Negativity and Self-Limiting Advocacy

July 28, 2011 Leave a comment

“When the only tool you have is a hammer,

every problem begins to resemble a nail.”

-Maslow’s Maxim


|Image by petesimon||

Someone once said, “Advocates can be hell to work with, but they make good ancestors.”  Agreed.  And . . .

Much of the work that we do at the Interaction Institute for Social Change entails advocates of one shape or form. Not surprising since our work is that of social change.  Many of us on staff have been advocates in our past lives.  Whether the issue is racial justice, educational equity, sustainable development, public health . . . we are often linked with those fighting in formal and informal ways to bring about important policy and structural changes.  What I’ve found is that s0me of these advocates and allies can prove to be the most challenging people to work with.  Some of this difficulty may be a by-product of these change agents often taking an adversarial stance against the status quo and entrenched interests.  When one is used to having to fight for every bit of progress, it must be hard to turn this drive off or down.  And yet, I find that there are some whose orientation of “my way or the highway” ends up detracting from their ability to make change and chipping away at the promise of collaboration.

I’ve invoked the name and work of Barbara Fredrickson, the positive psychologist, a number of times on this blog.  Her rigorous clinical research points to the power of positive emotions in not simply making people happy and healthy, but also more creative and able to see new possibilities.  When our positive to negative emotional ratio tips back from the tipping point of 3:1 towards 1:1, innovation and productivity rapidly diminish (again, negativity is not meant to disappear as it serves a vital purpose).  One of Fredrickson’s former graduate students, Kareem Johnson, has done research that suggests that a higher positivity ratio may even eliminate aspects of “own race bias.” In other words, it appears to be a key towards pushing us in a direction of flourishing.  And it would appear that “old school” advocacy stands as a big impediment to this potential.

This came up in a conversation with a group in San Francisco last week, with some indication that there may be a generational shift in attitude towards advocacy.  ‘This new generation doesn’t want to be so rooted in anger,” said one person.  At which point IISC board member Jeremy Liu stepped in to talk about what he perceives as the difference between anger and bitterness.  Anger, from his perspective, can be positive fuel for the fight.  Bitterness, on the other hand, is rooted in a sense of loss and ultimately detracts from one’s potential because it is stuck in the past.  Certainly it makes sense to identify sources of bitterness, but not necessarily to act from them.  Check out the  National Bitter Melon Council for more discussion on this front.

All of this would seem to have relevance to what we are seeing go on in Washington, DC right now.  The other day, economist Paul Krugman made a comment that basically relegated the impasse between the two sides to seeing “the devil” in the other side.  Whatever is or are the deeper roots, clearly this is not an example of humanity at its best.  I can’t help but think there may be some bitterness in the mix, some old hard feelings, that make this more about the people around the table than the larger cause for which we elected them.  I am thinking of putting a copy of Positivity in the mail to a few select Congresspeople (especially chapters 10 and 11 which talk about strategies such as cultivating genuine connections, practicing mindfulness and gratitude, learning to slow down and savor what is good, creating a higher sense of purpose, and embracing a learning orientation) and suggest they pass it around, and may well be traveling with a dog-eared copy or two to lend so that we can all learn to be better ancestors.

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  • Jenn says:

    Great post, Curtis. Your observation resonates with my experience, esp. in light of the current political climate in my city. John Tory, chair of our city building alliance and former leader of the provincial conservative party, recently said the following about discussions to cut city programming to save money: “It appears there are only two choices: do away with funding or keep it exactly the same. And I think that’s false — there’s a middle ground.” I agree that holding strident positions on both sides of an argument keeps us from being creative and entrepreneurial in finding that middle ground.

  • Gibrán says:

    VERY IMPORTANT post Curtis – thank you for the great articulation, the research, the ratios, the distinctions… It certainly confirms my own experience with others as well as with myself. My own long walk from anger to love gives me a personal taste of what you are saying. Now for the hard part – trying to see from the other’s point of view.

  • Curtis says:

    Gibran, yes, thanks for lifting up the importance of continuing to try to stand in the shoes of others who may be rooted in anger or bitterness. I have a question for you and others about what you might do or have done to help break open some of the more fixed mindsets in the room, who cling to anger because it seems to form a core part of their identity in the world.

  • Gibrán says:

    Probably just as wise to stand in the shoes of those who share our desires for justice bur rely on anger and bitterness. I was referring to the hard work of standing in the shoes of those currently undoing the EPA, or standing on the principle that the rich can not be taxed… I’m having a hard time doing it.

    I’m totally feeling you on the fact that it is almost impossible to crack an adversarial mindset precisely because it is linked to an identity – and to most of us humans, our tiny little identities seem to be the most important thing.

    Facilitated opportunities for authentic relationship and connection with those who think differently is often a good way to open up the very possibility of openness – but it is the hardest as well as the most important work.

  • Curtis says:

    G, one source of resistance that I’m sensing and really struggling with is from those who seem to be saying through the way they show up, “we tried this before and were not successful, and I’m sure as hell not going to show up to make this successful now.” Feels really petty. And I may be well up my ladder. Probably worthwhile exploring what I/ we may be putting out there that inspires some of these reactions.

  • Linda says:

    Really interesting Curtis – though some of the incredibly powerful activists I know don’t work out of anger or bitterness. It’s certainly one (but not the only) approach to activism. I count myself in the camp of a current activist (not a past life at all) trying to constantly find ways to work that create real change. And sometimes I’m more successful than others at being peace in my approach to activism.

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks, Linda. Good reminder that we too are activists and change agents in our own ways, and that we can operate out of something aside from anger in making change (like love, like inspiration, like awe). And in this spirit there seems to be something about the profile of the old school “professional” advocate that may be wanting.

  • Melinda Weekes says:

    Thank you Curtis and all for this discussion. What if its not a question of anger or bitterness sparked by injustice, but it seems to be the age-old group dynamic challenge of one or two folks whose personal agendas seem to be their cause even at the expense of the resonate group agenda…what can happen is that if this persists and is vocal, it often hampers the emergent will of the group from rising and flourishing. Of course there are the Interventions we teach, and the handy “speak to them one on one” approach — but as facilitators, process designers and holders/co-creaters of the space from which transformation can be seeded — I’m curious about facilitation techniques, processes, methods that might be appropriate to “shift the energy” towards the positive many, bringing their potential out in a more pronounced way — such that the negative energy of the few doesnt persist in dominating the space. Difficult especially with newly forming groups. G, the “Questions” exercise (what makes you angry? gives you joy? etc. questions) I’ve seen you lead —-actually comes to mind. What else, practitioner/facilitator/groups dynamics people? Its one thing with an outburst here and there…quite another with a persistent, anxious, dominant, sub-vibe begins to take root.

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Thanks Curtis and all. I agree that this is an important and complicated conversation. It reminds me of the work of John Paul Lederach. His point in The Moral Imagination is that one key to building and sustaining peace is the willingness to imagine “the other” in one’s own visions of the future.

    What’s going on in DC these days is almost the polar opposite–folks behaving as if the other side doesn’t exist, can’t influence the outcomes and won’t be a factor in the future. Not likely to stumble on common ground that way (much less to find it deliberately)! Lederach’s invitation to change makers is to create spaces where people can come to know one another in deeply human ways. The last pages of his book outline the ideal “leadership development” setting. Lots of tea and story sharing and honest displays of emotion-whether laughter or tears or anger.

  • Gibrán says:

    Cynthia – thanks for bringing Lederach into the picture, the DC context really is the anti-thesis of what we are saying while Lederach indeed points us to the spaces in which we can share our humanity.

    Melinda – I do think those 1:1s perhaps alternated with Cafe rounds around questions that get people to talk from lived experience rather than abstraction. There is another exercise I’ve participated in, a sort of “cocktail” hour during which people “bump into each other” and reveal “their game,” or how they tend to show up in groups…

    The other thought I’m having is one Samantha always reminds me of, the importance of the “dissonant voice,” how it tends to show up in dysfunctional ways but it also reveals and important shadow of the group – something that has to be dealt with.

  • Curtis says:

    Love the conversation. Thanks all! Wanted to throw a little William Stafford into the conversation –

    “If you don’t know the kind of person I am
    and I don’t know the kind of person you are
    a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
    and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.”

    I do think just creating SPACE is important. Having the time to really “see” one another and find the common ground in our shared humanity is critical.

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Stafford makes a great bridge between today’s post and yesterday’s. Who in the world am I? And, there are huge risks to all of our humanity if we continue to allow patterns made by others to prevail in this world!

  • Curtis says:

    As you and Stafford suggest, Cynthia, it behooves us to become aware of those patterns and processes! Like fish seeing the water in which we swim. Harkens back to my comment, Gibran, about the role and awareness of the ecosystem when two nodes meet.

  • Mark Martino says:

    Fascinating discussion. I remember being struck that the 60’s civil rights movement was really a mosaic of different groups and approaches – SCLC, CORE, Freedom Riders, Malcolm X, even the Olympic runners in ’68 – and how they cumulatively had an effect on awareness and policy. It is interesting to look at how each approached persuasion the relative credit they get for driving change in light of this post.

  • Curtis says:

    That’s an important observation, Mark. I am aware of how we sometimes practice “tactical sectarianism” in our approach to social change (whose approach is the best), when in fact the complexity demands a variety of approaches working at different levels and in different ways.


  • Mark Martino says:

    This is somewhat tangential but may interest you. Soon after reading this post I came across a post by Ta-Nahisi Coates that explores the imperfect and complicated histories or evolutions of some admired activists contrasted with the airbrushed narratives told about them. As I thought of referencing the particular post (The Problem Of Radical Heroism) back here I realized how much of his content mirrors your discussions. He’s always exploring ideas of how we see ourselves and others and how we are all bound together in the same humanity.

  • Curtis says:


    Amazing stuff! Thanks. Will definitely share the link.


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