Big Tent Social Justice

I’ve been trained to think like a marketer, and I tend, at times, to think of social justice efforts through this lens too.

That is, if you’re trying to bring about behavior change among a large portion of the population, what communication strategies and tactics do you use to bring about this change? This way of thinking is somewhat distasteful given the manipulative reputation of marketing as a profession, but I find it useful nonetheless.

From this perspective, the strategy of a social justice movement would be to appeal to the largest possible number of people – to welcome everyone under a “big tent” vision of the cause. If this is your goal, then the strategy becomes relatively straightforward: create messages with broad appeal, take actions which generate sympathy, in all things go for the broadest reach and broadest appeal possible.

This is all very reasonable from a marketing perspective.

However, there’s a problem with this approach: the bigger your tent, the more diluted your vision. The more you try to please a broad group of people, the more you will have to relax your core stance.

This balance applies to any issue, not just social justice. Robert Heinlein used to argue that it was impossible to make a decision if more than 3 people are involved. Any time you have a large number of people in one place, the number of things they can really, deeply agree to will be minimal.

If you’re a marketer trying to maximize your profits, find the right balance takes skill but is relatively straightforward: appeal to the largest number of people possible while also creating a coherent brand identity. There’s a trade-off between the two, but no real sacrifice either way.

The calculation is more complex when it comes to social justice: just how much are you willing to let go?

This is an important question with a non-trivial answer: appeal to many people and you increase your chances of accomplishing something – but you also make it more likely that what you accomplish will be a toothless, meaningless shadow of your original goal.

There are varied opinions on which side of this spectrum it’s better to be on, and there’s no easy answer. When doing nothing is disastrous, is it better to accomplish something ineffective or to accomplish nothing at all?

Perhaps doing something is better than doing nothing; or perhaps an empty victory only serves to alleviate the sense that something needs to be done – making it virtually impossible for any real change to occur.

I don’t have an answer to this question – certainly not a generalizable one which could be applied to any issue at any time. But I do think that both arguments are reasonable – that we must appreciate the efforts of all who strive towards social justice and to value their input and perspective – even when we disagree.


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