This post is written by Andrew Marin, President and Founder of The Marin Foundation
In light of this past decade’s thoroughly outspoken partisan activists (where nothing short of full social, political, and religious alignment will satisfy their thirst for defining “success”) I often wonder what is the epistemological root of “good” activism? Where does “good” activism stem from?
Stepping back a moment, the question one must ask is, What ontological forces drive activism; and how can one measure what is, indeed, “good” activism?
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he relates how it is fine to be zealous [in one's beliefs and engagement with surrounding culture] provided the purpose is good (4:18a). The question in attempting to construct a theology of “good” activism then, starts by figuring out what Paul meant by his reasoning that activistic endeavors are “fine,” “provided the purpose is good.”
In this verse Paul’s descriptor of “good” is translated from the word kalos, meaning in this context from my best definition: Beautiful by reason of purity in heart and life. Thus I am leaning toward a more concrete understanding of “good activism” defined as one being compelled by reasons of pure conviction in both one’s heart and actions in their life.
In this construction of “good activism” a few things stand out to me. Much of contemporary activism is based on single-mandated outcomes:
I believe x
I believe x provides the best rationale for a world w that I deem most suitable for all its inhabitants
Therefore anyone x who does not see w as I do must either conform x + w or not be allowed a hearing
Now, I am fully convinced that activists who construct their argument as such are unequivocally self-conviced of their own pure convictions, heart, and life’s actions. I don’t however believe one’s self-assessment can be the measure of their own “good,” as research repeatedly suggests that humans are unabashed in their overt biases towards their own constructions. I also don’t believe that measuring “good” can be assessed by in how culture understands “normalcy” (see Chapter 1), as contemporary measures of normal are dictated by the dominant worldview’s purview of what is best for them–and thus, everyone else. Therefore, the remaining category of measuring one’s reasons of activism from pure conviction in both one’s heart and actions must be assessed through the apologists which stand in agreement with said activist-leader. Even further, assessing the fruit of said activist’s apologists in light of the apologists’ actions. A brief example:
There are those outspoken activists on the partisan right that take a vocal stance against gay marriage, abortion, socialized health care, etc. These activists are convinced of their own purity based on their self-proclamations of religious conviction. Their self-justificaiton is not what is of significance to me. What I am looking for in them, in light of Paul’s usage of “good,” is how their tribe engages the other with the said activist’s words, theories, and examples set. The measure of a tribe-leading activist’s pure convictions in heart and action easily comes to light by simply watching those that subscribe to their way of engagement. The same goes for the more progressive tribe-leading activists of a given topic.
In my estimation, I don’t see much epistemological “good” coming from the spectrum of contemporary activism. The reason? With no scientific evidence whatsoever other than my own personal experience in such spaces, I believe the main problem with contemporary activism is that Paul’s definition of “good” takes time to gain a tribe loyal to purity in heart and actions regardless of the outcome. A lot of time, in fact. On the other hand, the logic of thought presented in the indented box above, takes no time at all to gain a loyal tribe. It takes no time because the outcome is worldview dominance. And there are a whole lot of people on the left and the right who want to live, as quickly and easily as possible through by winning the national conscious of the moveable middle, in the dominant role in culture. This way, any “attacks” upon their worldview can then easily be deemed “oppression” by both the minority view (we’re being oppressed because we hold a minority view) and the majority view (we’re being attacked by the masses because we hold the normalized view). A winner-takes-all battle (fueled by its activist leader’s apologists) is always a much simpler sell than reasons of pure conviction in both one’s heart and actions in their life.
But unfortunately in contemporary society simple binaries always win (even in the face of prominent activists fighting for the deconstruction of binaries while placing them upon their other).
In agreement with Paul I believe zealous activism is not only acceptable, but key to social change. The only part I wish to change is the root of goodness in such activism; which I am convinced, if ontologically birthed from a pureness of heart and actions, will efficiently produce more holistic results than the dime-a-dozen, easily-bought-into partisan activism we see today.
One’s tribe tells the whole epistemological story.