Being transruptive for fun and non-profit, (aka for the shits and giggles).
Somebody – I can’t remember who – said that philosophers had always interpreted the world, but the point was to change it.
Well, I’ve been interpreting social movements’ stasis and sclerosis by coming up with three terms – the smugosphere, the emotacycle and ego-fodder (true, I’ve come up with plenty of other neologisms, but – with one exception – that’s for another time) (1).
The question is, what to try to do about these while hanging around waiting for the collapse of the ecological conditions that make “civilization” possible, however long that is.
First off, I’ll talk briefly about the emotions that sustain the smugosphere, the emotacycle and ego-fodder. Then I will talk about the concrete action we can take to be “transruptive” – to undermine these “institutions” (shared tacit assumptions about how the world should work, and the behaviours, rules and sanctions that keep it on the straight and narrow).
Then… ah, heck, that’ll do.
Why so emotional?
It’s easy to fall into a trap of thinking that if emotions lead us into or keep us in bad patterns, they must be bad emotions. It’s easy to think that the emotions around the smugosphere about the emotacycle, ego fodder are bad. But, these aren’t negative emotions, these are negative habits. What I mean is that it’s not the feelings, it’s what we let the feelings make us do (like those parasites that zombify their hosts, to the benefit of the parasite’s lifecycle).
So with the smugosphere, well the emotion is wanting to feel like you’re making a difference and that you are part of “the solutions” as much/more than you are part of the problems. And on top of that, wanting to support other people who perceive themselves – and who you find it easy/convenient to perceive in the same way – as working towards the solutions.
Ditto with the emotacycle: almost all of us need to feel some sense of momentum and progress; it’s okay to want to believe that a better world is at hand, that another world is possible.
And with ego-fodder – it’s good to feel that you are supplying or receiving crucial information, that you are being seen while doing this, that people are watching. (I will save “ego-fodder as a sort of master slave dialectic in the struggle for recognition” for another time).
But in all of these circumstances, those needs or those positive emotions seem to get channelled into maladaptive and/or sub optimal pathways. These pathways then make it very hard to do anything that is of long-term structural benefit to either society or even the social movement organization(s) we are in.
We seem to get caught in these little quick loops where we are constantly mobilising instead of movement building (the smugosphere, emotacycles and ego-fodder are all much more likely to help with mobilising in the absence of movement building.)
What is to be done? To be transruptive, obvs.
Transruptive is a portmanteau word, a combination of transform and disrupt. Back when I coined it in 2010 there weren’t any folks using it, but it seems to have been independently invented by others and is becoming a Thing, as the young people used to say.
I would argue that in order to transrupt the trajectory of the climate, environmental and social justice catastrophes, we need to look at three institutions or habits of our organisations (there are others, but let’s eat the elephant one bite at a time).
These are the smugosphere, emotacycles, and ego-fodder (terms you probably know if you follow this blog. If you don’t, well, there’s always the search bar…).
I’ve answered that a bunch of times, but a little repetition doesn’t hurt (?). And I’m also able to mention a new wrinkle on ego-fodder- what can happen in facilitation.
As an organiser
When you’re in a position to either organise or be a speaker at an event, then the imperative is to be transruptive. As organizer, you have relative autonomy to organise the format differently (relative, because if you are too innovative, if you push it too far, there will be pushback: you also need to consider your long-term relationships with any audience who were expecting to bathe/snooze in the words of a celebrity because if they’re not prepped, they’ll get something besides what they were wanting, expecting and meeting. And the celebrity, deprived of their narcissistic supply, may be annoyed).
But it’s kind of straightforward. What you would do as an organiser of an event to prevent ego fodder and the usual sage-on-the-stage nonsense. And to make sure that the really difficult questions get surfaced. And people realise that we can’t go on meeting and smugging each other (2).
So even if you just encourage people to talk to someone they don’t know (and this can be done on zoom via the chat function, or “in real life” – if we ever get back to that – by having folks turn to the person behind them or in front of them.
And between the speeches (because There Will Be Speeches) and the Q&A you can get people conferring about what they’ve just heard, and coming up with the hardest questions possible.
As a speaker
Okay. If you’re a speaker at one of these events, it’s tricky. But you need to speak clearly and honestly and give up some of the time you were allotted to speak for the audience to have the opportunity to speak to each other.
Or, if you are unwilling to do that (why?), the absolute minimum you can do is have the courtesy to
- Bring you’re A game
- Finish on time.
If you are going to “donate time” or in some other way hack a miserable format.
It’s probably best not to spring this as a surprise. The organiser’s nose will be out of joint because they’ve been shown up as inadequate,
As an attendee
As a punter, I think it’s a question of – in advance – refusing to participate in events which are clearly going to be ego-fodder-tastic for two reasons.
Firstly, because it’s just going to lead to further demoralization for yourself. So the move you make to keep in the game is to move away from sources of demoralization such as big ego-fodder set pieces.
And secondly, your presence – even if it’s ironic, even if it’s akin to “hate following” https://digiday.com/marketing/twisted-art-hate-follow/ – still counts as a bum on a seat. You are validating the choices made by the organisers and perpetuated/endorsed by the speakers
You can choose not to go. But if you choose not to go, then the fact you are not there is a very crude signal, but it will be lost in the noise. Organisers will, if they think of you at all, will reach for one of the other reasons people don’t go to meetings such as being busy being skint, being burnt out, etc. before they consider an active boycott.
So instead, you probably have to send a clear, unambiguous message. It can be polite, but a clear and unambiguous signal to the organisers of the meeting saying that your attendance is conditional upon them actually running a format that is not pure ego-fodder is a service to the movement, an attack on the emotacycle. It could go like this-
I saw your meeting advertised. I’m interested in attending, can you explain to me how the meeting is going to be designed for maximum participation, peer to peer learning and contact connecting making, and so that the questions that are posed are the thorny ones rather than the easy ones.
The reason I bring it up is that have been to more than enough meetings which are all “ear gout” (an anagram of outrage), and discussions of why the cat should wear a bell, rather than plotting how to actually bell the cat.
If I do not hear from you, I will assume that the meeting is going to be all the things I dread. And I will be staying away for these reasons, not because I am busy, skint or exhausted..
I appreciate that organising events is stressful and time consuming. I also appreciate that at the moment my non-attendance is not high on your list of things to worry about. Nonetheless, I would point out to you that there are probably other people who will also not attend for the same reasons as me (though they might not feel entitled enough to put fingers to keyboard) and I felt it important and ultimately helpful to you and to me that I write this letter,
There are cases where you are compelled to attend a meeting, because it’s your job, because it’s too much social hassle not to. Or you choose to go because you’re still going to derive benefit even though it’s shit.
In these cases, you have to process your feelings of exhaustion and exasperation beforehand, lower your expectations to less-than-zero. Then you can turn up (IRL or online) and try to be useful at least yourself, and useful to a small number of people around you – where you connect them to each other or you suggest connections and things for them to read, etc.
You might even take a punt at asking a super-short question in the QA along the lines of, “yeah, we all agree the cat needs to wear a bell. But who was going to put the bell on the cat? And how? What do we need to do? differently going forward?”
If you turn up to meetings without having lowered expectations, and dealt pre-emptively with your feelings of exasperation, it may well end with flouncing and swearing, which are almost always unhelpful.
How to transrupt an emotacycle?
This is trickier than ego-fodder, which most people can sort of see, if it is pointed out to them. The emotacyle is more abstract, requires historical knowledge and an eye that is critical shading into cynical.
But to help transrupt this, well, you have to help people see it for what it is. If they can’t see it, for what it is, then you can’t help them right now. Trying to force them to open their eyes (having a punch-up to get them to wear the sunglasses, a la the film “They Live” is not advised).
Because an emotacycle is not a one-off event. It’s not one person. It’s not one interaction. It’s a broader process that unfolds over two or three years now. Within that emotacycle, you as transruptor have to constantly be talking about the distinction between mobilising and movement building, you have to be talking about the importance of processing negative emotions, and also harnessing positive emotions. And making sure that tail doesn’t wag the dog, that the search for the positive emotions doesn’t overwhelm the longer-term strategic objectives and capacity building.
Which means of course, you have to demonstrate this and the best way to transrupt an emotacycle is to be part of an organisation – to build it, to expand it, to maintain it, to adapt it – that doesn’t depend on the emotacycle. Which is of course what we’re trying to do with Climate Emergency Manchester.
People will – quite rightly – look at what you do, much more than at what you say.
Because you can lecture and hector and eye-roll and teeth suck and be exasperated about emotacycles. But when people are riding them, it feels so good to be straddling an engine, the roar, the speed, the smell, you feel like you’re getting somewhere.
Transrupting the smugosphere
I think this one’s really difficult because being held to account is no fun; we almost always resent the people who are telling us truths about ourselves that we don’t want to hear.
We find ways to deflect – “What about you?” as we point to their hypocrisies. We make excuses or offer apologies. (Tom Cruise was alive to this in his Mission Impossible 7 covid rant when he said “No apologies. You can tell it to the people that are losing their f***ing homes because our industry is shut down.”)
But then it’s asking of ourselves, what are the success metrics? The Smugosphere can only thrive in the absence of success metrics. Yes it is corporate/Foucauldian horrorshow, but that whole SMART thing- Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-scaled – is part of what we need to do, most of the time.
And we have to learn how to be transruptive with our friends and colleagues, because transruption is about disturbing things, but in a positive way that leads more to be built. This requires that feedback is given and received in appropriate ways, that people feel supported. These are elements of the Active Citizenship Toolkit that we all need to work on.
And there will be slippage, there will be times where we have to cut each other additional slack (e.g. in a pandemic, during the period when we all thought we were going to be able to spend time with loved ones). But we have to keep roughly on track.
This probably requires collective responsibility, and experiments with rotating the role of CFD/Stick waver, because otherwise everyone falls into certain roles, and doesn’t see things from other folks’ perspectives.
“Final” thoughts and next steps.
So, those are my initial thoughts on transrupting the smugosphere, emotacycle and ego-fodder. Doubtless I will come back to these. Ultimately, this advice is all well and good, but I fear transruption requires more patience, compassion, firmness and social skill than I have. Or maybe that is a cop out….
In any case, doubtless I’ll be offering more free advice (as deliberately ropey videos?) about transrupting each of these, and how you might know if you were on the right track with them…
- Well, between drafting this and publishing, I came up with another fac-egotation – the facilitation done in a way (consciously or unconsciously) that foregrounds the facilitator, at the expense of the broader group process/its goals and needs.
- “I’ve been smugged” We talk about chuggers. We can also talk about smuggers, people who relieve us of our critical faculties, autonomy and hope by endlessly virtue signaling and refusing to hold their own little bubbles to account, to learn.