The New Language of Social Change
The increasing number of voices articulating a positive vision of the future are a welcome antidote to the ‘anti’ approach, reports Lucy Purdy
The general mood during The People’s Assembly Against Austerity march held in London this June felt engaged, but largely ‘anti’. This was about anti-austerity and angry placards. Music and togetherness yes, but it was all against something, not for something. Last to speak on a line-up of mainly trade union leaders and stalwarts, it was uncertain how British comedian Russell Brand would relate to this crowd. But he did.
“I know there are no answers in fame, fortune or superficial pleasures,” he said. “I know that the answers and happiness come when we connect with one another, when we join together to look after one another. It’s time for us to take back our common unity. This will be a peaceful, effortless, joyous revolution.”
Several of the other speakers anticipated Russell’s focus on the positive. Disability rights campaigner, comedian and author Francesca Martinez said: “We need to redefine what is sacred. To me, life is beautiful and precious. We are not economic commodities. We are all here for, and we have an equal right to, happiness, health and opportunity.”
“We must have a message of hope, of courage and of solidarity,” added author and political commentator Owen Jones.
"Many people seem to exist in this precarious spot: feeling a profound love for our world, but with horror and fear often eclipsing their joy."
Russell helped cement this vocabulary, and in doing so, he changed the tone. He reinstated the importance of having a positive vision for the future, not simply a denunciation of what we’ve got. He wasn’t ignoring people’s suffering— Ann from Cardiff who told me her benefits had been cut, or Angela from Liverpool whose son can’t afford the bus to college—but actually coming at the problem from the most human of angles. The best way to reject a system that allows these things to happen is to envisage a new and better one, and nurture the values that will underpin it.
It isn’t just Russell and others from the anti-austerity march who are making these connections; the language of change is shifting. Author and environmentalist George Monbiot proved himself capable of painful self-reflection recently when he said that saving the world should be based on promise, not fear.
“I’ve been engaged in contradiction and futility. For about 30 years,” he wrote. “Almost everyone in this field is motivated by … the love and wonder and enchantment nature inspires. Yet, perhaps because we fear we will not be taken seriously, we scarcely mention them. We hide our passions behind columns of figures.”
Whipping up people’s fears, George explained, triggers an instinctive survival response, nurturing self-interest instead of the common good. He now realizes that hope inspires people and is most likely to prompt positive action.
What a simple, yet game-changing shift. Because this negativity epidemic is evident in so many areas of life: in the mainstream media, in a political system which seems incapable of articulating any sort of positive vision, even in schools, when the food chain is taught in terms of the accumulation of pesticides instead of the beautiful diversity of life and where waterways are taught through our pollution of them.
My own experience tells me this is true. When I think about a lot of protests, the aims of which I often share but which hang heavy with the language of rejection and anger, I feel hopelessness. When I think about things I love, walking in beautiful woods or being outdoors with friends and family, I feel hopeful and excited about the future. Many people seem to exist in this precarious spot: feeling a profound love for our world, but with horror and fear often eclipsing their joy.
Russell is not the answer, but he might be a fast-talking, hip-waggling conduit to an answer for some. But for most, the shift to believing in a more beautiful world will come from deep inside ourselves. From doing what we love, from cherishing the people and the planet we hold dearest—and from acting from our most human and intrinsic values.
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