Common Cause, inner and outer conflict…

December 29, 2010 § 1 Comment

Tom Crompton’s Common Cause report has struck a chord amongst NGO’s, particularly those working on climate change. The conference to discuss it in London on December 9th was massively over-subscribed. 100 people made it to the day. Another 100 were disappointed.

What’s it all about? Is it a new way forward for organisations who are tired and demoralised by the ineffectiveness of their campaigns? Or is it ‘catnip for campaigners’ as Solitaire Townsend of Futerra reportedly said, an approach which validates retreat towards a familiar comfort zone where NGO’s lecture others about what they ought to do?

As with Tom Crompton’s previous reports, Common Cause challenges much of the received wisdom on communicating climate change. The social marketing approach has focused on the need to ‘sell’ to particular audiences, adopting their frameworks and values, not challenging people’s assumptions or identity, and encouraging them towards desired behaviours through a combination of clever marketing, optimism and incentives. While accepting the need to consider one’s audience,  Common Cause suggests that NGOs must also pay attention to the values that campaigns unwittingly communicate. If you emphasise the monetary gain of energy-saving, for example, you may be sleep-walking in step with values that in the long term are detrimental to the environment.

Common Cause examines the way in which intrinsic values – values which emphasise concern with ‘larger than self’ issues and a collective approach to social problems –  have become less dominant in the last thirty years. The dominant cultural values are currently extrinsic ones – values that emphasise self-interest, ambition and power and which are associated with lower empathy, with greater prejudice towards those who are different and with less concern for environmental problems.  Extrinsic values are activated and strengthened through clever framing that resonates with the values at a deep level. Sections of the American right have a long history of skilful manipulation here and we can see it in the UK as well. Think for example of the press releases of organisations like the Taxpayer’s Alliance which frame tax as a burden and imposition on the struggling individual, rather than as a contribution to the collective good.

Common Cause argues that we need to reconsider our approaches to the public. What is the real relationship between values and behaviour? How can we reactivate and strengthen values that will produce the long-term change major social and environmental problems require? How can we be transparent about our approach?

These questions have produced some vigorous responses. Chris Rose, who has done much to help campaigners consider their audiences in a more sophisticated manner, disagrees in a robust, rather ‘elbows out’ response . Martin Kirk from Oxfam, offers a more measured reply to him.

The Common Cause approach is an important one. We need to examine our communications carefully in the light of this work. We need to rethink how we approach and engage with people. For a small organisation like Cambridge Carbon Footprint, this is likely to involve looking both at how we attract people and how we frame and pursure our conversations with them.

For me however, the deeper question is not just one of values and how they impact on behaviour, but of how we think of the whole lived experience of people who – like ourselves – are confronted by uncomfortable and frightening news. The poverty of others, the destruction of the environment, the threat to the future – none of these are comfortable subjects. They bring people close to fear, powerlessness, shame and guilt. Discomfort produces defences, inner conflicts produce compromises. People are good at deceiving themselves and comforted by collective stories that exonerate them from responsibility. Extrinsic values may feel like a better bet to many.

I’m looking forward to trying to bring some of this integrated perspective to the deliberations of the Common Cause working group as it explores how to take Common Cause forward in response to the huge interest from the field. More later…

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§ One Response to Common Cause, inner and outer conflict…

  • I read Common Cause in the autumn as part of a volunteering role in Martin Kirk’s department at Oxfam, and it has been resonating away inside me ever since. I blogged about it at the time. Right now the issues it raises are at the forefront of my mind as I work with my local low-carbon group on a strategy for community engagement. In a project that is very time-limited because of funding rules, how can we overcome our own anxieties and fears to engage with people’s intrinsic values?

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