I just read a new New Yorker article from Malcolm Gladwell called Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted. Because I am a Quaker and believe strongly in equality and egalitarianism, I wanted to argue with something he writes:

"Because networks don't have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can't think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?"

And then he writes:

"But if you're taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy."

No they don't! Do they?

I'm reading Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship right now (20 pages per week, recording it for MN State Services for the Blind) and as I reflected on Gladwell's article, I realized that all of the examples in that book of how a few individual Friends were the driving force behind the social change attributed to Quakers are all examples that support Gladwell's thesis about hierarchy.

He says that non-hierarchical groups are much better at reinforcing the status quo than making social change, and that only a strong structure, strong leaders and close connections can create the conditions for social change. The examples in Fit for Freedom of individual Friends working on social justice are all examples of strong leadership and close connections. The examples of an organization doing good work involve strong structure and strong, bold leadership (like AFSC). And there are a lot of examples where our more egalitarian structure favors the status quo.

So I bring this question to you all on Quaker Quaker. Can you cite examples in history that invalidate or at least challenge Gladwell's thesis?

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Comment by Chronicler on 9th mo. 27, 2010 at 8:14pm
There is a story in Ohio YM about a man (I think his last name was Bailey or maybe Bundy). Anyway he had travelled to Wheeling to trade one weekend. He found out that a young black woman was going to be sold at the livestock market by her "owner." The Quaker visited some other Quakers who lived nearby and raised money to purchase her freedom. The amount of money they raised was something like $700 (I don't remember the exact amount). They were able to "purchase" her, then helped her to escape to Canada. The amount of money they donated for the cause was the equivalent of about $400,000 today. They didn't have the time for an organizational response - they just moved forward as the Lord opened the doors. To be sure, this was a small part of social change for everyone except for the young woman involved.

Corporate responses can work, too. Just over a century ago, Ohio YM sent a request to the Ohio State Legislature that they repeal the capital punishment law. While they did not repeal it, they did drastically reduce its use in the state. The legislature could have done nothing, which had been their response on earlier occasions.

Of course, historically Friends had the sense that we are called to demonstrate the type of lives that Jesus expects of us as a witness of His transforming power. He works through groups of people and He works through individuals to accomplish His purposes.
Comment by N. Jeanne Burns on 9th mo. 27, 2010 at 8:28pm
The article talks about social change, not individual actions for change for one person. And in your first example, there was one leader calling the shots and organizing the whole thing. The Friend used their strong links to make that happen. The institution of slavery went on, though.

In Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship, there are many examples of individuals doing things, and many more of the status quo winning the day.

In your second example, what was the social context?
Comment by Rosemary Gould on 9th mo. 28, 2010 at 9:55am
I think in the past Friends did have a very strong hierarchy. Elders, Overseers, and other weighty Friends had the power to make things happen, at least in the Society. For instance, once meetings were clear that Friends could not own slaves, and those who were slow to obey had been labored with, if they refused to give in they were disowned. So that would support Gladwell. Although it changed the RSOF, it didn't eliminate slavery. But a few well-connected Friends who attended the Continental Congress had an effect on slavery in the west that was profound.

On the other hand, when Friends decided that they couldn't bargain, and Quaker store owners in London refused to haggle with customers, that was (as far as I know) not a hierarchical thing. When other store owners noticed that Friends got more business because they had such integrity, the custom of haggling quickly died out.

Gladwell usually researches whereof he speaks. He's looking at statistics. But Quaker organization doesn't really conform to his descriptions, it seems to me. Even today liberal meetings don't actually work by consensus (or we're not supposed to), even though we're a lot less hierarchical than most organizations. The clerk of a meeting doesn't have to get everyone's agreement. The clerk discerns the will of the meeting and has to set aside Friends' objections that conflict with the will of the meeting (in which, one hopes, the will of the Spirit has been discerned). We try to do that very slowly and carefully, of course.

I'm not a historian, so I would appreciate it if others would correct what I've written where needed.
Comment by Isabel Penraeth on 9th mo. 28, 2010 at 9:58am
An example that comes to mind for me is the change from haggling to set prices for goods. My understanding is that Quakers in Great Britain felt that they should set a fair price for their goods and not charge one person more because they were poor at striking a bargain. This innovation helped them gain business, so others began following their example and eventually it became the norm.

But, unfortunately, if individuals feeling strong leadings on some particular issue and being the impetus behind change is hierarchical, then perhaps this fellow is right. Traditionally, this is how the Lord has worked within Friends. Different Friends have different concerns and leadings and when they could convince other Friends their discernment of the Lord's will in a matter was correct, then it would become part of the discipline and adopted by all Friends (when the Society of Friends had a strong discipline). While John Woolman may have had a particularly strong concern for the abolition of slavery, other Friends would have had concerns and been leaders within the Society of Friends on topics such as women's rights, temperance, gambling, American Indian issues, assistance to the poor, education, treatment of animals, environmental concerns . . .

On any number of these topics JW, or any other individual abolitionist, might or might not have been on the "right" side from our perspective or been otherwise ignorant about or indifferent to. (In my opinion, this would not render their testimony to the Truth invalid, just specific.) That the Light opens some Truths to one Friend or another in particular and not others has traditionally been accepted among Friends as the way the Christ Within works. I have always perceived this as being part of the "diversities of gifts" mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12 (King James Version below). We can't, any of us, hold the entirety of the Truth in our hearts, so the Lord brings individuals forward in specific concerns that are within their strengths.

I know I am going off on a tangent, and I haven't read the book, but in particular his statement, "But if you're taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy," is interesting to me because he says "you have to be a hierarchy." At their founding, Friends were taking on a powerful and organized establishment, a fully functioning and hostile Church-State, and they developed their method for decision-making (by which they meant they were trying to discern the Lord's will) based on a system of monthly, quarterly and yearly meetings that required unity at each step--and the Book of Discipline.

Were Friends, with their system and strong discipline, a hierarchy? Is having to get one's concerns through this system to have something universally adopted an example of the sort of hierarchy this fellow is talking about? Perhaps. But it also required complete unity, and so reflected, as he describes, "real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals." The worst of both worlds? Remember that the purpose of the Religious Society of Friends was not to bring about social change, per se, but to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. That these turned out to be functionally similar from the outside is not coincidental I think, but they are a very different basic concern, and the desire to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth as an essential hope did make change slow and the status quo last a long time. All of which should have made being the leaders in social change completely impossible--except that the Lord willed otherwise and they submitted to his will.

(King James)
 4Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.
 5And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord.
 6And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all.
 7But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal.
 8For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit;
 9To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit;
 10To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues:
 11But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will.
 12For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.
Comment by N. Jeanne Burns on 9th mo. 28, 2010 at 12:03pm
Thank you all Friends! I also woke up with another example (not a specifically Quaker one, though some Friends were involved): The Underground Railroad! It did not have a hierarchy, leader, or structure, but it did have strong links.
Comment by Martin Kelley on 9th mo. 28, 2010 at 2:52pm
Malcolm Gladwell's modus operandi is to make outrageously counter-intuitive claims that people will talk about enough that they'll buy his magazines, books and bobble-head likenesses. I find him likable and diverting but don't take his claims very seriously. He's a lot like Wired's Chris Anderson, his sometimes sparring partner, which isn't surprising as they work for the same magazine empire.

I'm reading the original article you linked to. It's easy to take potshots at social media. There's plenty of "social media consultants" who don't know what they're talking about. Twitter and Facebook-style "activism" where people think they've done something by clicking "like" or changing the color of their icon is pretty ridiculous. But he's totally overstating things.

He makes an important distinction between "weak ties" (Facebook "friends" who aren't friends; Twitter campaigns that are risk-free) and "strong ties." But there's plenty of strong-tie organizing going on in social media. A lot of what's happening here on QuakerQuaker is pretty strong-tie. People are finding each other, organizing. I still think that the example of how Quaker bloggers came together to explain Tom Fox's motives after his kidnapping was a fascinating example of non-hierarchical social media organizing. But it doesn't have to be life-and-death. It's been fascinating to watch my wife's church organize against diocesan desires to shut it down: a core group of leaders emerged, share power, divide up roles, etc., and have been waging an organized campaign for about 2.5 years now.

Gladwell is minimizing the leadership structure of activist organizations, where leadership and power is in constant flux. He likewise minimizes the leadership of social media networks. Yes, anyone can publish but we all have different levels of visibility and influence and there is a filtering effect. I have twenty-five years of organized activism under my belt and ten years of social media activism and while the technology is very different, a lot of the social dynamics are remarkably similar.

Gladwell is an hired employee in one of the largest media companies in the world. It's a very structured life: he's got editors, publishers, copyeditors, proofreaders. He's a cog in a company with $5 billion in annual revenue. It's not really surprising that he doesn't have much direct experience with effective social networks.
Comment by Christine Manville Greenland on 9th mo. 28, 2010 at 3:08pm
Thanks to Isabel for her care. Conservative Friends still have elders, overseers and ministers recognized for their gifts of nurture, practicality and ministry of various sorts. Sometimes we forget that these gifts are God-given, and not the efforts of humankind.

In other yearly meetings, there is also what amounts to a clergy/laity divide, though we call it staff and volunteers instead. There is at the same time resistance to naming gifts of ministry, eldership or care so important in any community.
Comment by Rosemary Gould on 9th mo. 28, 2010 at 8:41pm
I don't know, Martin. Now that I've read the Gladwell essay, it seems to me he's making an important point. The heart of it is not so much about hierarchy or social networking as it is about courage and devotion. The kinds of things that can happen as a result of internet activity are worthwhile, but it's unlikely that anyone is going to risk his or her life because of something they read on the internet. For that you need the kind of courage and devotion you develop in response to intense relationships with people you see face to face. The internet seems to be a great way to get that started, but it can't do it all.
Comment by William F Rushby on 10th mo. 3, 2010 at 7:50pm
A neighbor girl once asked my son David to type a paper for her on the parts of a computer. Her main point was that computers have two parts: the part you see, and the part you don't see. This observation wasn't very profound as applied to computers, but it illuminates how organizations work, including Quaker structures.

I joined Friends 51 years ago at the age of 18, and affiliated with Conservative Friends at the age of 29. My experience has been that there is plenty of "unseen" hierarchy among Friends, including Conservative Friends. It goes like this: "we are all equal here, and some are far more equal than others." Quaker hierarchy tends to be implicit, informal and invisible. Since such leadership and authority are unacknowledged, there is usually little accountability. Decisions are often made by small cliques, behind the scenes.

If one wants to know how a Quaker organization works, start with books of discipline and organization charts, but don't stop there!


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