"Yes, I am fond of history."
"I wish I were too. I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all -- it is very tiresome:" (1)
Catherine Morland, in Jane Austen's Northhanger Abbey (1803)
People Power 2012 (2) will be looking at some iconic campaigns through a particular lens: that is the lens of 2012, and where we are socially, culturally, economically and environmentally.
By looking at the same issue or campaign through a different lens we can radically change our perception or opinion of it. For example, there is the lens through which our opponents might view our issue, the lens of time and hindsight, or, as with the fictional Catherine Morland above, the gender lens, through which she (or more likely her creator, Jane Austen) viewed a recorded history that was much later described by someone as a 'stag affair'.
Current issues, of course, can look different depending on whose lens you are looking through. There is a great example from a Saturday Night Live (3) skit, which compares Julian Assange of WikiLeaks ('I give private information on corporations to you for free, and I'm a villain') to Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook ('I give your private information to organisations for money, and I'm Man of the Year'). (4)
Our contemporary eyes and values sometimes mean that old ways of thinking or acting are not just incomprehensible to us but utterly abhorrent as well.
A recent newspaper article pointed out that "the history of slavery and its abolition shows how blurred the frontier between what is considered good and evil can be, and how quickly it can shift. We have a mental image of slave-owners as cruel, sadistic, inhuman brutes, and forget too easily the ordinariness of slave ownership throughout the world [at that time]". (5)
The Miners' Strike of 1984-5 makes it less than 20 years ago when many of us rallied behind the slogan 'Coal not Dole'. It was a campaign to protect mining communities from economic decimation. We are now in a period of austerity where many others have lost their livelihoods and see their communities suffer. As our world has changed in the last two decades, what exactly would we fight for now? The debate around coal mining has now reconfigured, where the prevailing progressive view is about protecting the environment, rather than necessarily creating/protecting jobs - 'dole not coal' perhaps?
Sheila McKechnie died in 2004 and inspired the creation of SMK. She was a formidable campaigner with a remarkable legacy, known for her strong sense of justice, persuasive powers and evidence-based approach. For example, she was heavily involved in the fight for, and establishment of, an independent Financial Services Authority, the Food Standards Agency and the Freedom of Information Act.
Would any of her successes look different under today's lens?
In the case of the campaign for a Freedom of Information Act (6) the answer is probably a resounding 'no'. It is seen by many as just as important now (if not more) as it was then. Today's FOI campaigners are keen for even more transparency, whilst others - including so-called 'Whitehall insiders' - have called for a repeal or tightening of the Act. (7)
In 1999, Sheila led an attention-grabbing campaign to persuade British car dealers to cut their long-standing high prices, launching carbusters.com, a website that enabled potential car buyers to receive quotes from overseas dealers over the internet. (8)
At the height of the campaign, she turned up at the offices of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders in a car painted with a Union Jack flag and emblazoned with the words "the Great British Rip-Off". The campaign demanded that the car industry stop overcharging and treating the United Kingdom as "Treasure Island". Subsequently, several major dealerships announced they were cutting the prices of new cars.
Using a social and economic justice lens from that time the key issues will likely have been access to car transport at more affordable prices as well as rightly stopping the blatant price inflation by car dealers 'because they could'. But many of today's environmental and transport campaigners are concerned with the impact of too many cars on the road, and the need for more affordable, sustainable and integrated public transport. Even popular campaigns that are absolutely right in their aims in their time can be viewed differently under a new lens in a not-so-distant future.
Two things that remain ongoing challenges for all campaigners in setting out their plans are to 1) look not just at the current context, but also as far ahead as they are able into the future, and 2) look at their issue through a lens other than their own. For example, if you are all about campaigning for environmental justice, what does using a social or an economic lens tell you about your solutions? Do your ideas still look right? Have you missed something?
In the end, all campaigners are inspired by notions of justice. But they may have different ideas about what justice means and about who faces injustice, and these ideas and ideals may change radically over time.
As campaigners, we have a rich history to draw on. Whether an employed charity campaigner, or an unpaid activist who is part of a more fluid movement, if we don't make some time to look back we can't learn from, and be strengthened by, the many who have gone before us who are keen to share. And if we only consider our issue through our own eyes, we can end up using a lot of energy to no avail, rallying the 'usual suspects' but no-one else. Or we could exclude people who might be interested if we showed that we had thought of, considered and respected them. A bit like Catherine Morland.
1. Austen, Northanger Abbey (London: David Campbell, 1992), p. 77.
2. http://peoplepower2012.org.uk/ Twitter hashtag: #pp12
3. USA Television comedy show
6. The campaign was set up in 1984, the FOI Act became law in 2000
Follow Linda Butcher on Twitter: www.twitter.com/labatsmk