The wrong kind of activism

As I start writing this, I am sitting in the inner courtyard of a beautiful hotel is Santiago (Chile); what I’m planning to write has been stirring in my mind for much too long…

© 2019 Ana Tijoux. Cacerolazo: a form of protest that cannot be ignored…

Today’s curfew will start at 10PM, for now, most of the sounds come from road traffic. The unmistakable rhythm of the ongoing struggle is intermittent – clang, clang, ta-ta-ta, it surfaces at random. Later today, it will become pervasive, an impossible to neglect statement of how this part of town sees things. No more procrastination! The Chileans are speaking and I will not waste the chance I’m being given.

In my ordinary life, as I grow older, I’ve started to notice more and more the signs of ongoing struggles: the never receding bigotry of small-scale, relentless and deceivingly polite racism that pervades all British society; the #MeeToo movement; the always present signs of why proactive feminism is still sorely needed at home and everywhere else; homophobia, transphobia, the class system; the plight of people fleeing unliveable conditions, war and persecution; the seemingly unstoppable rise in inequality and more – I can’t even make myself put together a comprehensive list, let alone put these struggles in any discernible “order”. Everywhere I look, there is progress to be made and yet, although I would like to consider myself an “ally”, for all of the above (and then some), I do close to nothing about anything. I can write, though, so I will.

Whenever I make my views known, there is one kind of response that keeps recurring. Even more, while exploring ongoing “conversations” about this or that attempt to make this world a little better, the same kind of reaction pops up over and over. I (think I) know where it comes from, as not too long ago, it would have been my natural response as well.
It goes like this:

“[This person] is doing it wrong: she’s alienating the very people she should be convincing. Bridges need to be built, but she’s too blunt, polarising even.”

[This person] typically is an activist and frequently an activist who is directly affected by the issue she’s trying to resolve.

My current position is peculiar, all my instincts are (or perhaps have been?) geared towards building bridges; however, fairly recently I’ve come to believe that the sentiment above is not only wrong, it is actively harmful. Spectacular changes of mind are rare, more so after reaching middle age. Thus, I’m going to explore what I believe are the reasons for my U-turn.

The core ones are two: the historical characteristic of successful social movements and the inevitable differences between those who are affected by a given issue and those who are not.

Effective Social Movements.

You don’t need to be a historian to notice that all well known cases of successful social movements (excluding violent revolutions) have one element in common: they included, and were usually driven by a core of irreducible, uncompromising activists. I can see why: if a given ’cause’ is clearly just, but resisted by the status quo / powers that be, you need to inject a significant amount of energy in order to disrupt the established order. If the desired changes are also going to erode someone’s privileges, then it’s likely that it will be necessary to overcome both active and passive resistance. None of this is possible without a die-hard core of activists who will simply refuse to back down or compromise.

Change will start to happen once the “silent majority” realises that these people will never shut up, no matter what.

When the discomfort generated by such campaigners becomes noticeable and at the same time it becomes obvious that it will not go away, only then, conceding something might start to look appealing, even to people motivated exclusively by self-interest.
The way I understand it, this is the point in which “allies” and bridge builders can become useful, if not indispensable. Advocating for change, as a third party with no direct stake in the dispute can and usually does provide the last push. At that point, whoever is resisting change will find herself in an uncomfortable position, with no way to ameliorate it without conceding something.

Thus, to achieve social change you need:

  1. A core of irreducible activists, who are determined enough to convince most people that they simply cannot be silenced (the Activists).
  2. Enough sympathetic outsiders who broadly agree with the main concern (the Sympathisers). It’s frequently this second group which will become the negotiating party and which will win incremental “concessions”.

If you are not convinced, we can look at a recent (and somewhat surprising) example: Brexit. the UK Independence Party (UKIP) was founded in the early nineties and started growing significantly when Farage became its leader. Two decades later, despite never having elected a single MP, they were still there, still advocating for the same change and showing no sign of decline. That’s when their sympathisers within the Tory party could start to make a difference1. The relentless annoyance produced by UKIP campaigners is what allowed them to influence Tory party policies. Concessions started to be made, such as Cameron trying to renegotiate the UK’s place within the EU first (to appease the growing influence of Tory Eurosceptic), and eventually calling for the referendum.
As expected, the key elements I mention above are present: a core of irreducible campaigners and a number of external, less committed sympathisers. Crucially, it’s this second group which was able to exert direct influence and negotiate incremental changes to the policies of their party.
This example shows that these mechanisms are quasi-universal: they don’t depend on the kind of change that is being sought, whether they succeed or fail depends on the presence and size of the two kinds of groups2.

Different people, different roles.

The pattern I’ve sketched above points to the different and complementary roles that people might play. These in turn are strongly influenced by self identification and/or visible and therefore somewhat inevitable group membership. If a UKIP member demands Brexit, that’s news to exactly no-one, but when someone belonging to a different party does, then people start to notice. Similarly, if a person of colour demands the end of racism, few will take notice (alas), but when a white MP stands up and proclaims “She’s right”, that’s when newspapers may start developing an interest. If I’m happy to make a stand for a cause that does not directly affect me (or is not directly linked to my perceived identity), my support will carry significant weight precisely because people will not be able to dismiss it as mere self-interest. This is why having a large enough group of the second type is usually necessary to make the first steps in the desired direction.

Interestingly, it’s possible to argue that this whole mechanism rests on the errors of the “resisting” parties. If and when concessions are made, they are made by negotiating with the sympathisers, hoping to placate those annoying activists. This usually is a mistake: the effect will be exactly the opposite, activists will rise the stakes, and the ranks of sympathisers will start to grow, having validated their credentials.
The important thing to note here is that how people respond to campaigners of the two “types” is radically different. Activists are usually listened to by those who are sympathetic enough – namely, members of the second group, as well as those likely to join-in. The silent majority, however, would notice the (annoying) existence of group one, but would eventually listen and engage with those people who they perceive as “reasonable”. Not the activists, but the sympathisers.
Moreover, some people do not really have a choice about what group to join. Being Italian, I will be perceived as a Pro-European activist whenever I speak against Brexit. When a gay person speaks about gay rights, would you label her a sympathiser? This is important, because how my position is perceived, informs who my natural interlocutor should be, if and when I actually want to make a difference. As an activist, I have two roles to play: I should be a visible annoyance to the silent majority and simply someone who happens to have a valid point to all possible sympathisers. As an sympathiser, I can amplify the visibility of the activists and can also persuade (build bridges, at last) anyone who currently does not care about the issue at hand.

The wrong kind of ally.

We thus reach the reason why I maintain that the typical reaction to activism is wrong. Saying “you are too blunt, you are alienating people” to an activist is not just wrong, it’s harmful. First of all, most activists didn’t really choose to be so, people don’t go around shopping for worthy causes and simply pick one. I’m a passionate remainer (also) because Brexit is a clear and present danger to me (as well as utterly stupid). Of course I’m angry about Brexit, what else could I be? If you tell me that I should not show my anger, how am I supposed to react? Should I repress my anger, make yet one more effort for my cause, and thus remove3 myself from the ranks of the all-important activists? Nope, I don’t think so.

If you really want to help, here is the thing: you could actually help, instead of issuing counter-productive advice. You are sympathetic? Great! Go out and make your sympathies visible. That is precisely how you can help. Trying to dissolve the hard core group of irreducible activists and replace it with a “reasonable” bunch of bridge-builders simply does not work – there would be nothing to build the bridge to. You, the sympathiser, are the one who can build bridges; you are, manifestly, the possible link between those who are minding their own business and those who are trying to make change happen. You can be an ally, and you do have a role to play. Criticising activists for being activists is not that – it’s the (entirely understandable) sign of not understanding how activism works (at best). Otherwise, it’s a malign attempt to look sympathetic, just to save appearances. If you are annoyed by the unwillingness to compromise shown by activists for a cause you find agreeable, believe me, I feel you – I know why. But it still is the wrong reaction, so please – suck it up and try to use your frustration productively. Go build that bridge, or else, go away – in silence.


1. Yes, I know. Some Tory members are and always have been extreme Eurosceptics. That’s OK, count them as activists, if you wish. The point here is that change was achieved, because a die-hard core existed (for decades), along with a growing crowd of sympathisers. Take one out of the picture, and little or nothing would have happened.

2. Still unconvinced? In the Chilean uprising I’ve witnessed, the same dynamic was obviously at play. The “violent protesters”, happy to clash with the police and to cause impossible to ignore disruption and tangible damage allowed the majority of peaceful protesters to negotiate with the government. Remove one group and not even small progress would have been made, alas.
For a good description of the situation (good: matches well the impressions I’ve formed by talking to some of the locals and didn’t make me cringe!) I recommend this NYT article (via @idshemilt). The one thing that the article misses is that declaring the state of emergency, deploying the army and imposing curfews had the effect of focussing minds: people were clearly more inclined to protest, as a consequence. In my eyes, it also gave new legitimacy to violent (deliberately clashing with the army/police) and destructive (torching, looting) protests.

3. I am temporarily promoting myself to the rank of activist. That’s a lie, told here for dramatic effect. In reality, I’m little more than a passive sympathiser.

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Posted in Ethics, Politics, Psychology

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