Abbie Hoffman on the left and language

Abbie Hoffman, Overthrow, 1986  – You have to take complicated ideas and make them simple, the language has to be constantly gone over for certain words that Americans will read and tune out on, and you have to be aware of a very short attention span.

I’ve compared it closer to writing advertising copy than to, say, writing a book like Murray Bookchin. Now, I appreciate Murray Bookchin, but if I want to talk about what Murray is saying I have to boil it down to one or two ideas and then I have to translate it into American because this is just simply not the language that large numbers of people use.

Since the collapse of the trade union movement, the left has been trapped in academia. The language reflects that.

It is a difficult area, because now they’ll say. “Well, you’re not serious.” or “You mean we’ve got to make ourselves saleable commodities,” when all I’m saying is, “Look, this is how this society communicates.” lt communicates through symbols, styles, personalities, issues. It’s non-literate and non-ideological, it’s visual imagery, short bursts one minute long. That’s a TV contmercial and you think just because something has five volumes that it’s giving more information than that one minute? Maybe yes, maybe no, but those one minutes transmit a lot of information. The art of-communication is finding the one word that says what you want. Yippie was one of those words. That was a good word.

Solidarity. Justice. Sanctuary. My mind scans constantly for key words to express and motivate people.

When we started Yippie! it was to get people to go to Chicago to demonstrate the new culture and protest the war. We didn’t have a big bureaucratic structure, we didn’t have money, we didn’t have control of the media. We had some underlying philosophical notions of course—the attack against guilt and original sin, for example.

Also, we attacked boredom. I still believe that the best organizers understand people are easily bored in our society and if you add to that boredom you are a piss poor organizer and. in a sense, adding to their oppression.

People in power can afford to bore people.

They’re in power, they don’t have to be creative. I’m not saying we can all be extraordinarily talented as communicators but it’s the rare leftist that even tries to improve.

You pick up a left journal, you don’t read about real problems that activists share. For example, what happens when one member of a couple gets disillusioned? I want to understand why the left doesn’t understand about depression, why it always associates it with their politics. I want to understand why there aren’t more discussions about small group psychology, about decision-making in small groups, about what motivates people, about the mechanics of making things work.

It’s true there is an element on the left that thinks if it’s popular it’s bad. There are people that want to reach the proletariat masses but brag about not watching TV.

I don’t know where the proletariat mass is in the United States, to tell you the truth.

I don’t know where that is and if you’re plugged into that language you’re not operating in this world, you’re not a ‘serious person.

I’m an organizer, not an activist. An activist goes to meetings, an organizer knocks on doors. I have spoken at Kiwanis clubs. I have spoken to the League of Women Voters in New Jersey. I have spoken at an American Legion Hall.

I want to reach people that are not the believers,  that are not already there. I want to reach people who are confused about what’s going on in Central America and don’t understand it. I want to reach Americans.  – Overthrow

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