10. The Primary Requisite of Effective Activism

Are people selfish for focusing on their own needs instead of the community as a whole or the larger principle? Maybe or maybe not, but that’s not the point. The point is, that is the way most people—including most activists, by the way—behave. They need a reason to buy, and that reason isn’t the intrinsic worth of your viewpoint, it’s that they have a need that they perceive your viewpoint can fill.

At the same time, if you do your job properly, people will often surprise you by moving their focus quickly from their own immediate need to the more general principle at stake.

Accept the validity of Bitter Truth #2 and start presenting your causes, candidates and viewpoints in such a way that your audiences can immediately and effortlessly perceive them as meeting their needs. They shouldn’t have to do much thinking or guesswork to make the connection. The primary requisite for doing that—and for effective activism in general—is that you hold a sincere liking and respect for your listener that allows you to see things from her viewpoint (see Chapter 16), and to build a positive relationship with her. In the presence of such a relationship, your listener will feel safe and respected and is therefore likely to be tolerant of your attempts to persuade her; in the absence of one, she will likely (rightfully) be suspicious of you, your motives and your ideas. Again, contrast Patricia McHugh’s success at reaching out to people during the New York City memorial vigil, with Jane Doe’s and the other activists’ failures.

The best salespeople and activists are successful largely because they build those kinds of positive relationships almost effortlessly, and with a wide range of people. They are “people people” who love diversity, not just of race, class, religion, age or gender-orientation, but of mind. They enjoy talking to people—or, more to the point, listening to them—hearing their stories and opinions, and figuring out what makes them tick. They find human nature and human behavior endlessly fascinating.

To be sure, there are many salespeople who are insincere flatterers. I believe the percentage of them is much lower than most people think, however, especially among the top ranks. “Faking it” doesn’t work all that well, and it’s just too hard for most people to pull off, especially over the long term.

One word for the attitude I recommend you cultivate is “tolerance,” and yet tolerance doesn’t quite go far enough. If your goal is to influence people, you can’t just tolerate them, you have to really like and appreciate them. This is true even in cases where you disagree with some of the person’s viewpoints or actions. You gain nothing, absolutely nothing, by blaming or shaming such people, or by lecturing them. As Dale Carnegie said way back in 1936, in his classic book How to Win Friends & Influence People (see Bibliography):

You can tell people they are wrong by a look or an intonation or a gesture just as eloquently as you can in words—and if you tell them they are wrong, do you make them want to agree with you? Never! For you have struck a direct blow at their intelligence, judgment, pride and self-respect. That will make them want to strike back. But it will never make them want to change their minds. You may then hurl at them all the logic of a Plato or an Immanuel Kant, but you will not alter their opinions, for you have hurt their feelings.

Carnegie, whose book every activist should read, and then reread repeatedly throughout his or her career, recommends using a “Socratic” method of gently questioning the customer’s ideas and assumptions in order to gradually win him or her over to your viewpoint. And—guess what?—Alinsky also recommends using Socratic questioning. From Rules for Radicals:

Actually, Socrates was an organizer. The function of an organizer is to raise questions that agitate, that break through the accepted pattern. Socrates, with his goal of “know thyself,” was raising the internal questions within the individual that are so essential for the revolution which is external to the individual.

This, of course, brings us all the way back to the discussion, at the very beginning of The Lifelong Activist, of Gloria Steinem’s personal evolution from self-abnegation and self-denial to being able to live Socrates’ “examined life.” Revolution From Within, which is what she called her autobiography, and now you understand that you don’t just start a revolution from within yourself, but also from within your audience. You can’t impose a revolution on anyone—or any society—from the outside, and to attempt to do so is not just folly, but morally reprehensible. (See Chapter 15 for more on this point.) But you can ask the questions that will help your listener achieve her own revolution from within.

Later in his book, Alinsky suggests as proper activist technique a gentle form of interview called “guided questioning”:

Much of the time, though, the organizer will have a pretty good idea of what the community should be doing, and he will want to suggest, maneuver, and persuade the community toward that action. He will not ever seem to tell the community what to do; instead he will use loaded questions. . . . And so the guided questioning goes on without anyone losing face or being left out of the decision.

Is this manipulation? Certainly, just as a teacher manipulates, and no less, even a Socrates.

As you will learn in Chapter 29, at the heart of the sales process is a similar form of interview, or “needs assessment,” in which you gently question your customer to ascertain his needs and lead him in the direction you wish. The process may be manipulative, as Alinsky unapologetically points out, but it is not inherently exploitative. Done from the standpoint of a sincere interest in, liking for and respect for the customer—not to mention for society and the planet—it is actually kind and caring.