‘When the world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.’ (Malala Yousafzai)
It’s about influencing, convincing, persuading – often with or on behalf of vulnerable people or groups who may lack the power, opportunity or safety to do it alone or for themselves. It always focuses on change, typically hoping to create a shift in strategy, policy or practice. My earliest attempts at advocacy were in my early teens, campaigning against brutal mistreatment of animals in Spanish bull-fighting. In my later teens, I moved into human rights work to campaign vociferously against horrific political abuses and atrocities in El Salvador. In retrospect, I do wonder if my energetic beating of the drum achieved anything.
My approach was certainly driven by passion, confronting head-on what I saw as critically important ethical issues. I would argue my case forcefully, growing ever-more skilful at constructing a stance based on sound evidence and, I hoped, near water-tight rationale. I was galvanised in this conviction and activism by my new-found faith as a follower of Jesus, and by biblical injunctions to: ‘Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy’; ‘Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and oppressed.’
In later years, I became increasingly convinced by the need for a radical change in my approach. There are occasions on which direct polemic is needed, for instance: for sake of conscience, to take a clear and unambiguous public counter-stance on an issue, irrespective of whether it will win the day. In many cases, however, I’ve found that prayer, empathy and diplomacy are more effective and less likely to provoke a defensive response. Diplomacy doesn't mean compromise. It does, however, call for humble respect; to see and relate to the ‘other’ as human, with their own hopes, anxieties, interests, pressures and concerns.
John M. Lannon proposes 4 main strands to this approach: ‘Show empathy; Acknowledge opposing views; Maintain a moderate tone; Use humour where appropriate.’ To show empathy is to identify with the others’ feelings and to express genuine interest in their best interest. To acknowledge opposing views is, before arguing your own case, to show respect for the other by acknowledging any merits in their position. To maintain a moderate tone is to resist overstating your case and stay away from emotionally-loaded words. To use gentle humour can ease the tension in a situation, depending on the nature of the relationship.
Some of the most inspiring role models in my own advocacy work have been: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Bob Hunter, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Jasmin Philippines, Mike Gatehouse, Sister Isabel Montero, Andy Atkins, Rudi Weinzierl, Mike Wilson, Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai and Ruth Cook. Their approaches have all broadly been characterised by what the founders of Greenpeace saw as as 5 core elements and stances in world-changing individuals and movements: ‘Plant a mind bomb; Put your body where your mouth is; Fear success; The revolution will not be organised; Let the power go.’
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