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.


Ryan said...

I'm in complete agreement. Being from a progressive church, I do notice a disconnect between "average folks" and the supposed "activist" crowd. They just don't feel like they fit in or "only weirdos do that" even if they essentially believe the same thing.

The biggest movements--the social gospel, civil rights, anti-Vietnam have always been made up of "average folks," with people who identify as "activists" as the minority. Activists don't understand that the only way they can make real gains is by winning over average people.

This is where the church should come in, since it has "transcendental clout," as John Dominic Crossan calls it.

el Maggie said...

That's exactly what I'm trying to say - activism as a subculture makes ordinary folk feel like it's not a space they can participate in, which is a barrier to the change the activism is supposed to be grounded in in the first place.

Simone said...

ya, I agree too. It seems like activism is something that you might do at specific times in your life in response to specific things you feel are wrong with the world (ie protest an unjust law or war or sign a petition). It's not necessarily supposed to be a lifestyle that means (to use stereotypes) dreadlocks and pot smoking. No wonder other people don't feel as if they can participate and then become disengaged in the process - or in any process. interesting thoughts. thanks for articulating them.

Anonymous said...

I am in agreement with you, however I do think that you cannot wash all activists with the same radical brush. While it is true that the crazies tend to get the press, there are numerous others working intensely away in the background. David Suzuki and the like, I believe, keep the balance for the movement. Church ladies also keep it alive. Just because someone isn't ready to run about in the streets chanting, doesn't mean that they are not actively involved in movements of great stature.

Vancouver, BC

el Maggie said...

I guess you're not as cynical as me, Jenny. My point isn't that all activists are part of the radical subculture, but that the general association of activity for social change WITH the radical subculture can alienate those church ladies, who probably have a few good ideas about making the world a better place. The people working for change outside of the subculture have to be considered as integral voices in the dialogue, but my concern in that people in the "activist" community dismiss them.

Theresa said...

Very interesting post. I've often thought that the same type of thing plagues the word "feminist."

el Maggie said...

Theresa - I totally agree that feminism suffers from the same plague of "in and out" though something I find interesting in that regard is that it's more often the people on the "out" (women who do not identify as feminists) who draw the line, rather than those on the "in", as in the case of activists (though maybe some of that reticence comes from the same root of lack of identity with the subculture, so it's the same thing . . .)

Theresa said...

That makes sense. I know my husband would balk at being called a feminist, but he has always been about rectifying power imbalances, and fair and equitable treatment based on nothing other than being human. I think that is totally feminist but he would not want to have that label put on him, because of his perception of the word. Come to think of it, he wouldn't want the word activist applied to him either, even though he walks the walk more than most people! Words are very powerful things, indeed.

Thanks again for this thoughtful post - I look forward to poking around your blog and seeing what else you make me think about :)