9. Bitter Truth #2 and the Activist Sale

Hard as many businesspeople find it to accept Bitter Truth #2, many activists find it even harder. That’s because the things activists sell—peace, justice, freedom, equality, etc.—tend to be of extremely high value: the most valuable things on the planet, in fact. This blinds them to the fact that Bitter Truth #2 holds no matter how valuable the thing you are selling is.

Here’s Saul Alinsky in Rules for Radicals:

The first requirement for communication and education is for people to have a reason for knowing. (Italics his.)

In other words: a need. He also writes elsewhere:

Communication for persuasion . . . is getting a fix on [your audience’s] main value or goal and holding your course on that target. You don’t communicate with anyone purely on the rational facts or ethics of an issue.

Notice how neatly he incorporates both Bitter Truth #1 and Bitter Truth #2 into that concise statement.

Activists who don’t understand or accept Bitter Truth #2 are usually easily spotted. They tend to be ineffective, and they also tend to go around asking questions such as the following, often in tones of high frustration:

• What’s wrong with these people?! [Meaning: their audience.] Can’t they see that my cause is in their best interests?

Usually, the activist is asking rhetorically, which is a shame: if he asked for real, he might have a shot at answering the questions, thus arriving at Bitter Truth #2 and the key to improving his effectiveness.

As activists become more and more frustrated, they often ask more pointed questions, including:

• How can people be so ignorant?

• How can people be so selfish?

• How can people be so short-sighted?

And the ever-popular,

• How can people be so stupid?!

At this point, the activist is actively blaming the victim—i.e., his audience—for his own inability, or unwillingness, to market and sell effectively. And the sad truth is that anyone who feels so negatively about his customers is unlikely to succeed at selling them anything. So the more frustrated and embittered an activist gets, the more likely he is to fail.

If You’re Frustrated . . .

Knowing how hard activism can be, I certainly wouldn’t blame any activist for experiencing, and venting, occasional frustration. If you feel frustrated a lot, though, you should take a step back and, with the help of friends, colleagues and mentors, assess the situation. Maybe you need to change the way you do your activism. Or, maybe you’re burning out, and need to take a break. Try re-assessing your Mission, and see where that process takes you.