How to Fight for Change Without Being Mean

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately, as I do more and more writing on this page, as I try to do more and more advocacy, AND as we prepare to launch a progressive community site for the city. There are some truths that I operate from, that seem to be at odds with each other:

  • Silence is not an option.
  • Bad ideas, policies, and actions must be challenged.
  • Change only happens when either the leaders decree it (top-down) or when enough people want it (bottom-up).
  • Evil must be challenged. (And yes, there are “evil” acts and other things in the world.*)
  • People themselves are not evil.
  • Satire and snark are sometimes the best way to call out bad ideas, bad policies, and bad actions.
  • We are all part of the human race, and brothers and sisters because of that.
  • You don’t mistreat your brothers and sisters.
  • Hate is not an option.

So, on the one hand, we have to be active in the fight against the bad, willing to call out others and take unpopular stands, hoping to win enough people over to our side to effect change from the bottom-up. On the other hand, we must do it in such a way that we do not hate, we must not turn those we oppose into the Other, and we must remember that ultimately we are one family.

This is hard. To do this well and consistently is really, really hard.

But we must find a way.

So, here are some guidelines I’m adopting for myself, and possibly for this new site I’m helping launch:

  • Before you start, be clear about what you are for and what you are against, and why. Know the rational reasons for the change you are fighting for … AND, understand any rational reasons for the opposite position.
  • Your list of things you are against can never include people themselves. It is a hard line to draw sometimes, but “we are fighting against Joe Smith” is different from “we are fighting against Joe Smith’s anti-union policies.”
  • Stated another way: deal with the idea, policy, or act. The murder of the Charleston Nine was an evil act. The perpetrator of the murder is not an evil person.
  • You can use humor, satire, and snark to reveal the silliness, inaneness, or even stupidity of a particular thing — but you cannot cross the line into ugliness or meanness. If you do not have a good sense of where that line is, then don’t use those tools.
  • Generally speaking, family is off-limits, unless they are part of the story. Even then, be very careful — children, spouses, parents, and others often have no choice in being part of the story. There is no need to add to their misery.
  • Whenever possible, focus on or contrast the positive change you are for, rather than just on the negative thing you are against. For example, rather than just rail on financial institutions taking advantage of students by loading them with debt, talk about the value of debt-free education, and the boost it would give both our children and the economy.

Being mean as we advocate is sort of like junk food: it’s feels good to get back at some one or something online, but over time it’s really bad for you. It turns your message into just MOTS: More of the Same. We have to make our approach match our values, and figure out how to fight hard for change without tearing down people around us. As Parker Palmer says in the opening of his book Healing the Heart of Democracy:

For those of us who want to see democracy survive and thrive—and we are legion—the heart is where everything begins: that grounded place in each of us where we can overcome fear, rediscover that we are members of one another, and embrace the conflicts that threaten democracy as openings to new life for us and for our nation.

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2 Responses to How to Fight for Change Without Being Mean

  1. Bruce says:

    * I use Scott Peck’s daughter’s definition for evil: “Daddy, it’s just the opposite of live.” In other words, evil is anything that takes life from others. I realize that the word and the idea may not be common in progressive circles, but I find it useful. YMMV.

  2. Pingback: Why I Cannot Run for Office Again - brucemaples dot com

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