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Don’t Hate Your Haters, Leverage Them To Your Advantage

2022 May 22

What can be hardest about change, especially when we feel passionately about it, is that at some point, we need to accept that others will not embrace it. Not every change is for everybody. Some will have to pursue a different journey, one to which they can devote their own passions and seek out their own truths.

Yet there’s something about human nature that makes us want to convince those who vehemently oppose our idea. That’s almost always a mistake. Often, the reason for their opposition has less to do with any rational argument than their identity and sense of self. For whatever reason, it offends their dignity.

Still, we can learn to love our haters, because they can often help us find the way forward. All too often, we end up preaching to the choir instead of venturing out of the church and mixing with the heathens. That’s how change efforts fail. On the other hand, if we can learn to use their tactics and rhetoric to our own advantage, we have a powerful weapon for change.

“Separate But Equal” As A Force for Justice

In 1896, the Supreme Court case of Plessy vs. Ferguson codified the doctrine of separate but equal into constitutional law, which allowed states to discriminate against black Americans. Many saw it as fundamentally unjust and argued passionately against it. But a brilliant lawyer named Charles Hamilton Houston saw it as an opportunity to use his opponent’s evil idea for good.

The principle of “separate but equal” was designed to prevent blacks from benefiting from common resources, such as a water fountain or a grade school. However, when applied to rare resources, such as a graduate school, its logic began to unravel. When a man named Lloyd Gaines was refused admission to the University of Missouri law school because he was black, Houston brought suit.

But he didn’t argue against “separate but equal.” In fact, he argued for it. Clearly if the State of Missouri was going to refuse Gaines admission, there had to be a separate but equal facility. Yet there was only one law school in the state and it would be out of the question for the state to build an entire law school just to satisfy the doctrine. The Supreme Court ruled in Gaines’ favor and he was admitted to the program.

Houston would continue to argue similar cases along with his protege, Thurgood Marshall, and began taking down Jim Crow brick by brick. Unfortunately, he would die of a heart attack in 1950, before Brown vs. The Board of Education would strike down the doctrine of “separate but equal” in 1954, but his legacy lives on through Howard University Law School, which he helped build and shape.

Using Arrests To Bring Down A Regime

One of the primary tools a repressive regime has to intimidate its citizens is arrests. Getting arrested being treated like a common criminal is scary and degrading. You are made to feel alone and helpless. Yet the Serbian movement Otpor was able to figure out how to turn arrests to their advantage so that they furthered, rather than weakened their cause.

The first step was preparation. The protesters were trained so that they knew what to expect during arrests and how to respond. One key procedure was to always have “reserve” activists at every action to observe what took place. If the police arrived and began taking the comrades away, they would alert teammates who would set a plan in motion.

Phone calls would immediately go out to lawyers, friendly journalists and international NGOs as well as musicians, actors and other celebrities. While the lawyers met with the police, a protest would be organized outside the precinct, including music, games and “Mothers of Otpor” who would demand to know why the police were abusing their children.

After the fall of the Milošević regime, internal documents made it clear how frustrated the police became with all of this. The protests outside the police stations, along with the media spotlight they created, would tie their precinct up for hours. Any brutality on their part would be publicized, undermining their authority further. Often, Otpor would get more and better publicity from the arrests than from the initial protests.

This is what my friend Srdja Popović calls a dilemma action because it puts your opponent in a bind. The police had two choices, they could either stop arresting Otpor activists or continue to arrest them, but either way Otpor would grow stronger.

Betting On The Muscle Of Electric Cars

Environmentalists make the case that the long-term dangers of pollution and climate change far exceed the costs of the short-term sacrifices required. They advise us to turn down the thermostat and wear a sweater in winter, check the air in our tires and buy small cars. Clearly, these are not insurmountable challenges with the fate of the planet in the balance.

Yet the truth is that people don’t like to be inconvenienced, especially when it comes to their cars. Americans in particular have always had a love affair with big, fast muscle cars. Sure, a Prius will get you from point “A” to point “B”, but you can’t feel POWERFUL. It’s like going to a steakhouse and only eating the vegetables.

That’s why the first electric vehicle Tesla came out with in 2008, the Roadster, was anything but “responsible. It was a $100,000 status symbol for Silicon Valley millionaires. Because these customers could afford multiple cars, range wasn’t as much of a concern, but in any case the high price tag made a larger battery more feasible.

Compare that to Shai Agassi and the strategy for his electric car company, Better Place, which was a much more expansive vision. Instead of building a high-performance sports car, he built a family car for the masses and sought to overcome the challenges of range through a network of battery switching stations. It blew through $700 million before it went bust.

Musk understood a car is far more than a mode of transportation. It is a part of people’s identity. You can ask people to change just about anything, except to stop being who they think they are.

Your Targets Determine Your Tactics

When we feel passionately about change, we want to take action. We want to take to the streets, argue against injustice. We want to make decisions, launch a business, get things done.  Activity gives us something to point to. It’s something rather than nothing. When we take action we can tell ourselves that we’re not just sitting idly by.

Yet actions without a sound strategy are doomed to fail. That’s why we need to learn to love our haters. If we listen to them they will show us how to win. Charles Hamilton Houston could have railed against the doctrine of “separate but equal,” but he leveraged it to take down Jim Crow instead. Otpor used the Milošević regime’s own repressive tactics to their advantage. Elon Musk didn’t ask Tesla’s customers to sacrifice, but satisfied their desire for high-performance cars.

In each case, redefining the target made all the difference. “Separate but equal” was designed for grade schools, but its significance changed completely when applied to graduate programs. A cop on the beat is almost all-powerful, but vulnerable at a precinct. The Tesla Roadster wasn’t designed for regular families to use every day, but for millionaires to zip around in on the weekends.

To change the world, we need to learn to see it differently. We can’t just fight the same losing battles. We need to redefine the terms of our struggle in ways that tilt the playing field to our advantage. In the final analysis, that’s what makes the difference between people who want to make a point and those who actually make a difference.



Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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