Mark Evans helpfully kicked off discussion of IOPS projects recently with Reimagining the BBC. My last post commented on how useful this process is for the new organisation. Here is my own suggestion. I hope others will keep them coming!
A problem: the credibility gap
For prospective members of IOPS, radical is reasonable. Given the facts, the basic conclusions are clear. Open the door to the facts, and they come crashing down on you like a wardrobe full of bowling balls. Chomsky's treatments of international relations give examples of how effective simple, uncontroversial evidence and straightforward conclusions can be for movement building: more than half of the PPS-UK cite him as a starting place for their critical social thinking.
But if that is true, why are there so few people that agree? Well, most people are not exposed to the truth-serving alternative media at all, we might say. But I think it is also true that many sympathetic people have a brush with it but fail to be drawn closer (or rather, we fail). It should be a big priority to move people from concerned and curious to active and aware, so it is worth addressing the second issue as well as the first.
People are skeptical of unfamiliar arguments. News and comment articles tend to rely on a lot of assumptions and generalisations about the world; if they attempted to justify every statement, there would be no room for anything else. For the power-serving mainstream this is not a problem: its assumptions are all-pervasive and familiar. But this is a serious problem for alternative media. I often imagine my non-radical friends reading an article I have enjoyed, and sadly conclude that it would not convince them of much. The way that "protestors" are painted in the mainstream (far from sensible people with a good understanding of the evidence) does not help. We can't just rant and expect to win people over. New, on-the-fence readers will demand justification for statements that come from an unfamiliar viewpoint, and every statement will raise 5 more questions. We have to be twice as careful with the facts, and be twice as obvious about it, to convince.
Luckily, the case is rock solid. The "detailed critique" that finally answers enough questions may take some time but it's not quantum physics. But, because people come across far fewer alternative sources than mainstream ones, it needs to be obvious in *every* piece of media that radical writers understand the need for justification and that they are can point to it. And there needs to be somewhere to go to see the hard evidence, be shocked out of your skin, and learn more.
I think that we can make a bing impact here with relatively few people and resources. This is something that we can make useful progress on in the short term, and it is the perfect project to build an organisation early on as well.
International relations and war; media and the propaganda model; elections and money; the position of women in society and how it is maintained; history of labour/feminist/civil rights struggles; environment and business; corporate misdeeds; basic economics. The list goes on, and in every case there are some basic well-grounded points that are relatively uncontroversial inside our movement, and some shocking, well-documented cases that can be listed. Imagine a website with a main article of a few thousand words introducing each of these, meticulously referenced and in an accessible non-sectarian style. Added to this could be lists of further articles, examples and case studies for each topic, and also timelines, booklists and reviews, short quotes and fact lists, and advice on finding further information to test the claims made. Some topical comment could be used to put things in context. It's easy to imagine further extensions. The focus would be on making the basic arguments as powerful and well-grounded as possible by letting the evidence speak for itself rather than presenting a stream of opinions or a very specific take on things. The overall aim would be to present a radical perspective in as persuasive, evidence-based and accessible form as possible, letting the reader move at a measured pace to find more detail.
Now imagine this content being linked to in news and comment articles, used as a quick reference in conversations, displayed on other radical home pages and so on. If you are writing an article and vaguely remember a few shocking examples on your topic, this would be the place to collect the references. On the web, this would be the bridge over the credibility gap.
Has this been done before, more or less? In my view there is no site that is close enough to this model to do the job. Some articles fitting the bill definitely exist, but they are not compiled and mutually linked, with other reference materials at hand. On most sites, news and comment far outweighs static background material like this in prominence, quality and volume. Sites that focus on background are usually limited to one topic, or its not clear how the content integrates into the larger radical worldview. Some sites have a lot of static content, but they are not outreach oriented: content lies far beyond the credibility gap, or worse, simply details some sectarian disputes or dusty discussions from the past. If it does exist, it is certainly not referenced in news and comment in the way I describe.
In other words, the path through the evidence and arguments is not clear. Just think about the evidence you might find in just a few pages of, say, Deterring Democracy, or the simply stated examples in The Corporation. What prevents material like this from being digested and posted on the web along with a lot else besides? I see no reason why a much more detailed, broad introduction to critical thinking about society can't exist in one location online.
Is it beyond our means? If anything such a site would be more simple to run than a news and comment site, because content would stay current for longer. It mostly means digesting readily available material rather than the more costly job of original research. Members of IOPS would be invited to write the articles and with web 2.0 features, admin duties can be devolved from our few web experts to spread the load. The project could extend in several ways as numbers and money increase, e.g. to compiling new material for books and other media.
Another potential criticism might be that this is a bit of a middle-class aspect of outreach. Working people can see a lot of the problems already and need more contact and evidence of action, and not so much of this approach. I tend to disagree. Even if social problems are more obvious to some people, radical conclusions are not. And everyone can appreciate the strength of a good argument even if they don't have much time for it. Internet access is less of a problem these days. And in any case, a good evidence-based argument is one of the only things we have at the moment, so we may as well make the most of it!
Another of our aims to to apply our principles in our own movement, and gain in expertise and levels of activity. This project would be an ideal way to do all this. Writing essays fits naturally into reading groups and learning. Contributions from less confident members can be commented on and worked over with the help of others, until we have more members able to produce quality content and make other contributions. I'd go as far as to suggest that every member should write a few thousand words on some topic at least (special exceptions being granted of course). Face-to-face meetings should be organized here, but isolated members can still get involved, which we have found to be important during early stages of membership growth. The ambitions of the project can scale up as IOPS grows.
There are quite a of of sites offering media criticism, and commentary on current affairs, and discussions within the social justice movement. Good, there should be more. But I think there is a gap for a well-maintained site putting the facts on the most basic viewpoint, with an emphasis on the strongest, most inarguable, most outrageous cases. This would really help us to spread the message and get our membership active and enthusiastic at an early stage as well.