Choosing the battle

I'm not a Reddit person, which is probably obvious, but I was browsing the Extinction Rebellion1 subreddit the other day and came across a thread purporting to give names and addresses of the top 100 people polluting the planet2. Unsurprisingly, the original content had been deleted, but there was an interesting two-handed discussion that seemed to remain calm, despite not reaching a conclusion. Person A had repudiated the list of polluters and quoted the Extinction Rebellion rule 8 "We avoid naming and shaming". Over the course of the discussion, the support for this position included; that naming and shaming amounts to attacking someone; attacking someone causes them to retrench and fight back; avoiding blame allows the possibility with connecting with that person and opening up a discussion. Person B took the view that the ER approach was akin to appeasement and that the urgency of the situation required a more confrontational approach; indeed this approach would become more urgent as the likely crackdown on civil unrest increased in intensity. A key difference between the two of them appeared to be that B saw the situation as a battle, and A did not.

As it happens, I believe they had more in common than they admitted to. Whether they knew this or not I have no idea. The tone of the discussion may have been because they were simply reacting to each other. Whatever, they were both thinking in terms of addressing individuals, and, despite A's protests, both thought of themselves as being in a battle. I'm thinking here that ER is engaging in a battle, it just chooses to use particular tactics in the engagement. I have my own ideas about what should be done but, as I was planning this post, my attention was drawn3 to an article by Zaynep Tufekci about Game of Thrones4. Odd, but bear with me.

Tufekci is addressing criticism of the last season of GoT. She points out that most of the series was based on the books by George R. R. Martin, while the final season was written under the guidance of two Hollywood showrunners. The Martin stories are about social institutions: dynastic succession, ways of going to war, processes available to, or imposed upon, the people involved. It doesn't matter if the head of the dynasty dies, because there is always a successor. "The king is dead. Long live the King". Ironically, the showrunners were just as much a victim of their environment as Martin's characters - all they knew how to do was write character-based thrillers that said little about, or derived little from, the embedding social structures.

What this says as an example of criticism is not, for me, or indeed Tufekci, of great importance. There are three messages here. Firstly, no-one is all good or all bad. If all you have is a hammer (or dragon in the GoT context) then every problem has to be solved by hitting things. Even if you have good intentions, hitting stuff may cause unacceptable damage. Secondly, history is the history of institutions. Individuals are rarely significant. Thatcher was not necessary for neo-liberalism. In Tufekci's example, Hitler was not necessary for German fascism. Someone else would, sooner or later, have done something similar. And thirdly, if you need to make change you must address the institutions.

To complete the picture, for change to happen, there must be some convergence of knowledge, some rising feeling that things could be otherwise. Often these ideas emerge in more than one place at a time. Galileo was sufficient, but not necessary. Kepler and Copernicus had done the groundwork. Newton and Leibniz invented mathematical calculus at the same time and independently. Hayek, who did so much to promote the basic market theory that informs neo-liberalism, was just one of a number of economists who had come to the same conclusion. And Extinction Rebellion is an outgrowth of an increasing unrest about our future. We must also recognise that ER is aiming exactly at institutions and, to do so it is building and focusing the groundswell rather than picking out a 100 from the millions of rich people who have taken full advantage of the institutions that are currently available to them.

  1. The ER subreddit is here 

  2. Names and Locations of the Top 100 People Killing the Planet downloaded 20 May 2019 

  3. Link courtesy of Mob Lab 

  4. The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones downloaded 1 June 2019