The Early Voices of Unpopular Causes are Occasionally Problematic

This is a bit of a strange topic, and it can perhaps be misinterpreted, so I want to tread lightly, and am happy to revise based on new learnings.

Something that I find "interesting" is that, when there is a cause that is not yet socially popular, certain people will be willing to come forward. These people are often brave, often members of the marginalised group itself (where that applies), or victims of the cause they are fighting (where that occurs), often judged harshly, attacked, laughed at, but also they are, occasionally, genuinely problematic people. They may be indifferent to negative perceptions, or they may even enjoy negative perceptions.

There's a quote from George Bernard Shaw that seems relevant here:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

— George Bernard Shaw

And this insight is helpful too:

First They Ignore You, Then They Laugh at You, Then They Attack You, Then You Win

Nicholas Klein and others, as covered at Quote Investigator

Early supporters of a cause can be so problematic that it isn't until after their death that anyone can say a nice word about them. As John Lennon put it:

Everybody loves you when you're six foot in the ground.

— John Lennon

It is difficult to give an example without unfairly criticising a person, or tarnishing a movement, or being accused of ulterior motives in criticising the person (e.g. being against their movement)

There are some examples I can give with less fear of these problems, and I'd like to do so now, if it helps broaden people's ability to see this issue, in such a way that the movement itself is spared the criticism, and the person can be seen as more than just good or bad, but complex.

Richard Stallman is an example of this paradox. In so many ways, he was far ahead of his cause, and a genuine visionary. But in other ways he has proven to be "behind the times", and quite problematic.

I think this pattern is one that repeats in various ways, and will always continue to repeat.

There are many barriers that prevent most people from being a voice for an unpopular cause.

Firstly, historically underrepresented groups tend not to have the privilege necessary to be heard. This gives rise to one paradoxical point: privileged people are the first voices that anyone is likely to hear, standing up for the unprivileged. This is a related side point: ideally we'd let groups speak for themselves. But we don't do that yet, hence the need for causes in the first place, and the need for people outside of that groups to be advocates for that group. This causes one particular type of "problematic" aspect of early voices: hypocrisy / inauthenticity. The more general aspect, whether they belong to the marginalised/victimised group or not, is that early supporters with more privilege (in any form) are more likely to be heard. This also is perceived as hypocrisy / inauthenticity. But using these consequences to attack the speaker, and worse, to attack the cause or the victims, is a cruel mistake.

Second, you must be willing to tolerate considerable blow-back. Think of each of these stages:

  1. First They Ignore You,
  2. Then They Laugh at You,
  3. Then They Attack You,
  4. Then You Win
  5. In fact, often the final stage is that they now treat the idea as "obvious" and progress as "completed/final". So step five is: they go back to ignoring you.

All else being equal (which it is not) what personality traits are most likely to help you through these stages?

  1. First They Ignore You -- Resilience, Perseverance, Stubbornness, Fixation, Monomania, Obsession, oppositional defiance disorder
  2. Then They Laugh at You -- "Thick skin", enjoyment of attention even when the attention is bad, inability to predict that this stage would occur, inability to comprehend ridicule
  3. Then They Attack You -- Willingness to fight, strength, has a strong support network, bravery
  4. Then You Win -- Enjoyment of victory, self righteousness, neutral personality characteristics (as this is not necessarily a difficult stage)
  5. They go back to ignoring you -- again this would draw on Resilience etc, like stage 1. But stage 5 is actually irrelevant: it's unlikely to place selection-pressure on those who volunteer to proceed with stage 1 - 4 in the first place. By stage 5 you don't need to actively choose to stay in the fight. It happens regardless of your choices.

I think neuro-divergent people, such as some people on the autistic spectrum would particularly be more likely to enter stage 1 and 2 than others. Studies reflect that this is the case: there is some correlation between neuro divergence and a willingness to fight for causes. But the trait in step 2 -- "enjoyment of attention even when the attention is bad" is quite a different and stronger claim. I'm not suggesting this is a universal trait in early voices of unpopular causes, nor am I attaching any particular % percent likelihood to this trait being present: I am only suggesting that this trait would occur in early voices of unpopular causes at some significantly higher frequency than it does in the background population.



This article is a stub: the tiny seed of a mighty article, not yet written.