What is activism?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question lately, as it seems that every time I turn around, I learn about some issue, event or decision that simultaneously angers and deflates me.  Some examples:

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who knows me that most of the items on the above list can be traced back to a decision or decisions made by the Harper government.  However, blaming the Harper government entirely is too simplistic for me:  not only does it afford them far too much power, and deny the agency of everyday citizens, it also just doesn’t get to the root of the issue at hand:  which is, what do you do when it seems like your world is heading – wholly and completely – in a direction that you find really, really disturbing?  What do you do when you feel powerless to stop it?

Most people would suggest activism as the answer.  And, by “activism”, they usually mean “protest”.  But, I don’t know that protests are as effective as the people who participate in them think they are, or would like them to be.  Mightygodking made this point earlier today (and damn him for beating me to my own idea!). While I agree that the protest movement, as it stands now, isn’t likely to achieve any of their concrete objectives any time soon, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that protests don’t work, period.  I actually think that protests – by which I mean legitimate protests, not the ones that are thinly veiled excuses for violence – are quite useful for raising awareness, creating allies, and strengthening one’s convictions.  That being said, I would never participate in one.  In addition to not liking crowds, or loud people, or… you know, people in general, protests are just not “me”.  As a naturally quiet and introverted person, I’ve always felt that, just because you’re yelling and screaming, it doesn’t mean you’re being heard.  But in that case, what’s a lefty-socialistic-bleeding-heart-tree-hugging-softie to do?

In my more optimistic moments, I like to think that activism can come in all forms and from all corners and, in fact, should come in all forms and from all corners.  For instance, I’m an academic.  I work at a university, that great ivory bastion of patriarchy, racism, and colonialism, as well as your average, run-of-the-mill exclusivity and elitism.  Yet, the work I do is expressly concerned with interrupting cycles of oppression, and calling attention to the institutional forms of discrimination that are the basis of our society.  These politics are in everything I teach, everything I research, everything I write.  Still, can what I do really be considered activism?  If so, is it effective?  If it’s not activism…

then what is?

I’ve just remembered something:  soon after I started grad school, I half-jokingly said to my friends and family that, if I wasn’t careful, they (meaning the institution where I got my Master’s and Ph.D.) would turn me into an activist.  At the time, I understood “activist” to refer solely to someone who was loud, angry and zealous.  Huh.  I wonder what the person I was back then would think about who I am now…


5 comments on “What is activism?

  1. I believe that activism can take many forms. Simply speaking up can be a form of activism. Living your life true to your ideals when that goes contrary to the status quo is also a form of activism IMO. I see this blog as a form of activism.

  2. Interesting question. I think that activism does take many forms, and I think those forms should reflect who we are as individuals. I do think, however, that we should stretch ourselves a bit & get out of our comfort zones in order to do what small part we can to respond to injustice. I’m not someone who marches (or even stands!) in protest either, but I did in the run up to the Iraq war. I knew it wouldn’t do any good, but I had to take a moment to stand on a corner and just let my corner of the world know that what was happening was unjust. And, although I am an academic and think of my work as activism, I also make a concerted effort to be as active as I can be in other ways. For me (and it’s very personal),teaching and writing are certainly forms of activism, but I also think that I should live actively. One way I do this is regularly interrogating the problematic ways that the “Other” is represented in popular culture and calling out the problematic position of the self-satisfied leftists in my community. It’s often uncomfortable (some of my best friends are leftists!), but I feel I have to do it, though it often feels too “local” for me.

  3. I’m a bit jaded. Over the years, many of the “activists” I know were generally doing so out of selfishness. It made them feel good, better about themselves, and superior to other people, to be outraged and try to force a change in the behavior of others. Many of them didn’t identify themselves by, well, themselves. They identified themselves by what outraged them, by how other people did or said things, or at some perceived (usually past) injustice that often had nothing to do with them personally. Yes, this was mostly in college, undergrad and graduate.

    In later years, one thing held the same: the siege mentality. The individual, much ballyhooed and encouraged, was seen as ineffective, but as a part of a collective there was power. Again, their identity was often derived from who they were not than by who they actually were. Their causes consumed them, often to the point of distancing them from friends and relatives. It was just no fun to be around them sometimes. I’ve “lost” a lot of friends and acquaintances that way, and one step-sister for several years.

    I do my own thing. If it happens to agree with others, then cool. If not, then cool. I was one of those “activists”, for several years, and I wish I could get those years back. (And yes, I was a big ol’ Lefty. Thankfully, I’ve matured since.) Being an “activist” is no way to spend one’s life. Ever. The best activism is living by example.

  4. Thanks for your comments, tsactuo, tricia, and cheesyb (Heh. I think I’m going to start calling you that IRL!). 98% of the time, I agree with everything you’ve said, and try to live my life accordingly. I think I was just having a slight existential crisis, because it seemed like everything was falling apart all at once, and I was overwhelmed. I think what I was really asking was, “what is activism that *works*?” This is going to be the topic of my next post. Not that I have the answer, but I’m really interested in grappling with the question.

  5. […] tour guide I was, I obliged. As we were in BR, looking at pants, we started talking talking about my previous post about activism, and about how, writ large, activism is such a personal […]

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