15. On Bullying

Many activists seem to operate under the principle that if they just badger people enough, or make them feel guilty or ashamed enough, then those people will finally see the error of their ways and embrace the activist’s viewpoint. A word for this behavior is “bullying,” and there are (at least) three problems with it:

1. Bullying is not marketing and sales. It is, in fact, the antithesis of marketing and sales, which seeks to build a strong positive relationship with the customer. Even the stereotypical manipulative used-car salesman acts like he is your best friend, at least until you buy the car.

2. Bullying, even for the noblest of reasons, is cruel, and therefore not consistent with progressive ethics.

3. Bullying doesn’t work. It is, in fact, more likely to motivate people away from your viewpoint than toward it.

Bullying can masquerade as activism, but is in fact antithetical to it. If you spend a lot of time talking at people instead of listening to them, you should give serious thought to the question of whether you are, in fact, bullying. And even if what you’re doing doesn’t quite cross the line into actual bullying, it probably isn’t the most effective activism, which, as you now know, involves gentle Socratic questioning.

Many of us know activists who bully others. And, perhaps because bullies tend to be fearful and timid at heart, they often tend to bully not the opposition or the unconvinced, who probably wouldn’t put up with that kind of treatment anyway, but other activists, and their own family members. They blame and shame and hector their victims for committing “the crime” of only agreeing with them 50 percent or 70 percent or 90 percent of the time. Here’s Alinsky again:

I detest and fear dogma. I know that all revolutions must have ideologies to spur them on. That in the heat of conflict these ideologies tend to be smelted into rigid dogmas claiming exclusive possession of the truth, and the keys to paradise, is tragic. Dogma is the enemy of human freedom. Dogma must be watched for and apprehended at every turn and twist of the revolutionary movement. The human spirit glows from that small inner light of doubt whether we are right, while those who believe with complete certainty that they possess the right are dark inside and darken the world outside with cruelty, pain, and injustice.

Rampant bullying also leads to the kinds of ongoing sectarian wars that can suck the very life out of a social movement. Todd Gitlin, in Letters to a Young Activist, points to what I would characterize as a disparity in internecine bullying as a key reason for the Right’s recent successes and the Left’s corresponding failures. “The fanatics of the Right . . . believe in submerging differences for the sake of victory,” he says. And elsewhere:

The activists of the right are, above all, practical. They crave results. They are not terribly interested in pure parties or theoretical refinements, not even in ideas or morals as such. Once the Christian right decided to launch out of their churches and work the political arena, they preferred actual political and judicial power to private rectitude. To agree on a few central themes—military power, deregulation, tax cuts, tort reform, cultural rollback on abortion, gay rights, and affirmative action—was enough.

Don’t bully.

Bullying v. “Hardball”

When I say not to bully, I am not saying that you shouldn’t fight as hard as you can for what you believe in, or use every non-bullying tool and tactic at your disposal. How could I, when Dr. King himself said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” and Fredrick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.”

Let’s remember, however, that when you’re trying to influence an organization, what you’re really trying to do is influence the individuals within that organization—and that you gain nothing if you wind up alienating them. Expert activists make it their business to learn the fine art of opposing someone without alienating them—an art that begins with progressive values such as respect, compassion and tolerance. Recall Nicholas Wade’s observations on activist Henry Spira, quoted in Peter Singer’s Ethics Into Action: “I think he was effective because he was such a friendly, outgoing moderate sort of person. He wasn’t strident. He didn’t expect you necessarily to agree with everything he said.” Later, Singer quotes an executive from Revlon, Inc., on Spira, who was working to convince the company to stop testing cosmetics on animals: “On the top management floor…there wasn’t one person who didn’t get to personally know Henry, and like him.”

There’s one important thing you should notice about both Henry Spira’s and John Robbins’s approach to activism: that while they moderated their behaviors, they did not moderate their viewpoints and goals. The idea that to achieve radical goals you need to employ bullying methods is a fallacy, and a self-defeating one.

Don’t bully.