There is an important principle that what got you there, won’t get you to the next level. Right now, the Intactivist movement has hit a new level. In order to progress, it will have to develop new tactics, new strategies, and a new mindset.
Having followed the movement for several years for my documentary American Circumcision, and traveled across the country meeting activists, I think I can speak to the movements current mindset, and offer some advice on where activists could go next, based on what I’ve learned on my journey with the film.
At present, Intactivists have a “one-time” solution mindset. When a problem arises, Intactivists solve it. Someone is having their baby circumcised? Intactivists jump in the comments and start educating them. Someone is pushing circumcision? Intactivists make noise and start protesting it.
However, if the problem arises a second time, it requires just as much work to solve second time as it did the first. Activists have only found a “one-time” solution. Although activists have made incredible progress with this model, it is unsustainable. You can never expend enough energy to reach every person in the world if each new person costs you more energy.
You need ways to scale, and in order to scale, you have to gain energy each time you solve the problem, not expend it. You need systems that solve the problem for you, so you can focus on solving new problems. You need institutions.
Institution Building Mindset
An institution is any system which gains energy the more it is used.
Institution building mindset involves asking three questions at every problem that arises:
- How can I solve this problem?
- How can I receive energy back for solving this problem?
- How can I create a system whereby if this problem arises again, I run the same loop?
Bonus question: How can other institutions expand their power by collaborating with me, and vice-versa?
If all three of these questions can be answered, you have an institution. If not, you are just treading water.
Let’s look at the institution I built – the film American Circumcision.
The problem: People are not educated about the issue of circumcision. Right now, understanding this issue fully requires pulling from vast amounts of academic literature, books, and videos that the average person does not have time for.
- How can I solve this problem? I can make a feature-length documentary that compresses thirty years of research and activism into one movie, and takes someone from ignorant to expert in under two hours.
- How can I receive energy for solving this problem? I can sell the film, crowdfund it, get paid, and further my goal to become a filmmaker by creating this film. I can also use the film to build an audience and following on social media.
- How can I create a system whereby if this problem arises again, I run the same loop? In the future, if someone wants to know about this issue, I tell them “watch my movie.” The presence of a big documentary lends greater social proof than some random person replying to them.
- Bonus question: How can other institutions expand their power by collaborating with me, and vise-versa? A feature length documentary lends authority to each group or expert working on the issue. It also allows a distributor institution to make money by spreading the film, and platforms like Amazon, iTunes, Vimeo, etc. to make money by selling the film. Those institutions can expand their wealth by selling the film, and in-turn expand my audience and make money for me as well.
Do you see how this is more effective in the long run than if I just tried to solve the problem again and again each time?
Right now the Intactivist movement only solve the first question (“How can I solve this problem?”). If the problem is that people don’t know about circumcision, they jump in the comments and start educating them. However, the next time a parent is ignorant, they are back at square one.
- You are not building an institution if after solving the problem you are back at square one again.
- You are building an institution if after solving the problem you’re in a better position than you were before.
After making, American Circumcision I am in a better position than I was before. I have an audience if I want to do another film, or expand into a book project or product. I have a relationship with a distributor for my next film. I have new skills that I can apply to future projects.
- If you are building an institution, each time the problem arises, you gain energy.
- If you aren’t building an institution, each time the problem arises, you lose energy.
Part of the reason many activists experience “burnout” is that they spend more energy than they take in. If every time activists have to educate someone they have expend energy and constantly post, and they never take any energy in, then they eventually spend more than they have and go into energetic debt, or burnout.
Right now, most activists fuel their activism through work outside their activism. But what if your activism could fuel your activism?
When the “people don’t understand circumcision” problem arises, people recommend my film and I gain energy. Every time this issue hits the news, or people are talking about it, I gain energy. I have converted the energy of this problem into energy for myself. If you do this enough, you can eventually become big enough to feed on opposition groups. If an opposition group was to attack me in a big way, do you think I’d gain or lose energy?
Speaking which, let’s look at some opposition institutions – the ADL and AAP.
The Opposition Builds Institutions
The ADL – Anti-Defamation League – exists solve the problem of anti-semitism and racism. During an attempt to ban circumcision in San Francisco, the ADL framed Intactivists as “anti-semitic” was able to mobilize their considerable resources to get a court to remove the bill from the ballot and pass legislation protecting circumcision in the state of California.
If a corporation or social media network is accused of racism or anti-semitism, then they have to pay the ADL for sensitivity training. When Starbucks was accused of discriminating against two black men in their store, they paid the ADL thousands of dollars for anti-bias training that has been shown to have no scientific basis. This solved their PR problem while expanding the wealth and institutional power of the ADL.
Likewise, when social networks like Twitter or Facebook get accused of having a “hate speech” problem, the ADL offers to moderate the “trust and safety” council of these platforms. They now have censorship power over most social networks. They don’t do this for free – each of these networks is paying them for this service. Do you see how much institutional power they are gaining for solving this problem?
They gain so much institutional power every time the racism or anti-semitism problem arises, that some have suggested they have a financial motivation to inflate those problems in order to expand their institutional power. If they can get an allied reporter to accuse an institution of “racism” then that institution will need to pay someone to solve their racism problem – and why not the leading group that solves that, the ADL?
This is similar to the medieval Catholic practice of selling indulgences. They create an artificial need of transgressions and sins that only they can absolve you of. The “sin” of allowing the SF MGM bill, meant that many San Francisco politicians and institutions had to “absolve” themselves by tithing to the ADL, and expanding their institutional power.
(If you believe the ADL might create accusations against groups, then it could also be argued that it’s similar to the mafia practice of charging protection money. ‘Pay us, or we’ll slander you as racist.’)
Let’s look at them with the Institution Mindset Model.
The problem: Other institutions want to avoid the accusation of racism and anti-semitism.
- How can I solve this problem? The ADL can consult with companies with issues with racism and anti-semitism and moderate social networks where people are spreading ideas they feel are related to those issue.
- How can I receive energy for solving this problem? Companies will pay the ADL for their anti-bias training, and content moderation (censorship).
- How can I create a system whereby if this problem arises again, I run the same loop? If anti-semitism arises in the news, we can offer to absolve the company involved through our services and expand our influence by gaining censorship and influence over that institution.
- Bonus question: How can other institutions expand their power by collaborating with me, and vice-versa? The ADL will sit on the trust and safety council of most social networks and have the ability to decide which groups are racist and which aren’t. If people want to be in the public square without being called racist, they will have to work with the ADL.
That is some powerful institution building.
Do you understand why a group of activists just trying to solve a problem (“Circumcision is bad – let’s pass legislation against it!”) lost to a group with decades of institution-building experience?
Now let’s look at the AAP – the American Academy of Pediatrics. Their model is more obvious. People have health problems. Doctors solve health problems and getting paid for their services. They run the same loop over and over by having a doctor’s office people can come to and pay more to solve health problems. Doctors take in energy every time someone gets sick.
Most people understand this model. Many activists believe the reason circumcision continues is money. However they are trying to solve the problem of an institution with simple level problem solving, rather than institution building. They protest the AAP and tell them “circumcision is bad – stop” yet the AAP gains power and energy every time they “solve” the “problem” of a child’s foreskin.
Let’s look at how you’d solve this problem from an institutional level.
The problem: Doctor’s continue to perform circumcision, and don’t know how to tell their patients “no” without losing money.
- How can I solve this problem? You could create a course called “How To Talk To Your Patients About Circumcision (And Still Make Money)” which educates doctors in how to market themselves as ethical.
- How can I receive energy for solving this problem? Doctor’s offices would pay you for this video course, and pay you even more for in-person training with their staff. You could also be paid by conferences, doula conventions, and doctor’s groups to teach this course. You could offer a professional network they could join (“The Ethical Doctors Association” – EDA) with a website where parents can find intact friendly doctors, driving clients to them and encouraging them to pay dues to join your new professional association.
- How can I create a system whereby if this problem arises again, I run the same loop? If a doctors says, “I can’t tell my patients no, then they’d go somewhere else!” you would direct them to this training program and encourage them to join the Ethical Doctors Association.
- Bonus question: How can other institutions expand their power by collaborating with me, and vice-versa? Doctor’s organizations, birth conferences, and practitioners could all benefit by getting your course or asking you to speak at their events. You provide scripts for them to talk to patients, marketing material and a professional network which brings them new clients.
Plus, if you wanted to use the ADL model for creating the demand – you’d protest doctors groups or a particular doctor, while offering them the solution of buying your course and joining your new association. Once a critical mass of doctors belonged to this group, you could begin having them vote as a bloc in other doctors groups, and frame their competition as unethical.
That last step might be too hardcore for many people, but keep in mind that opposition groups like the ADL have no problem using these tactics. Although you might have adjust this strategy and approach based on the doctors you were trying to reach, do you see how this process would be far more powerful in the long run than just protesting?
Not All Organizations Are Institutions
Many activist organizations do not behave like institutions. If a doctor says no to circumcision, or a parent chooses to keep their child intact, does any activist organization take in energy? Why not?
“But I love saving babies so much I’d do it for free!”
Yes, but if you love saving babies so much, why don’t you love it enough to do it more effectively?
Part of the reason opposition institutions like the AAP perceive Intactivists as “trolls” is because activists offer no rival institutions for them to participate in. If activists protest a doctor doing circumcisions and the doctor stops, he gains nothing and loses the support of genital cutting institutions like the AAP.
How hard would it be to make a website called the “Intact-Friendly Doctor Network,” list doctors for free, and charge doctors $100 to be featured on the front page each month? Is one new client worth a $100 to a doctor? Doesn’t the average doctors visit cost more than that?
This doesn’t mean every group has to function this way, but they could work synergistically. If a doctor’s office was protested by an anti-circumcision group, wouldn’t they be more open to education in how to talk to their parents about circumcision?
Synergy Between Institutions
Compare this to the synergistic relationship the ADL has with diversity organizations like #BlackLivesMatter. When #BlackLivesMatter engages in far more aggressive tactics than any Intactivist organization, they are not seen as trolls because 1) the public perceives the grievances of #BlackLivesMatter activists as more legitimate than Intactivists, because these groups have built partnerships with allied media institutions which can get their message out and 2) these organizations offer a coalition of diversity institutions like the ADL that the organizations they protest can participate in.
So when #BlackLivesMatter shuts down Starbucks, the ADL sells them a solution to their problem in the form of anti-bias training. The anti-bias training company that partners with the ADL, and then makes a donation to #BlackLivesMatter. The ADL also gains a lasting institutional partnership with Starbucks. Meanwhile, when Intactivists protest a group, they offer no institution-level solution, so they are perceived as “just trolls.” Got it?
This is just a reverse-engineering of one institution model, but it works across issues. Do you think that organizations which certify environmentally clean products don’t have partnerships with groups like Greenpeace? Greenpeace protests, which means companies have to pay organizations with certify environmentally clean products, which then donate to Greenpeace.
If you look at other issues and causes, there is a whole ecosystem of activist institutions working together, expanding their energy and influence with each action they take.
Institutions Create Collaboration
This model would require multiple institutions and greater collaboration between Intactivist institutions. Right now, everyone is trying to solve problems one at a time, over and over. Solving the problem once requires no collaboration, so little collaboration exists between activist groups. Solving the problem for all-time would require collaboration.
Solving the problem once also pits activist groups against each other for resources. If an activist group wants to do something that requires money, then they try to find a “one-time” solution to their money problem in the form of donations. If another group tries to solve the same problem the next time, they compete for donations.
However if every time they solve the problem they gain money and institutional power, then if another activist group can help solve that problem, they could gain energy for everyone, because solving the problem increases energy for all parties involved.
- If you are building an institution, other organizations provide an opportunity for collaboration and expanding your energy.
- If you are not building an institution, other organizations are competition for a limited source of energy.
When activist groups promote my film, they gain the legitimacy and influence of having a major documentary about their issue, and a tool to educate the public. I gain a greater audience for my film. This is a win-win, because I’ve structured my film as an institution they can expand their influence by sharing.
Institution Mindset vs. One-Time Mindset
When people ask about my film, they ask one-off questions. “How many people have seen it?” or “Will it be on Netflix?” These are one-time solutions. They aren’t asking me about how it has set me up to talk about the issue on other institutions. They aren’t looking at how that film now owns the keyword “circumcision” on Amazon, the world’s third largest search engine, so when new parents search information on this issue they find my film. Would I have been invited on any platform to talk about this issue, without my film?
When a podcast host wants to talk about circumcision to his audience, my film solves that problem by providing a presentation of it that is professional and polished. Through our collaboration, the host also expands my platform and audience by sharing my film with more people. That would not have happened had I used a “one-time” solution every time I wanted to talk to someone about this issue.
A few people have told me I should offer the film for free “so more people will see it!” This is one-time solution thinking. If I did that, I would take in no energy and have no long term solution. Institutions like film festivals, distributors, Amazon, iTunes, etc. could not participate in sharing my message. All these same people tell me I should get the film on Netflix. Does Netflix buy free YouTube videos?
- If you want institutions to participate in your message, you must build institutions they can work with.
Institutions Offer Ways For People To Participate
Each institution you create offers ways for people to participate. If you wanted save animals, and walked into a PETA chapter, they’d have work for you. Same for any environmental, civil rights, or other major activist organization. However, right now, if you want to do Intactivsm, you go to protests or post online. While this is something, there other ways people who care about this issue could participate if they had similar institutions.
If you aren’t certain you can build an institution, participate in an institution. I am always looking for talent. Part of what I have struggled with is that when I seek people from the movement to work on projects, they approach it with a “one-time” mindset rather than an Institution Building Mindset. They will make a few posts on Facebook, but don’t know how to commit to building a long-term system. When I asked about building a company that did social media content, most responded “Why would I pay for that? I post on social media for free!” not understanding the value of having an institutional media company.
If there was a “foreskin education group” that partnered with schools to teach sex education, and you could sign up to be a certified “foreskin educator,” don’t you think some of the people who wouldn’t be drawn to standing on the street with a sign be drawn to that? Why aren’t there a dozen institutions like this people could participate in?
This mindset requires long term thinking. It might require saying “no” to other projects and might even mean taking time off social media. It might mean investing energy into something you won’t see the pay-off for till later. It might mean you’re not online to reply to that post about a mom who is having her baby circumcised tomorrow, because you need to focus on solving the problem for all-time.
This process takes time. I can write about an “Ethical Doctors Association” or a “foreskin education group” partnered with educators, but building this in real life could take years. It could require people investing in the organization and not seeing returns for some time. Building each of these organizations is beyond my ability to do individually. Even if one person does it, they will eventually need to scale, bring in other people, and form a team. I feel comfortable giving these ideas away for free because I know ideas are useless and execution is everything.
I realize this is hard. Delayed gratification is an issue for many people. However, the movement can afford to have people offline building institutions, and will be more powerful in the long run for it. You as an individual activist will have more energy, because you won’t be burning out every time you take action. You will be growing in your energy and influence.
I suspect most people will not understand this post. They will share it on Facebook, say “yeah, we should build stuff!” and think they’ve accomplished something. A few more will envision something, but never follow through. But if a tiny minority might actually build an institution, and that will make all the difference. When you do, let me know. I’m open to collaboration.
How To Build An Institution – Summary
To build an institution, answer these questions:
What problem I am trying to solve?
- How can I solve this problem?
- How can I receive energy for solving this problem?
- How can I create a system whereby if this problem arises again, I run the same loop?
- Bonus question: How can other institutions expand their power by collaborating with me, and vice-versa?
Then work really hard.