Capoeira is a dance style developed by Brazil’s enslaved Africans in the 17th century. Its graceful flips, spins, and sweeping kicks (video) mask its true purpose as a means for the enslaved to practice their fighting skills: capoeria is a war dance. While capoeria was eventually illegalized, the dance style served to fool the slave owner class. The word “capoeria” itself is mocking. It means “check coop” in Portuguese and was likely coined by slave owners who thought their slaves looked like flapping chickens as they practiced their martial dance form. This term further camouflaged the very serious goals of capoeira. The non-threatening perception protected the development of capoeira, which is practiced to this day.
Capoeira is an interesting model for digital activism training in repressive regimes today. Teach the people the skills of digital activism – documentation, publication, coordination – but teach it in a non-political context. Teach teenagers how to make photoblogs about their friends, how to organize school projects using listservs. Teach adults how to create Facebook pages to promote a business. You will have a digital army in waiting.
This strategy builds off the the usually apolitical nature of the web. Evgeny Morozov calls it cyber-hedonism. Ethan Zuckerman refers to it in his cute cat theory. In Evgeny’s view, the leisure activities available on the Internet crowd out more serious political activities. According to Ethan, entertainment portals like YouTube provide a space for activists to work where no explicitly political portals are allowed.
But it is not a zero sum game. Ordinary citizens who use digital technology for entertainment and social purposes can use those skills for political purposes once in their lives and can have great impact. I am thinking of People Power II, the mass demonstration coordinated through mobile phones, that ousted Filipino President Joseph Estrada in 2001 and how ordinary people used text messaging to counter the ruling party’s propaganda before the 2004 elections in Spain (the opposition won). I doubt Filipino or Spanish mobile phone users are very political as a group. They usually use text messaging to communicate with friends or to play games. But they had the skills. When they were compelled by a political issue, they knew they could use their phones to mobilize their friends to action. Our goal should not be to train digital activists, which is incredibly dangerous in repressive regimes, but simply for all citizens to have digital skills that can be used for political purposes when needed.
Though there is funding and interest, I do not recommending that the US government take on this task. Our foreign policy of supporting dictators over the years has both caused us to lose credibility with serious activists and to endanger those activists through association. Rather, I propose a capoeira strategy for the dissemination of these skills as well: in the shadows, by neighbors and local organizations, by bloggers visiting middle schools. This low-cost grassroots strategy not only permits the scale necessary to truly disseminate these skills globally, but also facilitates the creation of local networks and experts that are legitimately independent and autonomous.
Image: irene nobrega/Flickr