It is funny that men who are supposed to be scientific cannot get themselves to realize the basic principle of physics, that action and reaction are equal and opposite, that when you persecute people you always ROUSE Them to be strong and stronger.
- Gertrude Stein
Trigger Warning: This article involves graphic descriptions of harmful homophobic practices used in “conversion therapy”.
Injury. The dark horse of inspiration. Powerful, unexpected, and potentially dangerous. The idea is simple: people are roused to action if they feel they, or someone they care about, is being injured by the situation you seek to change (or, more generally, if they feel there is a big downside to inaction). If you can make the injury vivid and present, bring it into the room with you, put a face and a name to it, then you can inspire people to act.
Beware: when you harness the element of injury, the potential for demagoguery is high. While all the elements of inspiration have their dark sides, injury is the most easily abused of all. You must tread a fine line between rousing righteous anger – a positive and healthy catalyst for change – and inciting violent rage. History is littered with movements which have tipped from one to the other with disastrous consequences.
This caveat in mind, though, there is no reason to avoid recognition of injury completely. Indeed, often an effective conveyance of how people have been and are being injured by a particular policy, practice, or approach is merely a side-effect of telling the truth. When genuine injury is being caused, it is our responsibility to bring it to light in the most gripping way possible, to give voice to the injury so that we can do something about it. So, when it comes to the element of injury, caution is warranted but avoidance is not.
How do you do this? How do you bring real injury to light in a way which sticks in the mind of an audience, helps them empathize with those suffering, and rouses them to act but does not goad them to rage and hatred? Use three techniques which, together (and in homage to Marshall Ganz, who gave me the idea), I refer to as “painting hell”. First, be specific: you have to do the difficult job of telling people exactly what is happening in as much detail as you can stand (short of voyeurism). Second, be personal: put a face, a name, and a story on the injury so people see this isn’t abstract but concrete. Third, be emotional, allowing your emotional response to the injury to activate the empathy of your audience.
We’ll explore each of these three strategies using the example of Sam Brinton, MIT graduate student and gay rights activist. Sam is a friend, a colleague, and one of the most inspiring people I know, and his story shows just how powerful the element of injury can be. You can read his story in this article by Hannah Clay Wareham from LGBTQ magazine Bay Windows - all the quotes below are taken from this article. You can watch Sam talk about his story here, in a film recorded by I’m From Driftwood:
As a child Sam underwent years of “conversion therapy”, attempting to turn him from gay to straight. It might be easier for him to refer only vaguely to these painful and horrifying experiences from his past, but instead Sam provides specific details of what was done to him:
What Sam calls “the first step” of his therapy involved attaching his hands to a table with leather straps, palms up. The therapist placed blocks of ice on each hand and showed Sam pictures of two men holding hands, so that the young boy began to associate touching men with the “burning cold.”
“The second step” was similar, but the ice was replaced with copper heating coils that had been wrapped around his wrists and hands. The heat was turned on when pictures of two men holding hands were shown, but turned off when pictures of a heterosexual couple holding hands were shown. Following these sessions, Sam would shudder when hugged by his father, experiencing what he calls “heat flashbacks.”
“The third step” accompanied Sam’s first attempt at committing suicide (there have been five). He was strapped into a chair, and small needles were stuck into his fingertips. The needles were attached to electrodes, and Sam received shocks when shown pornographic images of two men engaging in sex acts.
The specific details Sam provides about his ordeal give it a concreteness and reality which they would lack otherwise, making them massively more emotionally compelling.
It may seem morbid or gruesome to provide such details when trying to encourage people to act. It may even seem manipulative. But I want to argue that it is in fact a way of being honest. This really happened to Sam. It happens to other kids too. To refuse to present that fact with great specificity in order to avoid causing discomfort is to withhold the whole truth, and to silence those who have experienced violence, oppression, and degradation.
Make It Personal
When I talk about the dangers of “conversion therapy”, I don’t talk about it in general. I talk about Sam. About the wonderful guy I know and about what was done to him. I make it personal, because it is personal. Real lives, real people, are at stake. This is why I call this element “injury” and not “harm”: harm seems more diffuse and abstract, while injuries happen to people. When you make an issue personal by putting a name, a face, and a story on the injury being caused, you become more effective.
Show Your Emotions
I cannot tell Sam’s story without tears coming to my eyes. When I talk about what was done to him, I am filled with anger and incredible sorrow. There’s no reason to hide this: we are not Spock. We are emotional beings, and our emotions tend to spread to others. Displaying – instead of trying to hide – genuine moral emotions is a perfectly legitimate (and powerful) way to engage people to care about an issue. Caring is an emotion. So let your emotions show.
Very often when we want to encourage people to act to make a change it is because current conditions are intolerable: they are causing injury. If you can make that injury apparent – by offering specific details of the harm caused, by putting a name, a face, and a story to the injury, and by showing your own emotional responses – you can ROUSE Them.
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