Activism — to die for or to live for?

“It’s easy to find something worth dying for.
Do you have anything worth living for?”
Lorien in Babylon 5: “Whatever Happened to Mr. Garibaldi?”

I’m currently getting interested in activism, which is new for me. It was actually interesting for me to see how “Fairness, equity, and justice” did rise 11 places on a strength assessment within five years. And it’s not that I’m unhappy with it — it does gives you meaning to fight for something you believe in. A bit like Archimedes’:

“Give me a stick long enough and a pivot and I shall move the world.”

Furthermore, it is a terrific “playing ground” to use your creativity. It leaves you with a strange mixture of gut-wrenching ‘why?’s, but also with a boost of energy.

However, I also find it hard to find the right strategy, due to a number of problems:

  • The Locked-In Perspective Problem
    If you really focus on a problem and invest a lot of energy in it, it’s easy to become so locked in a certain perspective that you cannot take another perspective. People might sometimes say they have thought critically about it, or they “know” that there is no other story to the issue, but this is never the case. Yes, never. And if you lose your ability to change the perspective, you not only become narrow-minded, you also hamper your creativity.
  • The Broken Record Problem
    Related to the locked-in perspective problem, but occurring in interactions, is the broken record problem. Perhaps you have seen one-track-mind people in public. The ones who use any remotely fitting comment as an opportunity to let off a barrage of “righteous anger” about the injustice they perceive. Talk to them about how you enjoyed a wedding and they start with a tirade about the church and how amazingly stupid and irrational people are. Tell them how you enjoyed a book by a male author and they go in your face about the historic oppression of women and how she would have liked to have great female writer to look up to. They hijack any topic and prevent any real interaction. They sound like a broken record. Urrrgh! Not what I want to become. I do not want it to eclipse my life. I am more than an issue.
  • The Negativity Problem
    The kinds of problems and injustices you deal with are just so … negative. If you focus on social problems, it becomes likely that you see them anywhere — or rather: everywhere. It can suck the life out of you. And frankly, as an agnostic, I think the life is too precious to let it circle around problems. There are just too many things about this world which are breathtakingly beautiful. Recently I have begun to cherish opera’s (even modern ones) and ballet. Strikingly beautiful. I would hate to miss that beauty, but I think it is very easy to lose that perception by focusing only on the negative aspects, on the injustices — and not what was achieved so far — and that no matter how important the problem is, you do not betrayal the issue if you enjoy your life ‘after work’.
  • The Undesirability of Success Problem
    If the problem/injustice is all you have/care about and you focus on the negative, you might not want to win. That might sound strange, but movements that achieve their aims make themselves obsolete. If you have invested a lot of yourself in a movement, what will you do when the goal is reached? You actually might need to keep the problem at a steady, manageable level, and you might even want to increase it at times. It’s a bit like this quotation in the beginning of this posting.
  • The End Justifies the Means Problem
    With some movements, I get the impression that they are willing to throw individuals under the bus if they think it gets them closer to their overall goals. Or that they are perfectly willing to darken the past, let people suffer in the present, in the hopes of winning more influence for the future. Personally, I do not think that the end justifies the means — it matters how you achieve your goals. And it’s hard to impossible to predict the future, so much of the suffering in the present might be for naught.
  • The Groupthink Problem
    Groupthink is a pretty well-establishing finding that happens in groups with high cohesion. It is defined by Baron, Byrne, and Branscombe (2006) as:

    “The tendency of the members of highly cohesive groups to assume that their decisions can’t be wrong, that all members must support the groups’ decisions strongly, and that information contrary to these decisions should be ignored.”

    I think this is a problem with many movement — which consequently lose touch with the general population and frequently also with reality itself. The effects of one individual usually are pretty limited, but a group can really screw things up by losing contact with reality.

  • The Ethics Problem
    Then there is the ethics problem — what is the right approach to allow for a change? Sure, there are psychological methods of persuasion and the like, but still, what does this mean in practice? For example, I started talking to a few people on Twitter (if you can call this talking). But when you see that those people are at the very opposite end of your position and do not even see your issue — hmm, that is not the person you can make any headway with. Arguments do not work with this person. After all, how can you talk about colors with people who cannot see them? So, can you go via an emotional route? A long time ago I made a promise to myself never to use my creativity for negative purposes — but what is negative in this context? To achieve a change, emotional and conceptually, you might need to elicit strong emotions in the person you are talking to. You cannot not offend people. It’s part of the game. Yet, how far can you ethically go?
  • The Aesthetics Problem
    But the currently most pressing issue for me is the issue of aesthetics, or rather: of taste. Even if you are willing to use strong emotional arguments and even if that works — when does it become bad taste? When are you overstepping a line where the treatment becomes worse than the disease?

Like written, I find the problem … challenging, but interesting. Not sure what to do with it, yet.

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