pinkie swear

A few nights ago I got a fortune cookie that said, “Everything you are against weakens you.”

And I had two thoughts:

  1. That’s not a fortune! It’s a message, that troubling trend in fortune cookie writing.
  2. It is, however, a succinct way of saying what we at LightBox Collaborative often teach our clients: Stating what you are against is not actually a message. Sharing with people what you are for is how you generate support and excitement.

In just six words, the fortune cookie conveyed a mouthful. The fortune cookie not only taught me a valuable lesson, it schooled me in how to deliver it.

Get mad, but then get smart

Many of us got into social justice work because we got mad. We were outraged and we wanted to change things.

So, now we tend to think that making people mad like we were will move them to action. But it doesn’t really work that way. Just think of some of the most successful efforts that have changed hearts and minds—

  • “Pro-life” advocates put a positive spin on their anti-abortion stance via political framing. The pro-life terminology has helped to re-frame national debate and erode the right to choose.
  • “Just Say No” just didn’t work. But the “truth” campaign lowered teen tobacco use by giving young people a positive outlook on being anti-smoking.
  • President Obama designed his campaign not on opposing the Republicans or McCain, but on what he had to offer: hope and change. His optimism swept him into office and inspired global Obamania.
  • The American Cancer Society recently showed that being for something is more powerful than being against a dreaded disease. By becoming “The Official Sponsor of Birthdays,” the group rallies people around the common desire to live longer and celebrate more.

Everything you are against strengthens your opponents

Another problem with being on the “against” side of a debate is that it can be flipped.

Conservatives are very, very good at exploiting our efforts to be against things. In particular, Frank Luntz has made an entire career out of it. By renaming the things we don’t like, and giving them names that sound more positive, he has taken the wind out of the sails of a number of important efforts.

If instead of campaigning against oil drilling, those advocates were proposing “energy solutions that protect oceans”, it would have been harder to rename it. If we campaigned for a tax code where people pay their “fair share,” “tax relief” would be a less appealing option. When Luntz renamed these efforts, he also effectively re-framed them, giving people something to be for that was more evocative than what others were asking them to be against.

Listen to the cookie

It turns out the fortune cookie is right. We get stronger by coming together around our shared vision and goals, not our common enemies.

When we focus on the negative, our work becomes alarmist, unwelcoming and downright depressing. It’s not inviting to new supporters, and it drains our energy as professional activists.

Being against things isn’t a strength. It’s being for things that gives you momentum and power.

To have campaigns and movements that can inspire and thrive over time, just listen to the cookie.

. . .
Amanda Cooper is a LightBox collaborator with a talent for crafting meaningful messages. She can often be found listening to cookies and other desserts.

(Image courtesy Flickr user Angela Mabray, Creative Commons.)