What Does it Mean to be and Activist?


I’m a university student. We are notorious for our discontent with how the world is run. Many of us get involved in some sort of activism. But what does it mean to be an activist? Some people aren’t content unless they are standing outside with a sign or camping out in a park like the protesters at Occupy Wall street. Others write about issues almost exclusively. Some simply participate in ‘slacktivism.’ Is one form of activism more likely than the others to bring about change? Is one ‘not real activism’? Or are they all necessary to bring about change?

Personally, I’m inclined to believe the latter. I have done all three forms of activism. I have held a sign to counter-protest at an anti-abortion protest. I have written about problems in our world. And I have hit the ‘sign this petition’ button on an e-mail I have received. I think all forms of protest are necessary to bring about change. And there is a lot of change that I want to see happen.

For those activists out there, how do you fight to bring about change? What change do you want to see in the world?

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12 responses to “What Does it Mean to be and Activist?

  • Mike Moore

    I think any of those things could be termed ‘activism’. I also think just every day living could be called activism.

    For example, an atheist might ‘come out’ and proudly display his atheism to lessen the stigma using the word seems to entail.

    A Christian might try to show love and kindness to his fellow human beings to show that being Christ-like is not a bad thing.

    I’ve never held a sign. I’ve participated in walks to raise awareness. I’ve volunteered my time to make such walks happen. I work in the social services to raise awareness in the field. I write about religion, the harm it can do and various other things that interest me. I engage in conversation with believers.

    I think all could be termed ‘activism’, although someone else might not think so.

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    • hessianwithteeth

      I agree. To me, that is activism. I was at Imagine No Religion 4 last weekend and I’d call that an activist conference. The speakers are all activists in that they fight to make sure that there is a community for atheists. Sometimes the fight is easy, but others had a more difficult time of it. The audience members are also activists in that we came together to show that there is a community for atheists and it isn’t a dirty word. Many of us also wrote about it in blogs, on facebook, or on twitter to make the info available to others. That is not insignificant in my mind.

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  • Amyclae

    I’m very skeptical of student activism, or activism in general, that is not directly related to the political process. The series of events that follow any protest, be it for abortion or whatever, impresses me with a sense of futility and needles embitterment as though all parties understand very well that nothing will be achieved under the pretext that something is being done.

    In part this goes to the heart of our time’s great social paradox. Hordes of us choose to be different in the same way the counter-culture in the sixties all seemed to be the same, confused, Midwestern every-person. Uniformity becomes its own caricature. And I detect that strongly in almost every student protest.

    Worse, most activism lacks a certain lightness. I’m reminded of Orwell’s prophetic admonishment to avoid flattening all communication onto a single, homogeneous surface. Specifically, in our case, outrage. Outrage at the present of a clinic, of other protesters, of counter-protesters of counter-counter-protesters. Most student activism is brutalizing our senses, and becomes another form of political and commercial enslavement.

    The more petty the activism the more homogeneous and conforming the language of the protest. Perhaps reaching its apex at protests where ideas are reduced to whatever can fit on a picket sign, but perhaps other venues like tumblr (the website of upper-middle post-, pre- and collegiate nomenklatura where people spend equal times titillating themselves, chatting about how racist they are not and seeing whether there is a division too small to hyphenate) are more appropriate examples.

    In any event, I think the best form of activism starts with knowing who your local water board members are, your county or city commissioner, the treasurer ect. Anything else, well, falls into the above category.

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    • hessianwithteeth

      You don’t think that a group of people standing around with signs and making a scene can make a difference? No, they don’t convince the politicians to do anything differently, but they affect the voters. People have voted to defund abortion clinics after talking to pro-lifers at a protest. I don’t want that to happen. The only way that I can stop people from becoming pro-life after talking to a protester is to offer myself up to talk to as well. Protesting has its place, but it can’t work on its own. If somebody is doing something to improve the world in which we live, fine. Their efforts are what counts and the more people doing something, the more likely change is to occur. The people who do nothing, the people who complain about the state of the world but refuse to vote, don’t sign petition, don’t encourage their leaders to vote for change, etc, those people drive me crazy. Apathy changes nothing, action changes everything.

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      • Amyclae

        I sincerely do not think so, and amounts to not much more than needless embitterment.

        While I am absolutely in favor of opposing mob violence, and in some instances counter-‘protesters’ are needed to display an ineffable cone of protection, I can’t help but think that this narrow grounds for meaningful action is highly circumscribed. Also, often overstepped. If a lonely, alone and frightened woman needs someone to escort her through a crowd–so be it. But that is rarely what happens at protests. Instead, and I think only a glance through Google will confirm this, the more prominent the conflagration the higher the chances are that they’ll avoid the clinic. Protesters spawn counter-protesters that spawn more counter-counter-protesters and onward.

        So what protests eventually come down to is a small, contested space being used for people to express themselves. No less but also not more.

        I’m sure people have voted to defund the clinic after talking to the protesters. I’m sure some have voted not after talking to them. I know of no concrete factual basis for believing that protests change hearts and minds that were not already made up. All I know of is evidence purporting to show that protests enforce conformity, help with retention numbers within these political groups and increase polarization.

        Apathy may not change anything, but if you’re working on a path that is going in the wrong direction the man whose already stopped is the progressive.

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        • hessianwithteeth

          Protests tend to be a last resort. What would you suggest people do if their politicians are ignoring them and the people around them are apathetically allowing abuses to happen? What would you do to get people to care?

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          • Amyclae

            A large part of any political system, even the most representative, is knowing when to sit down and shut up. If you go too far along the path of ‘if my government is not obeying me, it is my government that is ipso facto wrong’ then you end up loading fertilizer in Penske moving trucks and blowing up Federal buildings.

            Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but at the same time we need to acknowledge that if both sides simply decided that they are Right, morally, and not just for pragmatic reasons, then I begin to hear the thin whine of hysteria.

            The best way to convince someone is to convince them. Use your brain, not a stick with a thinly cut dead tree attached to the end of it.

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          • hessianwithteeth

            I don’t condone violence, nor would I ever use it to bring about change. There is a time and a place where doing otherwise is impossible, but that place is not here. Protesting isn’t about the government always being wrong. Governments are important. But their main job is to protect the people, not to make money for themselves. I don’t think being quiet when I feel the government is abusing its power is ever right. It allows for the continuation of abuses. And using your intellect is great, but it doesn’t work when the person you’re trying to convince refuses to see reason.

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          • Amyclae

            If someone can’t see reason, then what’s the point of protesting in the first place? What I see protesting as, instead of discontinuing certain practices, instead prolongs and solidifies them. A protest movement, like Occupy Wall Street was nothing more than an outpouring of the respected opposition. A bit of empty gesture. A sign to the world that the government, for all its faults, still allows criticism. But few discerned that beneath every story like the students peppersprayed at UC (Irvine? I believe) there was a second story of the students being compensated, generously, for their job as part and parcel of the political system.

            That you happen to be doing the same thing on a smaller scale heightens rather than obscures the fundamental consensus that you share with the government, especially on an issue like abortion facilities. As a factual matter they are dependent on the beneficence of the government and surely narrowed in their agency as a result. But more, shall we say, philosophically the difference shrinks further. Protesting a way to isolate yourself, to reduce your message and your purpose to a rather narrow boundary.

            In some grand, generic sense a true protest would not be limited in any sense. But that’s not what you’re doing because to do so would be illegal. You have to protest in a certain, in a certain manner and if the system of protest that has been devised to channel your energy is breached by another party or yourself that is why we have other aspects of the system–such as civil courts–that you can direct your plea to.

            On the face of it a protest that is legal is a contradiction of terms. A protest is, by definition, beyond legality–even common law and certainly beyond the statutory law devised by state and federal legislatures to manage protests. So either you don’t protest, but call it a protest, or your protest is not legal.

            To conclude, since your protest isn’t in fact a protest attaching to it some of the flashier gossamer of true protest does you no good. You may not be as quiet as others, but you are still quiet. Worse in this process of self-expression and self-importance you hurt those you ostensibly seek to protect and needlessly embitter a community that should be focused on other, more important matters.

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  • kat

    well, i vote. some people think they don’t have to vote, cuz it doesn’t matter, and then they think they have a right to complain about the status quo. so, i vote.

    and i guess i fall into the category you labeled as ‘slacktavist’. i receive many petitions via email every day, and vote ya/nay on most of them. this is the main way i am active. i am disabled, and don’t have a lot of stamina, and never know how i’m going to feel one day to the next. so i don’t like planning on going to protests, or on volunteering for a particular campaign that expects me to do a certain task for a certain time regularly. so, for me, the best i can do is slacktavism, and i think that is even more than most americans do.

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  • myatheistlife

    What is activism other than the expression of discontent with a situation. It’s only called activism by the status quo. The rest of us call it trying to fix the world in a way that benefits us all.

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