Here at Rhizome we talk a lot about activism, though we like to think we have quite a broad view of what that actually means . We see it as both the more obviously political ‘campaigning’ work and the building of alternatives, building community. What’s one without the other, right?
Not for everyone. This week I engaged with a discussion on the Transition Network website. In fact I kicked off the comments on a piece about how more and more transition initiatives were interacting with activist groups and how this was worthy of more reflection and discussion. Right there you can see where I might have come at it from – the separation of transition from activism as if the 2 communities operated in total isolation with no cross over. From the response my thoughts received it seems like some folk wish they did, but I get ahead of myself….
It’s all placards and balaclavas
I posted a comment in which I tried (badly perhaps, I’ll let you judge – feedback always welcome) to express my feeling that there was an artificial difference being created between activism and transition-type work, that most, if not all, of the activists I know did both – perhaps not formally under the banner of transition, but transition-style community and resilience building. Off the top of my head I’m thinking of things like creating housing and workers co-ops, involvement in permaculture projects, community development work and so much more. The response wasn’t exactly warm and welcoming. Recent comments have thawed things a bit, I’m glad to say.
It seems that to those who don’t identify as ‘activist’ those of us that do are not as well thought of as we might like to believe, nor is what we do understood:
“How can people who have spent years seeing what is wrong and reaching for their placards and balaclavas adapt to a movement that is focussed on enablement and solutions?”
“as soon as you get a group going to build local resilience, that immediately attracts a lot of campaigners that say: “But if you believe in all this, why don’t you come to this or that?” The answer should be: “Because the time I use in campaigning isn’t used in building resilience locally in this or that way.” In reality, most people aren’t very strongly pro or anti campaigning, so they are swayed by whoever offers the most tempting package. And it usually the campaigner package is the most tempting, because it offers like-minded company and entertaining activities at a very low price: just be another one in this march, just put your signature there, just do this very little bit. Things like growing an allotment or organizing a local Energy Fair are way, way more work intensive, and a lot of the work isn’t as much fun, no matter how you try to make it fun.”
What I find interesting are the assumptions present here:
- Activism is purely negative. “No”, “Stop”…etc (or as friend once put on their placard “Down with this sort of thing”. No sense of the positive worldview that might inspire people to try to prevent harm to humans, non-humans and the planet
- Activists are not only not engaged in positive activity, but wouldn’t be any good at it if they were – hmmm see above
- We wear balaclavas (implied violence??) – last balaclava I wore was probably aged 6 and almost certainly knitted by my nanna
- If we engage with transition or similar movements it’s with an agenda, to get them to campaign (against their will) – now there may be a grain more truth in this one… but it’s certainly not true of all activists
- That campaigning is easy, not time-consuming and great fun
What I find worrying are the possible consequences for community groups. Picture the scene: an activist who’s also keen to work locally and help build alternatives to the systems that s/he campaigns ‘against’ attends a transition meeting. Somewhere in that meeting s/he uses the word “activist” or “activism”. Worse still s/he uses it with reference to the assembled masses. Hackles are raised and the temperature gets a tad icy. Maybe our activist is told in no uncertain terms why transition is not activism and their sort shouldn’t try to make it so. Maybe nothing’s said and s/he returns home knowing that something’s wrong but not sure quite what. Another missed opportunity to build a stronger and more diverse movement….
If we can’t tolerate those who are fundamentally on side how are we going to build the resilient community that is at the heart of the transition ethos? If we make enemies of our friends, how will we deal with those we have least common ground with?
Falling off the high horse
Ah, but here’s the rub. Firstly reverse the scenario – are we the ‘activist’ movement really any different? A transitioner who’s keen to add an international, political element to their work walks into the meeting of her/his local direct action collective. How long before the hackles go up here? How long before s/he says something that’s not suitably anti-capitalist or direct action orientated (“we could visit our MP….”). OK so I’ve deliberately used a part of the movement that has a less mainstream culture and is harder to ‘join’ than, say, a local Friends of the Earth group. But are those more mainstream groups really exempt? Don’t all groups have a culture and aren’t cultures always a source of difference?And aren’t there as many assumptions made about those who choose not to campaign?
Secondly, how have we contributed to these assumptions being made? How have we communicated in a way that allows them to seem reasonable. There’s no reason to doubt that the authors are reasonable, intelligent and committed individuals and yet there are assumptions aplenty about the nature of activism. Have we communicated our difference in an exclusive manner?
And in conclusion
Back to the main thrust – how do we handle difference? How do we as folk that are committed to a better reality work to overcome that seemingly fundamental human trait of highlighting difference and using it as an excuse for having ‘power over’, for discrimination and oppression.
So a few thoughts for those of us doing capacity building work…. I’m more and more convinced that this needs to be central to the work we do. I know that recruitment and retention is a key issue in a lot of networks, often with a clear ‘difference’ problem (older group members having difficulty in recruiting younger people, for example). It’s not just about set piece responses. It’s not even just about the basic group dynamics stuff, though that can’t hurt. It’s about supporting and enabling ourselves and the groups we support to cultivate an attitude that helps them welcome difference.
And, crucially, that same attitude allows those same people to engage the wider world more effectively as campaigners, meeting people where they’re at. It also allows us to climb down off our moral high ground and see the more subtle human causes behind the issues we face and deal with them more intelligently.
I’ve been reading George Lakey’s latest book, Facilitating Group Learning: Strategies for Success with Diverse Adult Learners and I’m sure this won’t be the only reference in this blog over the next few months. George suggests that we need to suspend our attitude of judging difference and get back to simply being curious about it
“Curiosity is abundant in small children. By the time people are adults, judging seems to have replaced curiosity as the primary mental operation. As an impediment to intellectual development,the loss of curiosity is particularly marked whenever difference appears”
Recent news coverage of police officers beating up a submissive terror suspect remind me that this kind of behaviour is inevitable when we’re briefed to be afraid of difference and believe that difference is a threat to us. In this case the police were apparently briefed to expect violent resistance, and they acted out all of the fear, tension and excitement that the warning had created in them even though they didn’t meet the predicted resistance. Aren’t we activists sometimes the same? Aren’t we in danger of seeing all employees of certain corporations or government departments as ‘bad people’ and using that stereotype to legitimise inhumane treatment. Now, admittedly with activists that’s rarely the cause of administering a beating, but it can lead to other behaviour that fails to recognise and respect the full dignity of the human being we’re dealing with.
Back to where I started – how to work together in an atmosphere of difference and mutual respect, firstly with those with whom the differences are, relatively speaking, slight, and then with those with whom we are more profoundly different until we can honestly say we have the attitudes, skills and knowledge to create resilient and sustainable communities.
Please share your thoughts and experience.