Keeping your eyes on the prize

All of us have issues we care about, some more than others.  Some of us have one or two issues we are very passionate about.  That’s usually a good thing, unless our passion causes us to lose perspective.  It becomes a problem when we are so emotionally invested in an issue that we can’t tell friend from foe, and it becomes a serious problem when we start attacking our allies because they disagree over strategy or tactics.

The Civil Rights struggle was fought on three fronts.  There was the legal front, where court cases were filed challenging discriminatory laws.  One of the big victories in that front was Brown v. Board of Education which reversed Plessy v. Ferguson and struck down “separate but equal.”

There was the political front, where blacks were encouraged to vote and politicians were pressured to pass new laws. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial segregation in schools, public places, and employment, and Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated discriminatory practices that kept blacks from voting in many states.

The third and arguably the most important front was the battle for public opinion.  Led by Martin Luther King this effort set out to win the hearts and minds of white America and convince them that segregation and discrimination were wrong.  They used a strategy of peaceful non-violence, where all the hatred, anger and violence flowed one direction.  It was enormously successful, as love literally conquered hate.  In a few short years racism went from being common and in many places enforced by law to being socially unacceptable everywhere.

Racism isn’t dead, but it’s been driven underground.  But another form of bigotry is still out in the open, although it too is under assault.  That bigotry is homophobia.  The good news is we appear to be reaching a tipping point where the last vestiges of legal discrimination will be wiped away.  The bad news is we aren’t there yet.

Women are the majority in this country.  If every woman joined with all the others and voted as one for the same woman candidates they would hold every elective office in this nation within six years.  In just four years they would hold the White House and would control Congress.  The only remaining stronghold of male domination in politics would be the life-tenured judiciary.

African Americans are about 12% of our population and LGBT’s about 3% so neither group can prevail politically just by standing united.  Nor can they count on the law because as 52% of California voters showed last year the law can be changed.  That’s why the battle for public opinion is so important.

In this kind of civil rights  struggle there are basically five groups of people:

1.  Those whose rights are directly affected.

2.  Those whose rights are not directly affected but who support those who are.

3.  Those who are ambivalent or uninterested in the struggle.

4.  Those who mildly oppose group #1, mainly through ignorance and inertia.

5.  The haters

Groups #1 and #2 are already allies united in the struggle for equality.  In order to prevail they need to win the support of enough members of groups #3 and #4 to achieve a majority.  That’s the tipping point.

During the Vietnam War there was a saying:

If you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.

History shows that theory didn’t work out so well.  Winning “hearts and minds” means getting people on your side emotionally and intellectually.  To appeal to someone’s intellect you use facts, logic and reason.  Far more important is to appeal to their emotions, because when you have them by the heart their minds WILL follow.

In order to win their hearts you have to get past fear and ignorance and gain their sympathy.  You have to replace the derogatory stereotypes and caricatures in their minds with images of real people.  You have to make friends with them.

Dale Carnegie’s classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People” didn’t have a chapter called “Get Up in Their Faces and Call Them Names.”  I’m pretty sure that scaring the bejeebus out of people wasn’t one of his recommendations either.  That’s how you harden peoples’ hearts against you.

This brings us to Carrie Prejean, whose 15 minutes of fame are unfortunately not over yet.  To say we should ignore her is not to defend what she said, it is a recognition that to continue to attack her is counterproductive to winning anyone’s heart or mind.  She is young and pretty and attacking her will only make people feel sympathy for her.

Her position on gay marriage is shared by a lot of people, including President Barack Obama.  Ignore her and she will go away.  Focus on people who actually hold power instead.

That brings us back to my original point about being so emotionally invested in an issue that you forget who your friends are. Just because your friends and allies don’t turn the knobs up to 11 doesn’t mean they aren’t really your friends and allies.  Nor does their telling you to back off a little or to focus your attention elsewhere mean they want you to STFU.  The disagreement is over strategy and tactics, not the ultimate goal.

This principle is not exclusive to any one issue.  Keep your eyes on the prize and win.


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