Serbia’s Burning Platform : Not to punish, but to help

Photo from here

On New Year’s Eve in 2000, Popovic and his friends organized a celebration in Republic Square. They lined up the hottest Serbian rock bands and spread the word that midnight would feature a live concert by the Red Hot Chili Peppers — an international sensation and a huge hit in Serbia. Thousands of people packed the square in Belgrade, dancing to the local bands and buzzing with anticipation about the main event. One minute before midnight, the square went dark and people began counting down. But when the clock struck twelve, no famous rock band appeared.

The only audible sound was depressing music. As the audience listened in shock, a psychologist named Boris Tadic delivered a clear message from behind the stage. “We have nothing to celebrate,” he said, asking them to go home and think about what action they would take. “This year has been a year of war and oppression. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s make the coming year count. Because 2000 is the year.”

. . . When Harvard professor John Kotter studied more than one hundred companies trying to institute major change, he found that the first error they made was failing to establish a sense of urgency . . . “Without a sense of urgency, people . . . won’t make needed sacrifices. Instead they cling to status quo and resist.” . . . when {Otpor!} announced, “This is the year!” it was clear to the Serbians that there was a pressing need to act immediately.

. . . To counter apathy, most change agents focus on presenting an inspiring vision of the future. This is an important message to convey, but it’s no the type of communication that should come first. If you want people to take risks, you need first to show what’s wrong with the present. To drive people out of their comfort zones, you have to cultivate dissatisfaction, frustration, and anger at the current state of affairs, making it a guaranteed loss. “The greatest communicators of all time,” says communication expert Nancy Duarte, start by establishing “what is” here’s the status quo.” Then, they “compare that to what could be,” making “that gap as big as possible.

. . . Once commitment is fortified, instead of glancing in the rearview mirror, it’s better to look forward by highlighting the work left to be done. When we’re determined to reach an objective, it’s the gab between where we are and where we aspire to be that lights a fire under us. In Serbia, as the Otpor! movement drew a loyal following that was no longer frozen in fear, it was time to show them how much distance they had yet to travel.

That’s why Popovic and his friends halted the concert and sent the citizens of Belgrade home on New Year’s Eve. In the span of less than two years, Otpor! had accumulated more than 70,000 members in 130 different branches. But to actually overthrow Milosevic, they would need millions of votes. A few years earlier, Milosevic had agreed to a relatively democratic election — and won. His minions controlled the ballot boxes. Even if Serbians could vote him out of office, would he concede? Popovic and his allies understood that they needed intense emotions to propel action across the country. It was time to destabilize the status quo and turn on the go system by reminding them that there was nothing to celebrate because the present was intolerable. “Instead of courage,” Tom Peters recommends fostering, “a level of fury with the status quo that one cannot not act.”

. . . {However,} venting doesn’t extinguish the flame of anger; it feeds it. When we vent our anger, we put a lead foot on the gas pedal of the go system . . . venting doesn’t work even if you think it does — even if it makes you feel good. The better you feel after venting, the more aggressive you get: not only toward your critic, but also toward innocent bystanders.

. . . {because} one of the fundamental problems with venting is that it focuses attention on the perpetrator of injustice. The more you think about the person who wronged you, the more violently you want to lash out in retaliation. “Anger is a powerful mobilizing tool,” Srdja Popovic explains, “but if you make people angry, they might start breaking things.” On New Year’s Eve at midnight in 2000, when Otpor! shut down the concert, turned off the lights, and played sad music, only one sight was visible: a gigantic screen, on which a slide show of pictures was being played, none of which featured the despised Milosevic.

The images instead were of Serbian soldiers and police officers who had been killed under Milosevic’s rule.

To channel anger productively, instead of venting about the harm that a perpetrator has done, we need to reflect on the victims who have suffered from it. . . activat{ing} what psychologists call empathetic anger — the desire to right wrongs done unto another. It turns on the go system, but it makes us thoughtful about how to best respect the victim’s dignity. Research demonstrates that when we’re angry at others, we aim for retaliation or revenge. But when we’re angry for others, we seek out justice and a better system. We don’t want to punish; we want to help.

When Otpor! displayed the images of dead soldiers, Serbians were pumped with empathetic adrenaline and broke out into a chant: “Let’s make this coming year count.” They weren’t going to get excited about actually taking down the dictator, but they could feel enough righteous indignation that hey were determined to do so. In Popovic’s words, “There was an energy in the air that no rock band could ever re-create. Everybody felt that they had something important to do.

That autumn, Otpor! mobilized one of the largest voter turnouts in Serbia’s history, defeating Milosevic and shepherding in a new era of democracy. Boris Tadic, the psychologist who had sent everyone home because there was nothing to celebrate, was elected president of Serbia for years later.

Quotes from Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (pages 231–242)

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