Originally posted on September 30, 2013
A University of Toronto research team found that activists who aggressively promote their agenda prompt others to hold negative opinions about them:
Why don’t people behave in more environmentally friendly ways? New research presents one uncomfortable answer: They don’t want to be associated with environmentalists.
That’s the conclusion of troubling new research from Canada, which similarly finds support for feminist goals is hampered by a dislike of feminists.
Participants held strongly negative stereotypes about such activists, and those feelings reduced their willingness “to adopt the behaviors that these activities promoted,” reports a research team led by University of Toronto psychologist Nadia Bashir. This surprisingly cruel caricaturing, the researchers conclude, plays “a key role in creating resistance to social change.”
Did we really need a battery of studies to tell us this? Is it not obvious that the more hostile and militant the group, the more likely people will want nothing to do with them?
As the article notes, the more vocal activists become, the more people take note of them. The more militant and hostile the activists become, the more people begin to stereotype them. The closer the activists plays to type, the more people want nothing to do with the activists or their concerns.
The researchers focus on environmentalists and feminists, yet this logic applies to other activists as well. We see it with groups like civil rights activists, gay rights activists, men’s rights activists, and the Tea Party. The more aggressive and angry their approach, the more they turn people off.
This is one of the reasons why I strive to be civil towards people. While calm voices may not receive much attention, it is easier to convince someone to listen to you when you are not attacking them than it is by shouting in their faces.
As the article states:
“Unfortunately,” the researchers write, “the very nature of activism leads to negative stereotyping. By aggressively promoting change and advocating unconventional practices, activists become associated with hostile militancy and unconventionality or eccentricity.”
“Furthermore, this tendency to associate activists with negative stereotypes and perceive them as people with whom it would be unpleasant to affiliate reduces individuals’ motivation to adopt the pro-change behaviors that activists advocate.”
So the message to advocates is clear: Avoid rhetoric or actions that reinforce the stereotype of the angry activist. Realize that if people find you off-putting, they’re not going to listen to your message. As Bashir and her colleagues note, potential converts to your cause “may be more receptive to advocates who defy stereotypes by coming across as pleasant and approachable.”
Most older social movements learned this lesson quickly, yet many modern movements tend to ignore it. Modern movements strive for the “in your face!” approach, often alienating anyone who does not agree with them and browbeating their opponents into silence. While it appears that they make gains in the short-term, they actually hurt their long-term efforts because people develop a negative view of them.
Look at the gay rights movement. While liberals support it, most people want nothing to do with it. Why? There are many hostile voices that take the public center stage. Organizations like GLAAD come across as bullying anyone who says anything they do not like. Some of the activists so heavily promote their agenda and attack those who disagree with them that they turn off supporters.
The same thing happens with feminists. While feminists have some valid concerns, their approach is so accusatory, antagonistic, and arrogant that few people want to associate with them. It has gotten so bad for feminists that most people do not even want to use the label lest people think they hate men. Feminists could have argued earlier in their movement that the man-hater label was an unfair stereotype. Yet after fifty years in the mainstream, that label results solely from feminists own actions.
Men’s rights activists should take note of these findings. While all men’s rights activists are not loud and angry, enough of them are that it is easy for people to form a negative opinion of them (often with feminists’ help). Civility goes a long way. Look at the infamous Big Red video. Feminists protesting at the University of Toronto screamed and yelled at the men in front of the school. Yet those men remained calm and polite, and as a result they look far more reasonable than any of the feminists.
This is a lesson people need to learn. There is nothing wrong with protests and activism, however, the “in your face!” approach only creates enemies, not friends.