Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals #11: “If you push a negative hard and deep enough, it will break through into its counterside”
To explain his eleventh rule, Saul Alinksy tells a story about his time as a grassroots organizer. When he was organizing activists against a corporation, the corporation hired people to break into his home and his organizations’ office and steal the documents and records Alinksy and his allies had put together about the corporation.
Losing all of those documents could have been a huge setback to Alinsky’s cause. The stolen records likely represented countless hours of work. Even worse, now his opposition had his entire strategy.
Instead, Alinsky found a way to turn the negative into a positive. “When a corporation bungles like the one that burglarized my home and office, my visible public reaction is shock, horror, and moral outrage.” Spreading the word about the break-in made Alinsky and his allies the victims and helped paint their opponents in a bad light.
In addition, Alinsky made sure his opponents knew they would be testifying in front of Congress about the corporation’s misdeeds they had been trying to cover up. “This threat, plus the fact that an attempt on my life had been made in Southern California, had the corporation on a spot where it would be publicly suspect in the event of assassination,” Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals.
Alinsky had hamstrung his opposition. If the corporation continued their harassment and intimidation campaign, they would be even further incriminated. The more they did to oppose Alinsky, the more power they gave him.
Alinsky was right. Almost every negative attack against you can be turned into a positive with the right tactics.
In 2014, Americans for Prosperity was running television ads featuring people whose lives had been turned upside down by Obamacare. One woman featured in the ads named Julie Boonstra had leukemia and lost her doctor because of the health care law.
Apparently, Boonstra sharing her story made some people very angry. Reporters and commentators attacked her in the press and she started getting hate mail.
The letters could have scared her into silence. Instead, she fought back. She showed the mail to AFP staffers, who tweeted photos of what some Obamacare supporters were saying to her.
The media coverage the tweets received helped highlight how cruel the attacks on her had been and made her detractors look even worse.
You can use this tactic when you’re leading issue campaigns. When you or your cause get attacked, take the time to think about how you can turn the negatives into positives. The worst attacks against you can wind up being your best assets.
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Check out the rest of the Adapting Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals series here: