Sometimes everything feels like a strange mashup. One moment, I’ll encounter mythic stirrings in the echoes of an ancient Celtic festival and the next crash right into the increasingly blatant tactics to maintain the status quo. Such dissonance is a fact of life here on the threshold between stories. As the old story frays, exposing its faults more clearly, the attempts to hold onto it and force it on nonbelievers become more desperate and personal.
On the eve of Halloween, the New York Times ran a story about political consultant Richard Berman’s secretly taped speech to a group of oil and gas industry executives in Colorado last summer. After reading the article and a transcript of Berman’s talk, my first reaction was to label. Greedy, morally bankrupt, and sociopathic have a satisfying ring after learning of a coordinated and well funded campaign against environmental groups that rely on volunteers and committed activists. Groups that I happen to agree with and feel thankful they are out there holding the line against the rapacious fossil fuelers.
If I were a good Buddhist, I would see Berman as a reflection of myself. How am I greedy and morally bankrupt? Is he really pure evil, so unlike me that I can’t possibly understand his actions? Doesn’t the language of activism, which often speaks of fighting the enemy, reveal an adherence – conscious or not – to the tenets of the old story? These are tough questions, but they seem important if I am to get beyond the simple knee-jerk of “othering,” which does nothing but perpetuate the old stories of separation and control, of waging war, of winning and losing. Wallowing in anger about this steals energy away from imagining the kind of world I want to leave for future generations.
In a previous post, I made the case for understanding the villain, if not sympathizing with him. Maybe Berman’s tactics can enlighten us. In his talk, he revealed his three favorite strategies. The first is always to play offense. To answer the other side or engage in an argument with them is to let them define the conversation. Being defensive means being stuck in the position of responding to what someone else has said. Taking the offensive allows you to reframe the issue and control the conversation.
He gave an example: “Oh, you think this is a group that does X. Well let me tell you, they’re really doing Y. I don’t care what they tell you they’re doing, they are doing something else.” There is little room to deny it without taking the defensive position. This is the classic redirect that magicians use to distract the audience away from what is really going on.
His second bit of advice is: don’t bother trying to win public opinion. These folks are in the oil and gas industry, which everyone loves to hate (despite the fact that we are all utterly depending on them), so that’s never going to happen. Instead, create just enough confusion about the issues that people will naturally gravitate to the status quo as a safe harbor. Rather than argue that fracking is safe, instead foment confusion about the science by raising questions about data, funding sources, or hidden agendas. As Berman says:
“One of my north stars is to get people to say, ‘You know, I never thought of that before.’” When they no longer know whom to believe, “you get people into a position of paralysis about the issue. . . . I’ll take a tie any day to preserve the status quo.”
A third tactic is to discredit the leaders of the opposition by mounting personal attacks on them. For example, Berman’s people went through the personal details of environmental leaders and were rewarded with juicy information about Sierra Club board members driving SUVs and Jaguars. They had only to feed a report to Fox, who ran an editorial on their Business News show, excoriating Sierra Club for advocating efficient vehicles but not practicing what they preach. They also love that Robert Redford, who has a history of being outspoken for environmental causes, flies in a private jet. Taking away moral authority undercuts the work of even the most well-intentioned groups.
One of the best things about writing is that it helps me figure out what I think about something. I’ll be honest: after writing about these tactics, I am left scratching my head. Do I think they’ll come in handy someday on a future campaign I’m involved in? Intentionally creating confusion and personal attacks are too mean-spirited. The first one, though, reframing the conversation, has promise.
While we’re at it, why not convene a real conversation, one that presupposes open minds, no guile or posturing or subtext, just honest vulnerability? Surely there are examples of disarming honesty triumphing over dishonorable tactics and hidden agendas.
Rick Berman likes to use basic psychology, which is that emotions drive people more than intellect. His two go-to emotions are fear and anger, so his campaigns are crafted to seek those responses. There are other emotions, though, including love and empathy.
How are the targets of these tactics responding? Some seem to take it as proof that their activism, say, against fracking in Colorado, is working. If the industry bosses have to hire the best smear guy in the business, you know you’re doing something right. This reminds me of the Gandhi quote:
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
He ought to know. Assuming this means we are three-quarters of the way there, I think I’ll send my energy in the direction of creating the kind of world I want to live in and leave to my son’s children’s children.