The Memetics and Evolution of Social Movements – Part II

Twenty+ years later — Erik and Braden — Life went on

For those that want the complete story, highly recommend you go back and read this first. It’s Part I.

The Cove/Mallard campaign, on a smaller level, and the larger forest protection movement, followed similar dynamics. Both these were really pre-Internet Full Spectrum Dominance. Cove/Mallard and the work of others in other venues led to the Pew Charitable Trusts efforts, headed up by pals Steve Kallick, Ken Rait, and Mat Jacobsen, which led to the 2001 Clinton Roadless Rule, that basically managed to save all the remaining US Forest Service Roadless Areas in the United States. I contributed quite a bit to this effort, both strategically and tactically, but that’s a story for another time. Brief historical note — it was Steve’s intuitive insight into complexity reduction (literally ‘save it all’, with ‘all’ being something we could maneuver on administratively) that gave us much of forest politics of today.

But back to Cove/Mallard. Like all campaigns running over a number of years (I lost track of how long the whole Cove/Mallard debacle lasted, because Cove/Mallard morphed into another adjacent USFS logging roadless fight over the Otter/Wing timber sales, with similar tactics of road and logging unit blockades, and such) it continued to evolve. I was there, always in at some level, but stepping out quite a bit as I was running my more creative efforts to support the larger roadless fight that Steve and others were running. There would be a call for some need, and if possible, I would attempt to fill it if I could. Things started hot with the original founders, then died down when an injunction against the timber sales was issue, only to heat up again if the injunction was lifted. Like all wars with a front that never moves, attrition became a big part of it. And that attrition then played into who was available to scheme up the next thing — getting less evolved over time. For example, I don’t recall any real new strategy after about 1996, but the various details for the various road blockades definitely did.

The other thing folks on the outside often don’t realize is that any long-term campaign against the government (and protesting the Cove/Mallard timber sales was definitely against the government) will, in the end, become infiltrated by that government. Every campaign of size has a certain number of federal agents (Feds) assigned to it. They are alternately selected from a class of individuals who will be either openly disruptive, and encouraging folks to do more dramatic, illegal acts, or they will ingratiate themselves into the machinery of the campaign to make it run more smoothly. The Feds implicitly realize the evolutionary dynamics of this piece. And they like to keep things going, if it CAN be kept going.

The rationale is this — the more people a given CD campaign can disqualify from participating in society, even as rational, legal actors, the better. If you actually manage to survive through an entire campaign like Cove/Mallard, you know lots of things that you can’t learn any other way. You learn legal strategy. You learn arrest procedures. You learn how jails and prisons are set up. These are things you cannot just pick up a book and read about, and assemble any cogent worldview on how the Octopus really operates.

The Feds involved in Cove/Mallard (I was friends with one, and he has now passed away, without admitting of course that he was a Fed) were not clearly distinguishable as smarter or more clever than any of the majority of the protestors. All of us knew when we were doing anything that there could be a Fed in the room (and often was) and acted accordingly. The rules of the campaign were also clear. Even if you wanted to do something that WAS CD, if it involved breaking the law, it should be planned in the context of your affinity group — a group of like-minded individuals who were all basically taking the same risk at the same point in time. The Feds were actively seeking RICO convictions for more of the prolonged environmental campaigns at the time, and the charge of conspiracy was far worse than any charge for the illegal activity in play. Ignoring this was tantamount to REALLY paying a large price for protest activities. RICO violations could send people away for decades.

And even the smallest protest activity could theoretically involve conspiracy. For example, let’s consider a case where someone might be locking their neck to a gate across a forest road to keep logging equipment from passing. That person willing to lock to the gate would have some small cohort of support individuals who would potentially bring them water, or make sure the loggers or local contractors wouldn’t kill them. They realized that this might involve them getting involved with the illegal act (locking themselves to the gate) and understood potential risks of arrest. But these particular things were never discussed in larger meetings. Driving supplies to base camp, as I did several times, or running a workshop on how to police timber sales post-logging (very legal activities) could be discussed. Illegal activities never were.

But things were changing in the broader environmental protest world. Concurrent at the time of the Cove/Mallard protests, organizers around such issues as stopping underground nuclear blasts at the Nevada Test Site wanted masses of people demonstrating at the test site. And obviously, masses of middle class people were not going to show up if they thought they were going to lose their jobs for standing in a place they weren’t supposed to be. I never did one of those protests, but Terry Tempest Williams, a friendly acquaintance of mine and a very famous women’s writer, wrote quite a bit about it in her book, Refuge. If you’re going to get middle-aged women in the middle of the desert, they’re going to want some commitments they’re not going to be stuck in a jail in Pahrump, Nevada. Cove/Mallard was truly old school. But the New School of large media/low consequence mildly illegal mass protest was already starting to emerge. Get hauled to the Test Site, get a picture taken, get a ticket and get on a bus. FWIW — this stuff did kinda work. But it also opened the door to the current mess we’re in now. Jail, or the threat of jail, is part of how civil disobedience works. Remove this, and an entirely different social structure was guaranteed to emerge. And it did.

So how are we to understand contemporary social movements, like Black Lives Matter, or even some of the Women’s Marches? (I’m think of this pink Pussyhat phenomenon of 2017.) There are some important points to remember that differentiate the majority of the black civil rights protests of the ’50s and ’60s, the Cove/Mallard protests of the ’90s, vs. the Test Site protests and of course BLM.

  1. Relationally, the two groups were profoundly different. The authentic CD protests counted on independently generated friendships for many of the actions. Core organizers especially, but even those in the trenches had to know the people they were protesting with. Hierarchies were flat because they had to be. Yes, scaling was different with the mass protests with no arrest scenarios really in play. But that also meant the leadership would also evolve in complexity of thought over time. And you either had to evolve up, or you had to retreat. And many, like myself, did both.
  2. Contrast that to protected protest activities, especially those enshrined in institutions like universities. The only thing that might make a given protest more noteworthy was the level of rancor displayed. Leadership didn’t have to worry about more clever strategies to send the message, or leverage action to stop the target. People just had to get more angry.
  3. With the large protests, the only thing that really mattered was numbers — not relationships. Status was achieved just by showing up. I remember being surprised in talking to people about the 2017 Pussyhat protests. Lots of women friends went to these. I asked them “who was collecting names and contact info for follow-up?” The answer was “NO ONE.” The mob appeared at the behest of some form of social or mass media. You likely went with a friend or or acquaintance. Evolving a more powerful, tightly connected network was never part of the deal. And naturally, this did not result in friendships and newer network topologies. Homogeneity of state (all wearing the same hats for the photo op.) was the only real goal.
  4. Organizers of larger protests, because they faced no real personal or professional risk (grounding validity), would tend toward those seeking status. Both the BLM movements and to a lesser extent, the Pussyhat protests were umbrella-type protests. BLM supposedly was about police brutality/defund the police, but there were no real pieces of legislation as a goal to be moved. One might argue that the Pussyhat protests were more directly in line with legislative goals around abortion, but there was no bill # being proposed on a national level regarding this. So a successful leader of that type of protest would trend toward someone with institutional organizing experience, or a histrionic personality type that would attract attention. Over time, the most successful organizers would be those that used simplified, extremely well established mental models without nuance — in short no one would be making anyone else smarter in the context of the protests. And then, in turn, this type of activity would attract more psychopaths interested in notoriety, and extreme emotional reactions from portrayed victimhood. Being in such a protest might deliver on the same level as a singalong in a rock concert. But a person would not leave with a larger peer cohort, nor would they have increased understanding of the ensemble of issues being addressed. I cover how this works in this piece.
  5. When what you’re attempting to do is get a large crowd going purely on emotion, that kind of event is going to attract psychopaths like flies to shit. Watch Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies. The parallels of much of current political theater relies on similar emotional dynamics.

Joe Biden’s Sept. 1, 2022 Election Denial Speech — still stunning, but not in a good way

The challenge in much of this is breaking the chicken/egg problem of understanding societal evolution/devolution. Are we seeing more of the status-driven/emotion-laden protests (which will guarantee a spiral to violence) because the people running these protests are exploiting a hack in people’s development? Or is the larger societal devolution in part due to emotional development regression due to the relational disruption wreaked by COVID, as well as the rancor (fairly held or not) expressed at the Trump presidency? Of course, as with all chicken and egg problems, it’s tough to say.

I think a better way of framing the problem, at least if significant action is to be taken to reverse the decline of our a nation as a nation, is to realize that our fundamental demographics right now are all pushing decentralization. Like it or not, because of the destruction of geography, groups believing just about anything can find each other, and at the same time, harnessed against each other — and they will be taking advantage of the current political tides.

But I also believe that if we shift our own understanding of all this, we can also push back against this in our own local spheres. The U.S. is going to go through its own version of demographic shift as our population ages. Awareness of the actual problem — how this is occurring and how it is being driven by our relational milieu, is the first step in reversing it. The bad news is that this interpretation of our problem is not forthcoming outside a handful of thinkers, like myself and primarily other metamodernists.

And the recent addition of Trans Rights Activists, playing heavily on victimization and gaslighting basic elements of human existence in the rest of the population, certainly isn’t helping. Strap in, folks. It’s going to be a rough ride.

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