Futures work is inextricably bound up with theories about social change, and in particular how new discourses compete with existing ones, and eventually supplant them. So it’s good to see the now radical (and now veteran) British politician Tony Benn riffing on this in an article on the climate camp in London this week.
Benn told Leo Hickman:
“This is how I believe change occurs. If you raise an issue, it’s usually ignored. Then if you go on, you’re labelled as mad. If you go on further, you’re dangerous. Then there’s a pause. Then you can’t find anyone at the top who doesn’t claim to have thought of it in the first place. That’s how progress occurs.”
It’s a model he’s used before, in platform appearances and lecture sizes since he stepped down as an MP. It seems to be a version of a phrase used by a more famous activist. Mahatma Gandhi put it this way:
“First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”
And in turn Gandhi may have been influenced by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer:
“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident.”
In their way, all of these map on to the Three Horizons model, which I have helped to develop, which explores how new ideas and discourses succeed (or not) in passing into the mainstream. Using Benn’s quote, in the “ignored” and “mad” phrases it is still on the edge of the mainstream, but becoming more visible. In the “dangerous” phase, there is direct conflict between the new idea and the dominant discourse. And in the “anyone at the top” phase, it has won.
Benn was asked how far along the line he thought that climate camp had got:
Well, I think they’re beyond madness, and halfway beyond dangerous towards that pregnant pause”.
I think this may be radical optimism. For myself, I’d put it somewhere between “mad” and “dangerous”.