I have not encountered it that much, but enough to write a blog post. The thing I am referring to is the idealization of charity and the demonization of activism. Now, I recall on incident while standing on the corner for an anti-war picket. During this encounter, a tourist asked us why we bothered picketing. In her opinion, it was a waste of time. Our time would better be spent volunteering. This notion that activism is a waste of time is also expressed through the common remark, “Get a job.” Of course, beyond the idea that charity is superior and activism is inferior to work, is the closely related idea that activism somehow hurts people. Perhaps it hurts pedestrians, drivers, or anyone else who simply wants to live their life in quiet denial that social problems exist. One thing appears certain: activism is not respected.
To address the first issue, I will explore charity versus activism. Charity is viewed highly as selfless and productive. People who engage in charity are seen as good people, generally speaking. Charity isn’t terrible. Obviously, there are social problems that need immediate responses. Charity can fill a gap and meet an immediate need. However, it should be treated as that. Anything addressed by a charity is a social failing. Pressure must be put on the government to address this social failure. No one should go hungry. No one should go without housing. Charity to alleviate these things privatizes social problems-leaving them to good will and unpaid labor to resolve. There are enough unemployed people that it is shameful that they cannot be put to work building society through paid public work. Beyond the privatization of social problems, charity is flawed because it does not address the causes of social problems or work to change society. The same soup kitchen could operate for 100 years- with nothing done to change the root cause of hunger. Of course, some charity can have a social activist orientation, in which it addresses social problems while working to bandage an immediate need. Therefore, I don’t dismiss charity. I simply don’t see it as a vehicle for revolutionary change.
Nevertheless, charity is easy to understand. The average person can see poor people fed a turkey dinner and think it is swell. There is a small but immediate impact. It looks and feels good. Building a social movement is not easy to understand. To an outsider, it is seven crazy people on the corner with signs. No one is being fed. We’re the turkeys. It looks pointless and disruptive. It is hard to see the value because people don’t get change. They don’t understand why and how they can vote…go to k-12 for free….attend the same schools as other races…have a minimum wage….use birth control…get a divorce…have labels on their food….not be enslaved….etc, Change does not happen because of benevolent politicians. It is struggle. It is decades…and centuries of struggle.
Seven people on a corner looks pretty pathetic. If it was seven thousand, it would be more formidable. Still, seven people still have a purpose. In every great struggle, there are decades of doldrums. There may be long periods where only a few people stand against a social injustice. They are ridiculed or ignored at best. What is the point? I want to say that it is important to stand up for what is right, even when you are alone. This isn’t a great answer. I mean, I don’t think that anyone is obligated to be a witness for history. That in some wonderful eon the street corner yahoos will be vindicated. Someday….they won’t look so crazy. Someday everyone will agree with what was viewed as radical or pointless. Most likely, no one will remember. History is made, but it is also unmade through broken narratives. The broken narrative of the future forgets the tireless work of activists. In this disjointed history, perhaps change falls from the sky…from the asses of imaginary Democrats in the clouds. Everyone forgets again the process of moving against social injustice. So, as much as I wish that in the future there will be some, “I told you so” moment, the process of making the future is often forgotten.
If not for future memory, why bother? Well, there is a belief that it is not pointless. Even a few people draw attention. It shows people that an issue exists and that some people are angry about it. For a brief moment, it reminds people of a problem. That is fleeting and unrewarding. The other purpose is that it keeps a movement alive. A picket or small protest is a way to care for a tiny spark. Those activists who are involved network with each other. They build their experiences as organizers and leaders. Then, if suddenly there is an upsurge of anger or awareness…there are those with experience and knowledge of how to build a larger movement. I think that this is the most important reason to continue this work. It keeps alive the capacity to mobilize without having to reinvent the wheel.
Beyond this, something needs to be done. Of course, there are many things that can be done. Writing letters, voting, charity, etc., are all options. However, protest or pickets are things that can be done as a community, together, and visibly. Once again, it can draw attention to an issue. Voting and letters are private matters done by individuals. Beyond their individualism is the investment into a political system that doesn’t offer much variety in the way of politicians. Protest and pickets draw things into the public realm. Of course, educational events, movies, discussions, and so on are also useful, but the benefit of the protest or picket is that the audience is anyone who drives by or sees it on the news.
So, this is the logic of activism, or at least the picket/protest aspects of activism. With that said, I feel like it should be highly regarded. It is a sacrifice of time. It often isn’t all that fun (for instance, in very cold weather). And, since most activists actually DO work, I don’t see why they are dismissed as not employed. Even so, what are others doing that is so grand? The tourist who critiqued the picket was out shopping. Why is this considered a good use of time, while standing on a corner is a bad one? The people driving by are likely going home, perhaps to watch television. Again, why is activism somehow less legitimate than collapsing in front of a screen? In the event that someone is unemployed and an activist, why is it assumed that paid labor is the only source of meaning or usefulness in this world? Many people hate their jobs. Perhaps the activist on the picket line is organizing their work place…and work is just another form of activism. Is there any other activity that people engage in where drivers would shout at people to get a job? When they drive by the beach, do they shout at the swimmers, get a job? When they go to the movies, do they wait until the credits are done to denounce everyone for not having jobs? Of course not. It is ridiculous that activism is viewed as the work of jobless people. Really, the people who do activism may NOT be at the beach, movies, mall, or any other distraction that others pursue in their free time because they are too busy protesting!
Anyway, so that is the point of it all. The point of activism is that change can happen, but also a certain hope that others will eventually join in. Something needs to be done. Many things can be done. These strategies are debated among activists and most activists employ many methods of activism (education, protest, petitions, even some charity from time to time).