Cargo cult activism
In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas–he’s the controller–and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land.
Activists can think this way, too. We’ve seen something work in the past, and so we try it again. Sometimes the underlying situation, power dynamics, and participants are very different, so the tactic or strategy doesn’t work. If we understand why it worked the first time, we can modify it to work in the present. But too often, if it doesn’t work, we just try it again with more passion. I mean, it worked for the Civil Rights struggle/labor movement/Gandhi/right here in this town in the 90s. Why wouldn’t it work for us today?
The South Seas cargo cultists didn’t realize that the important thing about a radio was what was inside, not what was outside. We should step back more often to analyze what we’re doing, to create tactics and strategies that work like the effective ones of the past, rather than just looking like them.
I’d bet we can avoid some of the worst of “cargo cult activism” by asking a few questions of the next thing we’re planning to try. Why do we think this will work? What’s a recent example of this working? How well do we understand that example? Did it work the last time our group tried it? If not, why not?
This post was inspired by a conversation we had during a 508 podcast: