Is Negativity Necessary for Social Change?

Nick Rabb
10 min readJun 4, 2019
There are always two sides to every story. (Original Artwork)

This past weekend, I was sitting with some of my friends in the warm sunshine of a beautiful, early-summer’s day. We are all organizers with the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate movement aimed at stopping climate change and creating millions of good jobs in the process. We had just finished a good hike, found reprieve at a local bar, and let our bodies and minds recuperate in the warm waters of friendship.

One of the Sunrise Movement’s core principles is that we share our stories. As friends working toward the same, lofty goal, we know that we truly connect when we speak from the heart. Others new to the tenets of the movement tend to resonate with our emotions as we flip through the pages and chapters of our stories. Our collective mindset, encouraged both by UV rays and IPAs, turned toward sharing our own stories of what made us join up with the growing climate movement. Why were we here?

Common to many stories were intense emotions of anger, or of guilt; the former directed towards the status-quo or greedy actors perpetuating the fossil-fuel industry and ruining lives, the latter pointed at oneself for living in a society shouldering the least burden and subsequently exhibiting perhaps the most apathy. As organizers, it’s paramount to our goal that we reflect on our experiences in order to determine how we can reach others. By sharing our anger or shame with others outside the movement, perhaps it will resonate with them and spur them into action.

However, a thoughtful friend interjected with a very thought-provoking question: Are these negative emotions essential to bring others into our movement? Must we feel bad in order to move towards change? This question strikes at the heart of history, as we must ask what galvanizes progress, and interrogate whether it is necessarily a product of pain. We should examine where guilt and anger come from, why they may be so common among those who resolve to take action, and finally attempt to determine if they are necessary to engender change. Our collective future may depend on an answer to this question.


Guilt (noun) — 2b: Feelings of deserving blame especially for imagined offense or from a sense of inadequacy. Merriam Webster

Nick Rabb

PhD candidate in Computer Science and Cognitive Science at Tufts University, organizer w/ Dissenters, MA Peace Action, formerly Sunrise Mvmt. Philosophy nerd.