Writing as a Tool for Changemaking in the 21st Century
Updated: Jun 20, 2021
by Mohammad Amaan Siddiqui
Change is the only constant, but not all change is desirable and not all attempts to maintain rigidity are beneficial either. Centuries of social and political developments have taught us various ways and forms in which change can be manifested. Yet, what is to be noted is the diversity in bringing that change. Historic figures have resorted to peaceful protest, hunger strikes, art and literature and even violence. In the contemporary world, these methods can still be noticed in addition to many others. It must also be noted that the political sphere is not the only part of life that may require change. Social change has always been integral too.
Prior to 2014, my life did not encompass much beyond my world of Call of Duty and Need for Speed. However, that year I came across news about the dropping of hundreds of bombs in the Gaza strip of Palestine. Upon further research and reading about the Palestinian community being displaced, I realized that there is a world outside my video games that needs attention in so many ways. While religion had taught me about peaceful coexistence, harmony, and equality, news headlines reflected an opposite picture. Even though we were taught that the world has learned a lot from two world wars and centuries of conflict, the modern era is not free from conflict and aggression. Clearly, something had to be done, and I had to play a role in it. Subsequently, I began researching more about the topic and remained vocal about the subject online. I engaged in conversations on comment threads and online posts. Through this, I learned a lot more about the world and people out there. Over the years, I looked for ways to further solidify my changemaking journey. After years of communication, writing, and researching as a blogger, published author, and columnist, I have experienced the importance and benefits of writing as a tool for changemaking and discovered three vital facets that aid it.
Step One: Holistic and Unbiased Research
Factors involved in changemaking are interconnected, and it is difficult to discuss issues through just one lens. Given that changemaking targets humans, who are social beings and whose study is a social science, approaching social change also needs to be holistic and inclusive. For example, when addressing environment and sustainability, change that only concerns saving the planet is less likely to succeed in contrast to one that includes economic and cultural factors.
Equally important is the acknowledgment and mitigation of biases in the research process. As the organizer of multiple MUN conferences, I have often asked applicants to name their favorite news sources. What was categorized as biased by one, was categorized as unbiased by another. Their classification was underlined by their belief system, indicating their definition of bias as “anything that does not agree with me.” It is human nature to feel uncomfortable encountering information that goes against existing beliefs, and many find it difficult to change their stance upon encountering new information. Many people thus give more emphasis to and even actively look for sources that confirm the beliefs they already have (confirmation bias). Since this is not always explicit, changemakers need to work towards increased self-awareness to mitigate distortions caused by biases in their research and written work.
Confirmation bias can be combated by various methods such as ensuring that your research does not start with a conclusion, challenging your ideas to find reasoning and being more receptive to understanding the opposition, as well as accepting mistakes, agreeing when you discover that you are wrong, and engaging in conversations with people who share beliefs different than yours. In addition, you must also ensure that you spend adequate time in the research process to safeguard against the harms of the Dunning Kruger effect and the hypothetical cognitive bias that may lead to overestimating your ability at a task in which you have very little experience.
Step Two: Psychological Understanding and Tolerance
Over the last decade, changemakers, activists, and social media users have adopted an aggressive approach to changemaking. They believe that certain parts of life need change so urgently and importantly that those who dare question them are bad people. They often claim that opposing people do not understand their side and cannot be changed. Morgan (2019) quotes Robert Cialdini, author of ‘Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion’ saying that persuasion “[is] not always about the argument, but about the delivery” (para. 4). Morgan further explains the difficulty in changing one’s mind, be it religion, politics, morals, core principles and mindsets. She notes how the reaction of the brain towards factors that challenge these beliefs triggers the emotional part of the brain—the amygdala—to a fighting response, “as if we were encountering danger”, making it even more challenging to change one’s beliefs beyond the already existing difficulty a human faces in doing so (para. 1). Research conducted by many neuroscientists further backs this claim, like the study by Paul Zak who has specialized in the study of oxytocin—the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of love, happiness, bonding, and trust (para 5). He says that when a person delivering a message uses persuasive techniques that stimulate oxytocin, it makes the receiver “more sensitive to social information” (as cited in Morgan, 2019, para. 6). This leads us to the conclusion that people, whether right or wrong, are not insusceptible to change. Therefore, difficulties in changemaking and convincing people can be better addressed by a reflection on one’s methodologies. In addition, this tolerance and discourse with those who are not on the same page also enables fighting biases, as one of the proposed suggestions was to engage in discourse with those who do not share similar opinions.
Step Three: Writing Skills
As discovered in the previous paragraph, collecting information and having a vision are not adequate in the absence of effective persuasion and transmission techniques. Writing becomes an integral tool in the age of information to bring about change. This can be achieved via fictional narrations, different forms of poetry, non-fiction narratives, blogs, and journalistic or scholarly work. The practice of using writing to encourage change is also often leveraged through op-eds, policy papers, and persuasive writing.
Many different factors can make writing effective, but Aristotle’s triad is a commonly cited one. Aristotle over 2000 years ago discussed effective strategies to convince listeners of one’s message through a series of three books called ‘Rhetoric’. In these books, he described three forms of communication styles. The first one focuses on establishing facts, judgments, and statistics about the past, also known as judicial rhetoric. The second one focuses on making statements and emphasizing the scenarios of the present in what was termed as demonstrative rhetoric. Finally, deliberative rhetoric focuses on calls to action and making proclamations about the future. Camille Langston (2016) elaborates on Aristotle’s deliberative rhetoric by explaining its division into three other concepts that define the effectiveness of a spoken message in convincing listeners: Logos, Ethos, and Pathos. Logos revolves around the importance of making the audience resonate with the speaker. Using logic, listeners can be convinced of the message in question. The second concept—Ethos—makes the message more convincing to the audience by the credibility and reputation of the speaker. This can be based on one’s records, visible attire, body language, and demeanor among other factors. In terms of writing, writers can connect their content to personal experiences and appropriately cite sources to present first-hand research. The third concept—Pathos—refers to the use of emotions. Ensuring that your writing style includes these factors can go a long way in convincing people about your beliefs and thus set your changemaking journey in motion.
Through my writing journey, I have also learned other important skills and factors in successful writing. One of them is staying consistent in writing. Consistency helps expand your reach and mission in the minds of readers and has a higher chance of bringing people on your side. Another lesson I learned in writing contrasted a common belief among the Gen-Z. Writing is not a place where you can remain rigid under the guise of individuality. Changemaking places great emphasis on how your work is received and hence it is important to constantly take feedback and find ways for improvement. In a nutshell, writing can serve as a great tool for social and political change if done appropriately in a good mindset, and via research and effective styles.
Morgan, K. (2019, February 25). A guide to Changing Someone Else’s Beliefs. Forge Medium. https://forge.medium.com/a-guide-to-changing-someone-elses-beliefs-c08fc1cb956b
Langston, C. A. "How to use rhetoric to get what you want". TED-Ed. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3klMM9BkW5o&t=79s