Eight Forms of Opposition to Making Community Change and How to Tackle Them

By Adam J. Pearson

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Introduction

As I researched the processes by which community groups attempted to make change in community practice, particularly when it comes to doing anti-oppressive practice work, one theme came strongly to the forefront. This is the theme of opposition to change and it directly ties into many of the examples we have seen in our Community Practice class this semester.

In the discussion that follows, I’ll be drawing mainly on Holt et al. (2017), Wadud (2016) and Brueggemann (2013) and on some of the material we discussed in my section of AOP on this subject; references will follow if you want to go deeper into these topics than I can in this humble discussion post. I hope, however, that I can lay out some key terms here that will offer interesting jumping off points for further exploration of this fascinating and important topic within community practice.

The stark truth is that no matter how noble and well-meaning our goals may be in trying to make community interventions that are positively impactful, the unfortunate reality is that we can still face great resistance to making it happen. The known, even the dysfunctional known, is familiar, and change can be very unknown, and therefore scary; people may see those who are trying to make changes as radical or as ‘other’ and try to sabotage them, may disengage out of fear or hostility, or make have serious ideological reasons to resist our work.

Opposition to change can come from both inside and outside of communities. In the lingo of the field, “opposition” involves any actions taken to oppose, undermine, or prevent a group’s attempts to make positive change. Attacks on change-making efforts are called “opposition tactics.”  Our attempts to respond to these effectively and successfully are “counteropposition tactics.”

What are the eight most common forms of opposition tactics we can face while trying to make community change happen? Conveniently, we can remember them by means of “the 8 Ds” (Holt et al., 2017). These include deflection, delays, denials, discounting/discrediting, deception, dividing, dulcifying or appeasing, and outright destroying. In point form, I’ll offer definitions of each of these opposition tactics and then offer some best practice responses that have emerged from the literature as effective ways of responding to them on the part of our community group.

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1. Deflection:

  • (1) of attention: turning the debate away from the real problem to other issues (e.g. from school shootings to ‘constitutional rights)
  • (2) of blame: spill criticism onto other groups or refer you to a group with no authority to change things.

Best Practice Responses:

  • Keep the focus on the main issue.
  • Refuse the attempt to “pass the buck” to others.
  • Insist on accountability.

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2. Delays: Postponing taking action by claiming they are “working on it” when not doing anything or claiming they “need more information” when much is already available.

  • Example: lawyers delaying change through appeals
  • Example: Governments who form powerless “committees” to appear to be making change when doing nothing

(e.g. the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose recommendations had no legal consequences and weren’t put into action)

Best Practice Responses to Delays:

  • Use pressure tactics to push more rapid action
    (e.g. picketing, boycotts, sit-ins, petitions, social media
    campaigns, and electoral politics)
  • Tackle the same issue from different angles simultaneously
    (e.g. while pressuring the government to not defund
    your organization, crowdsource, fundraise, partner, etc.)
  • Build public outcry through media-covered direct action

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3. Denials:

  • (1) Of the problem (e.g. “there’s no need to address police murdering people of colour because we live in a post-racial society.”)
  • (2) Of the solution (e.g. “giving teenagers condoms won’t reduce pregnancy, it will just make them have more sex!”)

Best Practice Responses:

  • Bombard them with evidence, stats, pictures, videos, & powerful stories that illustrate the reality of the problem
  • Back up your solutions with statistics showing their effectiveness and benefits & arguments against critics

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4. Discounting/Discrediting: suggesting that your organization
or its leaders are illegitimate or ineffective
(e.g. That group is just a bunch of lazy hippies,
snowflake liberals, outdated conservatives
,” etc.)

Best Practice Responses:

  • Reverse overgeneralizations
    (e.gFar from lazy, we are promoting community work
    initiatives to bring jobs back to the community
    !)
  • Highlight the positive results you have already achieved
  • Reframe the terms they are using
    (e.gJust like you, we value saving money; that’s why
    we’re arguing for less welfare … for corporations
    !)

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5. Deception: misleading by outright lying or omitting key facts.

  • e.g. “These doggone feminists aren’t aiming for equality, but for a female-dominated society!”

Best Practice Responses:

  • Refute with facts, statistics, examples, arguments, quotes from key authors to clarify your movement’s purpose, etc.
  • Create media and campaigns to drown out the lies
    with truth. Humorous memes help too!

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6. Dividing: Breaking solidarity by splitting a group.

(e.g. media and organizations dividing “peaceful protesters” from “radicals”)

Best Practice Responses:

Reinforce solidarity by:

  • reframing the disagreement,
  • refocusing attention on the common cause,
  • strategizing together

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7. Dulcifying or Appeasing: Satisfy your members with small, meaningless concessions.

        (e.g. “If you call off the protest, we’ll give you promotions!”)

Best Practice Responses:

  • Explain why the concessions are unsatisfactory and why what you’re asking for is morereasonable
  • Be flexible with compromising; macro change is often a long-term game

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8. Destroying: Trying to ruin your organization or initiative in every way possible, often combining many of the previous tactics.

Best Practice Responses:

  • Know your legal rights, link up with social justice lawyers when possible
  • Partner with other organizations for back-up, preferably larger, more powerful ones
  • When all else fails, dissolve, rebuild, and resurge!

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7 Principles of Counteropposition Tactics

As a final point on counteropposition tactics, Wadud (2016) suggests some helpful general rules of thumb in responding to opposition. Here are his 7 general principles:

  • Prevent – plan actions & convince potential opponents to join you in advance
  • Turn negatives into positives – reframe, turn to your advantage
  • Label your opponent’s tactics – they lose power when openly identified
  • Frame the debate in your terms – convey how your group sees it
  • Turn assets into liabilities – continue nonviolent opposition until opposition responds heavy-handedly and the public turns on them
  • Know when to negotiate – meet with opponent, discuss differences, ensure opposition isn’t based on miscommunication / misunderstanding
  • Develop win-win solutions –  that benefit both parties (Wadud, 2016)

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Conclusion

In conclusion, if we want to do community practice work, we have to learn to accept the reality that we will face opposition tactics once in a while. The good news, though, is that there are techniques that work for handling this opposition, such as those laid out here. And the other good news is that every community group that has ever made successful change—and there are many!—has managed to make it happen. We can learn from them and from what they do and follow suit. Power to the people!

References

Brueggemann, W. (2013). The practice of macro social work. New York:
Nelson Education.

Holt, S., Fawcett, S., Francisco, S., Schultz, J., Berkowitz, B. & Wolff, T.
(2017). The community tool box. Retrieved from https://ctb.ku.edu/

Wadud, E. (2016). Identifying opponents. The community tool box.
Retrieved from http://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/advocacy/advocacy-principles/identify-opponents/main

 

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