Tag Archives: Al Franken

When a Meme Becomes a Social Movement — Chaos Theory and the Al Franken Resignation

16 Jan

Blog post graphics.002      

    In Shakespearian tragedies, kings and lovers alike are brought down with daggers and potions.  In today’s tragedies, they are brought down with tweets and hashtags.

   The remarkable and sudden fall of US Senator Al Franken is a unique case study in chaos theory, contagion, and the resulting social movements that create new order.  It is not just the story of David throwing a single tweet at Goliath—it’s also the story of ten thousand re-tweets, each with the weight of a stone.  The social narrative gives cover for suppressed victims to thrown their own stones.  Despite all efforts at containment and crisis management, the outcomes are as unpredictable as a creative Saturday Night Live sketch that bombs, or a brilliant legislative package that can’t gather enough votes.  In Franken’s case the unpredictable became inevitable.  It forced Franken to resign from the US Senate.  Goliath fell.

   By itself, the tweet seen around the world from Los Angeles radio host Leeann Tweeden of Al Franken appearing to grope her chest during a 2006 USO tour was a powerful image.  Even though the picture was taken before Franken became a US Senator, it creates a strong cognitive intrusion into the known and expected behavior of a person of power.   But the visual dissonance of the image carried even more weight against the backdrop of social chaos already underway with the sexual harassment allegations against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein.

   When actress Ashley Judd accused Weinstein of harassment in a October 5th “New York Times” investigation it created its own cognitive intrusion into the reputation of one of Hollywood’s most successful film makers.  The Times investigation uncovered eight settlements paid out to women for their silence on Weinstein’s alleged predatory behavior.   The story was David’s stone cast into a pool of water.  The ripples are the basis for what social scientists call the modern embodiment of chaos theory.

   Chaos theory has its roots in mathematics and physics where researchers such as Edward Lorenz found that even minor variances in complex computational models led to unexpected and contradictory equations.  Lorenz called it the butterfly effect, where the flap of a butterfly’s wings could ultimately affect weather patterns weeks later.   Increasingly applied to social science, chaos theory holds that small events cause ripples that eventually amplify into meaningful movements.  University of Amsterdam researcher Jaap van Genneken notes that within a collective adaptive system such as public opinion, those small events or voices can multiply through media channels to become a powerful and shifting force.

   That’s exactly what Ashley Judd started.  Within seven days, former actress Rose McGowan also publicly disclosed Weinstein had assaulted her and reached a settlement in 1997.  Two days after McGowan, actress Alyssa Milano encouraged victims of sexual harassment to tweet #MeToo.  By the next morning 30,000 people did.  The hashtag shot like its own stone into the public consciousness.  The voices of three women suddenly identified an issue that had been covered up for too long.

   In an age where we communicate at the speed of light, more women saw the light.  Chaos became a contagion.  But it was more than Weinstein.  Accusers came forward targeting politicians, actors, ceo’s, musical directors, even Today Show host Matt Lauer.  Perhaps the most famous target, Alabama US Senate candidate Ray Moore, was accused of sexually targeting teenagers when he was in his 30’s.  

Senator Tweets

Figure 1 – December 6th tweets of women U.S. Senators calling on Sen. Al Franken to resign

   This was the chaos and contagion that encircled Al Franken like a swarm of Davids.  By the morning of December 6th, a seventh woman accused Franken of attempting to kiss her.   That same morning TIME named the “Silence Breakers” as its Person of the Year.  In its cover story TIME wrote, “When a movie star says #MeToo, it becomes easier to believe the cook who’s been quietly enduring for years.”   Within hours, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand called for Franken’s resignation—seven more women senators joined her in short order. (Figure 1)  Those were David’s final stones.  The next day, Franken announced his resignation on the floor of the US Senate.

 

 

Contageon Timeline

Figure 2

  Although Franken’s communications team tried to counter the attack by producing testimonials from former women staffers on his thoughtful and supportive treatment of them and his championing of women’s issues, it couldn’t compete in a climate of #MeToo contagion. (Figure 2)  Google Trends data clearly shows a timeline of the chaos and the shifting social attitudes.  A TIME/Survey Monkey poll conducted between November 28th and 30th showed 82% of respondents were more likely to speak out about sexual harassment since the Weinstein allegations.  Furthermore, 85% said they believed the women making the allegations of harassment.  

Linear vs Networked Models

Figure 3

   But the phenomenon also speaks to the changing nature of influencers in an environment of fragmented media.  It demonstrates how the old rules of linear communications models with thought leaders at the center have given way to randomized networked systems of influencers. (Figure 3)  Columbia University sociology researcher Duncan Watts has established a model where movements are not necessarily driven by a single person or media channel, but instead by cascades of easily influenced people.  Those cascades turn global—or large—when a critical mass of early adopters connect with each other in the influence network.  Although Watts argues the critical mass may only occupy a small fraction of the population, the cascade effect becomes global when the remainder of the population activates as well.

   This is essentially what happened on the morning of December 6th, when the seventh accuser stepped forward against Franken.  She may have been a small influencer, but timed with the release of TIME’s “Silence Breakers” it built the critical mass that gave cover for the coordinated call among women senators for Franken to resign.  Accelerated by social and digital media, the cascade became unstoppable.

   One of the principals of chaos theory is the self-organization that occurs after the chaotic state or crisis.  In other words, there’s a return to a new order.  In the case of the chaos brought on by the Weinstein accusations there is an emerging re-organization on several fronts.  First, in Hollywood, the creative community has formed the “Times Up” movement creating new awareness and expectations for worker treatment in the entertainment industry.  Second, industrial giants such as Ford have already reexamined HR policies including harassment training at its manufacturing plants—especially in Chicago where complaints surfaced.  As for Al Franken’s senate seat, there is also new order.  A woman—former Minnesota Lt. Governor Tina Smith has replaced him in an orderly transition.

   Like the butterfly’s wings, a single voice can still create the stone in David’s hand, or the dagger in Shakespeare’s play.  And in today’s world of digital communication the contagion they can  are exponentially powerful at creating disorder and reorder.

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“The Heart Can Never Mess You Up” — Speech Lessons From a Once Homeless Marine

4 Jun

      On paper, it was no contest.  The speakers list contained a short agenda of polished politicians and accomplished CEOs.  And then there was Jerry Readmond.

      “I have but one wish right now, that my anti-depression pill would kick in,” said Readmond.

      Those were his first words.

Former homeless veteran Jerry Readmond standing outside the historic Fort Snelling horse stables that will be converted into affordable housing for homeless veterans.  (Photo by Rod Wermager)

Former homeless veteran Jerry Readmond standing outside the historic Fort Snelling horse stables that will be converted into affordable housing for homeless veterans. (Photo by Rod Wermager)

       Hardly the opening line of a master orator.  And therein lies its simple genius—honesty.

       Jerry Readmond is a former Vietnam War Marine who long ago stopped carrying a rifle and instead carried a burden.  What the war didn’t break, inner demons did.  He spent time walking and living on the streets of Minneapolis, another member of our national embarrassment called the homeless veterans club. 

       If not for the Marine Corps instilling in him a life-long sense of pride and adaptability, Readmond admits he might not have survived. 

      That’s exactly why Readmond was added to the speakers list at the recent ground breaking for 58 new affordable apartments for homeless veterans at Fort Snelling.  The fact that he’s a Marine gives him respect.  His one-time homelessness gives him standing.  Aristotle called it ethos, or credibility.  But the pathos, or emotion was about to come from the soul.

      “I don’t read from notes, because the heart can really never mess you up.” Readmond said.

      He didn’t need notes. All he needed was a narrative, and his heart gave him one.  Here are some of the excerpts:

      “I asked Senator Hubert Humphrey one time, ‘Where does it start?’ And he shook my hand.  And having been here today and witnessing this, it hit me.  After all these years, it starts with a handshake.  There have been many, many, many, many hands shook here.

      “We can build all the buildings we want for our veterans, but I hope when we leave here you will think of this one word:  Affordable.  I’m in a place right now, I have my social security and I have my compensation from the V.A., the first and the fifteenth.  My rent is going to be over a thousand dollars a month and I was homeless.  I just want to be not a perfect example, but I like to be an example because I got my housing through HUD VASH [Housing & Urban Development – Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing].  That’s why I’m so passionate about this.  It takes the honor and the courage and the strength of a warrior to ask for help, that’s why we have a hard time getting them in the door. 

Jerry Readmond walking through the building that will be converted into affordable housing.  (Photo from Rod Wermager)

Jerry Readmond walking through the building that will be converted into affordable housing. (Photo by Rod Wermager)

      “That’s what we’re all doing here.  Martin Luther King, ‘I had a dream.’ And everybody that’s going to fill these halls and walk the grounds will able to say instead of living down by the river or under a bridge… every winter I just get scared.  Really, really, really scared. How many are they going to find under a bridge or down by a river, or in the bush, dead because they froze to death. 

     “Now I know when Martin Luther King said, ‘I have a dream.’  And, for me it is my dream would be that we can fill as many of these buildings here as possible with affordable housing. That we can build affordable housing all over.  When President Obama was first elected he said that he wanted to eliminate veteran homelessness.  And I thought to myself one word and it was short: right.  But by golly, it’s happening. 

      “But it was the handshake.  God bless our veterans and God bless the United States of America.”

      Pity any speaker who has to come next.  In this case, it was Minnesota’s U.S. Senator Al Franken.

     “Don’t anyone ever let me follow Jerry again,” said Franken.

Jerry Readmond and U.S. Senator Al Franken.  (Photo by Rod Wermager)

Jerry Readmond and U.S. Senator Al Franken. (Photo by Rod Wermager)

     Readmond’s were the only words anyone remembered.  Readmond aimed for the heart, everyone else aimed for the talking points.

     The lessons for speech givers and communicators alike are profound.  Powerful persuasion comes in the emotional metaphors delivered by people who have credibility.  In this case, it came from a disheveled man wearing a USMC t-shirt.

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