If only they knew

If only they knew

There’s a popular idea in activist circles that just won't die:

If only they knew what I knew, they’d act!

It often applies to issues that affect us all, like the climate and COVID. But it also appears whenever secrets burst into the open. Like with Snowden, Assange, or any corporate or political leak.

When the information is out there, the thinking goes, why does everything stay the same? We told them! What's wrong with them?

It's because this idea is based on a few fallacies:

There’s a single, clear truth

How much of the knowledge you want to impart to your audience is in the sphere of legitimate controversy?

Take climate change. Your audience might accept, for example, that global warming is man-made. But if they're going to mount a response, their knowledge needs to go beyond that. They need to understand the causes and effects of global warming. The main contributors. The forms it will take. And so on.

And unfortunately, all these topics are still up for debate.

They'll never believe exactly what you believe.

Jesus and his disciples. Not you and your audience. (source: Wikimedia)

You’re in the enlightened group, speaking to the ignorant

If you're ringing alarm bells, you’re positioning yourself towards your audience as enlightened. And you're positioning them, in turn, as a group that needs clueing in.

That in itself isn't too bad. But the online sphere, where most of this discourse takes place, is ripe for misunderstandings. Tribes, each with their own norms and shared beliefs, dominate the landscape. And nobody wants you to school them, because it feels like, well, being at school.

It's difficult to impart knowledge to strangers without encountering resistance. Or worse.

As people are informed, they will mobilise around common solutions that work

Imagine you've transferred an exact copy of what you know, directly into the brains of your audience. Imagine, too, that they're as mad about the issue as you are.

Now what? It's up to them, you say. But they might not act in a way that will have impact. And most likely, they'll do nothing – and move onto the next outrage that appears in their social media feed.

Self-organisation as an activist response is great in theory. But for the challenges of today, it doesn't scale easily.

* * *

Your goals as an activist citizen are to persuade and mobilise.

You can do this by building an activist project with the right tactics. By accepting what you don't know, targeting well, meeting your audience where they are, and treating them with respect.

And yes, a key part of that is developing with your audience a shared understanding of the issue.

But a pre-requisite is that you don't think you're persuading, or that you're mobilising... when you're not.

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