Going against the grain…and then getting things done

During his day, Antonio Gramsci was a radical, Marxist political and cultural thinker who wrote about how states use cultural institutions to maintain power. In philosophical and political science terms this became known as “cultural hegemony,” a fancy way of saying how a ruling or elite class influences culture by imposing and creating societal acceptance of their worldview so that it’s perceived as the norm. (Struggling to figure out the relevance of this? Think about the term “American dream.”)

But what Gramsci was perhaps best known for, and why I’m even bringing him up, was his ability to communicate with other thinkers and influencers across the political spectrum. This might be because of his approach. Though his proposals were viewed as “non-conforming” at the time, he found a way to position them within a conforming system. “We are all conformists of some conformism or other, always man-in-the-mass or collective mass,” he once said.

This all comes down to language and communication. If we are going to achieve any success in popularizing non-conformist ideas, we do it within an existing, conformist system. In other words, you need to know how to play the game before you can have any success at changing it. This is true whether you’re pushing a new public policy, pitching a new idea within a big company, or, in my case, trying to convince a room full of teenagers why they should care about what they eat.

Amartya Sen summarizes this brilliantly in his book, The Idea of Justice,

“As a political radical, Gramsci wanted to change people’s thinking and priorities, but this also required an engagement with the shared mode of thinking and acting…This is a kind of a dual task, using language and imagery that communicate efficiently and well through the use of conformist rules, while trying to make this language express non-conformist proposals. The object was to formulate and discuss ideas that are significantly new but which would nevertheless be readily understood in terms of old rules of expression.”

Communication isn’t about you, the speaker, it’s about the reader or the listener. How does what you’re saying make them feel? What reaction does it trigger in them? The delicate balance is using language that permits access; you gain the trust of the reader/listener by showing you conform. Then when you’re in the circle, slowly, incrementally, you push and expand the boundaries of its conformity.

In three brief words: know your audience.

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