I have never been especially active or avid about activism. Here at ‘deis, activism seems to be all around me — which means that it has become increasingly important for me to understand what activism is. I suppose that at its most basic, is is the promotion of a cause you feel strongly about. It does not get any simpler than that. It seems to me that it can be an incredibly positive force in society when implemented correctly while conversely having the potential to cause irreparable damage to a cause if done poorly. This is execution, and it is touched on in Elizabeth Stoker’s recent editorial in the Justice about activism. Which is a pretty interesting topic, in its own way.
But before I get into this, I want to talk a bit about being informed. For me, being informed means that you have to be proactive about how you take in and process information. You need to question everything, all the time. While this can be confrontational or petty, at times it’s important to perpetually challenge your ideas.
This seems obvious, but most people vastly overrate their ability to be unbiased. As anyone who has taken a psychology or philosophy class can tell you, humans are exceptional in their ability to see what they want to see. Most of us are hypocrites, but that’s alright, at least for me. I accept it and move on, and so should you. But make sure that you are constantly aware of the information around you and remember that it is your job to separate the wheat from the chaff. It is incredibly simple to discover a wealth of information with access to a search engine. So if you care about a cause, you should care enough to do a few minutes of research about it. Be an informed participant in the communities you care about.
An informed public is vital for our future. Information is the heartbeat upon which social justice thrives. The vast majority of the injustices in the world are a result of someone somewhere not having the right information or the proper context. This is why it is important to have free discourse of information, especially in a society in which our ability to communicate and speak freely is being increasingly trampled on.
Stepping off my soapbox, let me say that it is incredibly easy to know about a problem but much harder to act on it in an effective way. You always have to be constantly weighing your ability to make a difference for your cause. You have to understand when your presence does no good or even hinders your cause. When you have limited support, you need to hedge your bets and be conservative about your actions. Activists are not celebrities, and there is such a thing as bad press. As an activist, your function is to challenge preconceptions, and so by being incautious you risk turning people permanently away from your cause, because people are slow to admit that they are wrong, and slower to admit it when they feel they are under attack. You need to be patient, informed and, most importantly, understanding of other people. In my experience I only make significant, lasting progress on anything when I go about it in a careful and deliberate way.
I guess the takeaway here is that as an activist, you need to understand your interests, your limits and never overextend yourself. If you can do that, I can’t imagine it’s possible to do anything but make progress for your goals. Finding and understanding your interests is the easy part for most activists. It’s learning to convince other people in a way that does not alienate them from your cause that’s the really hard part. I’ve certainly found people in my face pushing a cause I’ve never had reason to care about, and I would hazard a guess that most of you have at some point in your life.
Sahar gave me a short lecture on doing “good” – promoting good causes – versus doing “well.” Doing “good” is about social justice and always doing the right thing. Doing “good” is great but I find that if I can’t do something “well” first and foremost, I never end up doing anything at all.