guest post by Mike Freedman
Upton Sinclair, the famous writer of the early 20th, was quoted as saying: ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.’
In December, I will be giving my second guest lecture at Bournemouth University on the subject of the ethics of marketing. For all the shortcomings of that field, in marketing it is understood that all communication is aimed at change, whether it is changing a preference for toothpaste or a cultural narrative. If I invite you to come see my band or my niece’s piano recital, I’m trying to change what your plans otherwise are or might have been. Even sending out a press release debunking climate change is itself aimed at change, in the sense that it is seeking to change the believability of an opposing message. That is why Sinclair’s quote is so important for understanding the work that lies ahead of us – it discards the idea that what we are doing is somehow unique.
The difference between you and an oil company press officer is only the message, not the act. Your motivation might be loftier, your goal more beneficial for a larger swathe of humanity, but doing what you are doing is functionally no different from the press office at the Heritage Foundation or the Adam Smith Institute. Those people are also ‘change agents’, it’s just that they are trying to change society into something you and I agree is a Spencerian experiment in social Darwinism using high rhetoric about liberty and individualism to disguise the desires of their paymasters.
This may seem depressing, but it’s not. I’m not trying to tell you that what you are doing doesn’t matter – it matters a great deal. The truth, however, must be acknowledged because it will liberate you from the ‘I know I’m doing the right thing so why hasn’t it worked yet?’ burden that presses down on you in the dark when you lie in bed. You are telling people something that they are paid not to understand. Why let it upset you? It’s almost a law of nature.
I spent two years researching, writing, directing, producing and narrating a documentary called Critical Mass about the impact of human population growth and consumption on our planet and on our psychology:
Now that the film is finished, I have the task of bringing it out into the world. This involves a great deal of communication, and because of our use of archive footage which needs to be cleared, fundraising as well.
So how do I reconcile my belief in the message with my own concerns about adding to the noise already being made by every other person who’s soliciting on this giant street corner we call the internet? How do I wake up every morning and keep working, moving forward despite occasional silences, adversarial reactions or seemingly hopeless odds?
Crack cocaine, in Herculean doses.
There are many reasons I am able to keep on keepin’ on, but the most relevant one here is that I gave up on the idea that I was going to change the world about a year ago. That’s not to say that our human systems, structures, habits and frameworks don’t need to be reappraised, improved or utterly redesigned.
What it means is that I found that the greatest obstacle to my own personal development was myself, not the world. In attempting to know and conquer myself, I discovered that many external improvements flowed from that decision. What good is an improved world if the ‘me’ in it isn’t also improved?
So how does this emphasis on self-development fit in with my earlier point about the intractability of others based on their own vested interests? Well, it’s been my experience that placing oneself in opposition to something increases the resistance you face, which in turn makes the prospect of real change very remote. If someone is paid not to understand your message, being upset with them or telling them their paymasters are bad people won’t actually help the situation nor will it further your ultimate aim, which is to spread the word and encourage the adoption of new ideas and methods by others.
There are no good guys and bad guys in the world of communication, only people who know what’s up and others who have been mis- or uninformed. Dispense with the idea that you have enemies. Resist the temptation to externalise your obstacles. If you are the active element, changing yourself is the best example and also the most compelling argument in favour of your cause.
Furthermore, by seeing those you are trying to reach or convert as your equals rather than your adversaries, you will not underestimate the powerful, sometimes subconscious reasons for your message being ignored or dismissed. You will know why their ears do not hear and their eyes do not see, and this will help you to do better. Most of all, you will realise that the process of change is constant and the work of communication is ongoing; by no longer believing that there is a definite endpoint, you won’t feel so hopeless or exhausted by not having gotten there yet. The work is its own reward.
Thinking about these important aspects of what you do may not ultimately make your work any easier, but they will help you stay sane while you do it.
Mike Freedman is a filmmaker and writer based in London. Over the past two years, he has interviewed 60 of the world’s leading scientists, authors and academics on the issues of population, water, food, peak oil, economics and sustainability for his debut feature documentary, Critical Mass, which is about the impact of human population growth and consumption on our planet and on our psychology. In addition to his film work, he is an occasional guest lecturer at Bournemouth University and also gives presentations on the subject of population growth around the UK. His writing has been published by Stakeholder Forum’s Outreach Magazine, The Daly News and Transition Voice.