The tipping point….. finding a way to make a difference

This post is not about the content or goals of any specific advocacy effort.  It is not meant to imply that any one cause is more significant, more valuable than any other.  It is about the process of advocacy.  Many things that are very important to me are not really doing very well right now and as much as anything else this post is me talking to me trying to figure out things that right now don’t seem like they make a whole lot of sense.  As anyone can tell by looking at the current political scene the prize doesn’t necessarily go the most deserving as it does to the most successful.  This post is an effort to look at the process of success.

Advocacy is the effort to make something more likely to happen. If you think of any goal on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being not likely to happen at all and 10 being certain to happen anything that moves a goal up that continuum is advocacy. Sometimes efforts to advocate get stuck. Progress is slow or even nonexistent. Sometimes it appears like things are getting worse and sometimes you even wonder if you are solving a problem or creating one.  There is a point though where the movement of advocacy, the momentum towards change, acquires a energy of its own, when change seems likely or even inevitable. A tipping point… the point where the momentum to change makes the question not if but when.

A case in point. The first Murphy Bill was a frantic rush to judgement. Anyone opposing the bill was basically “burned at the stake .” Every criticism was seized upon by Murphy, Torrey, and Jaffe as proof of the conspiracy against the “seriously mentally ill.” More than one person I talked to saw the passage of Murphy as inevitable. It seemed an irresistible force.

But things changed. Organizations spoke out not just against the Murphy argument but the way he argued. Individual after individual spoke out.  Murphy for some became as big an issue as his bill.  The opportunism of Murphy, the distortions of Murphy became more and more obvious. The momentum began to shift. And then a tipping point….  I think it was the Barber Bill. Murphy was no longer the only game in town. He was not the voice for everyone like he claimed. His demand for acclamation was bogus and his defeat was when and not if.

Advocacy is about moving the needle. In the long run it is about making something impossible possible and then making something possible likely and finally making something likely inevitable. It is not just about battles but wars. In Tennessee the battle to bring health care to everyone started long before Obamacare. It is not to the end of the road yet but no one ever thought they would see the day a Republican Governor would propose a way to make it happen. It is about moving the needle. Look at gay rights, civil rights….. any of the movements that have changed this country…. moving the needle.

Take any goal that is important to you and think it through. On a scale of 1-10 how likely is it to become reality. What are you doing to change the climate that might make it more likely or more possible?  What is it about the way you frame the issue that makes people more likely to listen, more likely to hear and understand what you are trying to say.  Sometimes what people are saying is not what others are hearing.

Murphy, for example, tried to frame every argument against coercive mental health interventions as proof that the person making that argument did not care about the needs of the “seriously mentally ill” and was trying to advance their selfish and self serving agenda.  He tried to make the argument about coercive care, not about human rights or dignity, or even about rather or not it helped, but about the lack of compassion and care of those who would oppose him.  Personally I wonder if that argument did not hit many legislators in a very vulnerable spot.  No one who wants to be elected again wants to be painted as “uncaring about the needs of the mentally ill.”  The argument they must hear is that being for AOT or other coercive measures is not “being for the needs of the mentally ill.”  They must hear that it costs too much, that it doesn’t work, that there are other options available, but in the end they need to hear loudly and clearly that depriving people of their rights to make decisions about their lives and treating them differently that you would treat others is not about meeting their need and is in fact injurious and hurtful.  And they must hear this is not a step forward for the mental health system but a step back.

Murphy, even though I think he knows better, has also tried to frame his bill as the protection for society from the “violent acts of crazy people.”  He has tried to pitch his bill as an alternative for all of those people who politically are afraid to even say the word gun control.  Advocacy against the bill must have a clear and hearable message why this is not so.  If  violence is successfully framed as a mental health issue the odds of Murphy’s argument winning go way up.

One of the best ways to advocate for anything is to paint the people who argue against you as boogeymen.  Murphy does that with “psychiatric survivors.”  He wants you to believe that it is white hats against black hats and he has the only white hat in town.  In Tennessee people who want to argue against expanding health care do not really want to talk about the Insure Tennessee plan.  They want to talk about Obama and Obamacare and Democrats.  They want to tell you the plan is fundamentally unsound and untrustworthy without talking about the plan but just attacking the people they say came up with it.  If your opponent wins and his claim that you are indeed the boogeyman is seen as having any degree of credibility at all you lose.  It is that simple you lose.

Sometimes the most important thing to do is to convince those you are talking to that you are not the boogeyman.  Sometimes the first task is to convince people you are worth hearing before you can hope you will be successful in getting them to hear you.  And that has a lot to do with explaining what you are for in a way, in a language likely to be heard.  I wonder sometimes if that is not one of the biggest problems that some advocacy campaigns have.  What they say is never heard in the way they want it to be heard and their opponents manage to successfully frame them as boogeymen who don’t need to be listened to.  If you are an advocate is there a way, however inadvertently, that you feed into or somehow confirm the picture your opponents are trying to paint of you?  If you are how can you change that?  Advocacy begins with being heard and it ends with being dismissed.

The climate is also set by the connections or coalitions that you build with others.  Legislators are moved by momentum and more voices and wider bases of support help create a sense of momentum.  What you say as an advocate is essential, but what you get others to say is as important.  Sometimes I think you have to work with people you may have disagreements with.  I know some people that is a controversial statement but unless you have a very big group with a lot of credibility and a voice that is already being heard defining the support away of those who agree with you about the issues you are focused on while maintaining substantial disagreement on others needs to be carefully considered.  I wonder sometimes if sometimes people define their cause in a way that marginalizes their impact.  I don’t know.

It sounds probably pretty stupid but sometimes I think some advocates are not exactly clear what they are for.  They may be very verbal about a goal, but it is unclear what actions that they actually support.  What every politician wants to hear is what you want him to do?  What is the course of action you support?  Sometimes it is remarkably easy to say no in a loud and clear fashion, but so very hard to be as loud and clear about your yes.  That may not make any sense, but I hope it does.

I am convinced that it is so much about momentum.  Politicians are most clearly about what benefits them and their status and they are very responsive to the prevailing political wisdom.  Everything I have ever thought was important has lost many battles.  It is to the persistent.  It is to those who learn from defeats.  It is to those who steadily increase their capability to be heard.  Take it from someone who has been around a long time many things that did not use to make sense are now “common sense”.  And when you reach that point, that verge of “common sense” you have reached a tipping point that makes success not a matter of if but when.

This post has been a lot wordier than most I write.  I appreciate your patience and if you have struggled through it I hope you have found something helpful in it which will make the battles you fight, the causes you treasure more likely to be successful.



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