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Deadly Sin #7: Being Scary

I'm going to step offline for a good example of this. Operation Save America, a conservative religious group, held its annual event in Jackson, Mississippi, in July 2006, sending hundreds of activists to picket the state's only remaining abortion clinic. I was among the local prochoice counterprotestors. It was, at the time, the largest activism event I had ever participated in.

Although I'm proud of the counterprotest in general, some people on both sides made major strategic errors. A few young folks who had come down to help decided to "mingle" with the Operation Save America people at their own events, sometimes in a disruptive way. On YouTube, there is a video of a young woman from this group screaming at length into the ear of a frightened-looking young man clutching a Bible. Who does this help?

But the biggest mistakes were on the other side. Fourteen of the anti-abortion protestors were arrested on various charges—no easy feat in a state as conservative as Mississippi. There was a bomb threat against prochoicers at the local state park. And, as the event wrapped up, some of the anti-abortion protestors decided to burn a Qur'an and a rainbow flag to state their opposition to Islam and homosexuality.

Yes, you read that right. At a national protest against an abortion clinic, they decided to burn a Qur'an and a rainbow flag.

This had a predictable effect: The church that had hosted their presence stated that they were no longer welcome to lodge there. Local Muslims, belonging to a religious community not generally associated with conspicuous support of abortion and gay rights, found unexpected allies. (The next week, a local imam preached the sermon at the city's liberal Unitarian Universalist church.) Members of the local gay rights community who had not previously had any interest in prochoice activism joined the counterprotestors. Operation Save America ended the week outnumbered, unwelcome, and humiliated.

Where did they fail? I'd argue that their biggest mistake was broadening their message to the point where instead of advocating a specific, sane-sounding point of view (namely, the view that fetuses are human beings and deserve legal protection), they advocated ideological warfare with huge swaths of the local community. They burned things in public, voraciously condemned large groups of people without much apparent forethought, and generally made locals uncomfortable. This marginalized them in a community that otherwise would have been receptive to their message.

Don't Be Creepy

Worried about scaring people? Here are five tips to bear in mind:

  • Avoid unnecessarily violent rhetoric of every kind—Don't casually throw around metaphors that involve decapitation, evisceration, and so on. People visualize what you're reading, and if you can't discuss a policy issue without sounding like the script to a Kill Bill sequel, you're going to frighten potential allies away.

    The 2009 Tea Party protests, initially organized in response to the 2008-2009 U.S. government bailouts of the banking and insurance industries, were tainted by an attendance and a rhetoric that overlapped with the violent paramilitary "patriot" movement (as shown in Figure 5.4). If you talk about killing and murder and bloodshed, even if you're speaking metaphorically, people are probably going to want to back away slowly.

    Figure 5.4

    Figure 5.4 A Tea Party protester holds up a sign reading "I WILL GIVE MY BLOOD FOR MY CHILDRENS[sic] FREEDOM." Photo: © 2009 Street Protest TV via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0 Generic.

  • Don't talk in a bigoted way about groups—Even excessive, repetitive condemnation of your ideological opposition makes you sound more cranky than radical.
  • Don't focus on personalities—If you keep mentioning someone, especially a local ideological opponent, by name, it comes across as if you're targeting that person in some way. Keep your focus on the change you're trying to achieve, not on the individuals who most prominently disagree with what you're advocating.
  • Promote your events, not the opposition's—Occasionally you may find it necessary to counterprotest public events, but as a general rule anything you suggest that comes across as an invitation to disrupt other people's private or group activities will come across as creepy.
  • As much as possible, be positive and pragmatic—The message you should be sending is one of achievable change, not unavoidable doom. Unavoidable doom isn't worth picketing. Avoidable doom is a much better target for your activism.

This applies to online activism, too. If you think 9/11 was a government conspiracy but your activism issue is abolition of the death penalty, don't mention the former opinion on the latter website. There's nothing wrong with being a committed member of an ideological minority group, but if you come across as being against people instead of for a specific policy change, you'll probably hurt your cause.

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