Defend Truth


Civil society must get creative and temper adversarial advocacy with art, culture and smart comedy


Professor Camaren Peter is an Associate Professor at UCT’s Graduate School of Business and is Director and Executive Head of the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change. Opinions expressed here are his own.

In the new communications paradigm of the 21st century, we need to move beyond advocacy. We need to broker the middle ground and hold it precisely so that new social compacts can emerge from society.

We are at a point in modern history where great changes are unfolding in the world, and we need to shift to a new normal to survive as a global planetary civilisation. However, this is not a simple challenge. It is a multi-layered and complex one.

In Being Ecological, Timothy Morton — who has been dubbed the “philosopher-prophet of the Anthropocene” — observes that the question of “what are we supposed to be doing?” is anticipatory, and in that anticipation, it creates a false sense that the trauma is still to come. Indeed, that anticipation serves as a soothing mechanism.

For example, when victims of trauma have repetitive dreams in which they re-experience their trauma, the dream serves as a way of placing themselves at a point in time before the trauma. In that place, they can anticipate the trauma, and that anticipatory fear is far less severe than the fear one experiences when the trauma unfolds in reality.

Yet we are not in a space of anticipation. In reality, we are already living with the stark reality of overwhelming planetary challenges. It is already here, and we avoid it by investing in the anticipatory question of what is to be done.

When faced with the overwhelming confluence of developmental challenges on the planet — whether we consider poverty and inequality, exploitation, global climate change, the severe degradation of global life-supporting ecosystems, or underdevelopment in the Global South — it is understandable that we become overwhelmed and anxious.

The question, “what is to be done?” cannot be answered clearly, because even though we are fully aware of the pressing challenges we face, these are complex, intersecting challenges that cannot be solved from one perspective alone.

In the increasingly digitalised sphere of communication, accompanied by the rapid rise of social media and online media platforms and services, societies have become more polarised on issues of public interest than they have ever been in recent history.

Fake news and disunity

Since the 2008 global financial collapse, public confidence in the key institutions that produce democracies — i.e. government, business, media and civil society — has declined significantly in countries across the world. At the same time, the rise of digitalised communications and media has — through its centralised algorithms — exacerbated the “echo-chamber” effect in societies across the world.

Moreover, the rapid proliferation of mis- and disinformation, polarising rhetoric, hate speech, and conspiracist invective — all amplified by influence campaigns that engage in coordinated narrative manipulation — has severely impacted society’s ability to engage constructively over key issues of public interest and produce a new social compact that everyone can more-or-less agree on or buy into.

We appear to be stuck in an unhealthy limbo in societies across the world. It is a terrifying prospect. We are adrift, moving towards catastrophic outcomes, and appear not to be able to mount a coordinated response.

Great paradigmatic shifts in the world have always been accompanied by a change in the story of what it means to be human in the world. It is always underpinned by a fundamental shift of narrative.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Power to the people? Realising the full potential of civil society requires that we work better and smarter

This observation is far more important than we may at first appreciate, primarily because that shift in the narrative is something that emerges. That is, it is not socially engineered but rather emerges from a complex mix of interactions and events that unfold to produce a new story of who we are and what meaning and purpose our existence has. It emerges from society itself to produce a new reality that we occupy and reproduce.

That new reality is accompanied by new — or revised — symbols and artefacts, beliefs and values that give cultural “life” to the new story of who we are and what our purpose is in the world as humankind. 

Yet, how can any coherent narrative-driven paradigmatic shift emerge from this bedraggled and fractious set of national and global publics?

The question “what needs to be done?” — in this context — is indeed unhelpful. We struggle to pull in the same direction and end up floundering. Perhaps a better way of thinking about it is “what needs to happen?” This change of perspective allows us to move beyond thinking solely about what we need to do. Instead, we begin thinking about how to curate societal interactions so that a consensus-based shift emerges that moves us forward.

Flagging advocacy and polarisation

Civil society’s prerogative for the past few decades has been to engage in advocacy. Yet while advocacy is important, particularly legal and policy advocacy, when it comes to issues of public interest, advocacy in itself — which assumes an ideological or moral position of departure — is largely ineffective in the fractured realm of 21st-century public discourse. This is because the position that advocacy adopts plays into the polarisation. Advocacy is often adversarial; a public interest advocate must choose a side in the public debate and advocate for that side of it.

In the new communications paradigm of the 21st century, we need to move beyond advocacy. We need to broker the middle ground and hold it precisely so that new social compacts can emerge from society. The new story of who we are cannot be contested or scripted, it must emerge from societal interactions where everyday people grapple with the complexity of the challenges we face and hear each other out.

Curating experiences that produce these kinds of interactions is more of an art than it is a science. At the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change — a non-profit company — we have put our stock in creative-led interventions into public interest issues over which social media and media are highly polarised. These fraught spaces of conversation are typically characterised by vitriolic and dismissive interactions between people. Sometimes they are deliberately being manipulated by influencer-pods; “guns-for-hire” who will sing any tune for a price, and deliberately seek to deepen divisions in society.

We have learnt that “smart” comedy is an effective medium through which to get people to grapple with the complexity of fraught and divisive public interest issues. By smart, I mean comedy that is informed by thorough research into the complexity of the issue of public interest, and then delivers an understanding of that complexity through humour.

For example, working with top-notch strategists, creative directors, writers and producers — and leveraging in-depth research and analytics — we have produced three seasons of a show called “Under the Microscope with Dr Riaad Moosa”, which is freely available on YouTube. What we are finding has astounded us.

The joke’s on misinformation

Although the issues discussed in the episodes are typically highly divisive on social media, the interactions we have observed and measured when people engage with the creative content and discuss it are highly self-regulating. In other words, after viewing the episodes people are discussing these divisive public interest issues in a more tolerant, informed manner, brokering the middle ground more effectively than any form of online advocacy.

Comedy travels fast on social media, but there is more to it. Comedy is poorly understood and little appreciated as an art form. Yet it has, historically, always been the medium through which difficult “no-go” areas of discussion can be broached, precisely because it is disarming. Through comedy, difficult public interest issues can be demystified and shared, unexpressed sentiments can be aired.

Comedians are the court jesters that serve as a mirror, reflecting our double standards, hypocrisy, flawed logics, relative morality and our thoughtless acceptance of the status quo back onto us in a way that we can absorb it. Good comedy does not deliberately seek to offend, it seeks to enlighten, but in doing so it must poke fun at us and reveal the fragility of our ideas and identities, and the banality of what we accept as normative.

And it is not just comedy alone that can help produce positive social and political outcomes. Music, film, fine art, poetry, animation, dance, theatre, etc — “high” art and “low” art — are all key to producing the cultural shifts we need to advance society. Indeed, arts and culture played a critical role in advancing the anti-apartheid Struggle, both domestically and internationally, and continues to play a key role in moving the horizon of human endeavour forward.

Yet arts and culture remain poorly appreciated, underfunded and largely exploited instead of supported. Perhaps it is time to rethink how philanthropy and civil society engage society on issues of public interest.

After all, it might well be that in the end, it won’t be advocacy that saves us but art. The revolution will not be televised, it will be “creativised”! DM


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