What’s the best narrative for revolution?

The views expressed below are those of Cathy O’Neil. Crossposted from mathbabe.org.

Yesterday at our weekly Alt Banking meeting we had an extraordinary speaker, Merlyna Lim, come talk to us about social media and grass roots organizing.

Her story was interesting and nuanced; I won’t get everything down here. But there were quite a few sound byte takeaways I can express.

  • The organizing which culminated in the Arab Spring started way before Facebook or Twitter came to the region.
  • To a large extent social media has replaced chatting in the cafe, which we don’t do anymore.
  • But that’s actually a good thing, since many regimes are so oppressive they won’t let large groups of people hold regular meetings (and large can mean 5 or more).
  • Whereas social media is pretty good at energizing people to “get rid of their enemy” at a given critical moment, and mobilize on the street, it’s not that great at nuanced discussions for how to build something permanent and lasting afterwards.

One other thing I wanted to mention was Merlyna’s work on Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who self-immolated after getting into a dispute with a police officer.

The original story that got people mobilized in Tunis and out on the street, was that the police officer was a woman, that she slapped him, and that he was a college educated street vendor. It turns out these were white lies – he never finished high school, the police officer may have been a man, and there was probably no slap – but they built a narrative that people really loved. Merlyna wrote a paper about this available here if you want to know more.

That brings us to the question of why this particular framing was so appealing. Merlyna put it this way: plenty of other people had self-immolated under similar circumstances in Tunisia in the past 6 months alone. But they didn’t start a revolution because they were just very poor and didn’t have this story with extra (made-up) humiliating details. Killing yourself because you are frustrated at not having enough to eat just isn’t as compelling.

It reminds me of this Bloomberg View piece I’ve been chewing on for a couple of week, written by Peter Turchin and entitled Blame Rich, Overeducated Elites as Our Society Frays. He studies conditions for revolution as well, and claims that having a large unemployed but highly educated population – the “lawyer glut” we’re seeing today – is asking for trouble. From his article:

Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class. This happens because the more contenders there are, the more of them end up on the losing side. A large class of disgruntled elite-wannabes, often well-educated and highly capable, has been denied access to elite positions.

Food for thought. Does one have more sympathy for people whose foodstamps have been recently cut or for someone who got a law degree and can’t find a job? Or is the real outrage when both happen (or at least are said to happen)? Personally, and this is maybe because I’ve been reading Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, I’m not as worried about the lawyer.