Insulting those with different views accomplishes nothing

By Stefan Herlitz

“The Prince” is a self-help book of sorts, although one would not find a similar book in any modern self-help section, as it primarily concerns itself with instructing tyrants how best to tyrannize.

Despite its decidedly autocratic bent, the book has become a primary symbol of realist political thought, as has the name of its author, Niccolo Machiavelli. “He who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation,”, says the Renaissance-era Florentine writer, and it is exactly this kind of thinking that modern social movements ought to consider.

Of course, the notion at first sounds absurd – Machiavelli’s book was a handbook for tyranny, which is not exactly what most modern movements have in mind. Despite the vast gulf of difference between the political philosophies of Machiavelli and modern social movements, however, parts of his advice may well be quite useful to them.

“He who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation,” writes Machiavelli. This advice is not exclusive to would-be tyrants, but rather applies to anyone with any goal. In this saying, Machiavelli is instructing his readers to focus on the steps that lead to a goal rather than the righteousness of the goal itself; the purpose of a goal, after all, is to achieve it, not to talk about how nice it would be if it were achieved.

This is where modern politically-minded people go astray. For some reason, we as a society put an overbearing amount of value on the idea of being right, rather than doing right. Our generation is quick to demonstrate the purity of our political beliefs, and even quicker to denounce those who disagree with us, all the while not realizing that we’re talking right past each other, damaging our own goals in the process.

A prime example of this is the current Congress. On track to be the least productive legislative session in history, Congress is racked with partisan hatred and divisions. No bill, no matter how well-meaning or sensible, can escape the claws of the legislature without being severely mutilated, amended and ransomed. Of course, we the people blame Congress for its astonishingly low approval ratings. But really, we’re the ones at fault. People hate Congress, but approve of their own Senators and Representatives. To us, it’s other people that are the problem.

A primary goal of all social movements, regardless of what they believe, is to proliferate. Take feminism, for example. Feminist theory is all about achieving equal political, economic, cultural and social rights. If the entire world were feminist, then equal rights, both legal and social, for everyone would be an inherent part of who we are and the way we operate in society. Thus a primary goal of the feminist movement is (or at least ought to be) to get everyone to believe in feminism (i.e., to make more feminists). The same follows for marriage equality activists, Second Amendment advocates, net neutrality advocates and any other group wishing to promote a specific political agenda. The problem is that many people, particularly with the advent of social media, identify as members of these movements while acting in ways that go completely against the goal of spreading them.

Let’s look at a specific case: Twitter. On July 6, 2014, Twitter user @genophilia tweeted, “Guns don’t kill people. Blacks do. See crime stats  #NRA #GunControl.” This user, a Second Amendment advocate, is also a blatant racist, choosing to support her stance by blaming violence on black people. Clearly, this is not the message of the gun rights movement, but tweets like this will turn people away from supporting the movement simply because they associate it with racists.

Similarly, “feminist” Twitter user @maymaym tweeted, “Why haven’t you killed yourself yet?” and several similar tweets on Nov. 20, 2013, to users who disagreed with her/his application of feminist theory.

Obviously, being a racist and telling people who disagree with you to kill themselves are not very good ways to get people to agree with you. Indeed, such actions, although taken by a small minority of people, leave distaste in the mouths of the public and are damaging to the movements as a whole. People told to kill themselves by self-proclaimed “feminists,” even though said individuals do not represent actual mainstream feminism or feminists, are not likely to agree with feminism. Rather, they will mentally associate it with unstable college kids telling people to kill themselves. The same goes for gun advocates, though the associated demographic mostly changes to older men saying they’ll shoot you or anyone trying to take their guns away. These are extreme examples, but they illustrate the point that we like to be right, not do right.

In order to actually help social movements you claim to be a member of, you need to help spread them. This doesn’t mean you have to act as a modern-day missionary, preaching the good word of your ideology to the world – in fact, far from it, since that would probably be rather annoying. You just need to do your part. Treat others with respect and explain your ideas whenever a relevant situation arises in a non-threatening, conversational manner. That may not be nearly as fun as yelling at someone or talking down to them, but it’s how people can actually change their views.

While it may be tempting to sit on an ideological high horse and look down upon those who don’t subscribe to your beliefs, if you actually want society to adopt your beliefs and make changes, it may be a good idea to take a moment, pluck the decidedly devious mind of good old Niccolo Machiavelli and act in ways that will help make that change come about.

 Stefan Herlitz can be reached at [email protected]