What Yoga, Weed, and #BlackLivesMatter Can Teach Us About Creating Change
I imagine some people are going to be scratching their heads at the combination in this title. I get it; on the surface yoga, weed legalization, and the #blacklivesmatter movement don’t seem to have much in common. But bear with me, because I’m here to talk to you today about how, with the use of social media, individuals and groups can influence our culture to drive social change. And while this may not seem immediately relevant to yoga, if we use our yogic discernment to improve ourselves it’s equally important to think about how we can utilize our yogic discernment to take a long and hard look at our practice in order to make it (and our world) more inclusive, equitable, and welcoming to all. In other words, we should not just use our practice to better ourselves (which is great, but perhaps a reflection of ego?) but should also use the practice of yoga to better the lives of others and our society as a whole. But how can we do this? Read on, my friends, as I begin to discuss one aspect of my dissertation work on the intersection of digital technology, social movements, and cultural and organizational change.
One of the most hotly debated topics in social science is the question: how much influence does culture have on our lives? We know media has an effect, because there are some hilarious studies like this one looking at the influence of movies on our choices of pets. They found “the effect of movies featuring dogs on the popularity of dog breeds can last up to ten years.” For example, when Lassie came out in 1943 there was a 40% increase in collie registrations during the following two years. Similarly, a great deal of research on gender has indicated that ideas we have of “femininity” have been strongly influenced by cultural factors as well as various industries like the cosmetic industry (for those who are curious, I highly recommend the books The Feminine Mystique and The Beauty Myth). For example, pink actually used to be a boys color, but when clothing manufacturers in the early 20th century were trying to figure out ways to sell more products they decided to push different colors for different genders, creating the idea that blue was for boys and pink was for girls. This caused parents to buy two different sets of clothing for differently gendered children, rather than just dressing their children in the same clothing (typically white dresses until they were entering school). Cha-ching! Instantly doubled profits, all from promoting the idea that pink and blue are meant for different genders. And this idea has stuck with Americans and become so ingrained in our culture it’s now almost impossible to find any kid-product that isn’t color-coded to indicate gender affiliation.
Further research has shown that gendered toys (another brilliantly fiendish invention of the toy industry to maximize profits) often push girls into caring careers that pay less. Because girls are often encouraged to play with toys focusing on beauty, caring for others, and non-leadership roles they are given implicit messages throughout their young lives that they are not capable or do not belong in male dominated fields more focused on building, science, or leadership positions. Girls get to be nurses, boys get to be doctors; girls get to be stewardesses, boys get to be pilots. This is also clearly seen in Halloween costumes that differ by gender, where boys get to be super heroes and girls just get to be princesses. The popular documentary Miss Representation outlines these disparities as they play out over our lifetimes: “Women make up 51% of the population and only 17% of Congress. When they’re seven years old, an equal number of boys and girls want to be President of the United States, but by the time they’re fifteen, the number of girls who say they would like to be President drops off dramatically compared to the boys. Women are only 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs, 37% of lower-level and middle managers, and 26% of vice presidents and other senior managers. Men occupy 80-95% of the top decision-making positions in American politics, business, the military, religion, media, culture, and entertainment.” So culture clearly does matter, and clearly does affect our decisions in small ways that add up to big changes in our lives over time.
Given this reality, then, the question becomes: is it possible for individuals to change culture? How can we fight back against larger systems using the limited agency that we have? In the past, the ability of individual people to affect broader cultural change was severely limited because everyday people, even when mobilized into social movements, rarely had access to the media and culture industries or forces of production. Before the age of the internet, they weren’t able to write their own news stories or produce their own content in ways that reached a large audience. However, all of this is changing with the advent of social media. Social media has democratized media (to a degree), giving individual people never-before-seen power to not only mobilize and connect with others who are like-minded but also engage in cultural production of their own. With a wide platform and the ability to create our own content, it is suddenly possible for individuals or groups to have a much greater impact on the broader culture of society. This means that we are able to influence the larger social structures, particularly our cultural ones, much easier and with much more impact than ever before. And this, my friends, brings us back to yoga. Because the yoga world is undergoing exactly this type of change right now, as I write this blog. Within yoga, we are beginning to see a social media movement, body positivity, being tied to the heart of the practice. This movement is trying to take back cultural control in order to promote a more equitable and just practice and society. While the body positivity movement has it’s origins in the feminist movement of the 1960s, it’s only recently gained ground and prominence and this is in large part due to activists’ uses of social media. These same tactics (whether or not they are intentional to begin with) have been seen in what I will call other social media movements, such as the weed legalization movement and the black lives matter movement.
The body positivity movement in yoga is aimed at changing stereotypical ideas of who is a yogi and what qualifies as yoga. The movement draws attention to the ways mainstream media, including the yoga industry, has overrepresented an “ideal yogi body” as one that is thin, white, able, female, cisgender, heterosexual, and affluent. I’d also add that this same industry has largely represented only one narrow idea of what yoga is, predicated on advanced physical postures, or asanas, that are often used to sell either products or services. Body positivity activists argue these images have contributed to issues of inequality, access, and exclusion within yoga (and broader society) since they often deny the experience of non-stereotypical yogis and make it much more difficult for these types of yogis to make a living in the industry. Similarly, they point out that such unrealistic images contribute to the formation of negative body image, body hate, and self-doubt that many women and men experience in our society at large, and the experience of body-isms like racism, sexism, sizeism, and so on. This movement, while still in the beginning stages of development, has been gaining ground and received increasing industry attention from corporations like Yoga Journal and the controversial Lululemon.
What I will call the legalize weed movement has been brewing for some time, and gaining slow ground through initiatives like state’s legalization of medical marijuana. However, in the last several years the movement has taken off, gaining monumental support. PEW Research has indicated that support for marijuana legalization is “rapidly outpacing opposition” to the point that most experts agree the trend is “that cannabis, as an industry, is headed toward commoditization, regulation and standardization.” For the first time in the history of polling about marijuana attitudes, more people favor legalization in America than those who oppose.
And of course, there is the black lives matter movement sweeping the nation. Utilizing the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, the movement has drawn attention to systemic racism and continued discrimination in America today. Obviously, with the numerous cases of police brutality the focus has been on discriminatory police practices and inequality in the criminal justice system. However, the movement is ultimately about America’s history of racial inequality and the intersection of race with other forms of oppression. It draws explicit attention to discriminatory media practices that create a culture where whites are valued more than blacks, hence the hashtag #blacklivesmatter that seeks to overcome this cultural bias. They hope to illuminate the role of cultural stereotypes that are the root of implicit racism plaguing our country today.
Activism, Social Media, and Social Justice: Creating Effective Cultural Change
But how have these movements been so successful, and how can those still in the growing stages utilize social media to create more effective forms of activism? I’m going to outline here some common strategies and tactics used by these movements, to widespread success:
(1) Busting Stereotypes (utilizing social media): This tactic typically takes two forms. The first is commonly used in the #yogaforall and #legalizeweed movements, and has been incredibly successful. It involves changing our ideas of stereotypical consumers (of yoga, or weed) and also changing ideas of how or why those individuals consume. For yoga, this means showing more diverse yoga bodies, practicing not just advanced asana but all types of yoga including meditation or more foundational postures done with the support of props. Utilizing instagram and selfies, numerous curvy, non-white, queer, male, or in other ways non-stereotypical yogis have gathered huge followings, a sign that the narrow representations in mainstream media are lacking and that most people have a hard time relating to the stereotypical yogi and how they may practice. Sure, such narrow representations can be aspirational, but when that’s all that is shown it’s problematic because there aren’t any adequate images of how to get there, just the end point. So body positivity has been able to successfully fill this gap, providing a more accurate and real representation of yogis and yoga via social media that has very successful in reaching out to a broader network of supporters to promote their cause.
For weed, this tactic has typically involved changing our idea of a weed consumer from “the typical pot smoker as a college-age guy inhaling a joint and gorging on pizza” to other bodies associated with positive stereotypes. They have been particularly successful in tying marijuana use to women, especially women associated with the “mother” or “grandmother” stereotypes (indeed, they have been “aggressively courting female consumers“). For example, in WA (after legalization) they filmed this viral video featuring three (white) grandma’s who smoke weed for the first time:
It’s pretty hilarious, and I think illustrates this strategy very well. Activists have also been successful in tying marijuana use to middle-class, white America (and white-collar jobs), a big shift from associations of marijuana use to the counterculture of the 1960s or poor minority races/ethnicities. The second way activists have been busting stereotypes is…
(2) Sharing powerful (and brief) facts: Movements that have been successful in using this tactic have primarily been #legalizeweed and #blacklivesmatter. This tactic typically entails utilizing short and easily digested statistics that make telling comparisons, drawing attention to inequality, inconsistencies, or myths that are widely (but falsely) believed by broader society. These statistics are often accompanied by visualizations, which lends itself well to memes and short videos that can be shared easily on social media. For example, in the case of weed PEW Research uncovered that nearly 70% of all Americans now believe that alcohol is more dangerous to a person’s health than weed, and “if marijuana became as widely available as alcohol, 63% still believe alcohol would be more harmful to society.” That’s a huge cultural shift! HUGE! And it’s largely driven by easily digestible social media content that has widely spread this fact, such that it is now common knowledge that weed is safer than alcohol (yet remains a schedule I narcotic according to the federal government). Here are some examples of these type of memes:
For #blacklivesmatter, this has taken two main forms. First, they do use visualizations that portray facts about racial inequality in America today. But the movement also uses more disturbing content that has been the focus of this tactic, namely real-life video evidence of racial discrimination by police, such as the video of police murdering Eric Garner that caused the adoption of the phrase “I Can’t Breathe” into the movement. These videos are horrible, powerful, disturbing testimonies of the life and death consequences of being black in America, and speak to why #blacklivesmatter.
(3) Getting Expert Support (especially in ways that break stereotypes): Getting outspoken support from industry or government officials, or high-profile celebrities, lends legitimacy to the campaign and can help bust stereotypes. For example, the weed legalization movement has gotten numerous high-ranking police officers and celebrities to come out in support of ending the war on drugs and legalizing cannabis. It’s important to note these experts are in support of not speaking for these movements, and as such are not co-opting or appropriating movement discourse, a key distinction for effective change. Getting expert support also contributes to the next point…
(4) Regular creation of new content: Being able to supply new, easily digestible content on a regular basis keeps the conversation going. This is actually a strategy taken from mainstream industry practices regarding social media that seek to utilize a free, unpaid labor pool of “fans” to create controlled firestorms by having these fans “like” and “share” content for them, and sometimes even create it themselves. But in social media movement cases, this content is not trying to sell a product but instead sell an idea. (I’d recommend the documentary Generation Like, which talks about this phenomena in big business and personal branding.)
(5) Utilizing multiple media types: While this one is probably obvious, the regular creation of new content should utilize multiple media forms to engage audiences in multiple ways, allowing for a wider audience appeal. Common forms utilized on social media are memes, visualizations, videos, podcasts, blogs, news articles, or interviews. Ultimately, the most successful movements have been able to bring the social media support to the real world through concentrated advocacy or activism efforts that move beyond the internet into actual policy reform.
(6) Encouraging community involvement: Finally, movements that are most successful use a familiar industry tactic of encouraging community involvement. By having supporters share content on their social media pages, this creates a web-like network where the use of hashtags or shared posts by friends puts pressure on others to change their views. When it comes to cultural change this tactic can be more effective than we may realize, since most of this peer pressure happens at an unconscious level. In fact, many social psychological experiments have shown that we underestimate the degree of influence our peers have on us (as the famous Asch experiments show). A recent study by none other than Facebook has shown that we conform even within social media worlds. Looking at whether people were more likely to change their profiles to rainbow colors in support of marriage equality, they found people tend to change their profile pictures in response to their friends’ picture changes. In fact, “users were more likely to adopt the equal-sign icon if they saw multiple friends doing so. The more friends they saw, up to a point, the more likely they were to change. That social influence was more of a factor, in fact, than even religion, politics or age.” So if we want to change people’s minds, we need to apply concerted social pressure by engaging an online community that is able to create a new normal, new cultural norms.
While there is more that can be said here, I’ll leave it at this for now. Go forth and engage in cultural change my fellow yogis! We can utilize our networks, including online networks, to create more effective social justice work. We can do together what we cannot do alone.
Love, light, and… yoga ❤