Social Activism and Treading Carefully

Social Activism and Treading Carefully

Somebody in a position of power once told a newcomer: “You have a choice. You can be an insider or an outsider. If you are an outsider you’ll retain your right to say anything you want, whatever you believe in but know that you’re going to be persecuted, you’re going to be vilified and you’ll be jettisoned. On the other hand, you can choose to be an insider, to play the game… If you chose to be an insider you’ll be given information that outsiders don’t have, you’ll be given… an opportunity… to make some… small tiny changes within the inside, but the one rule that you must respect, is that insiders do not tell outsiders the truth, and they do not turn against other insiders.”

Well said. Except for the fact that it’s not all black and white. There is no absolute boundary between insider and outsider. Boundaries fluctuate with every situation and for every piece of information. This is very important, because it’s what successful activism is all about.

Activism is defined as: “efforts to promote, impede, direct, or intervene in social, political, economic, or environmental reform with the desire to make changes in society.”

There are many ways through which activists can voice their message and act on it. Just like an activist’s relationship with a system is complex, so is the activist’s spectrum of action.

Throughout history stretches a long list with names of activists that were persecuted, tortured and even killed. Sometimes, their suffering or death only accelerated the changes they fought for.

But there’s an even longer (and mostly unknown) list with the names of hidden activists. Those that have treaded carefully and taken fewer risks in order to ensure their safety and thus, the longevity of their work. These are the little-known heroes that operated patiently, within the confines of a system (and often working around the system), changing it from the inside, slowly but surely (and often collaborating with the “outsiders” more than we will know in this lifetime).

The overall effect

What determines the success of a message? The shock and confrontation approach, or a slow and careful process of sculpting society? A sprint prodding others to act, or a marathon of implementation? The answer is: any mix of the above. That’s where an activist’s strategy comes into play. And let’s not forget that chance also plays a role.

Activism requires a great understanding of society. Careful messaging (writing and presenting) is a must. However, the success of an activist is not determined only by skillful messaging, but also by the careful orchestration of one’s social interactions.

The first thing on an activist’s mind should be how to ensure the most positive outcome with the least amount of risk and effort. In thinking about this, it is useful to consider the three pillars of activism: the relation with the insiders, the intensity of one’s message and the scale of one’s actions.

The activist’s relation with the in-group

Whatever an activist militates for, there is a social group that does things (very) differently. Within this group, there are counter-activists and leaders.

The quote we started with is a very simplified view on the extremely complex interactions that occur between social groups. Can an activist even consider ejecting oneself as far from the insiders as possible? This all but removes the possibility of using diplomacy – the exquisite art of negotiation and trading with knowledge.

There’s a saying: “keep your friends close and your enemies closer”. How else can an activist truly understand the opposite camp? The word “enemies” is a bit too strong: a wise activist understands that there is no enemy, just different points of view. This understanding will lead to a healthy relationship with “the insiders”. This is more than a necessity; it is a prime ingredient of success.

The intensity of the message

“Change your beliefs, or die!”

Could, by any chance, such a threat cause people to assume a defensive intellectual stance? Could any message accompanying such a statement be discarded? Of course yes and of course it will.

The exaggeration above serves to illustrate the point that when crafting any message, a deep understanding of its target audience is paramount. Even if that audience is the activist’s own group, messages that are too radical are likely to alienate the opposition and do more harm than good. The opposition is likely to push back with comparable force.

On the other hand, weak messages won’t achieve anything. Crafting and presenting a balanced message is at the very heart of meaningful activism.

The scale of the actions

Even though messaging and diplomacy are actions themselves, this third pillar of activism is about those concrete actions that contribute to the intensity of the message and complement diplomatic efforts.

The scale of an action is the number of people becoming aware of it. This is not necessarily related to the number of people whose opinion is influenced by the action. Some may be indifferent, while some may see the action as a threat and steer away from the direction desired by the activist.

Never start big: at a small scale even wrong actions may be beneficial, as they may lead to valuable lessons. However, even a good action at the wrong scale will have undesired effects, damaging a social activism campaign. More than anything, actions make or break activists.

The predictable activist

Whatever would one’s stance be in regards to each of the three pillars of activism, this better not change often. Vocal activists should stay vocal, patient diplomats should continue working diligently. A chaotic way of working will erode trust, which is arguably the most valuable currency an activist possesses.

Activism is a profession like any other. And like any professional, the activist should deliver with constancy and predictability. Unpredictable activists make larger waves, but do so by taking risks that can jeopardize themselves and their campaigns.

Treading carefully

There’s a hidden activist in all of us. I wish for everybody to listen to that inner voice and find where we can make even the smallest difference. The world needs it now more than ever. We live in a period where the actions of the many are necessary to revert the mistakes of the few.

But tread carefully. Let us not repeat the mistakes of the past. We seek evolution, not revolution^. The activists we need aren’t those that reject dialogue, but those that understand that opposites attract. Be and let be^.


Disclaimer: despite what I’ve been writing on this website, I do not consider myself an activist. The closest “role” I can describe myself as is historian.

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