Around the world, people are marching.
They’re marching to overthrow dictators. Some are defending religious viewpoints, or drawing attention to climate change. Others want less immigration, or better working conditions.
Does all this activity really achieve anything? One of the factors that affects movement success is the way that confrontational and moderate groups define themselves and relate to each other, within a broader movement.
When movements define “us” and “them” it affects who wants to join
A movement that garners support from policy makers and the public is in a better position to achieve success.
Movements can grow their supporter base if they pay careful attention to how they position themselves. Framing a movement as aligned with (or opposed to) the broader community’s values and interests has real consequences.
In the short term groups that grow the fastest are often more confrontational. That is to say, they may oppose traditional values or approaches.
We define confrontational groups here as aiming to eliminate a particular behaviour that still has strong support, or to defeat an enemy respected by many. We contrast this with moderate movements, aimed at winning over opponents through persuasion. In both cases, we are referring to non-violent groups aiming for system change – but they don’t always work well together.
A confrontational group grows quickly towards the extremes
Confrontational groups often appeal to people with strong pre-existing views.
A clearly identified problem. A policy strongly condemned. A clearly defined line of attack. These tactics are more likely to appeal to people with strong views. To them, the moderate group may seem waffly or uncommitted.
Clarity of focus often leads to swift success for confrontational groups, because committed activists’ time, energy, and moneys flow to the groups that best express their strong views and values. So they grow quickly.
A confrontational group draws attention to a cause. For many simple problems, this may be enough to achieve social change. But an impasse can be reached when the group needs to reach out to the centre or to opponents to create enough momentum for a breakthrough.
A confrontational group can’t easily compromise
The past strong attacks and views of the confrontational group may have made it unattractive to the unaligned or centre voters, and lead to alienation of their political opponents.
When mistrust and negative views take hold, it is extremely difficult to progress an agenda. Persuasive communication to win over swing voters or opponents may be viewed with scepticism. Genuine attempts to reach out may be seen as insincere or offensive.
Confrontational movements may also be reluctant to entertain the idea of trade-offs with their enemies, because they are defined by their strong, pure rejection of those enemies.
If a conciliatory leader does emerge in a confrontational movement, it may be hard for him or her to gain traction. A conciliatory leader of a confrontational movement sometimes can’t persuade their own group easily to compromise, and they can’t persuade the other group to deal with them either, because of the past history of conflict.
Moderate groups grow slowly toward the centre
With more genuine mutual respect, and less past baggage to carry, the moderates may be both more attractive to uncommitted or centrist members of the public. They are also more able to build trust with political opponents of the cause.
Successful moderates build trust with opponents in part by condemning, tempering, or reining in the savage attacks of more confrontational groups. They also highlight shared values between themselves and their political opponents. These steps create the impression among members of political opponents that moderates are people that can be dealt with.
At the same time, successful moderates have to maintain a clear agenda to make progress towards a stated cause – they have to achieve measurable, clear outcomes. Unless there is both clarity of purpose and progress towards the movement’s ends, moderates may be seen as giving away too much in attempting to obtain leverage.
Confrontational groups should attack the other extreme, not the centre
As moderates achieve frustratingly minute, incremental changes, it is common for moderate groups to attract derision and hostility from confrontational groups for the same cause.
This negativity misunderstands the potential for positive synergies between the two types of groups.
If the confrontational group attacks the moderates, the partisan divide between the sides widens. It is common for stalemates to persist.
Political opponents who are more hostile and polarised can surge to power, dragging the centre away from the movement’s desired change.
The confrontational movement should instead focus its criticism on the other extreme, targeting the most reactionary and hostile members of their political opponents.
By seeking to undermine the most hostile opponents and alienate them from the middle ground, the confrontational movement is well placed to increase the momentum for change.
- Winnifred R. Louis
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This blog builds on some ideas from a chapter that I wrote with some students (Louis, Chapman, Chonu, and Achia, 2017), covering the key themes from a keynote that I gave in Cebu, at the Asian Association of Social Psychology.
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.
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