How myth, ritual and magic sustain social movements like XR

Non-religious people also have beliefs that are sacred, but need a bigger toolkit to put them into practice.

Timothy Stacey
27 October 2019, 7.17pm
Extinction Rebellion protest in Berlin, February 1 2019.
Flickr/Kristoffer Schwetje. CC BY-NC 2.0.

At 9:25am on October 7 2019 I was arrested for participating in an Extinction Rebellion (XR) protest in Amsterdam. I know the time precisely because as I lay on my back, my arms and legs linked to other protestors, the tall clock tower of the Rijksmuseum was all I could see in my peripheral vision. Still lying in a police cell on that Monday evening I began to reflect on what had led me to this moment.

Me. Someone for whom climate change had always been a secondary concern; a niche, middle-class interest; a distraction from the fight for economic justice. I came to realise that I had made myself available for arrest not just for ‘the climate’ - though that’s the basis on which I believe my actions were legitimate - but for something more immediate, visceral and powerful: for the group I had joined. Though XR is a nonviolent group, I was reminded of the military saying that soldiers don’t die for their country but for their platoon.

But what had made me so loyal to a platoon I had known so briefly – during not more than a few short meetings in the weeks leading up to the protest? The answer – at least for me – lies in the power of religion-like elements such as myths, rituals and magic to sustain political and social movements.

Religion and its associated elements are not especially popular in the progressive world, while myths are seen as stories without evidence that prop up dangerous political ideologies. Religion is often treated as one of, if not the system of oppression, and its role in supporting the rise of right-wing populists in the US, India, Hungary, Poland and elsewhere is well-known. Yet my research and experience suggest that religion-like elements can have a profound influence over even the most irreverent and critically minded among us. Progressives ignore this power at their peril.

So how can we use this power to promote the cause of justice and transformation, and to hold progressive movements together in the face of the widespread tendency to splinter or burn out? Here are three key tools that should be part of our organising toolkit.

Making more of myths.

Labeling something as a ‘myth’ has long been used to cast aspersions on unproven religious stories, and more recently as a synonym for ‘fake news.’ But stories of great events and characters that defy our expectations of how the world is or could be exert a powerful force over how we understand ourselves and how we behave.

The central ‘myth’ of XR in this sense is far from made-up. It’s a story from hard science about the impending mass extinction event which only urgent action can mitigate. And it’s a story from social science about the folly of politicians who repeatedly refuse to tell the truth and act accordingly. This story has already become crucial to many people’s identity, tipping them towards nihilism, anxiety and depression. But for many of us it does the opposite - it compels us to act and act now.

Shared myths that are developed from the top down can be very powerful, but for progressive movements that must accommodate increasing diversity, it’s worth remembering that when people go into action together, they begin to generate myths of their own: stories of wins achieved, sacrifices made by people they admire, and stories of their own struggles. The trick of the skilled organiser is to develop spaces and moments for sharing these stories, as well as creative ways of championing those myths that are the most inspiring.

Harnessing the power of rituals.

When we hear the word ‘ritual’ we often think of weddings or meditative tea-pouring. XR do have a number of activities that might traditionally be understood as rituals in this sense, such as the lighting of a flame at events to represent a beacon of truth and hope. Yet there’s also a deeper ritual involved in the process of entering into the movement.

When you enter a room to find so many people with enough faith in the world and each other to make fundamental changes, there’s an instant feeling of connection. Add to this the recognition that any number of you may well be arrested in what’s to come, and there’s a sense of leaving one’s old self behind – that self that said, ‘I will endeavour never to come into contact with the police other than to ask for directions or report a crime’ – in order to find a new identity.

In the early twentieth century, the French anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep developed an enormously influential theory of ritual as a three-stage process. The first stage is one of separation from a previous status, society or way of living; the second is one of ambiguity or ‘liminality’ in which one leaves one’s old life behind but is not yet incorporated into a new one; and the third stage is integration into that new identity. Rituals are key in moving people from one stage to the next.

Organisations that find ways of encouraging people to commit to this journey can create a strong sense of in-group solidarity, particularly when having to build unity across religious, ethnic, gender-based and political diversity. Progressive movements might find that relatively innocuous and embodied rituals can help to hold them together for long enough to win significant gains.

The magic of prefigurative politics.

In social movements it’s never enough to symbolically represent solidarity. You have to practice what you preach. In XR, symbolic feelings of unity are concretised and sustained through the systematic development of a regenerative culture which challenges the dominant norms of the societies in which we live: competitive conversation, instrumental relationships and selfishness. The practices developed in XR and other movements aim to replace these norms with a culture of listening, compassion and sharing.

Making values real in this way involves a performance that deliberately challenges the world as we know it and seeks to realise a world as it should be. It’s a way of training a different way of being into the body so that it becomes second nature. Think of recycling or buying organic food: in these decisions we’re not just trying to practice what we preach; we’re also training our beliefs into our bodies. Admittedly, the greater the demands, the more difficult it is to do this. But equally, the more changes our beliefs require from us in our everyday lives, the greater the sense of self-mastery they offer.

‘Being the change’ also differentiates us from those who don’t act in this way, building a thicker group identity. For example, imagine having to ask for a vegan meal in a carnivorous culture, or wearing a headscarf in secular spaces. In each case, you are taking control of your surroundings, refusing to go with the flow in the name of your beliefs. You are isolating yourself from others, but in so doing, you create an imagined bond with those who share your struggle.

There is much debate as to whether trying to be the change one wishes to see like this is strategically useful or simply a matter of principle. Machiavelli, who pretty much wrote the rulebook on realpolitik, thought it utterly counterproductive for leaders to seek to be good. My own view is that in an age of mass disengagement from mainstream politics, people will quickly turn away from groups that fail to put their principles into action.

Using tools with care and discrimination.

Some readers may find all this talk of tools and toolkits disappointingly instrumental. But what are myths, rituals and magic if not models for realising and sustaining an ideal? Non-religious people have beliefs that are no less sacred than those held by people of faith. What they often lack, partly on account of being wary of spirituality and religion, are the tools to flesh out their ideals into systems of daily practice. In fact some of these practices may well be found in the very traditions they seek to leave behind.

Ideals matter. Ultimately they may be all that matters. But they can also distract us from what works. Having a larger toolkit that includes religion-like elements helps to unite ideals with action and bind a movement together.

Therefore, it’s important to ask yourself and the people around you what myths and stories move them, and how they can be told with greater urgency, power, and cross-ideological appeal. What are the rituals in your own life that have encouraged you to identify with a group, and how can you use them in the context of social and political action to change how you behave, risk it all for a cause, and practise what you preach in everything you do?

Some may see the adoption of these tools as an act of betrayal against enlightenment culture, leaving no space between them and the populists they detest. But if, as my experience suggests, myths, rituals and magic can sway our behaviour in powerful ways, then the question is not whether we use them but how - how they are developed, who gets to play a role in developing them, and whether they are used with both caution and imagination.


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