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Winning frames of the scottish independence movement


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Here's an analysis I did of the narratives and internet memes that seem to be driving Scotland toward independence. How might we all learn from this about the science of social change?

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Winning frames of the scottish independence movement

  1. 1. Winning Frames of the Scottish Independence Movement Weekly Research Report for September 17, 2014 Prepared by: Joe Brewer Culture Designer Change Strategist for Humanity T 206.914.8927
  2. 2. Insights for Guiding Social Change Efforts As I write these words there is only one day left before the people of Scotland vote on a referendum about national sovereignty. It is looking likely that a majority will vote for independence from the United Kingdom—though we will have to wait and see because things are really close. Regardless of the outcome, the social movement leading up to this election is an unqualified success. What can we learn from the frames at play in this debate? How did a disorganized sentiment with a failed history of past attempts congeal into this powerful force for cultural change? As we will see in the discussion below there is quite a lot that social justice movements can learn from the success of Scottish nationalists. A Tale of Two Stories The current election centers around two primary messages. Supporters of Scottish independence have adopted the slogan Scotland’s Future in Scotland’s Hands.1 Opponents have responded with Better Together and No Thanks.2 One side is oriented toward the future with a narrative of progress and empowerment. The other is oriented toward the past around the notion that the present is as good as things need to be. In addition to this time orientation, there is the framing of choice. The “yes” side offers a choice architecture where each citizen gets to choose what kind of future they want. The “no” side offers no options, essentially treating the vote as the choice-of-not-choosing. This is fundamentally disempowering, especially when contrasted against the story of “yes” advocates, because it harkens to the security of an external authority. Someone else will take care of everything but only if you stay in the current relationship, even if it is a bad one. 1 2 Winning Frames of the Scottish Independence Movement Weekly Research Report for September 17, 2014
  3. 3. This dichotomy—a future-oriented empowering choice versus a backward-looking surrender of choice—shows why one story is compelling and spreads while the other stagnates. Placed against the backdrop of history this difference really matters. Briefly, Scotland has been part of the United Kingdom since the Treaty of Union in 1707. Independence movements have risen in waves throughout the intervening centuries up to the present.3 A recurring theme in every attempt has been the idea of self-rule. This theme clearly remains important today. A powerful meme that has spread across the internet in recent days that exemplifies the potency of this story is the Imperial March from Star Wars, played by two men on a rickshaw that followed the march of 100 Labour MP’s down Buchanan Street in Glasgow. With biting humor, they welcomed their “imperial overlords” to the popular tune of this iconic motion picture series—actively using the frame of empire to depict the relationship between the UK government and it’s conquered land to the north.4 What Memes May Tell—Viral Ideas as Symbols for Each Side A sampling of internet memes shows how powerfully the “yes” side has come to dominate public imagination, inside the borders of Scotland and abroad. 3 4 Winning Frames of the Scottish Independence Movement Weekly Research Report for September 17, 2014
  4. 4. The critiques brought forth by these media elements show that the Scottish Independence Movement is built on the same sentiments as Occupy Wall Street and other recent collective actions. Calls for civic participation. Separation from empire. Self-determination as a sovereign nation. Real and meaningful democracy. These memes show a creative community of supporters —artists, community activists, everyday people—who push back against the elite power of oligarchic rule. The meme of Scottish Independence has gone mainstream. It was highlighted in a fifteen minute segment of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver that has one and a half million views on YouTube since being posted on September 14th.5 Garnering this kind of international attention is emblematic of a successful meme. What started as quiet conversations among disgruntled citizens in remote locality has now reached the roar of celebrity attention, substantive media coverage, and the propagation of internet memes that are highly varied and creative and planetary in their reach. 5 View the episode at Winning Frames of the Scottish Independence Movement Weekly Research Report for September 17, 2014
  5. 5. Why Is This Happening Now? Two important questions come to mind for me as I look at this pattern of sharing behavior. First I wonder why these themes are popular right now when they were so much weaker in times past. How is it possible that Scotland might win independence in 2014? How is the situation different from the referendums they put forth in 1979 or 1997, when similar attempts were made? The second thing I wonder is why this struggle has garnered international attention. Of course, having implications for NATO, the United Nations, and the British Pound it will get some official press coverage. But why has it captured the public imagination? How did the meme of Scottish Independence thrive in popular culture? Answers to questions like these can help us find our way in social change efforts around the world. I see a variety of contextual factors that are shaping this historic event, among them: ✦ The explosive rise of wealth inequality that distances the “haves” from the “have nots”. People increasingly feel that the highest echelons of representative government are corrupt and self-serving. This feeds the move toward more local, transparent, and inclusive forms of participation. ✦ A dramatic reduction in faith that citizens have around the world for governing institutions. Pew Research in the United States echoes a global pattern—every year fewer people trust in governments, banks, corporations, or the media. ✦ Memory of the recent financial collapse and a lack of accountability for those responsible. Observing how the UK government helped the wealthiest while cutting social supports and seeing that none of the architects of the gamed financial sector are going to see jail time. ✦ All of this points to a lack of accountable or legitimate leadership. The people of Scotland are “taking the future into their own hands” because they no longer trust the elites to do so. We can see how factors like these (and many more that could be listed) are highly conducive to a successful reclaiming of political power by Scottish nationals. This begs the question of where else in the world such citizen sovereignty might be expressed to drive progressive social change? What Can We Learn From This? All of this points to a convergence of two things: 1. Telling stories that empower and engage is a more effective way to frame issues, actions, and consequences; and 2. Resonating with the sentiments of discontent and their aspirational antidotes can drive structural change in political systems. Winning Frames of the Scottish Independence Movement Weekly Research Report for September 17, 2014
  6. 6. When we explore the frames that are “broken”—like those for aid, charity, and development—case studies like that of Scottish Independence can help us see the alternatives that work. We can learn from these success stories and imitate the practices that have proven effective in the past. This is going to become increasingly important for /The Rules as we move from critique to prescription. Responses to our critique of the Gates Foundation’s Narrative Project are already calling for greater clarity around what to do next.6 How should we frame the issues? What will work if we lay down our broken stories and pick up other ones instead? A design framework for identifying frames that work might look like this: ✦ Conduct in-depth analysis of the discourse to identify problematic and helpful frames. ✦ Observe social movements to see what is working and try to figure out why. ✦ Design stories that include the attributes of these “stories that work” and test them in new contexts where social change is attempted. ✦ Analyze the discourse again to see how it has changed and, to the best of your ability, identify which actions contributed the most to making progress. If we apply this framework to Scottish Independence, we can see that the in-depth analysis we have built up over the last four years (e.g. Finding Frames and all of these research reports). When we look at the frames that resonate today in Scotland, we can see that stories win by being inclusive, participatory, empowering, and future oriented. Taking these features and applying them to other campaigns should increase the likelihood that we will be effective in our social change efforts. As always, this analysis is a snippet of what could (and arguably should) be done to fully understand the cultural drivers of social change. My hope is that it stimulates a more productive conversation about how to frame stories in a way that leads to success. Sincerely, Joe 6 Winning Frames of the Scottish Independence Movement Weekly Research Report for September 17, 2014