Rapids in Winter
In my last post on Systems Thinking, I tried to point to the reality that any advocacy problem pops up in a flow of circumstance. We single out the problem from the flow because it attracts our attention. But we often fail to see the connection between the problem we experience and the flow that produced it.
When we do notice the flow as part of the problem, we tend to think that we need a top-down solution to it. Examples of top-down solutions are changes in policy, rules, and law that prohibit what we think of as the circumstances that led to the problem. In fact, this description is the typical definition of “systems advocacy” in our community.
Now we all know that changes in policy, rules, and law don’t stop similar problems from popping up. Rather, these changes give us hooks we can use in our advocacy to challenge a particular example of the problem. Which is to say that the changes make our advocacy easier.
Also, we all know that these successful changes trigger a response from the targets of our advocacy to game the new rules, to find loopholes or workarounds that reduce the need for target change. In turn, we respond by challenging this undermining of rights.
The dance of advocacy, as it were.
This dance is the core dynamic of top-down advocacy. As an advocacy tool, it has its strengths and weaknesses. One aspect of it that is unavoidable is the adversarial framework it entails. It seems that it is through challenge and response that change occurs and it is through gaming that targets challenge our successes. We might hope that the target will learn some basic lesson about rights, and I think that individuals within the target system do learn such lessons, but the dance reinforces the idea that argument or some other method of power use is the only way or the best way to challenge oppression.
It seems to us that, since oppression was constructed through the use of power, we must use power to overcome oppressive flows. And, it is certainly true that those who use power to dominate and exploit others believe this and don’t give up that power willingly. But success in a struggle of power always leaves a residue of those who will not submit to your victory, and will immediately begin to fight against your victory generally through new methods, often ones we have not seen before.
The dance then runs something like this:
- We challenge oppression. We do so by using innovation in our offense to challenge our target.
- The target responds with a defense of the status quo, largely through the use of the power it has already accumulated and secondarily through the inertia of the current flow.
- We achieve some measure of victory. Almost immediately, the change roles of advocate and target begin to shift.
- Now, the target is using offense and innovation to undermine and counter our victory.
- We, in turn, are using defense to protect the victory that often required some real sacrifice on our part.
- And so on……
In the larger window of history, I think a case can be made for overall positive change in this long dance, but as the modern civil rights movement has discovered in its half century defense of the Civil Rights Act fo 1964, it ain’t easy and you can’t take any victory for granted ( this idea that the status quo always has an advantage over change is the weakest assumption of any defense-based strategy). There are important differences between offensive and defensive strategies. Just because we are good at offense doesn’t mean we are good at defense. Mostly in fact, if we are good at one, we are bad at the other.Yet, the dance of advocacy requires both sets of skills.
Next Post: Systems Thinking, Pt. 3: The Other Side of the Change Coin.