Autocrats have always understood how to silence dissent and take control: divide and conquer. I’m watching it happen right now. Those who have been subjected to this kind of oppression before—women and queers, people of colour, crips, different religions, the poor—have sometimes been brave enough, persistent enough, and/or lucky enough to come up with working strategies. But those who have never felt picked on before, like rich and powerful corporate CEOs, are now facing new rules of business that they don’t know how to combat. For the first time, they understand that how it feels to be a potential target of someone stronger and less ethical than they are. They understand what it means to feel exposed and vulnerable (relatively speaking, of course). This matters for all of us. Not because I’m weeping a lake of tears for corporate titans but because those lower down the social and economic hierarchy need powerful allies. There is data about change only being enacted by those with power. The less powerful our potential allies feel the harder it becomes for all of us.
On the morning of Tuesday, December 6, the Chicago Tribune published an article containing comments made a few days before by the CEO of Boeing, Dennis Muilenburg, about Trump’s trade policy. Just a few minutes after the article went live, Trump jumped on Twitter to say the government’s $4bn contract with Boeing should be scrapped. Boeing stock tanked. This series of events has captains of industry concluding they have to watch what they say about PEOTUS and his policies; perhaps they should not speak out in order to not become a target. It’s shocking to feel like a potential target, I know, but they need to stiffen their spines right now and get over it. This is not going to go away; it is not going to get better.
This particular kind of Twitter-based intimidation is one that some of us learnt to deal with a long time ago. To stand against bullying the most effective solution is to move and speak as one. If even half the Fortune 500 CEOs spoke as one, Trump could not attack them all on Twitter simultaneously. Even if he did—if, say, his minions tweeted for him—traders and followers could not read and react to all the tweets. And even if they could, they could not all sell all their stocks. In addition, investors are already figuring out that Trump has a short attention span. (Boeing stock has since recovered and is close to its record high of February 2015.)
Journalists are also getting nervous and with good reason. As Jay Rosen says, in an all-too-plausible scenario, “DOJ guidelines (which aren’t laws) and norms in government that said ‘tread carefully around the press’— these will vanish overnight.” He envisions a divide-and-conquer strategy (which we’ve already seen Trump use) in which Trump uses the full power of the US government against the press.
Collective action increases individual survival. Birds, fish, insects and herbivores have been doing it for a long time. It’s called flocking behaviour. In the presence of danger they run as one, turn as one. It makes it much harder for, say, a predator to single out an individual.
There is a persistent myth about the 1940 German occupation of Denmark:
From the German occupation headquarters at the Hotel D’Angleterre came the decree: ALL JEWS MUST WEAR A YELLOW ARMBAND WITH A STAR OF DAVID.
That night the underground transmitted a message to all Danes. ‘From Amalienborg Palace, King Christian has given the following answer to the German command that Jews must wear a Star of David. The King has said that one Dane is exactly the same as the next Dane. He himself will wear the first Star of David and he expects that every loyal Dane will do the same.’ The next day in Copenhagen, almost the entire population wore armbands showing a Star of David. The following day the Germans rescinded the order.
It is not true, yet the myth persists because we want to believe it. Why? Perhaps because we believe it might have worked.
More than ten years of research (see, for example, Consensus Decision-Making in Crowds) shows that humans flock, too. It takes only 5% of a crowd to begin to move for the other 95% to follow; we do it subconsciously. Flocking is emergent behaviour: it happens when certain criteria are met without the participants making any conscious decisions. Imagine how powerful that strategy could be if we acted consciously.
Trump and his people have already taken preemptive action against the planned Women’s March on Washington. (Though the march now has a starting point.) But he can’t preempt everything, everywhere, everyday. Not in America, not yet.
But if we do nothing perhaps one day he could. Many people laughed at Mussolini to begin with; few were still laughing once he had consolidated power by dismantling institutions and norms of behaviour.1
Fairness and diversity cannot happen until allies speak out. So, to those with power, platform, and access: You probably don’t like the idea of going from predator to potential prey. Oh, well. But you must not duck for cover, you must not hide. You must speak out. Speak out in concert. Talk to your friends and colleagues. Figure it out. Pick a day; do something.
1 Is this an extreme comparison? Read Umberto Eco’s essay about fascism and perhaps this article about Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s thoughts in the New Yorker and decide for yourself.
17 thoughts on “How to defeat an autocrat: flocking behaviour”
Yes, yes…publish this article. Now. Thank you for your outrage, I am always asking where is the outrage, collective outrage.
A flock sounds quite similar to a swarm… https://swarmcanada.wordpress.com/
Thank you! We need every coherent sane voice. I can’t do much phisicallly but I can pass on articles such as this and hope they land in enough fertile patches. Blessed yule
Succinct and devastatingly persuasive. Now we need a list of who to send letters to … (but not you!)
The Ruth Ben-Ghiat link is wrong, fyi.
@Kate– http://asktheelectors.org/, as well as your congresspeople, assuming you are american.
@betsy: Fixed, thank you.
Yes. And we have to stop fighting each other. Calling each other out for not being good enough allies is counterproductive with such a powerful common enemy. We have to put solidarity ahead of perfection and even ahead of getting it mostly right. We have to be generous with each other and fierce with the fascists. So thank you for this. As always, it’s smart and powerful.
@Wendy: I think petty squabbling is comforting for some people, especially those who are not most threatened. But this is 5-alarm fire. People must act together, now.
Thank you for this timely post.
A note: What’s important about the Danish story is not that the yellow star story is a myth (although it is, and its persistence is, as you say, interesting in that context) but that 90% of Jewish Danes survived the war because of the actions of Denmark’s government and citizens. So there *was* a form of flocking behavior going on (as the snopes article goes on to mention).
Thank you, Nicola!
Please also publish this widely!
@Mildred: Okay, I just opened a Medium account and put this on there. If you have other ideas I’m open to it.
Flocking, how fabulous. Thanks.
If we remember that “it takes only 5% of a crowd to begin to move for the other 95% to follow,” maybe we’ll have the courage to act. Thank you for your insights.
“To sin by silence………
Nicola, the more I read by and about you the more I am drawn!
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