How to lead social change

Persuading your opponent is key.

Christopher Cochrane
Gay rights protesters.

Gay rights activists hold placards during a rally to support same-sex marriage in Sydney.

In a 1982 public opinion survey, 70 percent of Canadians expressed a negative opinion about homosexuality, and more than half said that homosexuality was “never justifiable.” When asked the same question 24 years later, in 2006, only 30 percent of Canadians had a negative opinion about homosexuality, and just one in five said that homosexuality was never justifiable.

The changing answers to this poll question are but one indicator of a broader transformation in public opinion about gays and lesbians. How can we understand these changes, and what do they teach us about how to lead social change?

There are a number of plausible explanations for these changing opinions. Canadians are more secular than they used to be, and secularism is associated with more favorable opinions about gays and lesbians. They are also more highly educated than they used to be, and higher levels of education are associated with more favorable opinions about homosexuality. Perhaps there is a generational component to these changes as well. However none of these phenomena provide an adequate explanation for opinion change on this scale, over such a relatively short period of time.

There is nothing automatic or socially determined about the transformation of public opinion about gays and lesbians. Instead, it reflects a change in the way people think about the issue, from a question of morality and personal taste to a question of freedom and equality. Why this change could happen when it did implicates a number of factors, including those related to the characteristics of Canadian society. The question of why this change did happen when it did, however, cannot discount the fundamental component of wise leadership within social movement politics.

According to political scientist John Zaller, our opinions are formed as information about the environment in which we live interacts with predispositions that each of us harbor. The information comes from the media, from conversations with friends, co-workers, and neighbors, and from our own observations about the world. Our predispositions come from our upbringing, the accumulation of our experiences, our social group attachments, and perhaps even from the structures of our brains and from our genetic inheritance.

Two people who share the exact same predispositions can disagree with each other when exposed to different information. However, people may also disagree because they have different predispositions in the first place. For example, two people with attachments to rival political parties may (and often do) react in opposing ways to the same information, depending on their affiliations. Disagreements between people with the same predispositions but different information are very different than disagreements between people with the same information but different predispositions. While information may change quickly, predispositions do not.

Successful leaders of social movement politics work to achieve change through traditional and non-traditional forms of political activity. Social movement activists push for change within political parties and by litigating through the courts. They engage in demonstrations and other protest behaviors that draw attention to their cause. They use “infotainment”—such as movies, music and books with political messages—to reach as many people as they can. And they engage in a series of smaller, seemingly inconsequential activities, from yearly parades to “positive space campaigns” at universities to objecting in social settings to specific jokes, comments or words.

On their own, none of these tactics would work to achieve the kind of transformative change that occurred in Canada (and other countries) over the past couple of decades with regard to opinions about homosexuality. And they would not work, even together, if they appealed to predispositions that divide people, or that most people do not share. Yet by appealing to predispositions that most people do share—for example, to equality, to liberty, and to human dignity—opinion leaders can turn lost causes to common ones, and in this way transform on a mass scale people’s opinions about an issue.

Social movements that ground their claims in predispositions that only their members share fail to reach precisely the people that they need to reach in order to achieve their objectives—that is, the people who do not agree with them. Social movements that appeal, for example, to opponents of private property, or to religious convictions, are unlikely to enjoy the same success as movements that appeal to predispositions that are shared widely by their supporters and their opponents alike.

Leaders of social movements must recognize that people’s minds are not Etch A Sketches that are shaken and erased at the whims of opinion leaders. Opinion leadership is about drawing a picture for people by connecting the predispositions that they already have.

John Stuart Mill once said: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” In the context of opinion leadership, those who know only their own side of the case achieve little of that.

Christopher Cochrane is an assistant professor of political science at UTSC.