In my years as an activist many of my core values have stayed the same. I am still committed to maximal liberty of the individual, compatible with others’ rights. I am still for government intervention to help people get more free. I am still enraged by injustice and willing to fight against it. One area my views have developed, though, regards the importance of individual character. “Character” feels like an old-fashioned word, perhaps even a conservative one. When people speak of “character education” it has a Republican tinge in my mind. It conjures images of schoolmarms with rulers made for knuckle-rapping, which isn’t the most exciting thing. But character is important.
Character Counts, a character education program used widely across the USA, separates character into six “pillars” (Note: I am not endorsing Character Counts’ educational program here, just using their definition of “character” as a rough and ready way to approach the topic):
These are all qualities I want both in my friends and in people I work with. When it comes to activists I work beside, these character traits are particularly important. Activism often puts us in tough, tense situations with high stakes: in a protest, someone might get arrested or injured, and we’re often dealing in information we want to keep secret, so we have to trust each other. As part of a movement, I want my efforts and my personhood to be respected, and I offer that respect in return. I want people to act responsibly, thinking about how their actions might affect others, and following through on their commitments (this last is an area I need to work on – I’m not always very reliable). I think we should assign tasks fairly, and be fair-minded (not, for instance, jumping on people for a mistake). I hope for an activism infused with caring – both self-care and care for others. And I always want activism I’m involved in to be civic-minded, focused on improving things for whole groups of people, activism which is not an ego trip.Too often, however, I have failed to insist on these positive character traits. I’ve been willing to work with people who behave abominably just because they are “on my side” of an issue. I have allowed political allegiances to override basic decency and humane treatment. Not any more. I don’t want to work with people of bad character. If you share my politics, but you treat the people around you like shit, I don’t want to work with you. The fact that you’re “on my political team” won’t sway me. Irresponsible, poorly planned actions can harm people – I don’t want to be a part of them, however much I support your cause. Nor will I allow political arguments to justify abuse, bullying, or bad behavior. There is a huge difference between fighting against injustice and being personally abusive, and activist communities are frequently far too accepting of abusive behavior if it can be “justified” with a social-justice-sounding argument. (I have a lot more to say on this topic – later.)
Most of us have very little impact on politics or culture as a whole. Individually, few of us will ever affect a bill or shift some cultural prejudice. But we can have a huge impact on the people around us, by how we choose to act toward them. I want to work with people of good character, people who treat others decently, who demonstrate interpersonal respect and care. People who recognize the humanity of those around them and who work to bring that humanity out. I like working with forceful, passionate, even angry people – but I don’t like mean. Mean doesn’t do anything for me. And it doesn’t do anything for our movements, which are made unpleasant and exploitative when poor behavior is given a pass.
We will win more, and feel better doing it, if we develop good character in ourselves, and encourage it – insist on it – in others. Our good politics need not be accepting of bad character.
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