– by The Shitty Activist
Activism can be emotional. Sometimes our feelings about an issue are so powerful that we let our anger, sadness, or frustration carry us away, and we’ll lash out at someone. While such outbursts can feel cathartic, they don’t always make for effective activism.
The Internet, especially, lends itself to emotional outpourings, often in the form of comments on Facebook, Twitter, news articles, or blogs. While we may tell ourselves that we’re doing this to confront a person, organization, or corporation for the good of the movement, if it’s done with too much of a negative emotional charge, even if the statements are spot on, it might have the opposite effect of what’s intended.
Now, this isn’t to say that contrary views shouldn’t be aired or opinions challenged. They should, constantly. The key is to make sure we’re getting our point across successfully and not letting emotion muddy the waters.
I recall awhile back when I was targeted in a letter to the editor in a local newspaper for my stance on an issue. Frankly, I had no problem with being singled out for my activism, was actually a bit flattered, as it suggested I was having some influence. My concern was that the letter writer also falsely insisted I was a public advocate for a controversial cause I was not involved in, in what seemed like an effort to smear my professional reputation.
In crafting my own letter in response, I happened to speak with a Buddhist friend of mine who told me that in these sorts of public debates, he was more likely to believe the person who made their point calmly, without malice or personal attack. For him, tone is as important as the information being communicated. With that in mind, I did my best to avoid pissing on this individual personally (though I did eviscerate the industry he represented) and the newspaper ended up running my letter, retracting his letter and removing it from the web, and issuing me a public apology.
The key to conscious-raising, as I see it, is to focus at all times on the issue at hand, back up your points with objective evidence, and leave the other person out of it as much as possible. If they are a public figure, such as a politician, and your complaint is about their stance on an issue, focus on their position, rather than the human being merely playing that role.
If the stance is inseparable from the person, see if you can condemn the stance without condemning that person’s whole identity. For instance, “Senator Winky’s position on puppy-flogging is cruel and inhumane,” rather than “Senator Winky is cruel and inhumane.” That whole “love the sinner, hate the sin” concept.
Also, you might not want to make statements about someone else’s intentions, the reasons you suspect they have a certain opinion. Maybe you’re right, but if you’re not, you run the risk of destroying your own credibility by crying wolf.
If you think someone is saying something inaccurate, don’t automatically accuse them of lying, which implies deliberate deceit. More often than not, a person really believes what they’re saying, and if they’re wrong it’s because they are mistaken. You can make your point just as effectively by giving them the benefit of the doubt, letting know they messed up by accident, rather than labeling them a liar. This way, you give them a chance to save face by correcting themselves – “Sorry, I misspoke” – rather than backing them in a corner, where they’ll have no choice but to savagely defend themselves to save their integrity.
Perhaps the most important consideration is deciding what your intention is when offering an opposing viewpoint. If you’re trying to discredit a person’s argument, the best way to do that is to offer a brief, calm response backed with evidence, ideally from as unbiased a source as possible.
If you’re responding to a person to convince others of the rightness of your own views, composure is the key. After all, if you know you’re right about an issue, you’re probably not all worked up about it. You’re just interested in laying down the facts and then going about your merry way, confident that the light of truth will clear away the shadows of ignorance.
An angry and hateful screed often says more about the person writing it, than it does the person to whom it’s directed. Because why would someone feel threatened by another person simply expressing their views? The saying, “Surely thou doth protest too much,” comes to mind: an over-the-top rant makes it seem like you secretly think you’re wrong. An easily disproven falsehood isn’t anywhere near as disturbing to someone as the broadcasting of a truth they don’t want anyone to know about.
If you’re trying to change the mind of the person to whom you’re communicating, attacking them will only push them away. We all think we’re good people, which makes it nearly impossible to listen to anyone who’s trying to bring us down, because, clearly, if they’re attacking a saint such as ourselves, they must be a demon. Even if we know we made a mistake, someone going for our throat doesn’t make us want to reconsider our opinions, since it’s obviously an enemy pointing this out, and an enemy can’t be trusted.
Of course, no matter how respectfully and reasonably you word your disagreement, most people will ignore you, as arguments just tend to entrench each side further in their own views. That being said, some open minded people are willing to stand corrected, so long as it’s done in a way that doesn’t curse them as irredeemable for making a simple mistake.
We’re all more likely to listen to the perspective of a friend, someone reaching out to us so we have the best information possible to come to a rational decision, an ally looking out for our best interest, as opposed to an enemy looking to trash our reputation, hinder our work, and possibly even cause us harm.