Can words change the world?

How do you change the world? Are words enough? Or are they just the icing on the cake?

How do you change the world? Are words enough? Or are they just the icing on the cake?

From I have a dream” to Ask not what your country can do for you” to Greta Thunberg’s you are failing us” to Tony Blair’s Education, education, education”, we know that words can change the world and have an impact for years to come. These speeches were hoping to persuade, to inspire, to win – but most importantly they were telling a story that they wanted people to feel moved by and join in with.

Rebecca Solnit writes in Hope in the Dark:

Changing the story isn’t enough in itself, but it has often been foundation to real changes… Which means that every conflict is in part a battle over the story we tell, or who tells and who is heard.”

Stories can build and foster hope, pave the way for action, strengthen those actions and spread the word to build and create change. Stories are inextricably linked to power: it’s a lot easier to sell a narrative when your voice is the loudest in the room.

While observing a focus group recently we were struck by how much fear was dominating the opinions of the people around the table. Too often we let narratives that drive fear run amuck in our politics, our public debate and in our lives. Sometimes this comes in the form of stories about villains – the migrant in a small boat, the person in need of social security, the striking worker, or the young activist worried about the future of their planet. Other times it’s a story about scarcity or impossibility – how little money our government supposedly has to spend on the things we all need, or how a better world would be great, but just isn’t realistic. When you think about these stories, and how often you hear them, you begin to really see how powerful storytelling can be.

When fear is used as a motivator in a story – the big, dark, scary protagonist – people tend to become more insular. Fear brings out a base instinct in people. Their focus narrows down from their wider community to just themselves and their family’s survival. It individualises the issues rather than moving people towards thinking about how they can solve their problems in community with others. But for the scale of change that the world needs, people must join together, think about our challenges collectively, and work with each other to fix them.

The climate crisis is a perfect example. Images of people’s homes burning in wildfires or devastating floods wiping out whole towns might generate a strong emotional reaction but at best they cause this narrowing of horizons down to the individual level. And at worst they risk paralysing people with fear, or making them feel like the problem is so huge it cannot be overcome. The scale of the challenge of the climate crisis cannot be solved by well-meaning individuals. It will only be solved by large-scale collective and global action – and there is very little chance we will get there by scaring people into action. Hope, on the other hand, is a very different motivator.

When you talk to basically anyone for five minutes, you realise is how simple we all are. We are social beings who want to love, to be loved, to spend time with our loved ones, and to know they are safe and happy. This is not a fearful or hateful feeling, and it’s what connects us all.

Do progressives do enough to bring this out and go in hope-first, promoting and building joy? During the Brexit referendum, the remain campaign was branded Project Fear”. It tried to use bald, rational facts to win’ an argument that was being waged from the other side using emotions.

What if we could build a less fearful world where people would look out not in, where communities could flourish and the sprouts of positive change could grow? This starts with the stories we tell and the words we use – because even with the best ideas or the most ingenious solutions, you still need to tell their story and get people on board.

There is a lot to be aware of when thinking about how we communicate. Some of it is big, strategic stuff, like: who should we be speaking to? How do we reach them? Others are less visible. We need to be aware of unconscious things, like the cognitive networks of associated words, thoughts and feelings people tap into when they hear a word or phrase, the unintended consequences of using particular language and what motivates people at a base level.

This issue of the New Economics Zine looks at words, stories and how we use them, whether we’re talking about the climate crisis, our working lives, taxes or abortion. Up and down the country, and across the world, groups of people are fighting to change things for the better. The right words are not enough by themselves – but when we look at campaigns which have been won, we can see that words really matter.

We hope this issue contains vital insight and advice for us all to think about how we tell stories and persuade others. Funmibi Ogunlesi explains why words matter, and how progressives can use framing tools to fight for a better future. But messaging is not a silver bullet – we can’t expect to wave a magic narrative wand and expect everyone to agree with us. So Sho Walker-Konno offers a warning about the pitfalls of relying on messaging in a slapdash way.

When we encounter new stories, facts or ideas, none of us is a blank canvas. We all already have a mental framework which we hang these ideas off of. In our scene setter, Dora Meade looks how people in the UK think about what the economy is, how it works, and where these ideas come from. Paul Hebden looks back to the 2008 financial crisis to examine how our feelings about taxes get formed. The last decade of language about scroungers’, poverty and benefits are the subject of a piece by Tamsyn Hyatt. And Nadia Hasan argues that it’s not enough to express outrage about the treatment of refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants trying to make the UK home – we need a new approach if we are to change people’s minds.

Creative framing and messaging has already led to big victories. Karen Hand worked on the Irish Together For Yes abortion campaign, and shares how they won a victory for reproductive rights in Ireland – vital wisdom at a time when abortion access is under threat around the world. Jillian Marcellus gives us a view from the US, explaining how a new story called the Race Class Narrative has been used to win elections for the Democrats across the country.

We can use the knowledge from these past victories to plan for the future. Back on this side of the pond, Ayesha Balloch writes about how we can use the Race Class Narrative here in the UK – and how it can be used to fight back against culture wars whipped up by certain politicians and pundits.

The words we use can give people a mental framework for concepts which can seem too vast and frightening to get your head around. The prime example is the climate crisis. With some bad-faith actors attributing the skyrocketing cost of living to our green policies, how can the climate movement make sure their messages don’t get lost in the noise? Steve Akehurst looks at the latest research. Diyora Shadijanova explains how organisers and campaigners should fight back against our climate becoming a culture war topic in the UK. And we share an extract from Katherine Hayhoe’s book on how to talk to the people in our lives about something as huge and scary as climate breakdown.

And finally, as we leave a year marked by Covid-19 and soaring prices, Charlie Hertzog-Young offers a beautiful comic reflecting on this year and offering a message of hope for 2023.

As we move into a new year where things will undoubtedly continue to shift as old challenges remain and­ new challenges emerge we hope the contents of this issue helps foster hope and spark ideas about how we can work with each other to bring about the change we all need. Let’s use words and stories that lift us up, bring us together and help us to win an economy that works for people and the planet.

This is an extract from the New Economics Zine issue 5. Read the full issue here

Image: Elisa Macellari

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