In the weeks since the Federal Election on the 18th of May we have seen a multitude of analysis from journalists, politicians, and activists – some doing a rethink, some looking to blame, others doubling down.

Reasons proffered for Scott Morrison’s ‘surprise’ win include a crowded and complex policy agenda from Labor, Murdoch Press attacks, ‘fake news’ on social media, poor choice of tactics by activist groups, and of course, the relative popularity of the leaders.

No doubt many of these factors were in play in the election’s outcome.

Nevertheless, activists within the environmental and union movements are recognising that now is the time for reflection. Meetings, surveys and discussion groups are being held across the country.

In my process of reflection, I have turned again to University of Queensland social psychologist Professor Winnifred Louis.

I last spoke with Professor Louis in January 2017 not long after the Senate success for One Nation in the last Federal Election and the election of Donald Trump in the US. In that interview, Professor Louis signaled that some of the tactics employed by activists are not only not working, they are actually turning away the very people we hoped to persuade.  You can read that interview HERE.

What can social psychologists offer?

Social psychology focuses on how relationships between people affect thinking, emotions, and actions – including in persuasion and conflict.

In other words, Professor Louis says, it poses the question, “how can you get people to change towards you when they don’t like you and don’t trust you and don’t agree with you?”

Professor Louis’s research in this area has been informed by her increasing concern that there is no evidence to support many of the tactics activists are using as tools for persuasion. She says that campaigns that are successful to energise and inspire the people who agree with us not only don’t work when we use them against people who don’t agree with us but seem to polarise and consolidate those people’s opposition.

This is evident particularly in the environmental movement, Professor Louis says, where we now see polarisation and stalemate.

The trust election

While many in the lead up to the 2019 election characterised it as the “Climate Change” Election, Professor Louis says that in many ways, and particularly in Queensland, this was the” Trust Election”.

The campaign against Labor she says, explicitly focused on trust, and as Labor carries a lot of baggage in Queensland, especially concerning Adani, it was always going to be hard for Labor to capture the protest vote.

Activists need to create a chain of trust in order to create the opportunity for voters to really hear their messages, Professor Louis says, and so perhaps activists need to distance themselves from the parties that are viewed with the most suspicion and mistrust.

In Queensland both major parties failed to capture the protest vote – that went to Clive Palmer’s United Australia and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. It was, Professor Louis says, ‘a pox on both your houses”.

“Uncommitted voters, people in the centre and on the right who might otherwise have rejected the Coalition because they were angry about the leadership spill, decided that they weren’t motivated enough to give an opportunity to Labor who had what seemed like quite an extreme agenda of wealth redistribution and environmentally focused change”, Professor Louis said.

Confrontation versus Trust

Asked about criticisms of the Stop Adani movement, Professor Louis says she is wary of those criticisms, in that she doesn’t think that those in the Adani movement necessarily saw themselves as trying to sway the centre.

“They are pursuing a different agenda that is making people alive to the risks of climate change.”

And she says, that is important and necessary, and the movement has been very effective in many instances.

Professor Louis says that Adani does pose tremendous threat to our carbon emissions profile, “it is so huge that it is natural for it to be the focal point for resistance” she said.

However, she says, an important precondition for effectiveness is that activists and the people they are talking with need to have a degree of trust in order to talk about risks.

“Emphasising the trust and emphasising the path to climate change mitigation are more nuanced and more complex arguments and don’t come across as easily. Whereas vivid images of protesters dressed in exotic ways, blockading and convoying and so on, can be interpreted in a very simplistic way that ultimately might have been counterproductive – particularly in central Queensland where people on the whole were angry with both sides of politics”.

As a researcher Professor Louis does not consider that there is always a strong evidence base for direct frontal attack in situations where the issues are so politicised such as in the case with Adani.

 “There’s no doubt that direct or radical or disruptive protests sometimes have been linked to social change, particularly when the targets are business who are sensitive to negative public attention, but there’s no doubt that disruption very often has not been successful”, Professor Louis says. “So, there are data that indicate that when the social context is an important social issue, disruptive tactics can be effective, by for example, impacting on the costs of a project – making it less economically worthwhile. However, I’m not sure that Adani fits that profile” Professor Louis said.

Ultimately, Professor Louis says, the success of disruptive tactics depends on having a critical threshold in the centre, and to leverage from that.

The Moderate centre  

Professor Louis adds that it’s all very well targeting extremists, but the real focus needs to be on trying to get to the moderates – the three percent in the middle.

“Looking at how we can make moderates more open to the environmental message is the challenge,” she told me.

And, Professor Louis says, that must be about building relationships of engagement that are respectful and communicate a degree of awareness of the other person’s concerns, which may be quite different to the environmental activist’s concerns.

Professor Louis says that for people who are trying to channel the protest vote their way, we need to understand what it is that makes people willing to make a protest vote in the first place.

“These issues need to be focal going ahead – looking at the moderate centre as the focal target for persuasion and engagement, and that suggests a different tactic. I suspect they are less responsive to those confrontational and disruptive tactics.”

Stigmatising and Shaming

When we spoke in 2017, Professor Louis said, “Angry public ranting, may be good for your mental health, but diagnosing a whole community as morally degenerate … is deeply ineffective.”

Now in 2019, Professor Louis says she is exasperated by the angry recriminations about Queenslanders as a whole, or voters for Palmer and One Nation. This is strategically incredibly counter-productive and should be done, she says, if done at all, in the privacy of your own home with your close friends, not sprayed onto Twitter to the people that are being stigmatised and shamed.

Team Savage Attack and Team Centre Forward

“We need to build up a committed, highly motivated body of activists, that is focusing on the three-percent swing that is all we need at the centre to see a transformative change. All the other conditions are in place.”

Within any movement for change, Professor Louis says, it is possible to argue that there is a need for “people who go on the savage attack, and for people who are trying to bring the centre forward’.

However, Professor Louis says that what she has seen in campaigns, is that there is a strong presence for ‘team savage attack’ and “team centre forward” is really under-resourced in terms of activists’ time and energy.

Professor Louis says in can be healthy to want to attack extremists, but it is deeply counter-productive to attack moderates.

 “What we could do, if people are concerned about the apparent failure to meet the moderate centre, is to actively identify ‘team centre forward’ in the environment movement or the union movement, and this is about networking, and building trust, bringing together those coalitions that allow moderates to feel like a protest vote or gesture of agreement, is safe to give into the hands of activists (union or environmental).”

Coalition Building

“Part of what goes on in a movement is that people try to convince others of the validity and importance of their own case. But one of the interesting aspects of politics is that often times it is not so much about selling your case to people, as creating a context where they’re happy to support you for your agenda, if you can convince them, that you can support their separate goals.”

So, Professor Louis says, “… we can put a lot of energy into trying to convince people about the environment, but the majority of people don’t use the environment as the basis for their decisions. Less than fifteen percent of the population makes the environment the central push in their politics. So that means we really need to look at those other agendas. What are those other agendas we can speak to and in all good conscience, support”, Professor Louis asks?

Professor Louis said that many of us are quite sceptical about the number of jobs in new coal mines for example, and there was a case to make about that. But in raising these issues, Professor Louis says, people need to think about the difference between when they are talking to their own side, and when they are talking to moderates.

“It is important when talking to moderates that you are not just reiterating your own talking points. Think about how you can signal your real respect for the people you are talking to, and your readiness to hear what they are saying,” said Professor Louis.

Working though the grief

Professor Louis says that there are two dangers following a devastating loss. One is despondency, and the other is over the top contempt for your political opponents and the people who voted for them. Both of these can be dispiriting or alienating she says. 

Professor Louis says that the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Grief model of “denial, anger, bargaining, acceptance and resolve’ is useful to consider in this context.

The research shows that these ‘stages’ are not always followed in sequence, and she says that here many of us have skipped ‘denial’ and moved into ‘anger and bargaining’. “In ‘anger’ she says, you blame your own side or the other side, or the media for example. In bargaining you might say, ‘oh well if it hadn’t been for the How to Vote cards…’ etc.” She says that these may be valid attributions, but the problem is that you are churning up negative emotions instead of focusing on what you will do to create positive change.

Professor Louis says, ‘acceptance’ does not mean acceptance that things will never change, but acceptance that something happened that you didn’t want.

And more broadly for environmentalists she says, people are grieving the destruction of the ecosystem, in the sense that we’re passing significant tipping points. “These are realities – these threatening sad experiences also need to be really processed.”

It is also important to remind yourself of your achievements.

Political grief she says can be linked to unrealistic expectations about the pace of change.

In fact, Professor Louis says that if you take Rachel Carson’s 1962 “Silent Spring” as the starting point for the environmental movement, it is less than a century old, “… and we’ve changed so much. We’ve completely changed the basis for decision marking in society in that comparatively short time.”

“The fact that we are changing more slowly than the urgency of the situation demands, is a sad reality, but there are still other things on the table.”

Plague stricken village

Professor Louis says we can equate our situation with a plague-stricken village where some people that we love have been infected and are going to die, others have been infected but could be saved, and others have survived or not been infected yet.

“And we are urgently working in a triage environment where we have to make sure that the grief and anger doesn’t become something that stops us from taking action … we still need to look ahead to the further horizon, at what we can save. And so, that message of hope and focus becomes part of our self-care.”

Take a Break

Professor Louis says that emotion focused coping involves doing those things that are distracting and restorative so that you can turn back to problem focused coping.

“It’s not a failure to take a break when you need it”.

Sometimes, Professor Louis say, you just need to take a break from politics, to watch some Netflix, go out and have a look at the ocean, and spend time recharging and restoring.

“Sometimes you need to share and vent your emotions and receive social support with your activist friends.

“Sometimes you need to refocus and say, “I’m going in twice as hard now. “

“Only you know how close you are to burn out. The closer you are to burn-out, the more important it is to take a hike into nature…. to reconnect with what you are here for.”

Want to hear more?

Professor Louis is happy to give talks to community groups at the drop of a hat, and to corporate groups with more lead time and incentives. Her research interests focus on the influence of identity and norms on social decision-making. She has studied this broad topic in contexts from political activism to peace psychology to health and the environment.

Professor Louis and colleagues recently published on The Conversation a graphic reflection on the issues explored in this interview : Comic: how to have better arguments about the environment (or anything else)

For those who want to explore further the process of working through the disappointment, Professor Louis recommends the analysis and speech by Colorado psychologist and equality activist Glenda Russell, titled  Resist: How to Triumph in Trumpland. Dr Russell calls it, a “guidebook” that is “part history lesson, part call to collective action, and all balm for the progressive soul during these scary and overwhelming times.”

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