Why We Can't Depend On Activists To Create Change
Photo Credit: Peter Gorman
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Over the years I have often been asked how I became an activist. The question of how individuals as individuals become involved in social change movements, fascinating as it may seem, can carry equally fascinating assumptions about activism itself. It may imply a voluntary and self-selecting enterprise, an extracurricular activity, a realm of subculture, and a differentiating label; that an activistis a particular kind of person. When people refer to me as an activist, I have taken to correcting them: “I dislike the label activist,” I politely explain, “because it lets everyone else off the hook. We all have civic responsibilities. Social change happens when whole communities are in motion.”
This kind of individualistic thinking about collective action is mostly a recent phenomenon. In the past half-century our imaginations have been colonized and severely limited by the individual rational actor paradigm. This capitalist dogma gained currency in concert with tectonic cultural shifts in social identity and organization. In the past half-century, society has become more individualistic and self-expressive, as civic involvement demonstrably declined. It is little wonder that collective action itself has come to be popularly viewed as an essentially individualistic endeavor.
Examining these tectonic cultural shifts has profoundly changed how I understand political struggle. I have come to view much of what is today called activism as more self-expressive than instrumental. This is foundational to my paradigm, and a brief presentation of the relevant broad trends is necessary here.
Americans have literally been migrating into values-homogenous social spaces since at least the late 1960s. We have been rearranging our lives to surround ourselves with people who think a lot like we do — phasing out folks who don’t share our opinions and tastes. We’ve chosen our neighborhoods, religious congregations, civic and political organizations, the cultural spaces we frequent, and our friendship circles so that we can experience our worldview reflected back to us and minimize dissonance.
Political Scientist Ronald Inglehart’s explanation for this trend is based on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: once our basic survival and material needs are provided for, we then focus more attention on social networks and individual expression. This explains why dramatic outbursts of self-expressiveness hit every industrialized society in the world simultaneously in the late 1960s. According to Bill Bishop (in The Big Sort), a generation that “grew up in relative abundance” started to display “a politics of self-expression.” And apparently, self-expressive people prefer to express themselves in like-minded company, activists included.
The very concept of a group of activists is an example of this trend of self-segregation. It is as if activism has morphed into a specific identity that centers on a hobby—like being a skier or a theater person—rather than a civic responsibility that necessarily traverses groups and interests. In a way, the very label activist—its individualizing, identifying affects—excuses everyone else from civic responsibility. I may or may not have an opinion about a given issue, but I can’t be expected to do anything about it because, well, “I’m not an activist,” or “I’m not political.”
In a society that is self-selecting into ever more specific micro-aggregations, it makes sense that activism itself could become one such little niche. But when it comes to challenging entrenched power, we need more than little niches. We need huge swaths of society bought in. Thus, the consequences of this kind of opt-in thinking about social change (i.e. that activism is for self-selecting individuals) have been profound, both inside and outside of activism, resulting in all kinds of wrongheaded thinking and cultural constraints. A fledgling movement that attempts to attract only individuals as individuals, one at a time, will never grow fast enough to affect big systemic change. Throughout history, the big progressive changes worth a damn have been achieved when whole swaths of already-organized people (i.e. existing institutions and social networks) are set in motion.