I have been a leftist all my adult life, and I consider silence and indifference crimes, but I firmly believe in bringing people together as well. Maybe this is why I’m somehow baffled at the attitude of many of my ‘colleagues’. I find it clearly counterproductive, and after all I have facts and numbers to prove my theory. The most recent example? The US presidential election, of course, which kept us in suspense for much longer than expected.
I’m talking about communication, because this is a very important factor in every context, but especially when we fight for justice and equality.
While the US presidentials are just one example among a thousand others, it’s true that cyclically, extreme right parties regain ground, and more or less all over the world dictators have supporters even among common folk. Every time we’re left wondering how it is even possible. Well, we shouldn’t forget, for an instance, that one of the main architects of the Nazi party’s consensus was Joseph Goebbels, minister of propaganda, and although back then there were many factors at play, without a doubt an effective communication played a big role.
The right-wing populists are very good at identifying the fears of their potential supporters and providing immediate, superficial, often even unfeasible solutions, which somehow ‘dazzle’ people and bring votes. On the contrary, now more than ever, the left has problems in bringing people together and it often takes on tones and attitudes that frighten common folks.
I am far from suggesting that we should also embrace populism, yet when we talk to people, when we bring our slogans to the streets, we should ask ourselves one question: do we want justice and equality, or are we just trying to feel better about ourselves? However valid and just our political passion and anger is, we need to find more constructive ways to express our feelings and to involve more people.
It‘s not my duty to educate the ignorant, I often read on the web. Yet ignorance is the fertile ground where hate, fear and all that goes with them have its roots and thrives, it’s basically our number one enemy. Do we want a change? It takes time, effort and dedication. At the end of the day we need to admit that believing we have the moral high ground doesn’t mean that people should automatically see that we’re right. So yes, we need to explain things, precisely because we have much better arguments than simplistic populism, and we have to explain them as often as necessary.
Why should I worry about fascist, racist, homophobic people’s feelings? Meaning, why can’t I simply yell my anger in their faces? This is another recurrent objection, and yes I ask myself the same things quite a lot. But then I also remember that I’m not like them, I don’t want to be like them. We don’t intimidate people into thinking like us, do we? We don’t need violence, not even when it’s just verbal, beacuse reason is on our side. Besides, we don’t just talk to extremists. Indeed, extremists are probably the ones we will never be able to talk to, because they are fanatics and logical reasoning is often lost on them. However, there is a huge number of undecided, moderates, and many people who may just not be up to date with social themes. Maybe they’d be interested in our point of view if we didn’t attack them. I may be naïve, but I assume that most people are fundamentally good, and with a constructive approach they can be convinced to act accordingly.
Right wing supporters are racists who condone rape and sentence the planet to death. Last but not least, and well, I’m afraid it’s not that simple. Again, extremists and fanatics do exist, but they are not who we are addressing. When we talk to somebody who struggles with everyday hardships, unemployment, lack of medical care, and accuse them of horrible crimes to top it all, it’s no wonder they turn their backs on us and go to others who promise to take care of them. By the way, this is not pampering racists, it’s convincing people with the right arguments, rather than rub their noses in our supposed intellectual superiority. Shaming and moral blackmail won’t help, they never do.
8 times we could have conveyed our messages more effectively
People much more experienced than me could explain the effectiveness of motivating people, instead of criticizing, blaming and belittling. I’m not a psychologist, but I’m sure it’s no coincidence that this is also an important marketing technique. We don’t want to sell anything, but we still have a final goal, and we should focus on that only.
Once again I want to clarify that I am not suggesting mollycoddling people or being hypocritical to scrape up votes for leftist parties. I am talking about building, educating and bringing together, instead of destroying, dividing and alienating.
Here are some cases of counterproductive communication, and possible solutions.
1. The good guys (us) and the bad guys (them): do we want people to join the fight? We cannot get up on the pedestal, point the finger and tell whoever doesn’t belong to a minority they are inherently wrong, or bad. Because let’s face it, this is exactly what is happening, but generalization is the basis of prejudice, and prejudice is always wrong. In any case, this is a behavior that makes people go defensive, so it’s not very helpful. We shouldn’t forget that the well-meaning moderate do exist, even among traditionally right-wingers voters. They have moral principles and religious beliefs, we should appeal to those things to give people just an extra boost toward the correct direction. Demeaning and insulting may make (some of) us feel like good revolutionaries for a while, but other than that, what else?
2. Dismantle the police: this has the potential to backfire so spectacularly I find it hard to believe it’s so popular. Try to tell such a thing to an old lady who just wants to go to the grocery without getting her purse snatched. Or to a parent who raises children in a difficult neighborhood. Or to an owner whose shop gets robbed every other week. Brutal police is not just an American problem, and one that needs to be dealt sooner rather than leter, but moreoften than not dismantle the police evokes a post-apocalyptic scenario in The Walking Dead style. We could opt for a less scary approach, maybe. We could propose a reform, or a different use of public funds. I think many moderates would at least listen to us, instead of running away in the opposite direction.
3. Defund the military: see above. Again, in the USA as in the rest of the world there are huge economic interests at stake, and I hope nobody gets offended if I say it’s naïve ignoring them. In this case too, the most common approach is one that scares people away rather than interest them. Let’s try to shift the emphasis on preserving jobs and caring for people, for example by pushing for more investments in services for veterans, or suggesting to spend money on more modern or safer equipment.
4 Tax the rich: yes, I like the idea a lot. Yes, I find it absolutely essential, but let’s be honest, “cut the taxes” has a much better appeal, and in fact it has been the signature song of the right-wing populists for decades, why? Because everyone knows that proposing to raise taxes, whatever the context may be, is as effective as jumping out of a plane without a parachute. We’re still working for a cause, aren’t we? We should always keep this in mind, even if sometimes we have to bite our tongue. Our goals are intact: we still want to eliminate corporate tax loopholes, to tax the billionaires at a higher rate, and to cut taxes on common folk. There are many ways to express this concept so that it doesn’t make people flee: “we need a more efficient tax system”, or “we want to reduce unjustified government spending,” or “big companies that are ruining small business should pay more” are just the first examples that came to my mind.
5. Flaunting socialism or communism: it’s a fact that many people fear this to an almost irrational level and more than, let’s say, Covid-19. Many others even use the two terms interchangeably, showing that there is some confusion as well. Anyway, since nobody is suggesting a dictatorship in 60’s style, why don’t we just highlight all the achievements the society as a whole may benefit from? Minorities as well as the privileged White people, the same who have lost their job, have children to support, live in a shack, and cannot afford to pay the doctor’s bill. These are common issues, potentially affecting everybody. If we just spoke to people in the right way we would see we all want the same things: a job, a fair wage, stability, a better education and affordable healthcare. There are very few who would say no to this.
6. Climate change: here we have such a multifaceted macro-area, it’d deserve a whole chapter of its own. But once again, let’s stop focusing on the bans, such as ban fossil fuels, or fracking, or methane emissions, because too many people would simplify all of this and translate it into imminent unemployment.
Instead of talking about erasing, let’s show people where is the gain. A few examples? Renewable energy creates new jobs, clean air and water reduce the risk of respiratory diseases and incidence of cancer, a clean energy source, produced by the country itself, releases from dependency on oil bought abroad.
7. “Talkin’ bout a revolution”: it’s a very romantic concept, but unfortunately a revolution also evokes a scenery of unrest, civil war, and chaos. I can understand how, seen in this perspective, the idea loses its appeal. It generates a feel of uncertainty that people usually doesn’t find comfortable. And what, exactly, do we mean with a revolution, a fratricidal war? What should come next, a communist dictatorship? Because this is what comes to people mind more often that not. By the way, I don’t want it either. We cannot advertise chaos and disorder and expect people to simply fall in love with the idea. Let’s talk about a constant change that brings people together, inclusiveness and peace.
8. Black lives matter: I know very well how sensitive this topic is, but precisely because its importance is fundamental, it’s necessary that the message reaches as many people as possible. In a civil society there shouldn’t even be the need to reiterate the concept, but unfortunately our society is not yet as civil as it should be. While I know it’s not up to me putting words in Black people’s mouth, I can’t forget the sign I saw a while ago, stating that “black lives matter too”. I found it quite clever for three reasons, mostly. The first one is that all the “all lives matter” folks would have hardly found something to complain about it. Secondly, I thought of the time and patience that those who have to explain again and again that this is not a controversial, anti-white statement would have been spared. And finally, many of us understand the actual point, but many others don’t, among White people, but also among Asians, Latinx and others who feel excluded, and this leads to more divison where unity is most necessary.
The way we say things is almost as important as the things we say.
Silence is not an option, but there are forms of communication/language that alienate people, there are media that enjoy to flan the flames, and there are right-wing parties which are pretty good at exploiting people’s fear. Let’s not play their game. This is a problem we would do well to acknowledge, particularly now, when there is already a pandemic that terrifies people, and extremism seem to have free rein to propagate. Most people just want to live in peace, they want to work, and be part of a civil society, so many of us are on the same side, and we don’t even know it.
A better communication strategy costs very little effort and doesn’t diminish our message, rather it amplifies it and makes it more accessible.