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This Is An Uprising – Dividing To Conquer

July 26, 2018

(One in a series of posts on Mark & Paul Engler’s 2016 book, This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping The Twenty-First Century.)

Whatever your cause of issue, most people don’t know about it, care about it, or support it. A central challenge for nonviolent practitioners is to change that dynamic—until most of the public says something like, “Well, I certainly don’t agree with what they’re doing, but I agree that this situation just isn’t right and something has to change.

There’s no better campaign to illustrate the importance of polarization and division in winning change than the example the Englers focus on in This Is An Uprising: the campaign led by ACT UP to change the treatment of HIV/AIDS.

For generations growing up in an age of marriage equality, Pride Month, and GSAs in thousands of middle and high schools, it can be hard to comprehend just how feared, hated, despised and isolated gay men in the United States were as recently as 1981, when the first case of AIDS was diagnosed and the “gay plague” started killing otherwise healthy young men by the thousands.

Formed in 1987, ACT UP spearheaded the successful campaign to change HIV/AIDS from a death sentence to a treatable and preventable disease. Here are just some of the tactics they used disrupt business as usual and gain public attention:

  • “shut down trading on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange”;
  • “chained themselves inside pharmaceutical corporations”;
  • “blockaded offices at the FDA”;
  • “stopped traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge”;
  • “interrupted Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral”;
  • “using fake IDS…they jumped onscreen during Dan Rather’s nightly (CBS) news broadcast”;
  • “draped a giant yellow condom over the Washington home of Senator Jesse Helms”. (pp. 201-02)

These tactics (and others like them) provoked short-term backlash but, as the Englers describe, they also produced long-term changes:

“ACT UP was only one factor that shifted the spectrum of opinion around AIDS. But over the decade when the group was most active, public attitudes underwent a profound transformation. Where stigma had previously prevailed, increased awareness about the disease led to much greater compassion for its victims. Joining the fight against AIDS became a popular celebrity cause, and ordinary people flocked to AIDS Walk benefits. Patients who were HIV-positive were included in government protections against discrimination. And, as author Randy Shaw writes, ‘Federal spending on AIDS rose from $234 million in 1986 to nearly $2 billion in 1992, a nearly tenfold increase in only six years.’ Eventually, such funding gained broad bipartisan support.” (p. 203)

There’s no manual or set of formulas that can tell you which tactics will create positive (or negative) polarization for your cause or issue. It’s always a judgment call. And, what works in one setting, or era, or culture, may not work for another.

It always requires being attentive to your closest followers, your allies, your opponents and, perhaps most especially, the vast majority of people who wish they didn’t have to think about it at all.

But no matter what you’re working for, at some point you’re going to have to figure out ways to polarize, to create division, to use tactics that (at times) bring out the worst in your opponents so that the majority who’d rather not have to, are forced to choose which side they’re on. And you’ll have to do it in such a way that most of them end up on your side…even though they still think you shouldn’t have been so confrontational.

Posts in this series:

From → Books, Music, Politics

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