A is for Advocacy | Part 2: The Enemy Trap

We have dismantled the idea of an advocate being a hero. Do you remember the other part of the advocacy myth? Like any good mythical tale, we like a good enemy to destroy, but is it about destruction? What is the goal of an advocate, again? To influence the opposition to change.

Every action an advocate takes to reach a goal can be classified as one of two strategies: push or pull. No strategy is inherently wrong, and the most effective advocates will use a mix of both to influence their opposition. For example, during the American Civil Rights movement, activists refused to move from restaurants in order to protest segregation – this is an example of a push strategy. At the same time, Martin Luther King Jr. would recite informative, enticing and inspiring speeches that could be classified as a pull strategy. Both, together, ended segregation.

Sometimes advocates cannot bring themselves to use a pull strategy, and invoke push strategy after push strategy. More often than not, advocate groups like this have fallen into The Enemy Trap.

Isn’t it true that our attitudes about people reflect our actions toward them? I don’t know about you, but I really struggle to act kindly toward someone I don’t like, especially if that person is treating me poorly. When I saw the window-washer hit the old man, he became dirt in my eyes and I would have broken his nose without a second thought. Would that have actually helped my advocacy goal?

Professor Roger L. Connor has found advocates in the Enemy Trap are rarely able to influence change, because they get so caught up in “destroying” the enemy. Through his research, he saw that an advocate’s stance toward the opposition fell on a continuum from friend to foe. He discovered:

“A friend stance is associated with compassion, empathy and respect. [Whereas] a foe stance is associated with fear, anger and resentment…as stance shifts from ‘friend’ to ‘foe, a set of emotions [are] predictably generated, as empathy, compassion and respect at one end give way to pity, fear, anger, and loathing at the other extreme.”

Does that resonate with you? How often do you actually “love” your enemies?

Connor created a matrix to illustrate the strategy and stance of advocacy, pictured below. The top two quadrants are healthy strategy/stance mixes that influence change, while the bottom two are traps advocates fall into, and getting out of which they have a hard time.

I’m not going to pretend it’s easy to view your opposition from a friend stance. Sometimes we are up against huge monsters that treat us as an enemy, and rightly deserve all of the ugliness involved in a Push/Foe strategy. The problem Connor brings to the surface is that a Push/Foe strategy can propel you into what he deems “The Circle of Blame”, from which it is almost impossible to escape. When in the Circle of Blame, we begin to justify the low-blow tactics that define a Push/Foe strategy and see no other alternative: “He slandered me, so I’m going to slander him.” “She burned down my building, so I’m going to burn her house.” Parties become locked in “ritual combat,” oftentimes at the expense of those for whom they wish to advocate.

What would have happened if I utilized a Push/Foe strategy against the young window-washer? Let’s pretend I busted out of the streetcar and hit him in the face. Sure, he totally deserved it, but what happens next? He probably would have hit me back, and then what? We fight until the death? Until we are both arrested? What about the old man? If the young man and I are scrapping, the old man is essentially forgotten. Not to mention, I probably would have been overpowered by the window-washer very quickly (I may be a strong female leader, but I’m not a strong female leader). That’s the thing: eight times out of ten the opposition is going to be bigger than you are – that’s usually the source of the problem in the first place. When engaging in combat, you are either going to be crushed, or locked in battle. I think of it like the two moose found in the the water. They were so focused on fighting and destroying the other, they didn’t notice they were slowly freezing; nobody was able to win the fight.

The other danger zone is the Foe/Pull strategy. In reality, nobody goes into this zone unless forced there. Connor describes it as a “back up against the wall” strategy, like a hostage negotiation.

Real and powerful change can happen in the top zones – where anger is aimed at the situation, and respect is still maintained for all people. Advocates and advocate groups can still keep a clear head, and focus on influencing change. Again, think of the diner sit-ins, and peaceful protests demonstrated in the American Civil Rights movement. Even when beaten and thrown in jail, the Civil Rights Activists did not devolve into the Circle of Blame.

When working with youth, I often utilize a Pull/Friend strategy. In my experience, winning their hearts is more effective than busting heads. For example, one of my co-workers called my attention to disgusting and degrading comments written on the back of a girl at a youth event I was hosting. As I read the comments, anger and disgust built inside me like a volcano, and I tracked down the boys responsible. I knew if I approached them as if they were my enemy, they wouldn’t listen to a single word I was yelling.  So, instead of embarrassing, belittling or shouting, I calmly expressed my disappointment and explained the significance of their actions. Then, I dreamed with them for a second about what the world would look like if women were not treated like possessions and asked them, “Isn’t that a world of which you want to be a part?”

It’s so much easier to mark your opposition as a foe. It’s satisfying to slander, scrutinize, eliminate and intimidate. Especially when the opposition is hurling Push/Foe tactics at you. I implore you not to meet them there. You can render someone incapable of hitting you without cutting off their hands; unable to speak without cutting their throat. Passivity is not part of any strategy mentioned above. Remember Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high!” Would you call her a passive women? Her whole family was victim of some nasty Push/Foe strategies. Don’t be tempted into the Enemy Trap, and fall into the Circle Of Blame.

Being a good advocate is humbling, which is why so many of us choose not to do it.  We choose not to act out of fear for our reputation, our status, or our comfort. It’s too “complicated,” “political,” or “irrelevant to my life.” If we actually want to see change, it’s more than just hashtags or donations – it’s uncomfortable conversations, grace under heavy fire, and admitting that perhaps we have been a part of the problem. It involves breaking cycles, owning up to history, taking pay-cuts and backseats, and laying down our power for the benefit of others. And that is scary.

Thank you for coming along this advocacy journey with me. We have only scratched the surface of what it looks like to be a good advocate, so keep the conversations happening.

Remember: any great change in the world starts with bridge-building leaders who are willing to lay down their power for the benefit of others.