One way that progressive political groups create barriers between themselves and society is through the construction of a relatively new category of political actor: the activist.
The word activist was first used about a century ago to describe those Swedes who advocated for Sweden to abandon neutrality and enter World War I on the side of the Kaiser. But as it is now used, the term became part of our lexicon in the 1960s. Today, activist carries important meanings absent in words that described earlier manifestations of collective action. Classifications like abolitionist, populist, suffragette, unionist or socialist all referenced specific contents. Activist, on the other hand, is a “contentless” label that traverses political issues and social movements.
Negative stereotypes about activists can negatively affect opinions about a given political issue once the issue is associated with activism. Consequently, because the term repels many people, it cognitively blocks their entry into collective action.
Yet, some people are attracted to activism for that very reason. Many activists take pride in activism partly because it is an expression of their willingness to do something that is unpopular. Indeed, some come to see their own marginalization as a badge of honor, as they carve out a radical oppositional niche identity.
This clustering of activists into silos fits into a broader trend in advanced capitalist nations toward greater individualistic self-expression and less civic participation. With this backdrop, it is as if activism has morphed into a specific identity that centers on a hobby—something akin to being a skier or a theater person or a foodie—rather than a civic or political responsibility that necessarily traverses groups and interests. In a society that is self-selecting into ever more specific microaggregations, it makes sense that activism itself could become one such little niche—that activism would become its own particular community of interest that self-selecting individual activists join. The problem is that, when it comes to challenging entrenched power, we need more than little niches and selfselectors. We need much larger swaths of society.
Yes, yes, and yes. The idea of the “activist” as an individual choosing to operate outside of norms addresses what I see as two sides of a major problem–first, that political activity is about individual (perhaps even neoliberal!) expression that actually reinforces capitalism rather than challenges it and, second, that it creates artificial divides between “activists” and the mass politics of resistance that we need. That there is a whole cultural aspect to activism that turns a lot of people off–whether the clothes or the music or chants or whatever–is a real problem as well. Moreover, as Smucker delineates, entering an activist community today creates an echo chamber that takes people (often quite young) interested in social change and keeps them from talking to others who might disagree or challenge them in ways that reminds us how the music divides us into tribes, to quote Arcade Fire.
When new activists enter a cultural space where political activity occurs only in a milieu of like-minded activists, the end result is that society’s most idealistic and collectively minded young people voluntarily remove themselves from the institutions and social networks they were best positioned to influence and contest. The idea that activism occupies a special space unto itself—that it is an activity disembedded from the day-to-day lives, cultural spaces and workplaces of most people in society—encourages activists to check their activism at the door when entering “non-activist” spheres. Alternatively, they may proudly and defiantly wear their activism on their sleeves, but more as self-expressive fashion that distinguishes them from the group—and likely inoculates others against taking them seriously—than as part of a genuine attempt at strategic political engagement.
Naturally, social justice-oriented people gravitate toward safe spaces where they feel appreciated. The slow work of contesting and transforming messy everyday spaces is, however, the essence of grassroots political organizing. When we do not contest, from within, the cultures, beliefs, symbols and narratives of the existing institutions and social networks that we are part of, we walk away from the resources and latent power embedded within those institutions and networks. This is not a winning trajectory. In exchange for our own shabby little activist clubhouse, we give away the farm.
Should we then abandon the “activist” label? A better question would be: Is there any compelling reason to persist in using a label that inoculates so many people against us and our messages? If this word effectively functions as a cognitive roadblock that prevents most people from considering anything we do or say, while also excusing sympathizers (who don’t consider themselves “activists”) from joining us, then inertia is not a good enough reason to hold on to such a disadvantageous label.
Abandoning the label, however, will only get us so far. It is more important that we break out of the cultural niche that the label has prescribed. Our work is not to build from scratch a special sphere that houses our socially enlightened identities (and delusions). Our work is, rather, to politicize everyday spaces; and to weave politics and collective action into the fabric of society.
I just cannot agree with every point more strongly.
….One additional thought. One thing the term “activist” does is also divide us between “people who are real forces for change” and “people who are lame.” This can be used in a denigrating way, even self-denigrating. I don’t know how many times I have said that “I am not a real activist” because I am not all that often at the protest rally. I figure I can personally do better as a writer thinking through the tricky questions of social change than as just another body at the climate change rally. And I think that’s right, although we absolutely need people at the rallies, and as we have seen since the inauguration, those rallies can make a world of difference (and I have been at some of them). But is this entire divide and these disclaimers, not to mention when they are used as insults by calling you a fake or lame or whatnot, really just an entirely false paradigm of what constitutes making change?