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Re-writing an attacker's script -- getting in practice

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The late Bill Moyer, author of the strategy book Doing Democracy,  happened to be claustrophobic. As a civil rights organizer, he knew he needed to be available for civil disobedience, so when the movement was gearing up for another campaign, Bill began his desensitization program: one minute inside his closet, then two minutes, then three and so on. By the time he was arrested, he was free to be his usual solidarity-building-self instead of absorbed in his own panic.

A young activist in Philadelphia embarked on another unusual self-training bravery program. He boarded trolley cars and stood near the front of the trolley facing the rear. He then spoke loudly to the startled passengers, arguing one side of a controversial topic. He spoke for as long as he could tolerate, then jumped off at the next stop. He'd congratulate himself and either took the evening off or, if he was pumped, wait for the next trolley and do it again.

He told me he did it by himself because he'd already overcome his fear when he did soap-boxing with other activists, assisted by the their solidarity. His next step, he felt, was to be able to do it by himself.

Practice with a team

I once trained anti-apartheid activists in New Zealand who demanded that their government withdraw its invitation to the all-white South African Springboks to play in their country: "Don't import apartheid sport!" I learned they were worried about passionate rugby fans who threatened to beat up demonstrators. Part of my training program, therefore, was street speaking outside a pub full of passionate rugby fans.

Many of us learn more easily in a group, including that basic skill of self-assertion. I use the game of sock-wrestling as a training tool. The participants take off their shoes and form pairs of similar height. The pairs sit, facing each other, with space around each pair. I explain the rules: The object is to wrestle in such a way as to get your opponent's socks off before they can get your socks off. Everyone must stay on the floor. No hurting. When someone in your pair has won, watch the others wrestling around you. Notice what you're feeling the whole time. Then we'll talk about it.

Through sock-wrestling, participants explore inhibitions to self-assertion. Other issues come up, including strategy. Plunging vigorously into the game with a group of people creates a pro-combat atmosphere and supports a debrief inquiring what might keep us from giving up. A second round with a different partner offers a chance to try a different attitude and new behaviors.

Group role-plays can also unleash creativity, especially if the facilitator emphasizes that there's no one right answer in responding to a threat. The point is to invite participants to try out new possibilities, physically as well as mentally. I enjoy writing up the behaviors that people tried and then running the scenario again to generate more options.

The truth is, every real-life situation we encounter is unique. We're far more likely to come up with something useful if we go into it with the attitude that there are multiple options. Like Bert, we can start out with an apparent calm acceptance of getting hit -- itself both surprising and de-escalating. We can then switch to something else, like Bert's asking for a handkerchief for the bleeding nose. If that hadn't worked, Bert would no doubt have tried a third tactic, and a fourth and a fifth as needed.

Training can help us internalize strategic principles, like figuring out who is the leadergoing on the offensive and reaching out for allies. But principles are solid, and creativity is fluid. One goal of training should be to unleash the creativity that is the birthright of every human being.

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