The Activism Problem: When Passion Is Not Enough

The Women’s March on Washington shook me up.  I somehow felt very guilty for not attending and very glad for keeping my distance at the same time.  The issue of gender equality is one that’s very important to me, and it is a dream of mine to see the feminist movement unite with the movement for secularism, which the march suggested might be in the near future.  For this reason, it would have been nice to be in attendance and lend my support, but a few factors, primarily bad timing and a general lack of information about it beforehand, prevented this.  I think what really held me back, however, was just a general distrust of activism in general.  It’s not that contemporary activism is somehow an impure form of activism that has strayed away from its roots – quite to the contrary, I consider the 2017 Women’s March to be an excellent example of what I call “Classical Activism.”  Still, I strangely find myself in agreement with a sentiment expressed by David Frum on Sam Harris’ podcast recently that this march was both an example of everything wrong with liberal activism today and very inspiring in a positive way, so I want to pick apart what it is about contemporary liberal activism, even when it is supporting the views I hold, that I find so disturbing.

I associate the word activism with many things, but three scenes from popular media come to mind.

The first is the famous scene from the classic film Network in which newscaster Howard Beale urges his viewers to open their windows and let their anger out, screaming that they’re “not gonna take it anymore.”  It’s a touching scene, and it has moved me in ways that few other films have every time I’ve watched it.  For someone who fears apathy as much as I do, seeing people around the country being motivated to feel real passion is somewhat touching.  The problem, of course, is that anger alone isn’t good for much.  It can be a driving force for progress, and I suspect it has been many times, but it can also be a reason for supporting a demagogue (click here for a helpful video about how that works).  Anger must be handled very carefully, or else it can get in the way of good reasoning.

The second scene is lesser-known, and it comes from Mel Brooks.  In High Anxiety, Brooks and Madeline Kahn are trying to sneak a gun onto an airplane.  In order to do so, rather than trying to be as quiet as possible, they assume the identities of a loud, fussy, elderly couple that fills the airport with the sounds of their ranting and yelling and complaining.  Even though Brooks sets off the alarm when he goes through security, they let him pass through without further inspection just so he’ll shut up.  The lesson to be learned here, of course, is that the louder people are, the more others try to ignore them.  I have found that, when the same one person fills my Facebook news feed with political posts (and I must stress again that I’m generally in agreement with the anti-Trump, anti-racist, and anti-sexism posts) I get very annoyed with the person who’s posting about the same topic so relentlessly.  The question that I find myself asking is always the same: whose mind will be changed by this?  I appreciate the passion and the positive values being expressed, and I understand the good intentions, but it is obvious to me that those who disagree with these posts will not be persuaded purely by the intensity of a person’s rage pertaining to a particular subject.  Trump supporters who see people on the left constantly and consistently expressing anger about Trump will only see a steady stream of anger that they want to avoid, and no minds or hearts can be changed by that.

The irony here is that online activism has the problem of being too focused, thus driving people away by failing to present a balanced and comprehensive view of the world, but most activism has the problem of not being focused enough.  This was the criticism raised of the Women’s March on Washington on Sam Harris’ show, and I think it’s very important.  Just as anger must be carefully controlled in order to be helpful rather than dangerous, it must also be carefully focused.  At the Women’s March, the causes for which people were marching varied so greatly that a more apt title would probably have been “The March for People Who Really Hate Trump and Happen to Be Wearing Pink.”  The issues of interest included racial justice, environmental protection, immigration reform, LGBTQ rights, workers’ rights, freedom of religion, and more.  I can only imagine what would happen if one speaker at the event in Washington suddenly shouted to the crowd, “What do we want?” and the crowd had to figure out the answer.

Such an experiment was performed at the 2016 Reason Rally by David Silverman of American Atheists.  He told the crowd of atheists, agnostics, secularists, humanists, and non-theists to shout out whichever of these titles they called themselves, and the response he received was, predictably, a noisy mess of random answers.  “Ladies and gentlemen, when we use euphemisms instead of calling ourselves atheists, we sound to the outside world like that jumbled noise you all just made.”  He then urged the crowd, just once, to chant the word “atheist” all together, and the unifying effect was very powerful.  By this point, I may sound fairly hypocritical and inconsistent since I was proud to be in attendance at this event, but I can easily explain why this is not hypocrisy.  It’s true that I generally do not like group-think and I worry about its effects, so I do have a serious concern that Silverman may have misused it in that instance, which is why I sort of regret complying to his request that day.  However, I understood that this event served the purpose of showing a culture that generally ignored the existence of nice, peaceful, happy, patriotic atheists that there are more of us than they realize, and therefore our views matter.  Everyone knows that there are a lot of women in America, and every knows that most of them have not been big fans of Donald Trump – this surprises no one – so the only time when making a loud noise is actually useful, no matter how unified and focused the noise may be, is when it is a complete surprise from a little dark corner of the culture that needs to simply be noticed.

Once a group of people is noticed, of course, making a loud noise serves very little purpose apart from making people want to ignore them, which brings me back to my scenes from popular media.  The third great scene with which I associate activism is, perhaps predictably, from House of Cards.  In the second episode of the first season, a man is found screaming unintelligible nonsense outside of a government building in Washington.  Frank Underwood stares him in the eye and says, “Nobody can hear you.  Nobody cares about you.  Nothing will come of this.”  It’s a very bleak view of politics, as House of Cards usually presents, but it addresses the distance there is between America’s people and its government – particularly when all that the government hears from the people is angry screaming.  At one point in history, a million angry voices may have scared the pants off the president, but today, anyone who holds a significant office is used to hearing millions of screaming voices everyday, and it means nothing to them.

So how does one go about advocating for what is right and true?

I’ve written much of this article while sitting in the basement of the Hornbake Library on the University of Maryland campus, where a statue of Frederick Douglass is displayed prominently on the ground above me.  The kind of activism he did largely consisted of speeches and writings of a logical and persuasive manner rather than yelling about how angry he was, which I think nicely matches that famous quote of his that’s displayed alongside the statue: “Right is of no sex, truth is of no color.”  This reminds me of the important fact that truth and reality have no teams at all.  The current wave of identity politics is demonstrating the kind of tribalism that humans have relied on for millennia, and it’s problematic because it divides people into the left team and the right team, the extreme liberal team and the extreme conservative team.  Any good argument, however, requires that all parties be on the same team, which is the team for truth.  There must be a dedication to working with others, no matter how differently they see things, to understand their perspective as well as possible so that our logical debates can improve, develop, and grow.  At present, our culture is nearing a stalemate because so many of us aim to do nothing more than demonize the enemy and ban all views that sound dangerous, but this does not generate progress.

Angry masses, whether they are so focused that they sound myopic or so unfocused that they sound unintelligible, are not sufficient at generating progress.  I believe compassionate understanding aligned with an unwavering defense of the ultimate authority of reason above all parties, all peoples, all narratives, and all beliefs that has the potential to lead us to a brighter future.  If activism is to ascend beyond mere noise, it must be reformed to align with this principle.  Otherwise, our current cultural clog will remain.


Featured image by Mobilus In Mobili, from Flickr

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