Wednesday, September 24, 2008

activists make me nervous

This post has been percolating in my head for a few weeks now, and I thought I better get it written down, or else it would slop away . . . I already realized that it would be a perfect story pitch for the next issue of Geez magazine a day after the deadline!

There was definitely a time when I found the counter-culture allure of “activism” glamourous, even if I was always a bit too goodie-goodie to fully participate in the culture myself. However, I have found in recent years that people who identify themselves as “activists” or state that “activism” is important to them trouble me.

My problem is not with anti-globalization, anti-war, or environmentalism movements – to list some of the ideals that people who call themselves “activists” would generally say they stand for, if pressed to define more precisely what the term means. Nor is it with the “activist” modes of expression, in and of themselves. Protests, rallies, and grass-roots organization can all be powerful ways for a population to express its discontent with the system and to get its message out. Living a life that treads more lightly on the earth and trying to buy products that don’t exploit the people that make them are concrete ways to actually change the system.

My problem is with the appropriation of the term “activism” to embody a specific subculture. Because, of course, there are other things that go with the subculture beyond the idealism and action that the idealism inspires: as a subculture, activism is also about a certain look, listening to a certain type of music, etc. etc. And the problem with this is twofold. First, it’s alienating and, second, it divorces the idea of activism from action, in all its myriad forms.

Defining activism as the counterculture is alienating because it doesn’t leave room for people who might be behind the movement, whatever it is, but don’t participate in the subculture. People who believe in the environment but like bubble-gum pop, or elderly church ladies who believe in peace may feel there is no place for them in the movement, if it is populated by a group that believes that the only true agents for change are part of the subculture. Even if those on the “in” don’t actually believe that – there’s still an “in” and an “out”, and it can be hard to face that barrier for someone who feels out.

The other problem is that when activism becomes a subculture, it can actually become divorced from action. By its very nature, activism is about doing something – not just listening to Ani Difranco. Activism is like politics – it should be a means to an end, not an end itself. Listening to people say “activism is important”, I wonder if they remember that what’s important is protecting the planet, global equality, and safety and security. Activism, whether through letter-writing campaigns, chaining yourself to a tree, or buying fair trade coffee, is all about creating a better world for everyone, even if they listen to bubble gum pop.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

3 days of Ramadan

Last week was the first week of Ramadan, and I spent a few days in the most populous Muslim country in the world. I have to admit that, despite being used to facing preconceived notions about Christianity, I still came to Ramadan in Indonesia with my own cultural assumptions. Fasting seems like such a hard-core thing to do, and I guess I had it in my mind that anyone who was willing to go without food or water from sunrise to sunset would be extremely pious. As a result, I associated fasting with other signs of piety in Islam – modest dress, prayers several times a day, etc. It’s not like that though – women who bare their shoulders, people who date westerners, people who try to pray regularly (since it’s Ramadan) but are flexible about it, all participate in the fast.

In general, there is as much diversity in the ways that, and degree to which, Indonesians practice their religion as you would see in “Christian” countries. It’s kind of like I imagine Canada was in the 1950s, when the majority associated with the Christian church, though the actual day-to-day practice of the faith varied greatly.

While in Indonesia, I was generously given lunch by locals who explained what all the dishes were, and then sent me away to eat in another room because they weren’t going to be eating until the sun went down, and I also had the opportunity to break fast with my Indonesian counter-parts once the sun did set. All in all, I left being reminded that the diversity of humanity is a beautiful thing, feeling blessed by the tolerance and inclusion of my hosts, and impressed by these people who would practice such self-denial, one month of the year, to stay in touch with their faith.