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The social cure

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In Sum

People are more likely to be motivated to action by peer groups than by information or appeals to fear. The social cure is a method of harnessing this power of social groups for social change.

Origins:

Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World by Tina Rosenberg (Norton, 2011)

People are rarely swayed by information alone. If they were, the tobacco industry would have collapsed when the first Surgeon General’s report on smoking came out in 1964, and fossil fuels would have been phased out in 1989, when the threat of global warming reached public consciousness.

So what does move us? According to Tina Rosenberg, author of Join the Club, it’s peer pressure. You know, the same thing that compels teenagers to engage in all sorts of risky behavior that drives parents crazy. But there’s more to it than that.

Peer pressure is also responsible for some astounding instances of positive social change, from lowering HIV rates among South African youths (loveLife) to reducing the number of teen smokers in the United States (Students Working Against Tobacco). Both advances, Rosenberg explains, came about through targeted efforts by local NGOs to activate peer networks for positive social change.

It’s a point that many are willing to accept in theory. Few, though, would believe that something so simple could topple a brutal dictator. But that’s precisely what the Serbian student movement Otpor was able to achieve when it transformed a previously passive and fatalistic citizenry into the nonviolent army that overthrew Slobodan Miloševicć, the “Butcher of the Balkans,” in 2000.

As Rosenberg explains in her book, “Traditional democracy activists create political parties. Otpor created a party. People joined the movement for the same reasons they go to the hot bar of the moment.” By branding itself with hip slogans, black t-shirts, absurd humor, rock music and an iconic clenched-fist graphic, the eleven founders of Otpor — all university students at the time — reinvented resistance in Serbia by making it a desirable club to join.

They even managed to create a cult around getting arrested. For teenage boys, it was a way to be rebellious and win the respect of girls at the same time. Eventually, getting arrested became a competition and kids would compete to rack up the most busts. As one Otpor member noted, “When someone asks me who took down Miloševicć, I say, ‘High school kids.’ ”

By appealing to people’s need, not just for information but for identification, Otpor showed that the social cure can be used in even the most difficult and repressive of situations as a force for rallying citizen power. Put more simply, in the words of Otpor founder Srdja Popovic, “Their language smelled like death. And we won because we loved life more.”


Bryan Farrell is an editor at Waging Nonviolence, where he writes about environment, climate change and people power. His work has also appeared in Slate, Mother Jones, The Nation, Grist and Earth Island Journal.


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