By Liz Massey, November 2016 Issue.
By the time this issue of Echo leaves the newsstands, Americans will have elected a new president. While hopefully the pro-equality major party candidate will prevail, it’s certain that we will gain some LGBTQ and LGBTQ-supportive elected officials this cycle, and lose some, as well.
We are making progress at levels ranging from city councils to the U.S. Congress, but our legal equality, where it exists, is still fragile and vulnerable to attack. And anti-LGBTQ forces are still succeeding in mounting campaigns that harm trans people, queer youth, and LGBTQ people of color.
As this tumultuous election cycle has proven, our community must seek out new ways of predicting our opponents’ intentions, rather than continuing to spend all of our time, energy and political capital in response to threats to our existence. One new way of anticipating our opponents’ next moves is strategic empathy, a technique developed by historian Zachary Shore.
Shore says it’s necessary to empathize with one’s enemy in order to craft an effective response to their actions, but he doesn’t use that word in a cuddly, conciliatory sort of way. He asserts that the best way to divine an opponent’s intentions is to watch what he or she does during chaotic, unpredictable periods, which he calls “pattern breaks.” It’s especially telling if an opponent responds to crisis with an action that costs them dearly among their own supporters.
An example of this dynamic at work is how the religious right wing pivoted after marriage equality happened to focus its attention on anti-trans legislation, including the demeaning and ridiculous bathroom bills. These opponents often doubled down on support of these measures when faced with economic sanctions from allies of the LGBTQ community who identify as common-sense fiscal conservatives – warning us that it will take more than just boycotts to defeat these type of laws.
Seeking to understand strategic empathy on a more international level, Arizona State University’s Center for Strategic Communication has published research revealing that Islamic extremists recruiting future terrorists do not agitate them by filling their heads with visions of world domination, as hard-liners in the West often accuse them of; rather, these recruiters paint a picture of fellow Muslims being oppressed by nonbelievers around the world, and frame their violent actions as part of a holy struggle for justice. Similarly, our opponents on the right also frame their struggle as one of holy obligation – despite the fact that Christianity is the majority religion in the United States, and the reality that our equality doesn’t take anything away from American cultural conservatives, except their cultural dominance.
There are several ways that activists and everyday LGBTQ people and their allies can practice strategic empathy as they participate in the conversation about how our community should move forward after the 2016 elections.
Watch how our opponents act when they lose.
Or when the mainstream community is in the midst of a crisis. The steps they take at that point can often tell us what their true intentions and motives are.
Remember that everyone likes to position themselves as David – no one wants to play Goliath.
The scary “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” making the rounds of state legislatures in the wake of marriage equality are perfect examples of this.
Don’t assume your enemy wants what you want.
This caveat reminds us to realize our opponents have motivations that are unique to them. The passage of HB2 in North Carolina demonstrated that those who crafted the anti-trans law were driven by ideology and attempts to shame supporters with economic threats haven’t been effective in getting it repealed so far.
Craft counter-narratives that subvert your enemy’s message and resonate with THEIR supporters.
In other words, our messages have to hit home with the people our opponents are trying to win over. The CSC study highlighted the value in offering alternate means to achieve the enemy’s goal that doesn’t involve harming “our side,” as well as undermining the image that the enemy is trying to project in ways that will be meaningful to their supporters.
Don’t forget the value of humor.
Our community has always found ways to critique the dominant culture using humor, through drag pageants, our “camp” sensibility, and our ability to turn social norms inside out. Defeating our opponents doesn’t have to be gravely serious all the time – helping people laugh with us, and to see the foibles of our opponents in a new light, can be some of the most effective advocacy work we can do.
It appears that regardless of who wins the 2016 presidential election, we’re going to need strategic empathy and other tools to get a sense of our enemy’s intentions. As Shore said when asked how strategic empathy works, “Leaders who ‘read’ their enemies best did so not by focusing on the enemy’s pattern of past behavior, but instead by scrutinizing their behavior at pattern breaks. At those moments when the routine norms of daily business were completely overturned … how people behaved revealed what mattered to them most. And the leaders who focused on their enemies’ behavior at those pattern-breaking moments gained powerful insight into their enemies’ minds.”