On Activism

Activism is not always pleasant to the observer or even legal. In fact if it’s neither it tends to be more effective. The goal, after all, is to draw attention to a cause, an issue or struggle. The recent show of protest that some NFL players have chosen has brought attention to this dynamic. But there have been many others, some more palatable, some less. Here are a few other recent examples:

  • A woman walked around the streets of Europe letting people touch her vagina and her breasts. She did this to illustrate and example of consent and to draw attention to sexual assault. She was jailed.
  • Berkley students violently protested a scheduled speech by conservative writer Milo Yiannopoulos. The speech was subsequently cancelled. 
  • White nationalists protested the taking down of monuments in Charlottesville
  • Activists in London succeeded in lobbying the city to make Uber illegal
  • Muslims routinely gather to pray en-mass in European cities to show solidarity

Are these behaviors expression of activism? Are they appropriate forms of self-expression? Why do such behaviors dominate our news feeds?

To answer these questions, we need to first look at, and break down, the definition of activism:

a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue
— https://www.merriam-webster.com/

Notice the absence of the words “pleasant” or “tasteful”. No one owes it to you or anyone else to make their form of self-expression pleasing to your sensibilities. They may choose to act in a way that is shocking to gain as much attention as possible. People can chose to act how they want. However, they aren’t immune or completely protected from criticism and consequences.  

  • Milo Moire who let people touch her was arrested
  • Colin Kaepernick is still unemployed
  • Trump international lost revenue and opportunity 
  • Charlottesville protesters lost their jobs over their participation
  • Violent Berkeley protesters were arrested

We can debate whether or not such outcomes are just. Your opinion likely depends on the cause. But it is what it is either way. Actions will almost certainly be personally consequential to one degree or another, regardless of the cause. Especially if the act was of questionable legality.

The word "legal" is also absent from the definition of activism. Whether or not the act itself is agreeable is not always connected to do with whether or not it is legal. You may disagree with Colin Kaepernick, for example, but his actions were perfectly legal in the US. On the other hand, the woman who let random people touch her privates broke the law, even though her act was physically harmless.

    We can go on for hours about whether or not all these and other actions and outcomes right. And therein lies another problem. The discussion of what activism should and should not be often itself clouds the topics that need to be discussed. Remember that Kaepernick was trying to raise awareness for police brutality. Milo Moire was raising awareness about sexual assault. 

    We need to stop letting the noise interfere with the conversation. And that's hard, because noise is often needed to bring attention to the cause. However, once attention is gotten, we need to take a deep breath and discuss, even argue, about what issue is that the action was bringing attention to. Getting caught up in discussing the form of expression itself isn't as productive as thinking through the issue. In other words, keep your eyes on the prize. 

    The challenge with staying on topic, however, is that it’s monumentally difficult to get people to listen in the first place. Most of us don’t want to change our minds, or even consider an opinion other than our own. We prefer, instead, to stick to our own conclusions.

    A study conducted by the pew research center demonstrates this well. It focused on how people of differing ideologies use Facebook . The study took into effect what web sites people visited. It also looked at how Facebook content algorithms affected what they saw. We can make a fair assumption that the study's conlusion is indicative of people’s behavior in general, since roughly 1 out 7 people in the world use the social media site. Here’s the finding:

    Facebook researchers found that people largely created their ideological bubbles by themselves—without any help from the algorithm, they ignored or scrolled over stories from sites they’d tend to disagree with. But Facebook’s behind-the-scenes curating still had an effect: causing people to see roughly 5 to 8 percent fewer ideologically discordant stories.
    — http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/apps/news/a15430/facebook-political-effect/

    How does this affect activism and the discussions surrounding the topics for which people speak out? Good question.

    Since it’s often hard to convince people to consider an opinion counter to their own, we inevitably come to a stalemate in the conversation. The middle ground is no-man's land. Anyone who treads it risks fire from both sides. That or we assume that it’s pointless to talk to a “libtard” or “nut job” or whatever you decide to insult the other person with.

    For instance, if you’re a conservative then “maybe there IS a problem with police brutality that results in subjugation of minority populations" and "we need to look at more effective training and community engagement” is harder to digest than whether or not someone should stand for the national anthem. If you’re a liberal, on the other hand, “maybe there really is an issue with crime endemic to certain minority communities" and " we must be honest with ourselves, work with law enforcement to address such issues in a productive way” is not as easy to consider as “all those assholes are racist”.

    So instead of having productive discussions, we focus on criticizing the method of delivery and the people delivering the message. In doing so, we avoid meaningful conversations about adequate solutions.

    As a result, the only people getting press are those that push for hard-line agendas that aren't good for anyone except themselves. The debates begin to belong to the regressive leftists who seemingly only want safe spaces and wealth distribution and the hard right that seemingly only want money for defense and tax exemptions. Then we ask "where the fuck is anyone with half a brain???" 

    So, we absolutely should discuss everything surrounding an act of activism; whether or not the delivery is appropriate and/or effective, whether or not it’s legal, or whether or not it should be. But we shouldn’t forget the conversation's they're meant to start. We shouldn't be afraid to say the uncomfortable truths that can help us get to the root of a problem. Because how we address these problems them will decide our collective fate and the future of the world we pass on to our children, for better or for worse.