Malala: Culture Designer?

She is known as “the girl shot by the Taliban for wanting an education.”  Malala Yousafzai is a powerful speaker, the embodiment of raw courage, and an inspiration to millions.  Most of us know this bright young woman because she stood up to a violent culture of oppression against girls in Pakistan.  After surviving an assassination attempt, she rode the waves of public sentiment that transformed the cultural zeitgeist around the world. This begs the question:

What if Malala became a culture designer?

Thousands of daily acts of violence against young girls take place in every corner of the world.  They are routinely silenced, marginalized, raped, and brutalized on all continents of the Earth.  So what was it about the shooting of Malala that was so different?  The answer lies in two things.  The way the particular context of this event had evolved up to the point of the shooting.  And the swarm behavior that rippled forth from it in the unique media landscape of early 21st Century global communications.

The Taliban was globally recognized as an extremist political group after a decade of military actions lead by the United States in the Middle East.  The plight of young girls and their need for access to education had been elevated successfully by Greg Mortenson’s international best-selling book Three Cups of Tea, strong leadership by Western women including Melinda Gates and Hillary Clinton, and NGO efforts like those of Oxfam International and ActionAid.  This topic had been around for years and was already on the minds of millions — at least peripherally.

Malala was sought out by BBC journalists to shine a light on the problem they already knew about.  The following she built up in her writings was a testament to the fact that she was striking a nerve for people all over the world in the readership on BBC’s website.  But it was the graphic particulars of the assassination attempt that really took things to a new level.  A shot to the head and neck.  Photos and video footage spread across social media through internet and mobile phones.  The story was personal.  It was tragic.  And once heard it was impossible to forget.  The Malala story was a classic piece of “viral media” dropped into a culture ready to receive and spread it.

The swarm behavior that followed would have been impossible a few years earlier.  There simply weren’t enough people with smart phones and internet access.  The cosmopolitan exposure of people in large cities to strange Arabic names assisted the spreading too.  Most of us in the West had become accustomed to imagery and words from the Middle East in the decade prior to Malala’s shooting.  And many of us knew girls like her (or WERE girls like her) in different parts of the world.  So the tragedy struck right to the heart for millions of us.

The dynamism of 21st Century civil society produced a shared sympathy that overwhelmed the oppressive control of media in the theocracy of Pakistan.  It is now a poster child of violence against girls.  And its reputation is causing the people of Pakistan and their elected officials to shift their thinking.

Among the outcomes so far have been a strong stand by Islamic clerics against the violent tactics of the Taliban, a United Nations petition for universal education of girls by 2015 across the globe, establishment of a World Malala Day for the rights of children, and passage of the first piece of Pakistani legislation for the Right to Education for all children in their country.

This rapid turn of events would have seemed impossible to achieve in years, let alone months, prior to the cultural wave that swept across the world.  This exemplifies the way that culture designers can evoke a response that elevates their presence and alters the landscape of possibilities.

Malala has a massive following and is beloved around the world.  Imagine if she were to learn the craft of culture design and set a course of action to unleash future waves of transformation.

 She unwittingly rose to global prominence by riding the wave of compassion that followed after the shooting.  She achieved this without knowledge of cultural feedbacks or how to use the tools of network science, discourse analysis, or meme propagation.

Now that Malala herself has become a potent meme, she can activate and engage immense social capital to challenge oppressive societies with the power of love and compassion.  All she needs is a starter kit on culture design to get things moving.  Perhaps this is the next subject she should take up and study with her passion for education?

Memes generated by:

B. Laszlo Karafiath                    Joe Brewer
Producer                                         Research Director

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Coming soon in this series…

  • Russell Brand — An unexpected revolutionary

  • Bill de Blasio  — Riding the waves of Occupy in NYC

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