TEN WAYS TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE


alice walkerI‘ve always been ambivalent about ethicist Peter Singer’s work (which is most famously in the area of animal rights, though his new book, The President of Good & Evil,  is about Bush’s “pattern of ethical confusion and self-contradiction”). I’ve always believed that the best way to bring about change is by building consensus, and by collaboration, not PETA-style confrontation. I’ve always believed that you should never allow “ends justify the means” arguments to compromise your principles and ideals.

Where I am an idealist, Singer is a pragmatist. His philosophy is “fuck your ideals, get something done”. When you get discouraged enough at the continued failure of idealistic argument and consensus to achieve real change, that philosophy starts to look pretty good. So here, for pragmatists and activists everywhere, are Singer’s Ten Ways to Make a Difference, with my usual blathering comments. Like the late Dana Meadows’ Ten Ways To Change Anything, Singer’s points apply equally to any change effort. But where Meadows’ steps are conceptual and consensual, Singer’s are down to Earth, brutally realistic, and, when all else fails, in your face:

  1. Try to understand the public’s current thinking and where it could be encouraged to go tomorrow. Above all, keep in touch with reality. Don’t cloister yourself with like minds. Study, and associate with people who have different and opposing views, and understand their thinking. Test out their reactions to your point of view. Be prepared for similar reaction on a larger scale when you act.
  2. Select a target on the basis of vulnerabilities to public opinion, the intensity of suffering or need, and the opportunities for change. Pick your battles carefully, where you have clear advantage morally or scientifically, and are least open to attack. “You know that you have a good target if, by merely stating the issue, you put your adversary on the defensive. You only had to ask, ‘Is another shampoo worth blinding rabbits?’ to put Revlon officials on the defensive”. The value of an activist campaign is the product of the amount of good it will bring, times its probability of success.
  3. Set goals that are achievable. Bring about meaningful change one step at a time. Raising awareness is not enough. If you allow your ideals to make every issue all-or-nothing, you cannot succeed, and you’ll burn yourself out. Look for goals that, when achieve, will have ripple effects or give you momentum. Raising awareness is an essential part of the change process, but merely raising awareness without proposing and leading action accomplishes nothing. (Maybe that’s the problem with blogging, and with journalism for that matter.)
  4. Establish credible sources of information and documentation. Never assume anything. Never deceive the media or the public. Maintain credibility, don’t exaggerate or hype the issue. Meticulously check every source, especially when you’re about to go before a big or influential audience. Even the sin of omitting certain details or mitigating factors, while it may make your point more emotionally powerful, will eventually be caught and will lesson your authority in future efforts. A lot of us got caught up in the recent story of the Pentagon Climate Change Warning report, and as it turned out its questionability hurt our arguments. And much better to get it right, and fair, in the first place, than to have to apologize for overstatement or inappropriate reliance on a source later.
  5. Don’t divide the world into saints and sinners. Understand that people can change, and if you confront them angrily you set back the chances of winning them over. Rage sometimes feels good, and may even be justifiable, but it’s a lousy change tactic — it only works on those that already share your point of view.
  6. Seek dialogue and attempt to work together to solve problems. Position issues as problems with solutions. This is best done by presenting realistic alternatives. Don’t present the situation as hopeless, or you’ll just discourage people. Don’t foist a single, inflexible solution on people. Give them a choice and they’ll be more inclined to select one and work with you. And use those subversive story-telling techniques as well — tell a story that suggests, but doesn’t dictate, a solution, and let the articulation of the solution come from the audience, where they will take it as their own. And make sure the solution alternatives are simple and achievable. One step at a time gets you there.
  7. Be ready for confrontation if your target remains unresponsive. If accepted channels don’t work, prepare an escalating public awareness campaign to place your adversary on the defensive. That campaign needs to be carefully planned out, relentless and inexorable. Parry attacks from adversaries with reason, common sense and self-discipline, but don’t get intimidated or back down just because the adversary has more money, more resources, or more lawyers. Keep the agenda focused on your articulation of the issues the adversary needs to respond to, not on your tactics. Right makes might.
  8. Avoid bureaucracy. That means your own bureaucracy. Use loose, focused project coalitions to run programs and drive change, not permanent self-established organizations. Avoid committees to make or ratify decisions — use advisors but take personal responsibility for drafting and seeing through the entire program. Encourage others to join, or not, for the duration or during critical points, but don’t let them set the agenda or policy. Focus your collective persuasive skills on the people out there, not resolving internal differences of opinion.
  9. Don’t assume that only legislation or legal action can solve the problem. Political lobbying and legal manoeuvring is no substitute for real action. The battle is for the hearts and minds of people, and if you win that battle, and if it is also necessary to change the laws or to litigate (often it isn’t), it will then be much easier.
  10. Ask yourself: “Will it work?”. Singer says “If you can’t give a realistic account of the ways in which your plans will achieve your objectives, you need to change your plans. Keeping in touch with what the public is thinking, selecting a target, setting an achievable goal, getting accurate information, maintaining credibility, suggesting alternative solutions, being ready to talk to adversaries or to confront them if they will not talkóall of these are directed toward creating a campaign that is a practical means of making a difference.”

Thanks to Salon blogger David V. Johnson at WWDT  for the link.

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11 Responses to TEN WAYS TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE

  1. Raging Bee says:

    Well, you just put the entire Western left out of work with those ten steps…oh wait, they weren’t working anyway…never mind… :-)

  2. Elderbear says:

    Practical.I don’t see an immediate conflict with consensus building, either. These could be warped and abused by some &$147;Vanguard of the Revolution” group to propagate their agenda, but your comment on number nine is the key &$147;The battle is for the hearts and minds of [the] people…”Thanks for taking the time to read, dissect, and comment.Elderbear<br/ >Fighting creeping fascism one HTML tag at a time.

  3. Dirtgrain says:

    Number five is one I need to learn. I often get into online arguments with Bush supporters as I claim that Bush is greedy, corrupt and, in my mind, evil. There is one fellow who always asks how I can assume such a thing of Bush–how can I assume that he doesn’t want to do good for the majority of America. When I push my claims–even with support–I often alienate Bush supporters

  4. Elderbear says:

    Sorry about the mucked up formatting. Obviously I need more than my usual dose of coffee today!

  5. mrG says:

    There is another 11th item that only just presented itself to me today, and which I find fascinating because I would never have suspected it: Elect a pro-ecology pro-idealism President with a very rich philanthropist wife

  6. Raging Bee says:

    Dirtgrain: you’re not the only one making that mistake; at least you’re recognizing that it is a mistake.Extremists typically assume – often with no evidence, at best – that EVERYONE who disagrees with them is purely evil in their motives. The entire American left went overboard with this in the ’60s: they took a perfectly reasonable civil rights movement, a perfectly reasonable women’s rights movement, a perfectly reasonable environmental movement, and a perfectly reasonable antiwar movement, and conflated the whole lot into an unrestrained orgy of white-bashing, Yank-bashing, West-bashing, Christian-bashing, Army-bashing, and Dixie-bashing, and needlessly insulted tens of millions of ordinary Americans who might otherwise have supported at least some of their causes. We’re still trying to recover from the consequences.If more people on the left followed these dumb-ass common-sense steps, we’d still have a Democratic President and Congress.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    I’m stunned — Singer must be onto something to get nods from the astonishing diversity of political opinion represented by the commenters above. And for the second time in a week I’m in substantial agreement with Pony-Tailed Writer Dave the Raging Bee. Scary stuff.Gary: From what I’ve read from reliable sources about Ms. Heinz-Kerry, she sounds pretty good. But the NY Post is NOT a reliable source — it’s owned by wingnut Rupert Murdoch and is operated as a ‘vanity paper’ — a mix of his right-wing slander, People magazine-style gossip, lurid pictures and News of the World type sensationalist drivel, sold for a deep discount 25 cents a copy (the only way it could generate any circulation) — the alleged ‘newspaper’ loses $25 million per year just to give Murdoch a voice for his tripe in the Big Apple. It fits in the same category of ‘journalism’ as the Washington Times (which is owned by the Moonies).

  8. Sherri says:

    I thought Singer’s steps were 1. easier to read, 2. more likely to cause change (I wonder if Raging Bee’s warning might be added to #5 LOL).

  9. Raging Bee says:

    I wouldn’t advise it – if appropriate warnings were added to all ten steps, they wouldn’t be “easier to read.”Dave P.: I didn’t know you cared. When was the first time you agreed with me? :-)

  10. Mark Gehrke says:

    Dave,Thanks for pulling Singer’s steps apart. The only difference in his steps and other is our own internal perspectives. Singer’s ideas are reasonably good but will only go so far. There is absolutely no reason to use adversarial or defensive mindsets to create action. The current “opposition” is evolving beyond these action points as you have commented. Building WE is about enlightening all of us to the power and influence of the human capacity and that we don’t and can not exist as the independant I’s. There are no sides in this, it is an impossibility that we need to realize.

  11. Raging Bee says:

    If I had to add anything to these steps, it would be:11) Focus on what can or should be done in the present and future, not on what shouldn’t have been done in the past.12) Always maintain a positive vision, objectives, and set of priorities. An ever-growing laundry-list of gripes is no sbustitute, especially when the gripes contradict each other (thus giving the appearance of mindless, reflexive, dishonest fault-finding), or become too nitpicky (thus showing that you will never be satisfied, and causing others to give up).

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