We might not be able to define activist, but we know one when we see one, right? Go ahead, take a second to close your eyes and picture an activist. What do you see?
Chances are it’s an angry, costume-clad young person, waving a sign, chanting and/or screaming. Nothing automatically wrong with that favorite media image, though it tends to have a negative connotation to many in the “mainstream.” But is it really a fair depiction of most activists?
When I asked you to close your eyes (assuming you did so), did you picture a kindly grandpa collecting signatures in front of the local grocery store? A thirty-something mother of two speaking at a City Council meeting? Why not?
If you didn’t, it’s not your fault. Chances are you have just unconsciously adopted the popular media portrayal of activists as troublemakers and rabble-rousers (again, no judgment on those tactics).
And why is it that corporate media tends to depict activists that way? Because it makes for a colorful photo op? Perhaps. But maybe it’s also an effort (possibly an unconscious one) by the powers-that-be to demean and malign the very concept of activism, to alienate the general public from relating to it, and its role in a participatory democracy.
After all, an activist is simply someone without access to institutional power, an ordinary person trying to advance a particular issue through the court of public opinion, to attract media attention, and pressure policymakers. Instead of garnering the respect that should be due to such brave and selfless actions, the work of most activists is poo-pooed as petty and inconsequential.
Many of those who are scornful of activists seem to believe that real change can only be made through the system, by becoming a politician or some other institutionally-sanctioned “expert.”
Those who insist that anyone who wants to make a difference should run for public office are suggesting that the only legitimate way to make change is to water down one’s position to appeal to “moderate” voices, to float whichever way the political winds blow, and abandon one’s particular focus to weigh in on the winter’s snow plowing budget.
Those who tell activists to join the “expert” camp want them to fork over hundreds of thousands of dollars to higher education institutions. Only then will their opinion matter, even though it will likely be couched in never-ending nuance so as not to endanger their cozy slot in academia.
Unlike the roles of politician and academic, the position of activist is open to anyone who cares about an issue and has the courage to raise their voice to advocate for it. The ability to influence change comes from the power of their actions and words, and the credibility of their evidence, not their willingness to subordinate themselves to some established institution.
Activism is the ultimate open source democracy, giving everyone equal access and power, whether you’re a street kid from Baltimore, a housewife from Fresno, or a treehugger from Vermont.
Unfortunately, the gatekeepers in the corporate media, politics, and higher education have a vested interest in deciding which viewpoints are broadcast to the public, and which are swept under the rug. The power structure typically only allows the voices of those who are dependent on the system itself, those who would never say anything that would bring it crashing down, and leave them out in the cold.
Instead of the beholden politicians and academics, activists should be the hallmark of whether or not an issue should be paid any attention. For someone to take on a cause without pay, without the rewards of power and prestige, demonstrates that their grievance is probably worth acknowledging. Activism is one of the few remaining avenues to balance the influence the status quo, to ensure that the other side of the story is told.
Deliberately or unconsciously, media and other cheerleaders of the power structure have encouraged us to look down on the activist, to the extent that it’s become a slur, the A-word.
Instead of activists shying away from the term, they should reclaim it. The fact that those in power are trying to give activism a bad name, means only one thing: That activism works.