The best bit of advice I ever received with regards to advocacy came when I was in my teens, from a magazine called MacAddict. That was in the time when people got Very Serious about their platforms – my god, we were a bunch of nerds – and this piece was all about how the Mac faithful could convince windows users to join our Holy Mother Church.
That was a time when Apple was circling the drain, when the irreverent and enthusiastic tone of MacAddict appealed to the younger part of the userbase, when we did have to defend our choice of platform in the face of hordes of naysayers.
The times have changed, but the advice that has continued to resonate with me through the years is this:
If you take on every fight as if it were a hill to die on, you’ll find that hill sooner than you think
It was part of an article called “Five Do’s and Don’t’s of Advocacy” by David Reynolds, and, thanks to someone on the MacNN forums in 2002 transcribing it, we still have the entire piece:
Five Solid Advocacy Tactics
- Be Polite
Please, thank you, you’re welcome, simple bits of polite discourse go a long way when you debate others about your platform of choice.
- Be Generous
Don’t jump on bad happenings in the Wintel world. A perfect example is the I Love You virus that slammed Wintel users, leaving smoking hard drives in its wake. Copping a snotty attitude about how the worm didn’t hurt Mac Users isn’t going to help make your case. Instead, offering sympathy (whether genuine or well acted) dispels defensiveness. Besides, we all know the real truth.
- Pick Your Fights Carefully
If you take on every fight as if it were a hill to die on, you’ll find that hill sooner than you think, leaving you exhausted when the truly important fights come along. Exercise good judgement before picking up the gauntlet.
- Check Your Facts
Before you state facts (such as ‘The Mac is better because it dispenses soft-serve ice cream’), make sure they’re true. Nothing damages your credibility like an outrageous or inflammatory claim. If you do make a mistake, correct it honestly and openly.
- Give Ground to Get Ground
Conceding some ground is a great way to build good will. In return, you may find that others will come around and embrace certain portions of your point of view. Remember: unconditional surrender worked only in World War II.
Five Advocacy Tactics to Avoid
- Don’t Troll for Flames
Don’t troll Usenet groups, mailing lists, bulletin boards, or chat areas for defensive people with whom you can pick a platform fight. While it may be fun to whip someone into a slavering fury, it’s not constructive.
- Don’t Attack Indiscriminately
If you must go on the offensive, keep your attack focused. Flailing at anything that moves (figuratively speaking) is just sad, especially when it comes to arguing platform niceties and processor speeds.
- Don’t Go Beyond the Subject at Hand
Don’t move the discussion from Pentium III versus G4 to how fat someone’s mother is. While it may be funny (or true), it also is not constructive.
- Don’t Turn Pit Bull
Know when to give up an argument. Pit bulls have locking jaws for a reason, and it’s certainly not to hold on to a discussion that has degenerated well beyond recognition.
- Don’t Insist on Changing Someone’s Mind
While you want to bring people around to your point of view, you can’t control whether someone actually does start to see things your way. Witness the Flat Earth Society.
When I look at a lot of self-styled activists, especially the keyboard variety, I see people who took the above list, and did the precise opposite. They’re rude, snotty, treat every battle as THE great fight of our time, play fast and loose with the facts, and demand unconditional surrender. Compounding the error, they pick fights where no fight needed to be had, they argue with all the focus of a claymore mine (frequently shifting the goalposts in the process), won’t stop until their opponent is ready to sacrifice a child in penance, and will not do the mature thing of agreeing to disagree.
Further compounding this is a tendency to adopt a “you’re either with us or against us” mentality.
And then they’re surprised when all they achieve is animosity.
That bit up the top, which comes from the point about carefully picking your fights, is the one that really stuck with me through the years. Fighting every battle as though it’s a hill to die on doesn’t win your war. It gives others the impression that you’re a hair-trigger lunatic, and turns them away from your cause. But every single thing on that list is important. There are two things I would add to the list. This one is to the “do’s”:
6. Do educate your audience
If you want to assume the power of the advocate, the representative of the cause, you have a duty to provide information. You cannot expect to convince people by volume alone. The onus is on you to explain why your cause is worthy of support. Do not expect people to know what you’re talking about. And you absolutely must be honest; remember point 4. If you’re caught in a lie, your credibility will be shot to hell.
And this one is for the “don’t’s”:
6. Don’t attack a neutral party
Not everyone will support you. Learn to live with it. But some of them will not support you because they just do not care; they have other things to worry about, or have considered their stance and decided not to support either side, but mostly they simply haven’t made up their minds yet. They’re not going to actively oppose you, but they’re not going to side with your opponents, unless you attack them. They’re the people you want to convince. So try, but if they won’t be convinced, then leave them alone; they’re not your enemies, but if you treat them as such, they most certainly will be.
There is a certain kind of firebrand who will no doubt take issue with this if they ever saw it, not least because it’s come from the hand of someone who dares to be male and have white skin at the same time, as if that’s relevant.
Consider then, the words of Deng Xiaoping:
It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.
The list of advocacy do’s and don’t’s has the benefit of working; by following the original ten points (twelve if you decide to include my additions), you will achieve the primary aim of advocacy; convincing others of your stance through your arguments. You may not like it – hurling outraged invective is so much more satisfying after all, even though it doesn’t work.
I’ve been on the receiving end, more than once, of people who inverted the list – and have been told that it’s not the advocate’s job to educate me, that I should just listen and believe. I’ve also been savaged simply for being present, on account of things like skin colour, gender, and presumed sexual orientation. Not once has any of it made me want to support the “activist” – in fact it’s usually made me turn away from their cause in utter disgust.
This is especially true if I find out I’ve been lied to; I continue to maintain that if you have to deceive me to get me to support your cause, it’s not worth supporting.
Or, to put it another way; ignore the attributes of the person telling you this, and don’t mind that it originally came from a tech magazine a decade and a half ago. The list of advocacy do’s and don’t’s is how you train an excellent mouser. Ignore it, and you’ll have a serious rodent problem.
- Hung Li, China’s Political Situation and the Power Struggle in Peking (Lung Men Press, 1977)
- Reynolds, David, “Five Do’s And Don’t’s of Advocacy”, in MacAddict Magazine (Imagine Publishing: September 2000)