Charting a course: communications as the ocean

I was a sailor for years, and in 2010 took two years off to sail the Caribbean, so when I first heard this metaphor to describe deep narrative last summer from Jee Kim, Executive Director of the Narrative Initiative, it really stuck with me. I keep coming back to it and recently decided to expand on Jee’s quick metaphor to help a group I’m working with to understand how they can use communications to push back on far-right/fundamentalist narratives about women.

Now, metaphors aren’t perfect, and they can even throw you off course sometimes, so I’d love your thoughts on whether this helps your understanding of effective communications! And to learn more about narrative, do check out the Narrative Initiative’s report Toward New Gravity.

Imagine you’re on a sailboat, in the middle of the ocean, trying to get somewhere.

Yes, that’s my boat. In the middle of the ocean.

At the surface, you see ripples, splashes, or chop. These can be caused by anything from puffs of wind in your immediate vicinity, or actions of things in the water. You can have a quick impact on the surface of the ocean just near you, say by skipping a stone across the water or dragging your hand through it. And while most surface-level events don’t affect your journey very much, a microburst of wind, the wake of a huge boat, or a jumping whale right next to your boat might require an immediate, significant response. But even the biggest splash, a whale breaching, isn’t even going to affect a boat you can see on the horizon. These surface effects are the everyday chatter of our communications world – like Tweets, statements, or press releases — most immediately noticeable, perhaps with a strong impact on a small audience, but ultimately short term and won’t change the world if not hooked up to a broader strategy.

Underneath the surface chop are waves, which are caused by the weather (winds) in your general area. They can throw your boat around if strong, and in a gale they can even change the shoreline or wreck your boat, but they don’t last a long time, and are localised. You have to adapt to them, and know what weather is coming, and work with them and react appropriately to set sails and hold the right course. These are the stories we react to and tell, stories that dominate the news or animate a communications campaign for days or weeks, but ultimately pass or change in a relatively short time frame. 

Deeper beneath the surface are swells, deeper, longer waves caused by long term wind trends, prevailing winds, and formed literally across the other side of the ocean. Swells can sometimes be almost invisible as your boat gently rises and falls, but they can significantly affect your course as you travel with or against them. These are the narratives and frames that signal what is this issue ‘about?’ For example:

  • Brexit as control & freedom
  • Government budgets as household budgets
  • Climate as an “environmental” issue
  • Nuclear weapons as security

Deeper still lie the great ocean currents, caused by the rotation of the earth and temperature changes. They move in relatively tiny bits over the course of weeks, years, decades or millennia. And although humans are affecting them with climate change (just not deliberately), mostly we go along with them, plotting journeys across oceans to take advantage of these invisible currents. These are the deep narratives — pervasive, intractable and often invisible stories that we take as a given in the world. For example:

  • Different genders should have different roles in society
  • The profit motive: that the economy/society runs because people are seeking a profit, look at world as a series financial transactions
  • Nation states exist outside of stories
  • We are in competition for scarce resources
  • There is an us, and there is a them

Critically, though, as a sailor, you don’t just go along with any part of what the ocean is doing. You identify your destination, and then set a course and rig your sails depending on the ocean and weather conditions – everything from the local surface winds to the deep ocean currents. While sometimes you might wait for more favorable conditions, waiting out a storm in a protected cove or delaying a journey until the wind is in your favour, ultimately you don’t just let the swells or currents of the moment carry you along. I’d argue that too many advocates and communicators pay too much attention to the surface chop and local waves, without charting a clear course to a long-term destination that takes into consideration the swell and currents.

Charting a course

Now, one of the things we can do as communicators and advocates, which sailors definitely can’t do, is create the waves and swells that affect our journeys, and even influence — over time — the deep ocean currents in our favour. By understanding the current conditions, really diving in (sorry) to the stories, frames, and narratives at work on our issues, we can not only craft messages that will reach our audiences more effectively in the short term (our interim ports of call) but ultimately reframe and reshape narratives for the long term to help us get to our final destination.

In short, to reach our destinations, every communication can be carefully crafted for the maximum impact the short run (local conditions) and long run (final destination), taking into account the frames and narratives that will push against our journey, or aid getting us there.

Too many powerful forces are driving division – here are the seven trends you need to know about if you want to democratise and depolarise our common life instead

Originally posted on Global Dashboard

Lawyers, historians and constitutional experts will ultimately have the final say about whether last week’s decision to prorogue parliament is a democratic outrage or well within the bounds of our unwritten constitution. But however history judges prorogation, it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture: the seven ways in which a politics of ‘us’ and ‘them’ has emerged at precisely the time we need leaders to tell a powerful story of our shared humanity. 

Earlier this summer, we commemorated the bravery of the veterans who landed in Normandy on D-day, and in coming weeks we will be inspired by the active citizenship of thousands of young people who rally to avert climate catastrophe. But can those of us in the generations in between be proud of the political culture we’ve let develop, where we are encouraged to view fellow citizens as ‘enemies of the people’ and national treasures talk about our Prime Minster and ropes and lampposts in the same breath? Our children are watching – surely we can give them better examples of how to disagree well?

There is already plenty of research about how public opinion has become more polarised, people have become more isolated and hate actors have infected our shared online spaces. There are also many incredible organisations already working in community cohesion or at a grassroots level to counter loneliness. Sadly, these are critical but insufficient responses to the fractures in our society. So the four of us – two working with young people and two working on depolarisation – came together to think what can be done about the coarsening of public discourse and how to inspire the next generation about the value of our democracy. 

As activists we think there’s plenty of injustice to get angry about – none of us are hankering after a lost era of deference. But we do think there is still a role for political leadership in countering the following alarming trends: 

  1. The use of violent language and threats of violence not being taken seriously. Politicians and candidates receive appalling abuse from strangers and organised trolls, but we should also be worried when politicians themselves are talking about their colleagues being lynchedstabbed or bayoneted, threats to their safety are diminished by their leaders, and digital supporters threaten or abuse without censure.
  • The use of dehumanising language and imagery. Again this is something that is all too common on the street or online, but the striking thing is how normal it has become for elites to talk about each other as traitors or saboteurs, and how few long-term political penalties are paid for using language and tactics which have real world consequences for those already subject to demonisation and discrimination. 
  • The promotion of conspiracy theories. In many respects the 2014 Scottish independence referendum was the test case for how far conspiracy theories have penetrated the mainstream. Since then, Brexit coverage and the response to evidence of antisemitism has normalised them further still.
  • Attacks on experts and expertise. Claims that ‘Britain has had enough of experts’ and accusations of the ‘clear misuse’of official statistics, combined with the arguments surrounding the expert definition of antisemitism have all added up to the sense that the notion of ‘alternative facts’ has jumped the Atlantic.
  • Swift rehabilitation after failures to tell the truth. One ex minister rejoined the cabinet in an elevated role just two years after resigning for misleading the then PM, another was in contention for her party’s leadership just one year after misleading MPs about Universal Credit and a shadow minister remains on the front bench despite misleading journalists about previous statements. 
  • Attacks on democratic institutions. From the civil service to the BBC to the judiciary, Britain’s independent institutions are increasingly under attack from senior politicians and media decision-makers.
  • Low level efforts to limit participation in public life. From voter ID policies to differentiated registration to restrictions on charity campaigning, we are seeing new barriers to full civic participation.

There are, of course, plenty of brilliant ministers, MPs and councillors – politics remains full to bursting with people of phenomenal integrity and commitment. Likewise there are so many journalists and editors committed to maintaining our great national tradition of robust but civil debate through initiatives like Britain Talks. So ordinary people coming together to fight these seven trends aren’t setting ourselves against politicians or journalists – we are helping create a climate in which the best of them can do their best by us all. 

So what can you do? In the short term here are three things:

  1. Show there’s a reward for good practice. Write a letter to the editor, call in to a radio show, tell a candidate that your vote will be determined partly by who shows the most commitment to democratising and depolarising politics. Show your support online for journalists, judges, civil servants and activists who are making your country or community better.
  2. Extract a penalty for bad practice. Get involved with efforts to fight Islamophobia, antisemitism and other forms of hatred in our political parties. Support those, like Stop Funding Fake News who are fighting conspiracy thinking and join campaigns like this one from the Fawcett Society to put a stop to abuse in public life.
  3. Vote and register everyone you know to vote. Support Democracy Club and other efforts to make voting easier. 

And finally, even if you don’t care about politics at all, or feel that the seven trends are bad but not really your business, do take a moment to think about your kids (or those of someone you love) and decide whether you want them growing up thinking this is how powerful and important people treat each other. It’s hard to teach young people about respect if the example being set from the top is of anything but. The next generation are watching – it’s up to this one what they’ll learn from what they see. 

Heather Hamilton is the Founder of Shared Humanity: Countering Us vs Them

Roger Harding is CEO of Reclaim

Kirsty McNeill is an Executive Director at Save the Children

Will Somerville is UK Director at Unbound Philanthropy

Why those who want to fight Trump and Brexit should study Jacinda Ardern’s Christchurch speech

Originally published March 7, 2019 on Medium

Nearly everything New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has done since last Friday’s horrific Mosque attacks in Christchurch has been a pitch-perfect demonstration of how to respond to those who are using hate to divide our societies. Progressive leaders in Europe and America should take note.

The world is — rightfully — heaping praise on her leadership after the Mosque attacks in Christchurch last Friday, with the Guardian praising her “solace and steel” and her empathy. Reuters reported that her “calm and compassion” shown in her response “burnished her credentials.”

She immediately called the attacks terrorism, a label that too many other Western leaders have failed to use in response to white nationalist attacks. Her decision to wear a headscarf to comfort survivors on Saturday was symbolic act the likes of which has been cited by conflict resolution experts as powerful in reducing intergroup conflict. And the language of her speeches — immediately after the shootings and this morning in Parliament — is a master class in messaging.

I am currently researching whether there is a way we can create powerful messaging to counteract the divisive ‘Us vs. Them’ rhetoric of extreme forces in the US and UK, and build a collective case for open, tolerant and kind societies. What I found most remarkable about Ardern’s response is how her response incorporated some of the most exciting learnings from psychology, conflict resolution, neuroscience and communications in her response.

At her press conference immediately following the attacks, she created a powerful alternative story, framing the victims as community members. She noted that many were immigrants by saying that New Zealand was their choice (and interestingly didn’t call them immigrants) — and praised both their work building a community in their new home, and evoking freedom of religion and culture — e.g., tolerance.

“Our thoughts and our prayers are with those who have been impacted today. Christchurch was the home of these victims. For many, this may not have been the place they were born. In fact, for many, New Zealand was their choice.

The place they actively came to, and committed themselves to. The place they were raising their families, where they were part of communities who they loved and who loved them. It was a place that many came to for its safety. A place where they were free to practice their culture and their religion.”

She signalled what the attack was “about,” offering a clear explanation to the public, while raising shared values.

“For those of you who are watching at home tonight, and questioning how this could have happened here, we — New Zealand — we were not a target because we are a safe harbor for those who hate. We were not chosen for this act of violence because we condone racism, because we are an enclave for extremism. We were chosen for the very fact that we are none of these things. Because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion, a home for those who share our values, refuge for those who need it. And those values, I can assure you, will not, and cannot, be shaken by this attack.

We are a proud nation of more than 200 ethnicities, 160 languages. And amongst that diversity we share common values. And the one that we place the currency on right now — and tonight — is our compassion and support for the community of those directly affected by this tragedy.

And secondly, the strongest possible condemnation of the ideology of the people who did this.

You may have chosen us — but we utterly reject and condemn you.”

While evocative of Bush’s “they hate us for our freedom,” Jacinda’s explanation puts at fault not a people, but an ideology, and highlighted the values that bring the people of her country together — freedom, diversity, kindness, compassion, and giving refuge to those in need.

And in stark contrast to the white ethno-nationalist mantra (and favorite theme of populists like Trump, Farage and LePen) that the ‘real people’ — the “us” — are of European heritage, Ardern defined at the very beginning of her speech that “us” includes the Muslim victims — and that her definition of “us” is those who support diverse, open, tolerant, kind societies. “Them” becomes an ideology, rather than a people that can be defined by tribal identification, such as race, nationality, gender or party affiliation.

Ardern returned to and built upon many of these themes in her speech to Parliament this morning, a powerful call for unity, tolerance and openness. She began by humanizing the Muslim victims of the attack — a group that has been profoundly dehumanized by other world leaders in recent years:

“But for the families, it was more than that. It was the day that the simple act of prayer — of practising their Muslim faith and religion — led to the loss of their loved ones lives.

Those loved ones, were brothers, daughters, fathers and children.

They were New Zealanders. They are us.”

She highlighted the bravery of the police who responded — but also included acknowledgements of two Muslims who tried to stop the attack, specifically mentioning that they were originally from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Telling positive or unexpected stories about the ‘out group’ can reduce in-group bias and increase tolerance.

“The arrest itself was nothing short of an act of bravery. Two country police officers rammed the vehicle from which the offender was still shooting. They pulled open his car door, when there were explosives inside, and pulled him out.

I know we all wish to acknowledge that their acts put the safety of New Zealanders above their own, and we thank them.

But they were not the only ones who showed extraordinary courage.

Naeem Rashid, originally from Pakistan, died after rushing at the terrorist and trying to wrestle the gun from him. He lost his life trying to save those who were worshipping alongside him.

Abdul Aziz, originally from Afghanistan, confronted and faced down the armed terrorist after grabbing the nearest thing to hand — a simple eftpos machine. He risked his life and no doubt saved many with his selfless bravery.”

Later on, near the conclusion, she returns to telling individual stories in a deeply humanizing way that also evokes shared values, telling the story of Hati Mohemmed Daoud Nabi:

“He was the 71-year-old man who opened the door at the Al-Noor mosque and uttered the words ‘Hello brother, welcome’. His final words.

Of course he had no idea of the hate that sat behind the door, but his welcome tells us so much — that he was a member of a faith that welcomed all its members, that showed openness, and care.”

She then acknowledged people’s legitimate fears, providing reassurances of safety for the Muslim community, but tying their safety to everyone else’s — and did so in a calm, measured way that explained why specific measures were necessary based on lessons learned from other countries.

“Mr Speaker, if you’ll allow, I’d like to talk about some of the immediate measures currently in place especially to ensure the safety of our Muslim community, and more broadly the safety of everyone.

As a nation, we do remain on high alert. While there isn’t a specific threat at present, we are maintaining vigilance.

Unfortunately, we have seen in countries that know the horrors of terrorism more than us, there is a pattern of increased tension and actions over the weeks that follow that means we do need to ensure that vigilance is maintained.”

She then let people know what else the government would do to support the needs of the families and ensure security, including swift and specific policy changes to avoid another similar incident by addressing gun laws. This provided evidence that her leadership was more than compassion and words, and extended to longer-term solutions:

“Part of ensuring the safety of New Zealanders must include a frank examination of our gun laws.

As I have already said Mr Speaker, our gun laws will change. Cabinet met yesterday and made in-principle decisions, 72 hours after the attack.”

And while she called out the role of social media as a publisher, not just a postman — and said they must take responsibility, she also gave listeners something to contribute. She called for the collective responsibility of New Zealandersto confront racism, violence and extremism; developed a sense of urgency for action, and acknowledged that she doesn’t have all the answers:

“We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and that what is said on them is not the responsibility of the place where they are published. They are the publisher. Not just the postman. There cannot be a case of all profit no responsibility. This of course doesn’t take away the responsibility we too must show as a nation, to confront racism, violence and extremism. I don’t have all of the answers now, but we must collectively find them. And we must act.”

And again at the very end of the speech, she acknowledges the fear for personal safety in their communities that people feel after terrorist attacks, and the need to do something beyond feeling sympathy — and redirects it to a new definition of safety and togetherness and specifically calls on everyone to address racism and hate as a response to the attack:

“I know that as a nation, we wish to provide every comfort we can to our Muslim community in this darkest of times. And we are. The mountain of flowers around the country that lie at the doors of mosques, the spontaneous song outside the gates. These are ways of expressing an outpouring of love and empathy. But we wish to do more.

We wish for every member of our communities to also feel safe.

Safety means being free from the fear of violence.

But it also means being free from the fear of those sentiments of racism and hate, that create a place where violence can flourish.

And every single one of us has the power to change that.”

And finally, the last line of her speech is another striking repudiation of the “Us vs. Them” narrative promoted by ethno-nationalists:

“We are one, they are us.”

Her speech was masterful and inspirational. I can only hope that other world leaders seeking to push back on the forces of violent ethno-nationalist extremism and defeat the populist leaders fanning its flames will take note.