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.