Activism is not a new thing. For centuries, groups have changed social order to improve their world. Economist Ha-Joon Chang notes that “the capacity to imagine an alternative social order and cooperating to create it is what distinguishes humankind from other animals.” The people you see at protests, holding signs, or urging you on social media to consider their message, have evolved from what activism was before them. When you see someone advocating for a cause, they take with them the intricate history that brought on this need for change. Activism is a word placed on someone who is an advocate for a social change or cause. With the social climate we see today, many people are wondering: what is the right way to be an activist in this age?
Being passionate about a message you want to get across, and learning how to do it effectively is a journey I have been on for a while. Recently, I discussed sustainable living with a stranger in a coffee shop. I allowed myself to consider everything she was saying, even though it didn’t align with my own viewpoints, excited for a discussion on the topic. Then, as I started speaking about my perspective on this issue, she started laughing. Full out laughing in my face, saying “no” after every point I made. And it hurt. It’s hurtful getting shut down in any scenario, especially being unnecessarily ridiculed when speaking on something you’re passionate about. Since I couldn’t get a word in, I listened to her speak at me, and I began to understand what it’s like to be talked to by a close-minded activist.
Instead of creating a place for open dialogue, she shut me down, and left me feeling bad about myself. Even as I was leaving the conversation, she said “See, that’s the problem with activists like you, you shut down ideas and refuse to listen to anyone else” when weirdly enough, that is exactly what she was doing to me. While I’m sure many people were similar to this girl at the beginning of their activist journey, as I’m sure I was, we should not give up activism because of a negative societal trope. What we can do is accept that there is no one perfect way to enact social change, and fight for our causes using approaches that are uplifting, effectual, and empowering.
People are often too quick to dismiss an activist’s message by calling them “annoying” or “preachy.” It might be they do not want to listen, the time and place is wrong, or they are too quick to force the whiny activist trope on everyone they meet with a viewpoint that is different from theirs. They subconsciously think that activists popped out of nowhere to annoy them and disrupt their mode of life, which is far from truth. Another general view I’ve heard attributed to activists is that they have a superiority complex. This could derive from an activist implying their way of life is better, or urging someone to make a change.
In my experience, what people view as superiority is really someone living a life of passion, not afraid to challenge what people think. They are convincing you of something they care about so deeply, and even if you don’t agree with what they are saying, the choice to be an activist is altruistic in nature. They put the cause before themselves, before their reputation, and their personal life. This, in my opinion, is the opposite of someone attempting to gain superiority.
Right now, we need as many activists for positive change as possible. These negative connotations surrounding activists are not just annoying for people who have their ideas dismissed, they endanger social change. Tropes and generalizations about activism stop people from calling out problematic behaviour, discussing their views, or living the lifestyle they would like to. If you have a problem with a particular person on how they are going about activism, discuss it with them directly, and open up a dialogue, rather than dangerously enforcing an incorrect societal view.
We are all aware, on some level, that there are issues in the world that need changing.
Sometimes, when you learn about the atrocities in a particular issue, they are so horrific you want to scream from the rooftops. The feeling in your chest that cannot be explained, because nothing about the issue is logical. How could these things possibly be happening? And yet, they are. But for some reason or another, systems in the world are broken, and people do not want to speak out about them.
But if so many bad things are happening in the world, why isn’t everyone an activist for change?
When discussing an imagined future society where everyone is malevolent towards social issues, the 2013 documentary Obey makes a guess at what will happen to the average activist. “You will not want to appear to be political, you will be afraid of seeming controversial, you will want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective and moderate. Your hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee, as to remain in the responsible mainstream.”
Stating an idea that is not a societal norm is tough. No one wants to voluntarily feel ostracized, or viewed as annoying. When you are strong on an idea, it is challenging to live with people who have the opposite view. Having a viewpoint that differs from the people around you may make you feel scared to share it, for fear of losing friends and your place in the world. In a society where difference is shunned and fitting in is glorified, these fears are all too common.
The values that you are raised with have an impact on how you view activism. Umair Muhammad’s book, Confronting Injustice: Social Activism in the Age of Individualism notes that “Social circumstances shape the expectations and desires that individuals come to hold. Having been conditioned with a certain set of expectations, individuals may be quite happy with meeting them.” People who were not raised to think about their values and impact on others may not bother to do it.
How do we encourage people to speak their views and not to shy away from a life of activism? In his book How Changes Happens (which you can download for free here), author Duncan Green discusses the power of confidence combined with the ability to change. “I have to be sure of myself—in a conditional way, always being open to the possibility that I’m wrong.” I think this is the approach we should all be taking. Even though the people you are trying to convince have difficulty accepting new ideas, doesn’t mean you have to. Accept the fact that mistakes are an opportunity for learning, and then as an activist and a human being, you are more open to change.
Understand the systems that are in place that help us move through periods of social change. These include the Government, the Law, the media, or anything with influence over a group. What we need to understand as activists is that systems will always be changing, with or without you. It is our job to merely steer them in the right direction.
An intriguing point brought up by social philosopher Roman Krznaric states “Development strategies display an overwhelming focus on individual actors, organised social groups, and institutions, with little acknowledgment that societies and institutions are composed of human relationships.” Focus on changing the mind of an individual, not the crowd. A crowd is not in itself it’s own entity, but comprised of many individuals. A meaningful interaction with an activist one on one can change someone completely.
Foster discussion and listen to the other people. Understand their experiences and decide based the situation which side of the issue to present to them, especially if you can find a way to bring up how solving the issue could benefit them. People are more inclined to listen to you if you are listening to them as well. Give people an idea to think on, something they can consider later on, on their own.
Muhammad’s Confronting Injustice also enforces the concept of giving people something to think about. “Activist culture today happens to be rooted in the notion that people must be given something to do; they must have an action they can take - sign a petition, write a letter, attend a demonstration. While action is necessary, activists must begin their work at a much more fundamental level. We must give people something to think about - something to believe in. What people go on to do will be, as a result, more earnest and sustained.”
Despite the general view towards activism in our age, I would like to take it upon our generation to change that. Not just with how we act as activists, but how we label what activism is. So many people are malevolent towards social issues that we must have a word for people who aren’t, making activists, people trying to better the world, the outliers.
The point I wish to make here is beautifully summarised by this quote from the Common Cause Report conducted by the World Wide Fund for Nature. “The values that must be strengthened – values that are commonly held and which can be brought to the fore – include: empathy towards those who are facing the effects of humanitarian and environmental crises, concern for future generations, and recognition that human prosperity resides in relationships – both with one another and with the natural world.
Undoubtedly these are values that have been weakened – and often even derided – in modern culture. They are not, for example, values that are fostered by treating people as if they are, above all else, consumers. But they are values that have an ancient and noble history within Western thinking, and they still fundamentally inform much public debate. They are there to be activated and strengthened. We believe that everyone – individual citizens, civil society organisations, government, and business – can play an active role in strengthening them. Indeed, they are values that must be championed if we are to uncover the collective will to deal with today’s profound global challenges.” ✉
article by: ellen grace
visual: ellen grace