“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality.” Dante
As social justice activists, we often identify with Dante in his frustration with those who either criticize the most nobel of justice campaigns or refuse to become involved.
What I’ve learned from doing activist work is that some folks just don’t like being bothered by our latest efforts to bring light on various social justice issues, and it almost doesn’t matter what the cause is: environment, poverty, corporate power, or gun control. The issue is not just about people’s indifference but also that some people actually become irritated by activists who generate discomfort with the status quo. It’s a universal problem that faces organizers but infrequently identified as a problem in solving the issue of understanding reactions to our most reasonable requests for social change in response to oppression. I would like to offer some thoughts on how we might consider what making change means to those who stand on the sidelines.
1. I’m frazzled. Facts, figures, charts, graphs are logical approaches to making our case, but what we sometimes don’t address are the emotional responses to change, which makes some folks get out of sorts when they feel change is thrust upon them. Often first responses are instinctively negative.
It’s important for activists to be aware of this problem before beginning to strategize solutions. Figuring out what emotional responses might surface assists in anticipating reactions from the community. In this way the organizers will have fewer surprises or objections when their campaign begins.
2. Don’t bother me in my bubble. People get comfortable with familiar routines, while thinking differently takes a great deal of energy. Folks may not want to hear that their water is dirty, their neighbor doesn’t have health care or that the schools are short on funding. If we examine even superficial social changes, like in the 1960s when guys began to grow their hair long or when mini skirts came into the fashion scene, there was a huge backlash against even these relatively minor cultural changes.
Don’t be surprised that your cause, no matter how compelling, has brought on criticism and resistance. Expect it and prepare for it. Look for possible scapegoats, either persons or ideas. It is important to help the community think rationally and critically. Hold educational events on neutral subjects such as researching and critical thinking. Later, you may become involved in panel discussions and open forums; be ready to clarify your reasonings, demystify assumptions, consider points of view, and support your data by evidence.
3. I’ll follow the pack. Since we are social creatures, we are part of a pack of similarly thinking people, which encourages a group think mentality.
Sometimes people have difficulty making decisions because they lack the information to make an informed decision. This is where the reports and data that are easily understood are important. Answer specific questions that arise. In some cases, experts can offer clarity to the community.
4. Don’t Tell Me What to Do. When change is imposed by others, people naturally resist, which seems especially true when this happens with peer groups. People sometimes accept authority from those with status, wealth or power. People feel they have to acquiesce to these authority figures, who get a pass because they are seen in status positions. Authorities also command the comfortable status quo and can use the comfort of the old familiar routines to sway opinion to their side when controversy strikes. When peers bring change, there is a vulnerability, as they may have little power or position, from which many view as legitimacy to make change.
Identify groups, people and organizations that may command attention because of the hierarchical position, and break down the power structures by giving people a voice to their concerns. Create venues in which people can participate.
5. I’ve got my own problems. And who’s paying attention to those, they may ask. People see the world from their own view and cannot face another distraction about other people’s’ problems. Facing up to social justice issues brings the next logical step: solving the problem and that puts folks on the spot. Then they may feel compelled to do something about it. But they don’t really want to solve the problem so they often find a convenient scapegoat.
Identify ways in which your cause may create difficulties for others, whether real or imagined. Listen carefully to those who express concerns and address those concerns. Invite them to be part of the process of change. You may have to alter your focus to include larger groups.
6. I’m above the fray. Some folks have privileges that allows them the luxury to ignore the problem. For example, they have enough money to get by or they are wealthy and can afford to fix problems for themselves.
Most people experience some form of discrimination because others have privileges. Find ways in which people experience oppression. One common form of almost universal oppression is lack of voice in the work place. Most employers do not operate in a democratic fashion, and workers resent injustices they have experienced in their place of employment. Point out the advantages of everyone contributing and how that helps the organization and democratic practice. Don’t make people feel guilty about their privilege. Talk about how liberation benefits everyone.
7. I’m scared. Perhaps they are a gun owner and fear that the privilege they have had with unfettered regulation will in some way be restricted. Others fear that what little they have will be taken away. If you advocate to pay a living wage to lowest paid workers, the middle-rung workers may feel neglected. They might wonder, where’s my pay increase? Institutions perpetuate this way of thinking. I was at a meeting recently where activists were pressing the administration to provide a day care center. An administration minion said, “What will employees be willing to give up for a day care center?”
Activists and social justice organizations must look at the bigger picture and listen to as many different constituencies as possible. It may be difficult, but try to involve them in the process or at least invite them. Create specific steps and supporting documentation for each step. Try to dispel rumors and myths. Look for ways in which your message might be undermined by fear messages from the opposition.
Organizations and activists will not be able to bring everyone on the side of their cause. However, it is possible to bring along folks who stand at the fringe or even the center who might consider what you have to say. Don’t be discouraged as staying strong in the face unrelenting criticism is part of our responsibility and not to be taken personally. Changing a culture is a long process and takes careful attention to detail while remaining compassionate to all involved. Integrity should always be the cornerstone of your campaign. People respect that even if they disagree with your mission. You might just might cancel a few of those reservations to the inferno.