The contents of this article are for information and educational purposes only. Patriot Propaganda does not officially recommend using any of the tactics, techniques or procedures presented.
You can’t HANDLE the truth! COLONEL NATHAN R. JESSUP
We are beholden to a powerful story, and imagine ourselves to be part of it: it is the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” Hans Christian Anderson’s nineteenth-century fairy tale. The story, as you may recall, is about an emperor who is tricked into buying a spectacular suit of nonexistent clothing. Eager to show off his new threads, the emperor parades butt-naked through town. The crowd, eager to share in the fantasy, exclaims how marvellous the Emperor’s imaginary attire is. Then, from the sidelines, a young child exclaims, “But he has nothing on!” Upon hearing this undeniable fact, the people whisper it mouth to ear, awaken from their illusion, and the Emperor scurries off in shame while everyone else, of course, lives happily ever after.
We’ve likely all imagined ourselves as the courageous child in this story. We will be the ones to find and reveal The Truth to others. The People will listen: the scales will fall from their eyes and they will finally see the world as it really is (which, of course, means seeing the world as we see it). Once the truth has been told, everything will change and we will all live happily ever after.
“The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a fairy tale, but like many popular stories, this one taps into our deep-rooted beliefs, fears, and desires. The idea that there’s power in simply knowing The Truth is older than Hans Christian Anderson. And how many times have you heard (or said) the maxim, “Knowledge is Power”? At one time this might have been true…
Throughout history, powers-that-be have stayed in power by having a monopoly on knowledge. The European Medieval church (which was arguably heretical), kept a firm grip on the handbook for proper thinking, doing, and being in the Christian world by allowing access to the Bible only to sanctioned users, priests, and educated readers of an arcane language: Latin. In China, during the same period, access to literacy was only allowed to an elite Mandarin class. Even today, totalitarian governments restrict access to information, ban books and artworks, and repress intellectuals, activists, and artists, fearful of any ideas that might challenge their official Truth. And today, Christians are being persecuted by a technocratic elite as the cycle repeats itself. When the economy of information is one of scarcity, knowledge does equal power.
But that’s not the world in which most of us live today … quite the opposite. We have a surplus of information. The internet contains terabytes of knowledge that we access with unprecedented ease. In our classrooms, on our blog pages, and in our discussions with friends or arguments with relatives, we freely ponder, consider, and rant. We are retrieving, discussing, forwarding, and retweeting ideas all the time. WikiLeaks provides us with secret governmental information, and the fact checkers of CNN and the New York Times daily refute dissenting points of view as the High Priests of Truth. We are awash with information.
If knowledge is power, and knowledge is now so freely available, then why does power still remain firmly in the hands of a few? Well, our position is that something is wrong with the equation.
Much of our faith in the liberatory potential of facts and truth has to do with how we’ve been taught to think about politics. According to political theorists, the model for modern democracy is the seventeenth-century European coffee house. In this public place, men of relative privilege and leisure sat around reading newspapers, discussing and deciding upon the important political topics of the day (like how to carve up Africa, Asia, and the Americas). They were reasonable, educated men making rational decisions with full and open access to all the facts. This is, at least, the shape that the democratic ideal often takes in popular imagination.
Coffee house denizens and democratic theorists were on to something though. Making rational decisions based upon informed and reasoned discussions is a worthy ideal. This is something we should aspire to, not only as artists and activists but throughout our societies. It is also naïve.
THE FEELINGS DON’T CARE ABOUT YOUR FACTS
A nation of considered thinkers or a republic of rationality may be our political ideal, but the practice of effective politics resembles little of this. From our own stories of stepping off the curb we know that politics is not a purely rational affair, yet we consistently present others with black-and-white arguments and documented facts. Somewhere, right now, a door-to-door canvasser is mechanically repeating a reasoned argument for why the person in front of them should sign their petition. And they are being ignored.
We make sense of our world through symbols and stories at least as much as we do through facts and figures. We are often motivated more by emotional attachments to issues, perspectives, and politicians than by reasoned political positions.
Social movement scholar, Marshall Ganz, argues that experiences and feelings of urgency, hope, love, anger, dignity, and solidarity are at the core of people’s politicisation. As you probably noticed when recalling your own art activist origin story, what moves us to engagement is often less a reasoned evaluation of all possible options that brings us to a rational decision, and more a felt response.
It just, you know, seems like the right thing to do given what we see, hear, and experience.
GREAT POWER. GREAT RESPONSIBILITY.
There are rational reasons for why people often make sense of the world like this, but what matters here is this idea that we are often moved to become involved with politics for non-rational, emotional, and personal reasons, and that we make sense of our world through symbols and stories as much as words and logical arguments. Accepting this idea means accepting that we need to do activism in a way that acknowledges the power of the sensual and the emotional.
The irrational is used politically by some extremely unsavoury characters; it’s the stock-in-trade for Marxists and woke demagogues who groom our children in the school system, encouraging them to dye their hair and believe that gender is a “constellation.” This stuff is dynamite, and we need to be careful how we use it. That’s why we will be talking about ethics down the road. But if we don’t learn how to tap into people’s feelings and experiences, we leave an important dimension of politics to the other side. Just because the irrational has been abused, doesn’t mean it can’t be used in a different way.
EXERCISE: KNOWING IS NOT ENOUGH
1. Think of a behaviour you know is good, yet you don’t do it (like exercise, eating right, spending time with family) or one that you know is bad, yet you continue to do it (smoking, eating too much cookie dough, scrolling mindlessly through Instagram and TikTok). Write that behaviour down.
2. Write down your reasons and rationalisations for why you persist in doing, or avoiding, these behaviours in spite of what you know to be best.
3. Now write down a behaviour that you did change at some point in your life; say stopping smoking, giving up social media, or eating more vegetables.
4. What made you “step off the curb” and change your behavior? Write this down.
Look over what you’ve written. You may find that knowing something is very different than acting upon something. And when we do act upon something it’s often not because we’ve amassed all the facts and figures to convince ourselves to do so, but because we’ve had some sort of an experience that convinced us we needed to act. This is not to say that facts and action are not connected. Reading the facts about the health effects of long-term smoking can help you to make the decision to quit. But give this a bit more thought: is it really the facts, or what the facts are connected to — our fear of illness or a premature death, our responsibility to our loved ones — that prompts our change? What we do as art activists is try to create the sorts of experiences that have the urgency necessary to prompt people to act upon the facts.
We should always remember the first rule of guerrilla warfare: know your terrain and use it to your advantage. If we are going to be effective as art activists, we need to operate on real terrain, not on the basis of the democratic fantasy of the European coffee house. This means rationally understanding that politics are not purely rational.
The truth about politics is that it is not about truth. Politics is about people’s perceptions of the truth, their feelings about facts, and their visceral experiences of the world. None of this is to say that people’s rationality should be ignored, that facts don’t matter, or that the truth is relative and malleable. Facts are important, and truth should be the foundation of our analysis, our actions, and the worlds we create. But facts and truth don’t speak for themselves. They need to be made into symbols and incorporated into stories that people can make sense of and care about. They need our help.
This article was adapted from Duncombe, Stephen, and Steve Lambert. The Art of Activism: Your All-Purpose Guide to Making the Impossible Possible. OR Books, 2021.
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