At a time when democracy is in retreat around the world, it can be difficult to find the motivation to keep movements going. Our guests this week offer a framework for effective nonviolent organizing by trapping authority figures between a rock and a hard place.
Srjda Popovic and Sophia A. McClennen have appeared on our show separately and are now joining forces to apply a research framework to dilemma actions, a nonviolent organizing tactic that works by capitalizing on a belief that’s commonly held by the public but not supported by those in power.
Rather than simply getting people together to protest in the streets, you organize them to do something that causes a scene, like kissing on a crowded subway platform or planting flowers in potholes that line a city’s streets. Authority figures are faced with the dilemma of making themselves look foolish by taking the bait or doing nothing and looking weak. Either way, the pranksters win and can gain media attention, new members for their cause, and in some cases, a much-needed morale boost.
Popovic is co-founder and executive director of the Center for Applied Nonviolent Actions and Strategies (CANVAS), an organization that trains nonviolent activists around the world. McClennen is a professor of international affairs and comparative literature at Penn State. She studies how satire and irony impact political actions and behavior. Popovic and McClennen collaborated on the new book Pranksters vs. Autocrats: Why Dilemma Actions Advance Nonviolent Activism, written as part of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s 2020 Brown Democracy Medal.