Tag Archives: Tony Benn

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?

Dear 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?

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. Continue reading

Notes:

  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

Don’t Wrestle with a Chimney Sweep or You Will Get Covered with Grime

William Adams? James Boswell? Walter Scott? Jonah Barrington? Viscount Bolingbroke? Henry Van Dyke? John Bright? John J. Keane? William Wedgwood Benn? Tony Benn? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: When you are attacked with falsehoods and invective it is natural to respond with abusive language; however, viewers of the interaction may feel revulsion for both the attacker and the defender. This notion has been expressed using a vivid analogy. Here are three examples:

  1. You can’t wrestle with a chimney sweep and come out clean.
  2. He who wrestles with a sweep must expect to be begrimed with soot.
  3. Never wrestle with a chimney sweep.

The British politician Tony Benn employed this saying. Would you please examine its history?

Quote Investigator: The celebrated multi-volume biography “The Life of Samuel Johnson” by James Boswell included a pithy instance of the expression in a section recounting events in 1776. The saying was spoken to Samuel Johnson by William Adams who was Master of Pembroke College, University of Oxford. Interestingly, Johnson disagreed with the advice. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Johnson coincided with me and said, “When a man voluntarily engages in an important controversy, he is to do all he can to lessen his antagonist, because authority from personal respect has much weight with most people, and often more than reasoning. If my antagonist writes bad language, though that may not be essential to the question, I will attack him for his bad language.”

ADAMS. “You would not jostle a chimney-sweeper.”

JOHNSON. “Yes, Sir, if it were necessary to jostle him down.”

Adams employed a version of the metaphor without elaboration, and Johnson understood it readily; hence, both may have already heard similar phrases.

QI has an article on an entertaining variant adage that appeared later: Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1791, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.: Comprehending an Account of His Studies and Numerous Works, in Chronological Order by James Boswell, Volume 2 of 2, Time period specified: 1776, Quote Page 24 and 25, Printed by Henry Baldwin for Charles Dilly, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link