A lesson in persuasion
The importance of the "circles of influence" for progressives
On Conspirituality 135 we feature Julian’s interview with journalist Anand Giridharadas, discussing his latest book, The Persuaders. A progressive handbook for understanding the complexities of organizing and creating sustainable social and policy changes, there’s one concept from the text that stuck with me: circles of influence.
In chapter two, Giridharadas profiles three longtime female activists: Linda Sarsour, co-chair of the famous Women’s March; Loretta Ross, widely known for her work in reproductive justice; and Alicia Garza, who co-founded Black Lives Matter.
Giridharadas writes about a controversy that Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian Muslim, was involved with when co-chairing the 2019 Women’s March on Washington. The 101: another co-chair, Tamika Mallory, had attended the 2018 Saviours’ Day event in Chicago, which was hosted by the Nation of Islam. The Nation’s leader, Louis Farrakhen, is well-known for his antisemitism, bigotry, and anti-LGBTQ and anti-women stance. Because of her attendance, one of the Women’s March’s founders, Teresa Shook, called for both Sarsour and Mallory to step down—the pro-Palestine Sarsour had previously been condemned for comments about Israel. Shook’s contention was that the women didn’t push back hard enough on Farrakhan (which Sarsour later apologized for). To be clear, both women had condemned Farrakhan, just not enough in the eyes of Shook and others.
This is where nuance enters the picture. The father of Mallory’s son had been murdered. Mallory knew about the Nation’s bigotry, but she also recognized that Farrakhan’s organization played an important role in Black communities, doing work that other organizations refused to even entertain. As it turns out, Mallory’s support group when her child’s father was killed included women involved in the Nation of Islam.
And so you have an organization that, one one hand, is regressive on gender and race, yet on the flip side, it’s one of the most effective organizations inside of Black communities.
This put Mallory, and by extension Sarsour, in a bind—and it didn't help that the woman calling for their removal was a white woman. Sarsour had long been suspicious of working with white people given her Palestinian heritage. Yet she knew that persuasion on a mass scale was necessary in the Trump era. What to do?
As Giridharadas writes of this conundrum:
Coalitions were important, and coalitions were hard. Sometimes they required holding the line, refusing to bend. Sometimes they required pleading for nuance, trying to reach this way and reach that way without being torn asunder.
Sometimes, it turns out, perceived enemies can be allies, depending on the context.
Circles of influence
While Giridharadas’s book is about persuasion, it’s also about growth, and the very nuance he witnessed many activists struggle with while reporting for his book. Nothing highlights this more than Loretta Ross’s circles of influence.
Ross became an advocate for call-in culture after an early experience while working at the D.C. Rape Crisis Center. She had been sexually assaulted early in life; her activism began by helping other victims. One day she received a letter from a convicted rapist who wanted her help—not a rape victim, but a rapist. The feminist literature he was reading in jail created an inner struggle: he knew his actions were wrong, but rape was embedded in his consciousness as a source of power. He hated it but it was also ingrained in him, and he wanted an exorcism.
Ross was flummoxed. Long story short, she went to the prison. The man, William Fuller, was, in Ross’s words, a six-four, handsome Black man who, while younger, used rape to bolster his sense of masculinity. Now he was reaching out for help. And so Ross, along with her team, wrote guidelines for him and other rapists in the prison. Then she moved on.
Years later, while walking down a street in DC, she was approached by…William Fuller, who had been released from prison and working in construction. And now he was fully reformed, thanks in part to Ross’s calling him in.
Loretta Ross is a warrior. Most of us would flounder under such duress. She knows that her actions might not have persuaded everyone. Still, it’s a lesson she’s kept with her. From that, and other activist work, she developed her circles of influence:
If someone agrees with you 100 percent of the time, that’s a problem. No relationship can sustain with full agreement; tension is necessary for growth. One criticism of men like Donald Trump and Elon Musk is that they have too many yes men around. They crumble when exposed to pushback.
Since you’ll never be around 100-percenters, 90-percenters are people who you agree with on most issues. These are your allies and trusted confidantes. But—this is important, especially with progressives—Loretta Ross points out a problem:
I think that the 90-percenters spend too much time trying to turn people into 100-percenters.
Turning potential allies into enemies over minor differences is counterproductive. Ross believes you should work alongside 90-percenters, and simply avoid the contentious 10%, especially if it’s irrelevant to your shared goals. This roadmap is also a reminder that not everyone will agree with you, and it’s a very lonely existence if you demand that they do.
75-percenters share a good deal of crossover with you. For example: Ross is an abortion activist. But she also works with the Girl Scouts, an organization that promotes female empowerment but avoids discussions about abortion. So Ross doesn’t bring it up. She knows that more good work can be done alongside the organization even if reproductive justice isn’t in their purview. Tension doesn’t have to destroy a productive relationship. You just have to know when to disagree and when to let go.
Next are the 50-percenters, who Ross says are good for one-off initiatives. If you can find an opening to collaborate, go for it. Just know the boundaries, and know they’re going to shift. Stay focused on the goal.
The 25-percenters are probably not going to be allies. But they can still be persuaded. Here Ross advises understanding your fears around them, and to take those fears seriously. Most of the time, arguing with a 25-percenter isn’t worth it. On occasion, it is. If you can take their fears seriously and try to engage in good-faith dialogue, conversation is possible. Tension can be constructive when intelligently applied.
Finally, the 0-percenters, who Ross labels fascists. Possibly my favorite quote in the book:
I don’t think I have any common ground with them and do my best to overpower and overwhelm them.
Living in volatile and reactionary times, when many people often react to headlines without reading the context, Loretta Ross reminds us that in order to actually make change in society, seek common ground with potential allies and know your enemy.
This is especially pertinent to the left. Too many 90-percenters focus on that last 10%, a trait that social media facilitates with its outrage algorithm. Persuasion is a patient and nuanced process, and at times requires you letting go of who you think you are in order to make a greater impact on the bigger picture.
Thanks for reading Trickle-Down Wellness! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.