Is Your Opponent a Hypocrite? Try a Dilemma Action

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◆Dilemma actions put your opponent between a rock and a hard place.
◆Civil resistance campaigns can benefit by dramatizing their opponent’s hypocrisy.
◆Ensure there is media coverage.
◆Use surprise and unpredictability.
◆Act as if the change you want has already happened.

Pope in a pickle

Earlier this year, with the church facing a financial crunch, Pope Francis ordered a pay cut for the Vatican’s lower-level employees. In response, the workers sent a petition to the Pope, decrying the injustice of cutting their pay while managers, supervisors and outside consultants continued to receive exorbitant salaries and perks. Then they leaked the petition to the Italian press.

Pope Francis
Pope Francis (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

While Catholics expect their Pontiff to be fiscally responsible, they also see him as a moral authority, obligated to treat his workforce humanely. Moreover, Francis has frequently preached to the rest of the world about social justice and labor issues.

Proceeding with the pay cuts risked making the Pope look like a hypocrite, damaging his moral standing in the eyes of the public. But reversing the cuts would put the Vatican further in debt.1

The Pope was in a pickle.

Petitions are mild forms of protest, but by exposing the Pope’s apparent hypocrisy to the world, the workers were able to increase their leverage substantially.2

Put your opponent in a dilemma

Does your opponent tell people what they want to hear, but then do something completely different? If so, you may have an opportunity to dramatize their hypocrisy with a dilemma action. Forcing a hypocritical target into a dilemma situation may not reverse their behavior immediately. But exposing their hypocrisy to the world can help move your campaign forward by increasing public awareness of the issue, reframing the narrative, and attracting new supporters.3

Dilemma at the auto show

In 2006, environmental activists infiltrated the Los Angeles Auto Show and staged a stunt in front of the assembled press corps.4

After General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner gave a keynote speech praising his company for its commitment to developing environmentally friendly cars, two pranksters jumped on stage, pretending to be part of the show. Taking the mic, one protester commended the CEO for his commitment to preserving the environment, while his partner in crime held a large cardboard sign that read:

“I (RICK WAGONER) CEO of General Motors hereby pledge to make GM the most efficient automotive company in the industry by 2010″5

Acting as if Wagoner would be happy attesting to the policy he had just outlined in his speech, the man at the mic tried to hand the CEO a pen to sign the pledge. Needless to say, Wagoner declined, and the two activists were hustled off stage by security.

Matt Leonard of the Rainforest Action Network and Mike Hudema of Global Exchange pull a prank on GM CEO Rick Wagoner. (Source: Internet Archive)

As this example illustrates, there are a few factors that can amplify the effect of dilemma actions:

Ensure media coverage

The stunt was even more problematic for Wagoner because the audience was full of reporters. The story was carried by over 700 media outlets.6

Media coverage ensures your action has maximum embarrassment potential.

While getting the press to come to your event is often a challenge, in this case the activists went to where reporters had already gathered.

Publicity also amplified the effectiveness of the petition addressed to the Pope. It was not the petition itself that put Francis in a difficult position, but its public disclosure. If the Vatican workers had not released the petition to the press, the Pope may have been in a personal moral dilemma, but there would not have been any social pressure for him to change his decision.

Use surprise and unpredictability

The auto show stunt took everyone by surprise.

When you do something unpredictable, your opponent must think quickly, and may be forced into making a mistake.

Although Wagoner stayed calm, he could easily have overreacted, making his situation even worse.

Be naive

The environmental pranksters pretended to assume that Wagoner meant what he said in his speech.

Acting naive is a good way to underscore the disconnect between your opponent’s words and their actions.

Dramatize hypocrisy

If your opponent is hypocritical, try creating a dramatic situation that highlights the difference between their promises and what they actually do. Click To Tweet

To increase the dilemma, consider ensuring there is media coverage, using surprise, and naively acting as if the change you want to see has already been achieved.

For more about dilemma actions, see pieces I’ve written for Waging Nonviolence and the ICNC “Minds of the Movement” blog.

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Text by James L. VanHise licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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  1. “Vatican labor protest highlights any pope’s management dilemma,” Crux, last modified May 23, 2021,
  2. It’s not clear if the Pope ever met with the workers or revised his directive.
  3. Srdja Popovic and Sophia A. McClennen, Pranksters vs. Autocrats: Why Dilemma Actions Advance Nonviolent Activism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), Kindle edition, Table 1.
  4. “GM CEO Shoves Environmental Protester,” ABC News, last modified November 30, 2006,
  5. “Environmental protesters crash Rick Wagoner’s keynote,” Autoblog, last modified November 29, 2006,
  6. “Media-jacking,” Beautiful Trouble, accessed November 1, 2021,