The most successful activists don’t fight backlash, they embrace it

Accepting backlash as inevitable can be a powerful way of conducting advocacy.
Accepting backlash as inevitable can be a powerful way of conducting advocacy.
Image: Reuters/Marko Djurica
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By many measures, America is slowly moving to a more equal and socially just climate. It may take hundreds of years, but advocacy and activism are inching us closer to an idealized version of society: child poverty rates are at record lows, high school graduation rates are up, and public support for same-sex marriage continues to rise, for example. Martin Luther King Jr. evoked this idea when he said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

In the midst of this progressive change it is easy to get drunk with optimism and lose sight of the fact that while progress is inevitable, so too is backlash against that progress. Every step forward is a fight against the forces that would have us step back.

Over the past several decades, Americans have gone from legalizing abortion to threatening abortion; from committing to massive international climate agreements to nonchalantly pulling out; from opening borders to limiting them. This ping pong of change is in the bones of the US. And accepting it might be the key to real progress.

Immediately following the Civil Rights Movement, Americans saw the rise of a staunch flavor of conservatism that sought to undo the progress made in the 50s and 60s. “The war on drugs,” the privatization of prisons, and electoral redistricting are all examples of tactics that sought to unravel much of the momentum on equality coming into the 1970s.

Some might argue that Donald Trump’s meteoric political rise was a result of a mounting and fervent backlash to Obama’s own meteoric rise. As pessimistic as it sounds, Trump may have mobilized more American resentment than Obama rallied American optimism. It may be no coincidence that while once closeted and shameful, white nationalism is on the rise.

Where there are revolutions, protests, and massive legislative changes, there is always backlash. Sometimes this backlash is more powerful and influential than the initial change itself.  Even simple acts of persuasion are readily met with a counterargument. Whether the interactions are big or small, humans are conditioned to fight back. This of course is only furthered by technology, where one can easily mobilize and direct negative sentiments. As a result our communities and society at-large have become increasingly polarized as we retreat into our respective tribes and double-down on our positions.

But this doesn’t mean that progress is unattainable. Accepting backlash as inevitable can be a powerful way of conducting advocacy because it allows you to take control of the narrative and steer it towards your goals. There are two ways to embrace backlash and leverage it for change. Stoke it, or repurpose it.

Stoke the backlash

You might consider using a negative reaction to your work as evidence of its virtue. By promoting and elevating the backlash against your seemingly noble agenda, you heighten the fighting instinct we have as humans, and tap into a feeling of victimization versus a feeling of purpose.

While social advocates are driven by the ideals that they feel strongly about, traditionalists and those opposed to change are largely driven by backlash. We can learn a lot from conservative media, where instead of promoting the values or beliefs of conservative America, journalists highlight the alleged absurdity and hypocrisy of the opposition. They don’t necessarily report on what people are for, they report on what the opposition is against. “Would you believe the reaction to standing for the national anthem!?” Conservative media is rooted in the backlash against conservative ideology, not the agenda itself.

Can you point to the negative sentiments about a tweet to stoke positive attitudes about that same tweet? Sometimes, the “dislikes” contain an even greater catalyst for change.

Repurpose the backlash

Some of the more brilliant moments in politics are when mistakes or words of the opposition take new life as a rallying cry or symbol for a particular cause.

Hillary Clinton faced a backlash when Donald Trump and his supporters accused her of pulling the “woman’s card.” Her campaign quickly responded by making and selling those very cards. The same happened when he called her a “nasty woman.” In the past you’ve seen the same thing happen with flip-flops, “binders of women” and plumbers named Joe. The reaction can often provide new material to keep enthusiasm alive. Use the absurdity of the backlash to highlight the simple truth of your cause.

Anything worth fighting awaits a backlash. Every great move towards progress inevitably triggers a reaction from the opposition. But it’s through a sustained and mindful acknowledgment of these negative reactions that today’s digital, social advocates can ensure a long-term and sustained success.

By embracing the backlash, we fuel our purpose.

This article is part of Quartz Ideas, our home for bold arguments and big thinkers.