– by The Shitty Activist
If you’re an activist, probably one of the most common complaints you get is that you’re not being “reasonable.” That you’re refusing to see the other side. That you won’t compromise and find common ground with opponents.
I’d like to propose that not only isn’t “unreasonable” activism a bad thing, it’s essential to the long-term success of a given movement.
Of course, the ability to see a perspective other than your own is an essential skill in life. Many professions, such as journalism, require this (or at least pretend that they do). And, obviously, it’s extremely valuable in person-to-person relationships. If you can’t see where another person is coming from, then you’re either an asshole or a sociopath.
While it’s helpful to understand an opposing view as an activist, your main job is actually to craft an argument to counter those views. To carefully determine your movement’s goals and use every (ethical) tool in the toolbox possible to achieve them.
One of the best definitions of the role of activist was formulated by David Brower, aka the Archdruid, the first executive director of the Sierra Club, and the founder of many environmental organizations including League of Conservation Voters, Friends of the Earth, and Earth Island Institute:
“Compromise is often necessary, but it ought not to originate with environmental leaders. Our role is to hold fast to what we believe is right, to fight for it, to find allies, and to adduce all possible arguments for our cause. If we cannot find enough vigor in us or our friends to win, then let someone else propose the compromise, which we must then work hard to coax our way. We thus become a nucleus around which activists can build and function.”
Personally, you might see some validity in what those on the other side of the aisle are saying, and you may believe that finding that middle path is ultimately the best route. And perhaps that’s true, in many circumstances. However, that middle path is already the likely end result of negotiations, with the majority of voices advocating for that position. Your opponents, meanwhile, are probably sticking to their guns, and if you want to assure that middle ground, you’ve got to hold your position in the ideological tug of war.
This doesn’t mean you’ll automatically win. In fact, depending on how ambitious your goals are, you might actually lose. But your job is to frame the debate and pull the resolution as hard as you can in your direction. You need to be the counterweight, and as an activist, almost all of your power is in your message.
For example, say your movement calls attention to the health and environmental impacts of bioenergy, the burning of trees, trash, plants and manure for electricity, heat, and transportation fuels – currently ½ of “renewable” energy in the U.S. You can damned well guarantee that industry is pushing hard for an expansion of all forms of bioenergy, biomass, and biofuels.
If your movement opposes bioenergy because of air pollution, climate, and forest impacts, to support any form of this technology will contradict your platform, make it hard to build a grassroots base, confuse the media, and cause politicians not to take you seriously.
I bet you probably haven’t heard much about the health and environmental impacts of bioenergy, even though it’s the #1 form of “renewable” energy in the U.S. And I’d venture to say that’s largely due to the “reasonableness” of biomass opponents.
It’s interesting to note that most of the bioenergy “critics” that have been most prominent in the media are actually well-funded supporters of the majority of bioenergy. Many of these groups will speak out against biomass facilities that generate electricity – about 11% of total bioenergy – while supporting biomass heating (50% of bioenergy) and liquid biofuels (27%), even recommending taxpayer subsidies for these dominant aspects of bioenergy.
Imagine an anti-coal movement that opposed 11% of coal burning, while coming out in favor of the rest, so long as it was done “sustainably.” Not only would that stymie the building of a strong grassroots movement, it would carry no real power to influence strong policy – though it would carry the appearance of success when middle-of-the-road legislation is proposed resembling their platform (because this was fated to be the case whether they existed or not).
This sort of weak advocacy isn’t exclusive to biomass opponents. Think of your grassroots movement and how some organizations and activists are pushing for wimpy half-measures and phony “solutions” that are either naïve, defeatist, or done to receive grant funding or a seat at the political table. Now imagine how strong your movement could be if everyone operated in solidarity.
So long as you also have integrity, tell the truth, reevaluate your strategies, and build alliances, you are entitled to be as unreasonable as possible in your activism.
If you believe your role is to travel that middle road, you might want to consider becoming a journalist, government agency staffer, or legislator…and leave the activism to the unreasonable.