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Patrick McDermott

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No One Likes to Be Guilt-Tripped

Posted: 09/15/11 03:36 PM ET

Let me set the scene for you. I used to take the Metro in D.C. every night to get home from work. On one particular night, I was heading to an event after work. On my way to the Capitol South Metro, right outside the escalator to head down to the platform, there were a bunch of protesters putting on what's commonly referred to as a "stunt." What they were protesting is U.S. militarism in Honduras and they chose to display their -- let's call it displeasure, by having two protesters lie on the ground, with red paint on their white shirts, with another protester standing over them holding a mock gun. Obviously, what they were simulating is that the U.S. has, in essence, enabled the killing of these people through U.S. military support of an oppressive regime in Honduras. Meanwhile, they had other protesters constantly shout to people walking by that "nothing is wrong... keep walking... nothing to see here!"

Let me state from the outset that I'm with them on the issues. U.S. military aggression is as commonplace as apple pie, or at least it has been in roughly the past 60 or so years of American history. I personally find it disgusting how much we emphasize the tenets of death instead of the tenets of life throughout our policies, in particular our foreign policy. And I am currently dedicating much of my waking hours to get young people to not only feel the same way, but to do something about it.

However, with this being said, is shaming and guilting people really the best way to win them over? In my estimation, I would say no. And to make matters worse, while I was standing there, listening to them and taking pictures of the stunt, I wasn't approached by anyone about becoming involved in the fight against U.S. militarism. I wasn't handed any literature of any kind. I guess they were banking on my guilt to be the driver of me joining the fight. But as I said before, I was already with them on the issues. If your goal is to raise the profile of US military aggression in Honduras amongst people who had no idea about this, but would nevertheless feel as upset about it as the protesters, shame isn't really the way to go. When I feel shame, I want to avoid continuing to feel that way. And according to the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, people's first stage is usually denial, or as I would more aptly name it in this instance, avoidance. And unfortunately, I think my claim holds more truth than the protesters would like to admit. Why do I say this? Because most of the people who saw the stunt walked right by it. Obviously I don't know what they were thinking, and protests near this particular Metro station are a regular occurrence, so regular passersby may have simply become numb to all forms of political protest by now. However, I don't think it's a stretch to claim that those who were cognizant of the protesters and their claims, but who chose to keep walking, didn't have another thought about it 15 minutes later. People have busy lives and we undoubtedly live in an instant gratification culture. Therefore, can you really fault them for not thinking about what your protesting when your tactics for garnering their attention are the wrong ones?

This recent example only further affirms my belief that progressive activists need to employ better tactics in their organizing. Namely the use of story, both of their own and others. A story is a much more compelling tool than just strictly shame and guilt. Granted, those emotions may be elicited through various stories, but in a well-told one, people won't feel like you are badgering them for not feeling bad enough or sorry enough.

I think the first step in this process of re-imagining how we organize requires us to look back to our own experiences. I know for me, documentaries and honest discussion with my peers and college professors opened my eyes to the plight of so many. And I have no doubt that it was through the stories I heard and connected to that helped me to make the decision to dedicate my life to the betterment of all.

All I ask then is for activists, whose heart is in the right place, to think back to how they became inspired to act, and then pay it forward. I think people yearn for catharsis... let's all give them a chance to attain it!