grey” scenario—where denial and fossil fuel addiction continue to shape policy—has stories about criminalizing “water poachers,” salmon extinction, and increasing militarization. Meanwhile a “Pale Green” scenario revealed a world where efforts to address the ecological crisis fail to confront the social and economic roots of the problem. This news-feed has stories about dangerous techno-fixes like geoengineering, “gene spill” quarantines, and economic apartheid alongside ads for personalized genetics and luxury eco-homes. Finally the “Gaia” scenario newsfeed shows (on the next page) a 2030 in which social movements lead a just transition away from fossil fuels and features stories about creating a new regional food system, defining the rights of eco-refugees, and struggles to implement an International People’s Protocol on climate resilience.
The fundamental question for these types of interventions, in whatever form they occur, is: “What if … ?” Even if the action is a symbolic foreshadowing rather than a concrete plan, it can still challenge the status quo narrative by offering glimpses of alternatives. This type of intervention can reframe a problem and open up collective imagination to new ideas, new possibilities, new solutions, and new ways of being. – Reinsborough and Doyle, 2017
Subverting and Creating Spectacles
We live in an age of media saturation where political battles are often waged with clickbait headlines across social media and 24-hour news cycles. In this context, shaping media coverage has become even more important and decision-makers and power-holders often supplement their usual diet of sound bite politics with sophisticated media events. These events range from routine press conferences and rituals like ribbon cuttings to action-oriented political stunts. Particularly, politicians are now well schooled in how to create effective media spectacle—by choosing powerful locations, appearing with the right supporting characters or engaging in symbolic actions. Spectacles are everywhere in the popular culture, and they can provide unique opportunities for creative interventions to change the story.
In the wake of President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election, some creative organizers saw the opportunity to mobilize the disillusioned into the longer-term progressive movement. “Turn Your Back on Bush” was born: a point of assumption action organized by Action Mill, with some support from Center for Story-based Strategy.
It was clear that the Bush administration’s draconian security measures would limit protest along the 2005 inaugural parade route, and that it would be difficult for traditional protest tactics to break out of the media’s existing frame. So their action mobilized over 5,000 people to covertly enter the security zone, line the parade route, and then turn their backs on the presidential motorcade as it passed. This form of symbolic protest may seem trivial (given the scale of Bush’s crimes against humanity), but it was an action that was targeting a specific point of assumption: the Bush narrative that the election had provided him a “mandate.”
The action logic of turning your back was clear. It was carried out by thousands of people representing constituencies that Bush was claiming to speak for: veterans, military families, farmers, firefighters and people of faith. The action communicated a mass symbolic withdrawal of consent from Bush’s presidency.
The action effectively subverted the spectacle of Bush’s grand triumph and launched a counter story about the broad base of resistance to his policies. The action received major media coverage around the world, and was even the subject of a skit on the popular television program Saturday Night Live.
Turn Your Back on Bush’s simple and unique action logic allowed the protest to go viral as a meme, and reports of Bush being greeted with backs turned in protest emerged from around the country and the world. This action provides an easy, replicable template to subvert any pompous power-holder’s spectacle.
Disrupting a presidential spectacle can be as easy as one person bravely acting at the right time. Jennicet Gutiérrez, an undocumented transgender Latina, hijacked the spectacle of President Obama’s June 2015 LGBT Pride Month White House reception by interrupting Obama’s speech to declare in front of all the gathered guests and media, “Stop the torture and abuse of trans women in detention centers!” Gutiérrez’s action was unpopular with many of the primarily white, gay male attendees (described by one journalist as “elite members of the LGBT community”) and she was removed by the Secret Service. But the action drew national attention to the abuse of a community that had been largely invisibilized. Particularly since the intervention occurred just days before the highly anticipated Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex couples’ marriage rights, it was successful in helping to expand the debate about what full human and civil rights for all people should mean.
Story-based strategies don’t need to just subvert our opponent’s spectacles, creating our own spectacles can be a powerful component of a successful intervention. Whether it’s a dancing flash mob or a pageant of political theater, a well-designed spectacle can project a clear message and change the story. – Reinsborough and Doyle, 2017
We live in a world of consumer and political spectacle and much of it is exploitative, manipulative, and deadening. So, when creating your own spectacle, how can you ensure it’s not replicating some of the very dynamics you are challenging? Our colleague Stephen Duncombe, cofounder of the Center for Artistic Activism, provides a useful framework in his wonderful book Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. As he describes it, an ethical spectacle should strive to be:
- Participatory: Seeking to empower participants and spectators alike, with organizers acting as facilitators.
- Open: Responsive and adaptive to shifting contexts and participants’ ideas.
- Transparent: Engaging the imagination of spectators without seeking to trick or deceive.
- Realistic: Using fantasy to illuminate and dramatize real-world power dynamics and social relations that otherwise are hidden in plain sight.
- Utopian: Celebrating the impossible—and therefore helping to make the impossible possible.
Making the Invisible Visible
Oftentimes, to reframe a story it is necessary to expose aspects of the story that have been hidden; to make what has been invisible to your target audience visible so it will change their understanding of the issue. In 2007, Center for Story-based Strategy helped Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) design a powerful action at the point of assumption. Their goal was to change the story from the “U.S. is at war in Iraq” and therefore must stay until we “win,” to the “U.S. is occupying Iraq,” and the presence of America troops was making the situation worse. They wanted the U.S. public to understand that occupations inevitably create violence and can never be “won.”
IVAW knew that simply telling people that the occupation was undemocratic and oppressive wasn’t enough. They decided to make the realities of occupation, which were largely invisible to the U.S. public, visible by showing how occupation actually looks and feels. IVAW’s intervention was a series of street theater actions (sometimes called “invisible theater”) where their members re-enacted their typical activities on patrol in Iraq. Veterans in uniform, miming their weapons, went on patrol in U.S. cities, including simulating crowd control actions and civilian arrest operations. IVAW invited the public to consider how they might respond to foreign troops acting in that manner in the U.S. and how it would inevitably lead to violent resistance. To attract more attention and create memorable images they deployed the action in iconic settings like Times Square in New York City and the National Mall in Washington, D.C. They called these actions “Operation First Casualty,” after the old adage “the first casualty of war is truth,” in order to help the media and the public make the connection. Through these actions IVAW successfully contrasted the first-hand experiences of IVAW members with the propaganda of the Bush administration.
Operation First Casualty, Jon Orlando & Jesse Purcell/Just Seeds
Repurposing Popular Culture Narratives
The mass familiarity of popular culture can provide unique opportunities for social change messages to “hitch a ride” on specific memes, metaphors, and cultural narratives. For instance, proposals to tax speculative financial transactions have been around since the 1930s but they started getting popular traction after campaigners renamed the proposal the Robin Hood Tax. The familiar Robin Hood story of taking from the rich in order to give to the poor is both attention grabbing and provides the elements of the story to frame the issue. As in the picture below, campaigners could even dress the part to strengthen the connection.20 When thinking about an intervention it can be helpful to consider what stories are universally known among your audience that might offer relevant metaphors. Maybe your campaign is a David versus Goliath, or a policy proposal is a Trojan horse situation, or perhaps there is a local legend or community story that will resonate?
Contemporary pop culture products, such as movies, television programs, commercials, popular music, and viral videos are often promoted with huge marketing budgets that create familiarity with their characters, images, and plots. These pop culture narratives are like rivers running through mainstream culture, splashing across people’s consciousness, shaping workplace small talk, and often creating dedicated communities of fans. If a campaign can craft a message that floats on the river—without the message being trivialized or submerged—then the campaign might be able to repurpose that existing narrative. The imagery, characters, and narratives of popular Hollywood franchises like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter have all been borrowed and repurposed for social change ends. Likewise social movement imagery and messages often ripple through pop culture and expand our opportunities to include social justice themes in everyday conversations.
The mass familiarity of popular culture can provide unique opportunities for social change messages to “hitch a ride” on specific memes, metaphors, and cultural narratives. – Reinsborough and Doyle, 2017
The danger in appropriating popular culture narratives is that the references are ever-changing and ephemeral. Some iconic images and narratives become cultural touchstones that can stand the test of time, while others are fleeting and are quickly replaced by a flurry of media promoting the next Hollywood blockbuster or consumer product. Pop culture may create a common meme for millions of people, but it could soon be yesterday’s joke if you don’t move fast. In this age of niche marketing and narrowcasting, it’s important to understand who exactly knows the specific pop culture code you’re using and who doesn’t.
Timing can be critical. CSS saw an opportunity in the fall of 2013 to harness the cultural moment around the finale of the popular television drama Breaking Bad to reframe people’s understanding of natural gas with an attention-grabbing addiction metaphor. The show itself was about a drug kingpin selling “meth” (as in methamphetamine) so it provided an opportunity to borrow the show’s logo and imagery to talk about a different type of dangerous meth: methane, the main component of so-called natural gas. The intervention challenged the gas industry’s narrative that gas is cleaner and safer despite the fact that methane is actually 86 times more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide, making it incredibly destructive to the climate.
As Center for Story-based Strategy former Senior Associate Danielle Coates-Connor wrote at the time: “Natural gas? Why not call it what it is … METHane Gas. These cartels are cooking our planet, contaminating our air and water, destroying rural landscapes and livelihoods, and leaving behind nasty, toxic pollution … sound like a meth lab or what?” CSS released the image to a target audience within the youth climate and anti-fracking movements and within days it had been shared by over 100,000 people across the country and became part of the broader cultural conversation around the television show’s finale.
A brand is an ongoing and evolving relationship that is shaped by the perceptions of its audience. A brand is not what a company or organization says it is—it’s what everyone else says it is. A corporation may own their brand, but they do not have the power to dictate their brand. The vulnerability of the brand to attack in the media can be an Achilles heel for corporations that rely on their public image to sell products. Brand-busting is any effort that associates the brand of a specific company with injustices they are perpetrating. It is an effective way to target brand-dependent corporations and also reveals aspects of contesting narrative power that are relevant in many different instances.
For example, when Pepsi’s familiar logo is superimposed over images of a rainforest clearcut into a wasteland by industrial logging or LEGO’s Shell Oil branded toys are slowly drowned in a rising tide of oil, the power of the corporate images are turned against themselves. Adbusters magazine founder Kalle Lasn has dubbed this practice of co-opting advertising’s images and slogans as “culture jamming” or “subvertising.”
In recent years, brand-busting tactics have been artfully used by corporate accountability campaigns in many sectors. Targeting a brand can be a powerful form of narrative aikido since it uses a corporation’s own advertising budget against it by hijacking the imagery already familiar to their customers to present a social change message. Since the long-term damage of attacks on the brand can’t be easily measured (and therefore can’t be easily dismissed), brand-busting can help a campaign get the attention of top corporate decision-makers.
- Read the Points of Intervention extract from the book Re:Imagining Change
- Obtain a copy of Re:Imagining Change: How to Use Story-Based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World by visiting the publisher PM Press.
- Explore Australian Actions at the Point of Assumption.
- Direct action - Non violent NVDA
- Points of Intervention
- Social change