Movement is Not Hierarchical

October 19, 2010 5 Comments


Part Three of a Response to Malcolm’s Missive

See Part One and Part Two

I’ve said a word about my point of agreement with Gladwell, and then a word about my first point of disagreement, I will wrap up this series with my second point of contention – Gladwell’s apology for centralized hierarchy.  The popularized story of a civil rights movement “run” by a few male leaders and a few national organizations is actually offensive to the rich history of a diverse and decentralized movement that provided an ecology through which the notion of civil rights could thrive.

This false story is offensive to the many unknown humans who took real risks for the sake of our freedom.  It is offensive to the women who had to struggle with patriarchy and oppression within the very movement that put out that call for freedom.  It is offensive to the radicals who took the risk of defining an alternative so terrifying to the power structure that it had settle into negotiation with those who would negotiate.  These forces could never have been centralized, their very power was found in the diversity of ways in which they fought for a shared purpose.

The story is not only offensive, but it has also proven dangerous.  Forty years after the peak of the civil rights movement a vast infrastructure has grown around this false story, and around the idea that the right organization or the right hierarchy of selected leaders can be funded and supported in order to make real change happen.  We are stuck waiting for the next Martin Luther King and we are lost trying to institutionalize the next NAACP.  Limited resources are continually poured on those who are always ready to claim that they are the next MLK – flashy video clips and imaginary numbers are used to seduce funders into continuing to feed this false dream.

This is not to say that a centralized hierarchy will never be useful.  In fact I will dare to say that hierarchy can be essential.  However, not like Gladwell has imagined it.  Not through the sort of institutionalization that is propped up for its own sake, not through funding the organizational legacy of calcified structures that fail to adapt and can not deliver on their promise.

Instead I imagine a decentralized network of conspirators knowing exactly when to swarm around a moment of change.  I can even imagine a momentary centralization of power, a swarm around the right hierarchy in order to move an agenda forward.  But this centralization would be contingent; it would not be institutionalized nor in any way meant to last.

Certainly we can evolve into better coordinating or administrative structures, and I think a key to that evolution is found in the social media tools that we are just beginning to understand.  Human beings are social, today we have more power to connect than we’ve ever had – certainly there is revolutionary potential in the radically new ways in which we are connecting with each other.  Let’s not ditch it, let’s invent it.


  • Curtis Ogden says:

    Thanks, Gibran. As I read your post I was reminded of social movement theorist Bill Moyer’s 8 stages of social movements (see In his model, each stage is fraught with certain risks of going off track/losing momentum, and in the later stages this includes calcification and having institutionalized hierarchy undercut the grassroots. It strikes me that social media have the potential to mitigate a number of the risks by keeping people connected (and energized), informed in an ongoing way of the successes that otherwise may not be visible, and providing a new kind of infrastructure for decision-making to supplement (and perhaps supplant) what otherwise happens in a more formalized (and at times exclusive and clunky) way. To me it’s not about ditching hierarchy or social media (let’s get beyond the either/or, right?) but looking at the new whole/story that is created by an integrated approach.

  • Gibran says:

    I’m with you Curtis – it is about the whole and about what is appropriate at each stage. It’s interesting because the developmental framework resonates with me, and yet I am keenly aware that the way out of this mess will not be linear, which is precisely what concerns me when we uplift the hierarchical – it seems to imply linearity.

    I’m all for “all two both” but with the awareness that we tend to want to preserve the familiar and hierarchy is deeply familiar…

  • Curtis Ogden says:

    Perhaps it is not about a developmental framework, but an evolutionary one, which certainly has a trajectory but not necessarily a linear or straight one.

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Your comments about the false and offensive story remind me of something Bob Moses always said. Media (and historians, for that matter) can’t figure out how to tell the story of a group, much less a movement. They need an individual to build the story around. And, an inability to write about something indicates an inability to think, understand or even see something.

    Also, love the way you talked about the infrastructure that has sprung up around the false story. Even when a story is constructed around an individual, there’s a real tendency to pick and choose which parts of the individual get cannonized. Take Dr. King, who is frozen in American mythology as the 1963 deliverer of the I Have a Dream speech. Mainstream story tellers and culture makers rarely recall that he died in the midst of organizing a Poor People’s March, or that he had taken a lot of heat from religious leaders and even civil rights leaders for taking a stand against the Vietnam War. King, the Dreamer, is a much less radical and less threatening image around which to build infrastructure!

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