Quote Origin: First They Ignore You, Then They Laugh at You, Then They Attack You, Then You Win

Mohandas Gandhi? Jean Cocteau? Robbie Williams? Julian Beck? Earl B. Morgan? Tony Benn? Peter D. Jones? Louis Agassiz? Arthur Schopenhauer?

Question for Quote Investigator: Mahatma Gandhi famously employed nonviolent strategies during the struggle for Indian independence. A quotation often attributed to him asserts that popular movements pass through four stages:

First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win.

I have been unable to find a good citation. Are these really the words of Gandhi?

Reply from Quote Investigator: Several researchers have attempted to find these words in Gandhi’s oeuvre without success. The saying was ascribed to him by 1982, but Gandhi died decades earlier in 1948.

The earliest known substantive match occurred in a speech delivered by Nicholas Klein at a convention of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America in 1918. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:1

And my friends, in this story you have a history of this entire movement. First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.

And that is what is going to happen to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.

Typically, a successful social movement is based on a proposition extolled as a truth. For example, the Gandhian movement was based on the assertion that India should be an independent nation. These propositions face opposition and a harsh reception. QI believes that the saying under analysis fits into a large and evolving family of statements about the multi-stage difficulties obstructing new ideas and truths.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The prominent German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote a humorous and melancholy remark describing three stages for the acceptance of a novel truth in his 1819 book “Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung” (“The World as Will and Representation”):2

Der Wahrheit zu Theil ward, der nur ein kurzes Siegesfest beschieden ist, zwischen den beiden langen Zeiträumen, wo sie als paradox verdammt und als trivial geringgeschätzt wird.

Here is one possible translation into English:3

To truth only a brief celebration of victory is allowed between the two long periods during which it is condemned as paradoxical, or disparaged as trivial.

Schopenhauer’s statement differed markedly from the saying being explored, but it evolved over time to produce a closer match as shown further below.

The archaeologist William Boyd Dawkins presented a groundbreaking scientific paper in 1862 that mentioned three stages before acceptance. He credited the tripartite description to the prominent Swiss-American biologist Louis Agassiz:4

. . . the three inevitable objections which, according to Professor Agassiz, all new and startling facts in science must encounter, first, “that it is not true,” and secondly, “that it is contrary to religion,” has now happily arrived at the stage in which people say “everyone knew it before.”

The above remark is traced through time in a separate website entry located here.

In 1913 the book “Allgemeine Verkehrsgeographie” credited Schopenhauer with the following German expression. The ascription to Schopenhauer is not well supported, but this expression is an intriguing precursor to the saying under analysis:5

„Ein jedes Problem durchläuft bis zu seiner Anerkennung drei Stufen: In der ersten erscheint es lächerlich, in der zweiten wird es bekämpft, und in der dritten gilt es als selbstverständlich.” Schopenhauer.

Here is one possible translation into English:

Every problem passes through three stages on the way to acceptance: First, it appears laughable; second, it is fought against; third, it is considered self-evident.

In 1917 an article by Earl B. Morgan in a journal called “Safety Engineering” presented the following three stages:6

It has been said that any new idea must pass through three stages. First, it is ridiculed; second, it is subject to argument: third, it is accepted. The safety idea has reached the final stage. It is accepted.

The strongly matching quotation by Nicholas Klein from 1918 shown below can be aligned with the 1917 statement immediately above:

First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.

Ridicule matches laughter; argument matches attack; and acceptance matches building monuments. Similarly, the target quotation given by the questioner can also be aligned with the 1917 statement. Ridicule matches laughter; argument matches attack; and acceptance matches winning.

Thus, the 1917 expression was an interesting precursor. Yet, the author Morgan disclaimed credit by using the phrase “it has been said”. Indeed, the statement fits within the family associated with Arthur Schopenhauer and Louis Agassiz.

In 1921 Gandhi published “Freedom’s Battle: Being a Comprehensive Collection of Writings and Speeches on the Present Situation”. He mentioned stages of ridicule, repression, and respect. These were similar to the stages in the saying, but Gandhi’s phrasing and meaning were not quite the same:7

It will be admitted that non-co-operation has passed the stage of ridicule. Whether it will now be met by repression or respect remains to be seen. Opinion has already been expressed in these columns that ridicule is an approved and civilized method of opposition. The viceregal ridicule though expressed in unnecessarily impolite terms was not open to exception.

But the testing time has now arrived. In a civilized country when ridicule fails to kill a movement it begins to command respect.

In 1968 “Women’s Wear Daily” interviewed Julian Beck and Judith Malina who operated “The Living Theatre”, a prominent experimental theater in New York City. Beck credited the French writer Jean Cocteau with an instance:8

Julian squirms a bit self-consciously, a bit proudly, as he lists the national magazines that are clamoring to have him and his wife on their covers.

“It’s like putting a medal on a general. You wonder what you’re doing that’s wrong. Cocteau expressed it best. ‘First, they ignore you. Then, they abuse you. Then, they heap you with honors. Or make you into a statue. Stone. Dead.'”

In 1982 the periodical “WIN: Peace and Freedom Through Nonviolent Action” credited Gandhi with a version of the saying within an article by activist Peter D. Jones. This was the first linkage to Gandhi known to QI:9

Gandhi once observed that every movement goes through four stages: First they ignore you; then they abuse you; then they crack down on you and then you win. The European peace movement has moved through the first stage and into the second.

In 1987 J. William Grimes who was the President of the cable channel ESPN employed another version of the saying without attribution. The ellipsis was in the original text:10

“I got a kick out of seeing that CBS has decided to pick up our ‘wraparound’ format this year,” he said. ‘A couple of years ago, they said that kind of thing was too disorienting for viewers…

“That’s the cycle in this business. First, they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. Finally, they emulate you.”

In 1991 “The Observer” of London printed a remark from British politician Tony Benn that was similar to the saying:11

It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you. — Tony Benn.

In 1993 a newspaper in Wausau, Wisconsin profiled an activist named Nick Berigan who had been sentenced to spend six days in jail. He ascribed the saying to Gandhi:12

Berigan points to the paraphrased words of another famous protestor, the late Indian nonviolent activist Mahatma Gandhi: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they react. Then you win.” “I don’t expect to win.” Berigan said. “I just want to have an effect.”

In 2005 a columnist in “The Times” of London remarked that English pop star Robbie Williams used an instance in a song lyric:13

It’s worth noting that Robbie Williams last single (First they ignore you, then laugh at you and hate you/ Then they fight you, then you win — the bleat/boast syndrome in a nutshell, and that it is ostensibly about “gangsters” but still sounds every inch part of Williams’s endless autobiographical backpages speaks volumes) failed to get to No 1.

In conclusion, QI has located no substantive support for ascribing the saying to Mohandas Gandhi. QI believes that the statement evolved from a large family of sayings that originated in the nineteenth century. In 1918 a closely similar remark emerged in a speech by Nicholas Klein, a union representative. Gandhi discussed stages that a movement passes through in a collection of writings he published in 1921, but his words did not really match the target expression.

Acknowledgements: Great thanks to Jason Zweig, Adam H. Johnson, Carl V. Phillips, Rich Greenhill, Paul Rauber, Chris Oestereich, Mike Elias, Marcas Ó Duinn, and Mise Áine whose remarks and inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also thanks to the pioneering research of Barry Popik, the volunteer Wikiquote editors, Dan Evon of Snopes, and C. Eugene Emery Jr. of PolitiFact. In addition, thanks to the librarian at the Swarthmore College Peace Collection in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania who helped verify the 1982 citation. Further, thanks to the members of the Wombat community who helped verify the 1968 citation. Also, thanks to Dan Bye for research on the Tony Benn quotation. Thanks to Donna Halper, Thomas Fuller, and Sue Kamm; Halper provided a helpful suggestion for verifying the 1982 citation.

Update History: On March 19, 2024 the format of the bibliographical notes was updated. 

  1. 1918, Documentary History of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America: 1916-1918, Proceedings of the Third Biennial Convention of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, (Held in Baltimore, Maryland on May 13 to May 18, 1918), Address given in Fourth Session on Wednesday, May 15, 1918, Address of Nicholas Klein, Start Page 51, Quote Page 53, Published by Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. (Special note on dating: The dating on the document was confusing. In some locations the year 1919 was listed. In other locations 1918 was listed. I checked the day of the week for May 15, 1918 and May 15, 1919 and only the earlier date matched the specified weekday of Wednesday) (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  2. 1819, Title: Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung; 4 Bücher, nebst einem Anhange, der die Kritik der Kantischen Philosophie enthält, Author: Arthur Schopenhauer, Quote Page xvi, Publisher: Brockhaus, Leipzig. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  3. 2012, The World as Will and Representation by Arthur Schopenhauer, Translation from German to English by E. F. J. Payne, Volume 1 of 2, Section: Preface to the first edition, Quote Page xvii, Dover Publications, Inc., New York. (Translation originally published in 1958 by The Falcon’s Wing Press, Indian Hills, Colorado)(Google Books Preview; accessed Nov 18, 2016) ↩︎
  4. 1863, Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, Proceedings During the Years 1861-2, Volume 11, Part II, Papers, Etc., Wookey Hole Hyena Den by W. Boyd Dawkins, Start Page 197, Quote Page 198, Published by Frederick May, Taunton, England and Bell & Daldy, London, England. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  5. 1913, Title: Allgemeine Verkehrsgeographie, Author: Kurt Hassert (Professor der Geographie an der Handels-Hochschule Köln), Quote Page 121, Publisher: G. J. Göschen, Berlin und Leipzig. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩︎
  6. 1917 June, Safety Engineering, Volume 33, Number 6, The Accident Prevention Problem in the Small Shop by Earl B. Morgan (Safety Engineer, Norton Company, Worcester Massachusetts), A paper read before the New Haven Safety Council, New Haven, Connecticut, Start Page 363, Quote Page 366, The Safety Press Inc., New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  7. 1921, Freedom’s Battle: Being a Comprehensive Collection of Writings and Speeches on the Present Situation by Mahatma Gandhi, Section VIII: Non-Co-Operation, Chapter: From Ridicule to—?, Quote Page 283, Published by Ganesh & Company, Madras, India. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩︎
  8. 1968 October 8, Women’s Wear Daily, Revolting by Patricia McColl, Start Page 4, Quote Page 4, Fairchild Fashion Media, New York. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  9. 1982 January 1,WIN: Peace and Freedom Through Nonviolent Action, Volume 18, Number 1, A Complete Guide to European Disarmament by Peter D. Jones, Start Page 4, Quote Page 9, Published by Workshop in Nonviolence Institute, Brooklyn, New York. (Verified with scans; thanks to the Swarthmore College Peace Collection) ↩︎
  10. 1987 May 3, Courier-Post, Television: Tuned in: In 7 1/2 years, ESPN has redefined the concept of sports on TV by Bill Modoono (Courier Post Wire Services), Quote Page 12D, Column 1, Camden, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  11. 1991 October 6, The Observer, Sayings of the week, Quote Page 22, Column 2, London, England. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  12. 1993 January 31, Wausau Daily Herald, A fighting spirit: Area activist pays the consequences by David Wahlberg (Wausau Daily Herald), Quote Page 3A, Column 5,Wausau, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  13. 2005 November 19, The Times, Spare me all this bleating or boasting in today’s music by Julie Burchill, Quote Page 36, Column 4, London, England (The Times Digital Archive) ↩︎
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