The 7 C's of Why We Must Embrace Controversy to Change the World

I have the pleasure of speaking to each "class" of Progressive Women's Voices, an exciting program of the Women's Media Center, where I serve on the board. This started during the first class two years ago when I was asked about the lessons I learned leading a social movement where I worked a great deal with the media and messages as vehicles of social change. My comments have evolved over time from the conversations I've had with PWV participants and Heartfeldt
Politics readers. So as I prepared today to speak to the final 2009
class tomorrow evening, I decided to share the latest iteration here on
my blog. Please let me know your thoughts.

The angry, gunslinging, mobs opposing President Obama’s healthcare plan at town halls have created quite a stir. Screaming confrontations aren’t just great political theater that captures media attention, did you know they literally make your blood pressure rise and cause other involuntary physical anxiety-fear-pain-fight-flight reactions?

If you’re a live-and-let-live sort of person, as most Americans are, your first reaction to public controversy might be a racing heartbeat, but it won’t be long before you’ll probably want to race away. We have millennia of rape and pillage warnings in our brains, after all. Who needs it?

Well, actually you do if you’re interested in getting health reform in our time, or if you’re advancing any personal or organizational mission that you care about through the democratic process. Your voice is essential.

Public disruptions succeed not because they are necessarily proposing valid points of view, but for two other reasons:

  • The people are organized, passionate, and persistent. They know that if they can cause enough discomfort, the rest of us will probably back away, go silent, and leave the field to them.
  • They take charge of the conversation, frame the issue as they see it, and change the terms of the debate.

Let’s look deeper at these two dynamics.

With regard to public discourse: You can’t change eggs into omelets without breaking them. It’s not surprising that change will always upset some people. That causes controversy. It’s just the nature of the beasts social change movements have to dance with. As Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the former Surgeon General who was pushed out of her job when she said controversial things about the positive value of masturbation, told me one time, “When you are dancing with the bear, you don’t get to sit down until he’s ready.”

Since we can’t avoid controversy when we’re changing the world, we have to learn to love it, embrace it, not back away but rather use the energy to advance our cause.

Sometimes we even ask the bear to dance ourselves. Like Rosa Parks and Margaret Sanger. And then be prepared not to sit down for quite a while if we want to get our ideas into the cultural and political bloodstream where they can really make a difference.

Second, with regard to taking charge of the conversation: Soon after we arrived in New York, my husband Alex and I were on the corner of 57th and 8th talking intensely with our realtor about our apartment sticker shock. A homeless man approached us and asked, "Will you give me the money for a lobster dinner?" We paid no attention and went on talking about our apartment options.

"Will you give me the money for a lobster dinner?" the man repeated a little louder. Again, we didn't respond. Again the man made his request. At this point, my Brooklyn born husband quipped back, "What's the matter, a hamburger isn't good enough?" The man pulled himself up to full height, puffed out his chest, and enunciated every word precisely as he retorted: "Answer the question as asked!"

The lesson is this: when making change—and Progressive Women's Voices aims to change the way the media portrays women and women's stories and issues--we do not answer the question as asked. We determine what we want the question to be and start the conversation there.

Here’s why: Politics writ large is the clash of uncertainties from which social realities are constructed (as I've quoted political scientist Walt Anderson many times).  We are groundbreakers. Our mission is creating new social realities. Learning to walk into the wave of controversy and ride it where we want to go rather than backing away from it is by far the most important communication lesson I learned in my four decades on the frontlines.

We must learn not just to deal with or dodge but to embrace controversy. Controversy is our friend.

Think of 7 “C’s”:

Controversy is the

Courage to risk putting your

Convictions out to the world, Because it gets people’s attention. It gives you a platform to present your

Case.  To teach, engage people, define, persuade. Often this causes

Conflicts—the clash of uncertainties—which forces people to

Clarify their values and beliefs, and that leads to


Your passion for your substantive areas of expertise and the power of your knowledge are key elements to enable you to frame the questions as you think they should be. Keep clear about what are the controversies you take because they are there and the controversies you will make because the system needs to be challenged.

Do not answer the question as asked unless it is the question you want to answer.

Embrace controversy--not for its own sake but for what it can do to create those new social realities through the democratic process. You will tick some people off. That is a good thing.

For as Martin Luther King said, “The true measure of a man (and I am sure that today he would add ‘or woman’) is not where he stands in times of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of controversy and change.”

And just so I end with a quote from a woman, I love Eleanor Roosevelt’s attitude and I hope it will inspire you as it has me:

"Do what you feel in your heart to be right - for you'll be criticized anyway."

PS For fun, take a gander at Rachel Maddow taking a whack at the anti-healthcare folks. It always helps to have your facts lined up when you are countering controversy aimed at killing an initiative.


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