How to address a revolutionary crowd

A fascinating vignette from the Arab Spring in Egypt at the seminar on religion and violence:

We were supposed to have a session with Moez Masoud, one of the leaders of the revolution who is also studying in the religion and psychology group at Cambridge. He couldn’t make it, due to last minute pressures in Cairo. However, Sara Savage, with whom Masoud works, told us of him one day calling her, just as he was about to address a crowd in Tahrir Square.

The mood was tense, the stakes high. Lives might depend on what was said. The great risk in such situations is that crowds adopt binary thinking. The group sees only good guys and bad guys, only friends or enemies. This Manichean world carries great emotion appeal to the human mind. It focuses energy and inspires moral outrage. It moves people. It sparks revolution. But it also sparks violence, commits atrocities. So the question, Masoud had, is how to stir the emotion and avoid provoking knee-jerk reactions that might later be regretted?

Sara had simple advice, though it sounds a bit technical. Use conjunctions in your speech, she said on the mobile phone, though not negations. Say ‘both’, ‘and’, ‘also’. Avoid ‘either/or’, ‘not’, ‘against’. And use your body, because when people feel things in their bodies they are capable of holding complexity. They can know the desire for justice and for compassion. They can sense what it is to believe in more than one moral value. So, hold up one fist and declare absolute commitment to freedom. Then hold up another fist and declare absolute commitment to avoiding a bloodbath. And keep both in the air.

I imagine the phone went dead, for we didn’t hear how it went. But next time you’re addressing a revolutionary crowd…

(Image: Celebrations in Tahrir Square by Jonathan Rashad)