Margins: Organizing Society

Organizing Society

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Our social organizations are constantly in flux, as we form connections and affiliations along shared interests, family relationships, geographic proximity and so much more. It’s easy not to think about it too much, until the pace of change accelerates to the point where it becomes uncomfortable. 

In this episode of Margins, Elena and I spoke with Stetson University professor Sven Smith, Fordham University professor Paul Levinson and human rights activist Ben O’Keefe on the forces that drive how we organize ourselves as societies and why they can be so difficult to change.

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Where Group-Think Comes From

Do you ever feel like things get a little cliquey when you’re having a conversation with more than two people? According to Stetson University Professor Sven Smith, that’s because we are unconsciously organizing our own little societies all the time.

“As soon as you add that third person, that third person is going to side with either person. And so when you have A and B, the dynamic is quite different because when you add C, then A and B get a lot more aware of themselves and how they’re perceived,” he notes. “It also has the effect of depending on the issue and what you’re talking about, and the context of the conversation between the three people. Adding that third creates either the option of an arbitrator, or a mediator, or someone that’s just going to side with the other person. You otherize the person in the minority and so now certain other characteristics that might not have anything to do with the conversation are salient.”

We’re all susceptible to these dynamics, thus explaining the dynamics of every conference call I’ve been on in the past year.

The Enduring Power of Propaganda

Propaganda is one of our most powerful tools for influencing and organizing society, and Paul Levinson, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University, argues that despite the negative connotation, it’s actually something that can be used as a force for both good and bad. 

“It's a deliberate appeal to people's emotions to get them to think that they're logically coming to a conclusion, even though there's no real logic in the conclusion,” Paul says. An example of good propaganda involves parenting. “You have to tell [your children] that why they shouldn’t go out into the street is because ‘I'm your parent and I'm telling you not to go.’ And what that is a classic appeal to authority.” If you’ve ever had to reason with a toddler, you’ll know why this can sometimes be the easiest and most effective route to take. Paul notes that these sorts of logical shortcuts are used in almost all forms of propaganda. 

Making everything even more complicated these days is the ease with which social media allows people to spread misinformation. “It has changed our entire relationship with the truth,” Paul says. It mainly accomplishes this by mere repetition. “Seeing it every time you log onto Twitter and seeing it on Facebook,” he adds, “Your brain almost says, ‘You know what I give up, maybe that's true.’” 

Organizing Society Means Organizing Culture

We’ve identified the ways that psychology influences the way we structure society, so what do we do with this information? How can we actively work towards organizing society in a better way? To learn more, we speak to Ben O’Keefe, an activist and filmmaker who has been striving to improve society from an early age. He launched a successful campaign against Abercrombie & Fitch for not being inclusive, and he now dedicates time towards the fight for strong societal messages of body positivity.

“When I think about organizing society, I'm thinking about what are the things that will change the conditions that will allow us to have the largest long-term effect that we can have. And that means changing hearts and minds. I always say [that] if you can make someone feel, you can make someone do just about anything.”

Promoting positive messaging is a great way of utilizing propaganda for good. The more people see messages of inclusivity and acceptance, the more ingrained they become in culture. This creates a positive momentum that all of us can use to effectively engage in organizing society. According to Ben, you have to keep up the fight in order to make the strongest impact: “If you care enough about something, then do the work to make it real.”

People Featured in This Episode

Full Transcript

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Mary Ellen Slayter: 

This season of Margins from Managing Editor is brought to you by Showcase Workshop, which helps your team deliver outstanding sales presentations wherever you go. Marketers, see how your content performs in real-time and plant thousands of native trees in the process. Learn more at showcaseworkshop.com/margins.

Intro

Mary Ellen Slayter:

This season of Margins for Managing Editor is brought to you by showcase workshop, which helps your team deliver outstanding sales presentations, wherever you go. Marketers, see how your content performs in real time and plant thousands of native trees in the process. Learn more at showcaseworkshop.com/margins. From managing editor magazine, this is margins. And if you’ve got content in your job description, we’ve made this podcast for you. I’m your host, Mary Ellen Slayter. In this season of Margins, we’re exploring what it means to be organized.

Elena Valentine:

And I’m your cohost Elena Valentine. I feel in nearly every episode that we’ve recorded so far, I think the underlying theme is all around the dynamics of power. Right? Organizing is a set of structures. Right? Or a set of rules by which people are being organized around. And then you start to ask the questions of, well, who makes those decisions? Who makes those decisions that dictate how we are organized? And that’s where power comes into play.

Mary Ellen Slayter:

This just brings me to something that I think is in the news a lot, that we should talk about. It’s people getting really worked up about critical race theory and trying to ban it from schools, which is fairly being taught anyway, this is a university level concept. But what CRT asks us to do is go back and look at these structures through the lens of race. And some people are really uncomfortable with that,. And instead of thinking about it in an analytical way and reflecting on it, they react to it very emotionally.

Elena Valentine:

Well, because they feel they have something to lose. That’s again, where the power comes into play. I’m reading this book called Emergent Strategy and one of the things that this author poses is that the interconnectedness of the Microsystems to the larger system, in some ways is one and the same. Right? That how we act, how we behave, how we think is individuals in our small tribes, inevitably gets moved up the ranks to really impact and influence the surroundings around us. And what’s fascinating about Emergent Strategy, when we think about what is the role that an individual plays, is that this also goes very much into the Buddhist principle. It’s that we very much as individuals, have a lot more power than we think to influence the dynamics around us. And we can either choose to be a force for good or choose to be a force for bad.

Mary Ellen Slayter:

Good for whom? If they are feeling like they’re going to lose something. I mean, the first thing they’re going to lose is their comfort. Right? And their ability to think of themselves as disconnected from these things and to think of them as past, right, and the irrelevant to their lives. Now it’s a very comfortable position to ignore these institutional organizational structural decisions that were made, and there’s comfort in that. Who doesn’t want to think that they’ve got everything they have because they deserve it? That’s comfortable.

So I think we often talk about changing society and when you think about upending these organizational structures, whether we’re trying to do it in a little way, or if we’re trying to make big changes. What we’re really asking people to do is to give up their comfort, before we ask them for anything material, we’re first asking them to give up their comfort. Because predictable organization gives you comfort.

Interview 1: Sven Smith

Mary Ellen Slayter:

Do you ever feel like things get a little cliquey when you’re having a conversation with more than two people? According to Stetson University professor, Sven Smith, that’s because we are unconsciously organizing our own little societies all the time.

Sven Smith:

This conversation will change greatly if there was two more people in it. So there’s this guy out there, his name was Georg Simmel. And he basically talks about that. As soon as you add that third person, that third person is going to side with either person. And so when you have A and B, the dynamic is quite different because when you add C, then a and B get a lot more aware of themselves and how they’re perceived. And so in a Jungian way, their persona grows and it grows more impactful. In other words, how they want to portray themselves. It also has the effect of depending on the issue and what you’re talking about, and the context of the conversation between the three people, adding that third creates either the option of an arbitrator, or a mediator, or someone that’s just going to side with the other person. You otherize the person in the minority and so now certain other characteristics that might not have anything to do with the conversation are salient.

Mary Ellen Slayter:

To illustrate his point. Sven took our conversation in a surprising direction.

Sven Smith:

I love The Rock. And so despite The Rock’s ubiquity through culture, the last person to not grow tired of him. But you’re along with probably just about everybody else and you’re pretty much sick of it. And so he comes out with, I don’t know, Tooth Fairy, part two. And so you and I are arguing about whether the merits of whether we should attend the showing of Tooth Fairy two. Well, our conversation is going to change when you add a third person, according to Simmel. When you add that third person, now things that don’t have anything to do with the merits of whether a Tooth Fairy two is worth attending or not, or worth the fiscal investment, or we’re going to become utilized to put further space between the two people who agree and the other person. So the reason why I don’t want to see The Rock now is because I’m different from the other two, even though that difference is beyond just the argument.

Mary Ellen Slayter:

What happens when you add even more people to the conversation?

Sven Smith:

The saying that a horse was not created by committee. I’ve mentioned that in my classes, sometimes people look at me like I’m crazy. So maybe that’s not a saying anymore, but there’s some truth to that. Which is when you throw a bunch of people in there, it’s going to be a mess. You’re going to have to wade through a bunch of other issues. So specifically, if you’ve got 10, now you’ve got group dynamics, you have generalizations. So if you speak to so-called liberals about so-called conservatives, they’re going to tell you that conservatives are closed-minded and they hate anything different from them, and they go to church five times a week. Right?

You have that otherizing or that generalization, but then you also have this polarization. Let’s just treat it as a binary. We were saying before you had the A and the B and then C came along and joined either A or B. Well, let’s say 18 other people come and 12 of them go one way and the others go to the other. You got enough in each group to now have group dynamics within those other groups, and one of the things that’s going to happen is polarization. So they’re going to one up each other.

Mary Ellen Slayter:

In fact, being in such a large group can actually affect how we reason.

Sven Smith:

Our minds rest upon dialectical reasoning to determine behavior. So I go into McDonald’s and I order a quarter pounder with cheese, and there’s a quarter pounder with cheese that’s already sitting there for somebody else. So I want to just grab it and eat it, but I don’t do that. And why don’t I do that? Well, I don’t do that because I’m thinking about this opposing force to that, and that opposing force to that is common decency, the shame that would be involved in that, it’s not mine, whatever other reasons. Well, when you’re in a group, you’re speaking the same opinions, there’s a lot less dialectical reasoning going on. There’s no countervailing force to it to keep it under control.

And so what you have is someone going, “Yeah, me too.” And then the third person goes, “Yeah, plus this,” because they have this initial impulse to speak, and now they’ve got to say something that’s in line with that. The more you have that, the more pressure you have to not say anything. And so it can quickly grow out of control.

Mary Ellen Slayter:

We’d like to think we’re immune to this kind of pressure, but we’re not.

Sven Smith:

I do this thing in my classes and I totally stole the idea from somebody else, and I truly cannot remember their name. Anyway, this is what you do. You give the class some kind of fact pattern and you say, and the one I give them is like a DUI pattern where the person goes out partying, because they’re college kids. So they’ll relate to this. And so you say, they go out partying and they wake up the next morning, they’re still drunk but they’ve got to drive home. They thought they could sleep it off, but they can still feel it a little bit. They get in the car and they drive home. Well on their way, imagine this lady who’s a nurse or a nun, and in her backseat she’s got the most beautiful baby you’ve ever seen in your life. So anyway, she turns around and she’s tending to this child and she leans into the other lane.

So she does that, and so because of that, she gets into a head on collision with Mr. DUI. Everybody lives but the most beautiful baby in the world, it dies. Whose fault is it? Is it the nuns, or is it the DUI? And I ask them, rate the culpability of Mr. or Mrs. DUI, and then rate the punishment that they should receive on a one to 10. 10 being the most extreme, capital punishment. And then rate how guilty they are for the entire situation because technically they were in the bounds of the law, right, they were just going down the lane. And so you have a lot of disagreement there, and that’s really what I want. And so what I do is, I get them to write that down. And then I put them in groups the next day, and they don’t know this, but I’ve taken all my people that are like, “Fry them.”

I’m going to put them together. And then I take all the people that are like, “He didn’t do anything wrong.” And I put them over on another group. I take that group and I asked them to deliver a score to me, to vote on a score and figure out a score, and I asked the other side and then I take the mean for those. And it should be pretty close. Guess what I find? Per polarization, the score that the group delivers to me after deliberation is always more extreme towards the liberal for the liberal group, and extreme for the punishment group, almost every time. And I’ve done this, I don’t know, I think seven years. And that data suggests that polarization is a serious issue and it disrupts that natural psychology that delivers a reasonable or rational decision.

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Interview 2: Paul Levinson

Mary Ellen Slayter:

Propaganda is one of our most powerful tools for influencing and organizing society. To learn more about how propaganda works in this day and age, I went to Paul Levinson, a professor of communications and media studies at Fordham university. My first question, what is propaganda?

Paul Levinson:

It’s a deliberate appeal to people’s emotions, to get them to think that they’re logically coming to a conclusion, even though there’s no real logic in the conclusion. And one of the more important things about understanding propaganda, it’s not just something that bad people use. Parents use propaganda on their kids all the time. So you tell your son or daughter don’t run out into the street and they say, “But why? It’s fun.” And you try to explain to them it’s dangerous, cars are coming and they’re still not getting it. You pretty soon have to tell them, “Why shouldn’t you go out into the street? Because I’m your parent and I’m telling you not to go.” And what that is, is a classic appeal to authority. It’s saying, “I’m not going to give you a logical reason, I’m just going to cite my authority and right along, you have to follow what I’m saying.” And that actually was an element in Nazi propaganda. It’s an element in all propaganda.

Mary Ellen Slayter:

How has social media changed our relationship to propaganda?

Paul Levinson:

Social media have completely amplified all kinds of elements that were already in society. It’s made it much easier for people to spread all kinds of information. And this appeal to emotion and forget about logic, is something which unfortunately has now been writ large in social media. We just want to look at the current political situation to believe that Trump won the 2020 election. And the only reason why he’s not president is some fraud, a series of frauds were perpetrated on the dial count in enough states that Trump would have won the electoral college.

When there’s not a scintilla of evidence, it’s just pure emotion. It’s just because people want to believe that. But another one of the bedrocks of propaganda that go back to Nazi Germany, but again, social media have made much easier to do now, is just mere repetition. And there’s something about human beings, when something is repeated often enough, our natural defenses to be skeptical about it get worn down by that repetition. And for some people, the mere seeing it every time you log onto Twitter, you’re seeing it on Facebook, they’re hearing it on television also. After a while, your brain almost says, “You know what? I give up, maybe that’s true. I’m going to embrace that.” And if that appeals to something, you already want it to happen, then you can be convinced and persuaded.

Mary Ellen Slayter:

According to Paul, social media has changed so much more than how we disseminate propaganda. It has changed our entire relationship with the truth.

Paul Levinson:

I just read a book a couple of months ago by someone by the name of Andrey Mir. He’s a Russian who currently lives and works in Canada, and it’s called Post Journalism, and it’s about the death of journalism. And he makes the point, which when you think about it it’s pretty clear, that what social media have done is they’ve replaced truth as the ultimate goal. And instead of truth, what people want are likes and shares and approval. And that is the unforeseen thing, I think that’s the most prominent aspect of social media.

The biggest change now is although there is still a call for focus on truth for the world at large, what somebody wants to get when she or he posts something on Twitter are as many retweets and likes as possible. Truth is secondary, and that’s a serious issue. And again, it’s classic propaganda or part of propaganda, because what happens when you get a retweet or like? It makes you feel good. There’s nothing wrong with feeling good, but again, it’s not a logical argument and it has no connection to whether what it is that makes you feel good is true or false.

Interview 3: Ben O’Keefe

Elena Valentine:

Ben O’Keefe is a human rights activist, political commentator and filmmaker who has been organizing society from a very early age. He is the head of diversity and impact development and production at CreatorPlus, and recently worked as the impact producer for All In: The Fight for Democracy. So what does organizing society mean to Ben?

Ben O’Keefe:

To me, organizing society means organizing culture. Policy change, doesn’t change hearts and minds. And until we change as a society, until we have a cultural understanding of what is right and wrong, until we decide that we will not allow certain groups of marginalized people to be othered and less than in our society, and our culture, then we have not really created the change that we need to see. And to me, when I think about organizing society, I’m thinking about what are the things that will change the conditions that will allow us to have the largest long-term effect that we can have. And that means changing hearts and minds. I always say, if you can make someone feel, you can make someone do just about anything.

Elena Valentine:

It’s a lesson Ben learned at a young age.

Ben O’Keefe:

I actually got my start in activism when I was just 18 years old. I started a viral campaign against the clothing company, Abercrombie and Fitch because they didn’t want plus size people wearing their clothing. Seven years before I ever started this campaign, the CEO said in an interview, CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch, “In schools there are the cool kids and then there are the not so cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kid, the popular All-American kid with a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong in our clothes and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.” And so that was seven years before I read that quote, subsequently they had done all sorts of things to continue to prove that they were exclusionary. But I remember thinking to myself, “Why has no one done anything about this?” And then I realized, wait, I’m someone, I could do something about this right now.

And so I started a very, very early change.org petition, and I decided to call on them to apologize and to start carrying plus sizes. And so I write this petition, it’s three o’clock in the morning or something ridiculous. And I realized, well, it’s only going to matter if I get it out there, so I need to write a press release. So I Google how to write a press release. And then I said, “Well, I have to send it to someone.” So I start Googling reporters names and trying different combinations of first name, dot last name @nbcuniversal.com, until I built a press list of hundreds of reporters, and I sent it out and I went to sleep. And the next morning I woke up to tens of thousands of signatures on the petition and to countless reporters in my inbox and a movement for inclusion had really begun while I was sleeping in. It blew up, it went wild.

I was on Good Morning America and the Today Show and sharing my story and talking about my experience actually with an eating disorder in high school, and how harmful that it was for a company that catered to young people to be saying that they intentionally discriminated against them. Not only did we win that campaign, they started carrying plus sizes, they apologized, they fired their atrocious CEO. But it really helped spark the body positivity movement as we know it today. I started working with massive beauty and clothing brands on retouch beauty campaigns and body positivity campaigns. And it was the first time that I realized the power of sharing my story and the power of storytelling generally, to touch and make change in the world. But really all it took was deciding that I could be the person to create change, that if no one else was going to do it, it was my responsibility because I had survived anorexia.

I had survived and I was thriving and I had a responsibility to help other people thrive as well. And I think that’s really the key with so many things in life, it’s that everything seems unattainable, unachievable until someone does it. And we’re conditioned to think that that someone could never be us, but that someone can easily be us. It just takes a choice. If you care enough about something, then do the work to make it real.

Elena Valentine:

What motivates Ben to continue his work?

Ben O’Keefe:

I fought for everything from stopping the censorship of AP US history classes, to saving the life of a man on death row. But what has always moved me the most is identity politics. It’s largely identities that I correlate to. Right? I am a black queer person who grew up in poverty and those intersections have always encouraged me, because that meant that I was someone who in society had very little power, very little power that I was just born into. Right? I had to find my power. I did not have privilege. I have privilege now, but that privilege was acquired through the power that I built through fighting for myself and my community. We’re so afraid of the word, poverty and poor. And we hear politicians all the time saying, “I want to work for working class people.”

So that’s great, but I want to work for people who don’t have a job too. I want to work for the people who don’t have a home that they’re trying to support. I want to work for the people who are suffering every day, who

wake up and every day they’re filled with fear, because their lives are at risk or because they don’t know how they’re going to feed their family, or because they are afraid to walk outside because police brutality has become so rampant in our society. That fear is overwhelming and I’ve lived it. Right? I’ve been there. I’ve known what it feels like to not know what you’re going to eat the next day. I have known what it feels like to have police officers hold guns in your face as an unarmed black man just existing, just walking through a neighborhood that scared people and they called the police. And I just wanted to do everything in my power to make sure that no one else had to feel that fear.

Elena Valentine:

Ben and I ended our conversation with a reminder, no matter who you are, you can make an impact.

Ben O’Keefe:

I know famous people, I know world leaders, literally. And the way that we view these people is as if they’re infallible, as if they’re so much better than we could ever be. As if they don’t have contain multitudes, they don’t have struggles, they don’t have good times and bad times. Every powerful person is still a person. Everything that you go through, don’t put any person higher than you in the sense that, “Oh, I could do this, but I’m not so-andso,” comparison is the thief of joy. You are capable. You’re equally as valuable, whether you’re a greeter at Walmart or the president of the United States, and you have just as much power to make a difference in the world.

It is not always the same, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not valuable. Look for the ways that you can change one person’s life, because you never know whose life that person will change. Organizing is a chain reaction, it’s deeper than ourselves, it’s deeper than the interactions we have. It’s the tidal wave that we build together. So empower yourself, believe in yourself and never stop doing the one thing that you do better than anyone else in the world. That’s being your damn self. Use it. Your story is powerful. Your experiences are valid and your power is endless, when you learn how to channel it.

Outro

Mary Ellen Slayter:

So that’s it for this episode of Margins for Managing Editor. You can find us on Apple Music, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Make sure you get organized and subscribe so you don’t miss a single episode.

Elena Valentine:

And if you like what you hear, share us with your friends and rate us on your favorite podcast platform.

Mary Ellen Slayter:

If you’d like to hear more from the Managing Editor team, there’s an easy way to do that. We send out an email every Friday morning and you can join the club at managingeditor.com/subscribe. Thanks again to showcase workshop, the exclusive sponsor of this season of Margins. With showcase workshop, all of your marketing and sales collateral is organized in one place, ready to present to prospects on your device or by email. And it even helps plant thousands of native trees, making the world a better place too. Learn more at showcaseworkshop.com/margins.

Elena Valentine:

And a special thanks to the three men whose cooking smells much better than The Rock’s ever did, Producer, Rex New, Audio Editor, Marty McPadden and Assistant Producer, Michael Thibodeaux.

Mary Ellen Slayter:

We’ll see y’all next time.

Mary Ellen Slayter is CEO of Rep Cap. Before creating her own content marketing firm, she served as director of content development and a senior general business and finance editor at SmartBrief, a leading publisher of e-mail newsletters. Before joining SmartBrief, she spent 8 years at The Washington Post, where she authored the Career Track column and worked as an editor in the business news department. You can find Mary Ellen on Twitter @MESlayter.

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