Can culture really help us #unfail in dealing with terrorism?


A year ago I was invited to do a talk at a creative industries event called Improving Reality. In it I presented two areas where I believe culture can play an important role. The first is in helping us to succeed in undermining the rise of authoritarian movements in our societies. This in turn is depends on the second area: helping use to bridge the gaps between need for making a living and need for meaning. I believe that successfully addressing both is a key to getting us out of this mess we are in.

Poverty of imagination in combination with lack of access to working models for how people can sustain themselves outside the full time long term employment paradigm creates a vacuum. A vaccum which authoritarian leaders can fill with whatever empty promises they like. Because people who are scared about their future livelihoods and social protection are very easy to manipulate into making really bad decisions for others…and themselves.

It is not just the religion-flavoured authoritarianism we should be worried about. It also seems to drive conservatism and nostalgic longing for a mythical past where everything was better and more predictable. Daniel Vaarik’s story of United Estonia is a frightening indicator of how quickly things can spin out of control in modern liberal democracies if this vacuum is left unchecked:


“OMG, what is this video?” I can’t even begin to explain. You’ll have to read Daniel’s mind boggling story about United Estonia.

But what does all of this have to do with terrorism?


Because climate change. And export of military technology. And contributing towards financing Daesh and various dictatorships by running our economy on non renewable energy sources. Because accepting a culture where we are callous towards the suffering of others is accepting a society where our own lives have little value.

You cannot export despair and destruction without having to pay the price sooner or later. If we don’t find new ways of sustaining ourselves that don’t contribute towards people having to flee their countries in the first place, then we will never get out of the international cycle of stupidity. But change is hard. This is established by now. What is not so obvious is how culture can be channelled towards helping fix the problems. I’d like to propose two statements as a starting point for a conversation:

  1. Through culture we can shape new understandings of value, meaning, and work. Which in turn can improve our ability to use innovation against systemic crises.
  2. Through culture we can also influence how politics is done, where and by whom. Which in turn can build the political and institutional demand for innovation against systemic crises.

Let me try to unpack this.....

Change often begins at the edges of what is deemed acceptable - culturally, economically and legally

<img alt="" src="" style="width: 525px; height: 388px;">

Image source: the German Advisory Council on Climate Change (WGBU)

Even though this initial input is needed by the mainstream in order to adapt, our societies seem to be moving towards increasingly authoritarian cultures which react aggressively towards any kind of departure from the norm. This aversion to new alternatives seems to get worse when people are scared about their personal socioeconomic security. And it makes sense. In our contemporary lives everything is defined in relation to work.

Culture guides our behaviour. You need to have the cultural space for something to exist in order for us to be able to recognise, interact with, and shape our values around it. If you want to very tangible example of this, have a look into the relationship between futurism and the rise of facism in Italy. This is why I believe our ability to use innovation against systemic crises is limited by our ability to shape new cultural understandings of value, meaning, and work. If you adopt this view, one conclusion is that responding to global systemic crises boils down to coming up with new ways of bridging the growing gap between the need to make a living and the need to create meaning.

Our ability to use innovation to resolve systemic crises is limited by our ability to influence how politics is done, where and by whom.

In this Vice interview with Kristina Persson, the current Swedish minister of Nordic cooperation and Future Issues, it is clear that she is interpreting her ministerial role as one that strives to change the culture within which political and institutional decision makers act. This is not a coincidence. Three years ago, Kristina commissioned a project from Edgeryders: an open conversation around issues of employment, migration and political participation grounded in first hand accounts of self selected participants living in different parts of the Baltic Sea region. We then had scholars point to the ruptures between how insitutional culture understood and approached challenges…and the lived reality of those whom they are meant to serve. My summary of Edgeryders contributions is available here. When we did public talks about this, our conclusions seemed to resonate with people regardless of age, profession etc. More recently I heard jesper Christiansen who heads Mindlab’s research work describe something similar- that their role was to drive a change of instutitonal culture. Culture can be seen as a key enabler in shaping the political and institutional demand for alternative solutions..

Culture is a powerful carrier signal for deeper changes in a community.


Video of the announcement of the city of Matera as winner of European Capital of Culture 2019.

It is also cheap and fast in comparison to other kinds of intervention. So it makes sense to better understand how we can work effectively with and through culture to unfail our approach towards dealing with the rise of authoritarianism and violent extremism. A first step is to push for an interpretation of the production of culture as a participatory process.

Once you are on board with the thinking- how do you translate it into effective investments of time and money?

This requires widespread knowledge of administrative plumbing and workflows that allow for new ways of doing things. Brickstarter produced this report in which they describe really well why we need to shed light on what they call the “dark matter” around doing anything new if it involves dealing with large organisations (in their case public administrations). Meaning: we need to learn from previous efforts to hack administrative processes and introduce new ways of working. Do you know of individuals who can share their experiences of having to come up with new administrative workarounds to implement relevant polices?

Wait but what happens in the long run? Oh oh... the stewardship problem

In order for us to be able to really tackle major challenges that require long term work we need to figure out how to improve the odds of creative initiatives being around long enough for us to see the results. Clearly, an initiative is a lot more resilient if it has a community behind it. Even though we know that networked communities are capable of tacking large and ambitious tasks like providing care services, or caring for public assets there is a huge market failure when it comes to stewardship:

Even when it comes to culture in the form of immaterial assets, there are many examples of how quickly achievements can be unravelled without provisions being made for stewardship. Exhibit At being what happened in Matera in the aftermath of the elections. I’ll leave it to @ilariadauria to explain this if anyone is interested :slight_smile:

One of the key obstacles to sustainability of creative initiatives, and the individuals who drive them, is lack of access to permanently affordable spaces for living and working in urban environments. If we could come up with credible models for securing and stewarding material assets then that can unlock a lot of creative resources and investment. So we ought to bring together people who have hands on experience from relevant initiatives: both failed and successful ones.

This was a first attempt at weaving together insights from different discussions we have been having in Edgeryders over the years into a coherent idea for how culture can help us unfail in our response to terrorism and authoritarian movements. I realise it is too dense, there is too much in it to facilitate a discussion. So I'll try to write some more interaction friendly posts over the next week.


Let’s see what thinks/recommends

We’re meeting with them on Monday!

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Production of culture as a participatory process.

A pretty sophisticated piece Nadia, not sure if I can contribute much except agree fully with the prescription.The problem is that culture becomes split into boxes, and when individuals are small pieces in a machinery it takes complex dynamics to allow them to even get at the realization that they can push for that change.

A story from Bucharest working group on the ECOC 2021 bid: we would agree in a group of curators that we need a radical programming manifesto to avoid yet another nice project that’s confined to the business-as-usual, but there was no one in the group who knew how it works at the higher levels, and how to even drive this and make sure it gets on the political agenda. Not to mention the high political instability that can inherently hijack any well meaning project. The feeling is that there’s a serios vacuum of leadership, and we’re seeing this with latest protests and also with Spot the Future Bucharest.


Define culture?

How do you define “culture” for this context?

The shape/ parameters of the funnel?

Hi John,

I am not sure how I would define culture, or anything really. Ontologies are tricky. Rather, it is in terms of how it influences our behaviours I am trying to understand this. Your question got me thinking about how to convey my thoughts. So I tried drawing:

Makes any sense to you? How would you define/describe it?

Culture: broad and specific, vague and pointed

It’s one of those words like “community” that triggers something in anyone who hears it, but what it triggers is likely different with each one.  It can be very specific or very broad.  I think what you mean here is the broadest use of the word (time+people+space).

(As an aside, here is a link to an interesting New Yorker piece called The Meaning of Culture where the writer says, “The critic Raymond Williams, in his souped-up dictionary, ‘Keywords,’ writes that ‘culture’ has three divergent meanings: there’s culture as a process of individual enrichment, as when we say that someone is ‘cultured’ (in 1605, Francis Bacon wrote about ‘the culture and manurance of minds’); culture as a group’s ‘particular way of life,’ as when we talk about French culture, company culture, or multiculturalism; and culture as an activity, pursued by means of the museums, concerts, books, and movies that might be encouraged by a Ministry of Culture (or covered on a blog like this one). These three senses of culture are actually quite different, and, Williams writes, they compete with one another. Each time we use the word ‘culture,’ we incline toward one or another of its aspects: toward the “culture” that’s imbibed through osmosis or the ‘culture’ that’s learned at museums, toward the ‘culture’ that makes you a better a person or the ‘culture’ that just inducts you into a group.')”

Maybe you mean “culture” here as a sum total of what a society does outside of structures such as government and organized religion.  Rather similar to “zeitgeist” or “Spirit of the times.”  That suggests something like the Occupy Movement was cultural in this context.

Also, the acceptance and legalization of gay marriage in the USA shows how the people lead and the government follows.  This example corresponds pretty well to your chart showing acceptance.  One lesson from that is broad government acceptance and change in legal status started locally in a few areas with high concentrations of people for whom this change was already their way of life.   All faced great criticism from outside for taking the step, such as the Mayor of San Francisco when he was the first public official to sanction gay marriage.  Regardless and perhaps in spite of it, this lead to others demanding it, and other local and state governments followed.  National figures shied away from it until a certain tide turned.  Then it became the law of the land.

Your comments about the challenges of stewardship point to a central problem of sustaining change.  If it all relies on government and legal structures then you can see a situation such as where, despite the constitutional declaration of racial equality in the USA, local culture takes things the other way: some states use their local laws and authority to perpetrate inequality.  In other words, even if you get to where you change the highest laws of the land, without something to sustain the spirit and values that created the change, it can go backwards if it is just left to government and other high authority if those offices are held (and financed) by regressive people.

How to create beneficial change in a matrix of violence such as we see today.  Most people do not want this violent matrix.  We don’t need a poll for that.  How many people have fled Syria compared to how many are fighting?  How many Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etc etc want peace compared to how many seek war?  And yet, the guns hold so much sway.

Back in the 70s I was part of two social projects that gave direct help to people in need.  In the South Bronx in NYC we created and operated a free ambulance service that caused the City of New York to improve its own service to those people.  In Guatemala we brought piped water to villages where they no longer had to carry it in jugs, and showed them how to sustain their nutrition by growing and using soybeans.  But in both cases, we peace-loving folks had to walk away from those projects when the violence got to the point that we seemed likely to get shot ourselves.  In the Bronx it was from drive-by shootings because crack and automatic weapons became commonplace.  In Guatemala it was from the government goon squads.

What is the link between “terrorism” and “authoritarianism”?  Are they always related?  Some acts of terror are suicide missions directed by a more central authority, and some are the acts of crazy loners (such as we see in all these mass shootings in America), but in any case, these days acts of terrorism cause increases in authoritarianism to the point that we see the opposite of what happens with social chances like gay marriage.  In these cases the governments take over and the people either follow or become outliers (such as those of us who protested the start of the Gulf War).

Is the goal with this thread to figure out how to grow pockets of culture where the things that lead to terrorism (and authoritarianism) cannot thrive?

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Sensing, sense making and experimenting

Thank you John, your questions are really helpful in moving this forward. Yesterday evening I was asked by someone what I thought about what was happening in Paris. In this case the person asking was clearly tormented by fear. Fear of being subjected to more attacks, fear of how their fellow citizens might react and the pressure they believed that would put on the government to do things like drop bombs on people elsewhere (and the consequences).

If we want to grow safe havens where the things that lead to terrorism cannot grow there are some things we need to understand. Some are obvious, others are unknown unknowns. The goal of this thread is an attempt to understand how to frame the original question in such a way as to draw in a diverse group of people and organisation into making sense of it together. Starting with a convening at LOTE5.

Any thoughts on how to do this?

Two things come to mind

at least to begin with:  art and kids.

If we are looking to strengthen commonalities at the same time helping people with obvious differences feel comfortable enough to seek those commonalities, making art - and I use that term very broadly - and making it with young people of disparate backgrounds seems like a good place to start.  One of my friends, Stan Peskett, is a very accomplished mural artist.  Indeed he has several large outdoor building murals around London.  Some of them he made pretty much himself but others were done with students, young people as a way to help them individually but also to give them a pride of place where they live.  The Mission District in San Francisco has a bunch of outdoor murals that were similarly done with students led by skilled artists.  In the Bronx, NY, there is a longstanding nonprofit art collective called Dreamyard that is a great place for young people to gather, learn and create.

I don’t see how to get people who want to shoot others to stop.  I can’t see how to help with that.  But I can see helping the much greater number of people who don’t want to shoot at others and who maybe don’t have enough ways to develop themselves.  I can see helping them find a place in their society that promotes understanding and cross-pollinating rather than keeping everyone in their respective cultural silo.

That’s one thought.  I’ll try to come up with more…

Fear is a bad advisor

Have no fear, live in the present, and make promising and exciting plans for the future!

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Yes but how as individual, social group, community, collective?

I think this negation of fear is a healthy instinct. The question is how to instill it in practice?

This is but one of the MANY posts reporting similar incidents in the aftermath of the Paris attacks popping up in my feed (i.e. friends and friends of friends in different parts of the world incl Europe):

This actually happened.

I was crossing a small street in an outdoor mall near my home with my boys. I was carrying some bags, my 2-year-old, and holding the hand of my 6-year-old. Basically my arms were full.

A car came rolling through the intersection and the driver was looking out her side window to see if other cars were coming. She had a stop sign but wasn’t stopping. She didn’t see us at all. She didn’t look ahead.

We were already in the middle of the intersection. I didn’t have time to move out of the way without risking dropping my son or making my other son fall. If I stood there we would’ve been hit for sure.

With literally a second to spare I pulled my son to my other side and swung my leg out to kick the woman’s car, hoping to make a loud enough thud to get her attention. The jolt pushed me back and I lost my balance but caught myself before tumbling to the ground. The woman driving realized she nearly ran us over and slammed on her brakes.

My initial instinct was to ensure my kids were okay. After quickly checking on them I looked up at the woman, who admittedly looked horrified but didn’t say anything. Instead, she quickly drove off.

As we walked across the street the woman behind the car that almost hit us rolled down her window and yelled out, “YOU F—ING FOREIGNERS. GET THE HELL OUTTA MY COUNTRY. YOU’RE A DISGRACE!”

My 6-year-old was visibly shaken and grabbed my hand tightly. There were about a dozen people who stopped and turned and stared at us. No one said a single word. Nothing. The woman who cursed us out drove off as well. My son spent the next hour asking me a thousand different ways why she was angry at us and what we did wrong?

6 and 2. That’s how old my kids are. One born in Chicago, the other in Richmond. But for the “crime” of almost being run over, they are already being labeled as “F—ING FOREIGNERS.”

If you think the rhetoric from the far right doesn’t have real consequences, if you think ignorantly conflating Islam and Muslims with Daesh terrorists doesn’t have real consequences, if you think demanding a stop to all Muslim immigrants doesn’t have real consequences, then look in the eyes of my boys and tell them that you were that woman who yelled at them from the car.

At least that way they’ll know to avoid you, and can carry on with dignity in the face of ignorance.

Because as we stood there with everyone staring at us is silence, I knew that yelling back with vulgarity would only further condemn us. And I did what I hope my kids do when they inevitably face such intolerance in the future, carried on with my dignity.

It is this chain, the choices people make on a day to day basis, and the consequences which interests me. Any reflections?

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