Three Ways Activists Alienate People – and What They Can Do about It

Three Ways Activists Alienate People – and What They Can Do about It February 3, 2015

PIf, like me, you want to be an effective activist, it’s good to keep in mind how you’re liable to alienate people instead of getting them on your side.

Activist are people who are actively trying to bring about change in the world. Ideally they also try to be responsible and considerate people, but they go beyond this by working for positive change in the cultures, systems, and organizations around them.

I’ve felt for a long time I should be an activist of some kind – that I should pick something and move forward to bring about change rather than simply waiting for issues to come to me. I’ve resisted acting on this feeling, however, because I haven’t been very impressed with most of the activists I’ve encountered. Many of their behaviors, while understandable, seem to run counter to how people of faith (ideally) try to conduct themselves. And I am a person of faith, so…

As I contemplate finally joining the activist ranks out of concern about climate change, I thought I’d compile a list of the things I want to avoid doing. This list might also be useful to anyone who is working for change and wondering why they fail to connect with their chosen audience. I’m not saying these pitfalls are easy to avoid, or that I have experience in doing so. Still, can you imagine how much more effective activists could be if they kept these things in mind?

Three Ways Activists Alienate People

1. Judgmentalism. It’s as if every group of activists creates a code of honor and demands participants abide by it or risk being harassed or outcast. A friend of mine was eagerly anticipating getting involved in activism in college, but was confronted at her first feminist meeting for wearing lipstick. She never went back. When she tried the animal rights group, she wasn’t welcome because she was vegetarian but not vegan.

We’ve all experienced the initial overwhelming exposure to a new group’s complex set of expectations about the lifestyle choices you should make, the politics you should have, and the beliefs you should hold. When we’re an accepted member of a group and we’re used to the expectations, they can seem sacrosanct; ideals become more important than the inclusion of an imperfect applicant.

What if activists swore off any judgmentalism? What if they respected the autonomy of individuals and sought to influence them through gradual, friendly acceptance? What if they embraced a mature stance that was able to hold the ambiguity of someone fighting against climate change who still orders cheap flat-pack furniture made halfway around the world? Or someone who is working for social justice but owns a gun? The inclusion of a diverse array of comrades in the struggle would indicate sacrilege to a few, but tolerance and broad-mindedness to most.

2. Being boring and anti-social. Becoming passionate about a particular issue is part of being an activist. If someone weren’t deeply concerned and moved, they wouldn’t be working for change! At the same time, it’s easy for an activist to become obsessed and lose the ability to think about, or engagingly converse on, any other topic. They start to miss the glazed-over look in people’s eyes when they are explaining their issue, and then don’t realize how distant they themselves look when the subject changes. When people start to avoid the “one-note Charlie” activist, the activist may simply conclude they are ignorant, out-of-touch, and not worth spending time with anyway.

It would probably be good self-care for activists to learn to balance out concern about their passionate issue with sincere interest in the people around them. What are friends and family thinking? What makes them tick? What makes them happy? It may happen that simple, warm, human connections lead gently to converts to the cause. (Only if that’s not the hidden agenda, of course.) The effort to save humanity ends up looking a little misguided when the person making it feels little more than exasperation with the actual human beings they encounter.

3. Being a killjoy. It can be very difficult not to spoil other people’s pleasure when you’re intimately involved with a distressing issue. Part of being an activist means becoming aware of the problems, and this can be a challenging and sobering process. Someone’s joy about a new car, house, or job may seem like folly when you’re learning about the probable catastrophic effects of unchecked global warming. It can feel imperative to inform people about how their new coat was made in a sweat shop, their favorite food is obtained in ways that destroy the environment, and their lucrative investments are linked to social oppression. I remember taking my parents on a visit to the beautiful Pacific Northwest forests while talking nonstop about the effects of clear-cutting and over-harvesting. They politely listened, but I can’t imagine the trip was much fun.

There is a compelling truth behind most of an activist’s concerns, so what seems important here is not hiding the truth but learning to be skillful about where and when to share it. If people are made to feel ashamed or defensive about the things they take pleasure in, they are unlikely to get behind a cause until they are personally desperate, outraged, or scared – and that drastically reduces a potential base of support for any given change. A truly successful movement for change will present an inspiring and motivating alternative that includes positive rewards for participation such as solidarity, the preservation of something worthwhile, or a sense of personal integrity. This will help sustain the activists as well because they also need joy in their lives.

A New Kind of Activism?

Aspiring or existing activists may take something away from this list, but it may be even more important that “the rest of us” consider it and give activists something of a break. It can be tough to work for change while maintaining enough perspective to relate with people in a skillful and friendly way.

We might also consider whether our negative experiences with activists is keeping us from getting involved in something that’s important to us. With a little imagination we can, perhaps, envision a new kind of activism that balances ideals with the realities of human relationships. We could all be happy and proud to participate in this kind of work for change, instead of thinking of activism as a specialized hobby for a few.


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